Jim Jarmusch got it right when he said: “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination… select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul.”
That’s what Stranger Things does. It regurgitates everything good about the ’80s, its movies and its counterculture, and creates something new, something wonderfully weird, something that needs to be devoured in one big binge-watching gulp.
Stranger Things follows the goings-on in a small town in Indiana. A boy goes missing, a shaven-haired child is found, who is not what she seems. A sinister group of government agents appear and there’s the apparent threat of a monster. Among this backdrop friendships are put to the test, families are strained, there’s tension between high-school lovers, the cool kids and the bullies, and the cop that wants to do good and put to rest past problems. It’s both fresh and familiar, old and new.
The creators of Stranger Things – the Duffer brothers, remember this name as it is about to become A-List – have mined a treasure trove of horror, sci-fi and coming-of-age tropes and remodelled them into what is without a doubt one of the best TV shows of the year, hell, the decade.
Because of this memory mining, Stranger Things basks in a warm glow of nostalgia. Throughout each of its eight episodes, its creators have dropped a breadcrumb trail of nods and knowing winks that eventually lead back to the movies, books and even video games that inspired the show.
Here we try our best to follow that trail, hitting a dead end or two on occasion, but this is our stab at offering up some 50 things that we feel like inspired the show in some way. Whether it be through mood, camerawork, plot or music, these are the stranger things that we reckon went into the making of Stranger Things.
Warning: tread carefully if you haven’t seen the show as there’s some spoilers ahead.
Return Of The (Stephen) King
“Watching STRANGER THINGS is looking [sic] watching Steve King's Greatest Hits. I mean that in a good way.”
Those aren’t our grammatically garbled words but the those of Stephen King himself, on Twitter just before he went on to Tweet: “STRANGER THINGS is pure fun. A+. Don't miss it. Winona Ryder shines.”
High praise indeed from the master of horror and perhaps the biggest influence on the show. How? Well, dear constant reader, read on…
Needful Things / Cujo
It all starts with the title of the show. The name Stranger Things is an obvious riff on Needful Things, the 1991 book by King that focuses on a small town transformed by an elderly gent (pretty much the devil) who comes to a sleepy town to open up a new shop (full of objects that will do harm, if you use them the wrong way). Even the show’s title typeface is a King backslap. It’s modelled on the style of designer Richard Greenberg, who created the iconic font used by King for many of his books released in the ‘80s, including Cujo – which one of the detectives in the show is spotted reading – and Firestarter which brings us neatly to…
Firestarter / Carrie
King bloody loves a government conspiracy and people with special powers – two things that feature heavily in Stranger Things. The plot of Firestarter, King’s 1984 novel, is eerily similar to the show, featuring a shadowy government agency called The Shop, LCD use, telekinesis and a little girl – played by Drew Barrymore in the film adaptation – who can cause mass destruction thanks to her pyrokinetic ability.
Carrie also sees the titular character given telekinetic abilities, that cause all-manner of destruction, much like Eleven in the show, perfectly played by relative newcomer Millie Bobby Brown.
Stand By Me / It
The real stars of Stranger Things are the kids who go on the ultimate adventure to help find their missing friend. These loveable losers – whose downtime is spent playing Dungeons and Dragons – have shades of the group of children in both Stand By Me and It.
Stand By Me was based on the Stephen King novella The Body and follows a group of friends going on a trip to see their very first, er, dead body. Like you do. This close-knit group follow the train tracks to their morbid destination – a scene that’s hinted at in Stranger Things.
The friends are also brought closer together because of a – spoiler – monster in Stranger Things, much like the affectionately titled Loser Club in Stephen King’s It. And how do they try and deal with said monster? With a catapult, something that also happens in, you’ve guessed it, It.
Stranger Things may not have a psychopath author who is out to decimate his family but it does have a brilliant bit that hints at Jack Nicholson’s famous axe scene in The Shining. When Joyce Byers (a sensational Winona Ryder) starts breaking up her house as she thinks it will uncover her lost son, she takes an axe to the wall in a ‘Here’s Johnny!’ style.
Another classic short story by King that shares plot strands with Stranger Things. The Mist is about a sleepy town that comes under fire from monsters from another world. The story comes complete with a grizzled protagonist and a scene that’s where a scientist goes exploring the ‘other world’ attached to a winch, only to come back as a big bloody mess à la Stranger Things.
‘80s Sci-Fi Scavenging
The Eighties was a glorious time for sci-fi. The real world was on the brink of another war thanks to the USSR and America getting lairy with each other and this building paranoia was echoed in the movies at the time. Special effects were also improving so we got these brilliant movies about space and creatures that Stranger Things not just nods too, but fully embraces.
If it wasn’t for the The Martian, Ridley Scott’s name may well have been Ridicule Scott of late, but the director was the king of science fiction back in late ‘70s early ‘80s with his Alien/Blade Runner suckerpunch and his influence is all over Stranger Things. The most obvious being when Joyce Byers and Jim Hopper – David Harbour in brilliant form – put on the Hazmat suits and enter the creature’s layer. When they finally find what they are looking for, the whole scene smacks of when Kane finds all the alien eggs in the original Alien. Heart-wrenching stuff.
Close Encounters / ET
If King is the major influence on Stranger Things, then Steven Spielberg is right behind him in the influence stakes. Both ET and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind act as ventricles for Stranger Things’ beating heart. When the kids find Eleven, the whole thing smacks of when ET is first found by Elliot, even down to the dressing up of them both. Other instances include the moment Eleven discovers TV, is shown the kids’ toys and the big bike chase in Stranger Things when they are trying to outrun the shady government nasties. It’s one humongous homage after another.
Close Encounters is given a whacking great nod when Holly, the inquisitive little sister of Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer), sees the ‘alien’ in the wall, much like when a child opens the door to aliens in Close Encounters. It’s almost shot for shot.
Starman / Flight of the Navigator
John Carpenter’s Starman is a beautifully beguiling film that sees Jeff Bridges as an alien who crash lands on Earth and finds himself shacking up in the body of a recently deceased man who looks a lot like Jeff Bridges. The otherworldliness of the movie (not to mention the shady government agents trying to track down the alien) is definitely something Stranger Things riffs on, and there’s also the fact that the show’s collaborator Shawn Levy has been tapped up to helm the remake of Starman.
And then there’s Flight of the Navigator. That pure nostalgic feeling of ‘80s kids going on an adventure, all thanks to something that is not of this world, is a direct line to Stranger Things.
When Stranger Things does get dark, it gets really dark. Eleven’s sensory deprivation at the hands of Matthew Modine’s spooky Dr Martin Banner pays brilliant homage to Ken Russell’s LSD soaked masterpiece Altered States. The sensory chamber scenes echo each other, as does the fear of being trapped in what’s essentially a blacked-out swimming pool. Horrifying stuff.
On the face of it, manga classic Akira may not have much in common with Stranger Things. But it’s all about the storyline here. Teenage biker gang member Tetsuo is found to possess psychic abilities that are similar to the titular Akira – someone who caused the destruction of Tokyo and pretty much started World War III. Because of this, many people are after Tetsuo to make sure his powers aren’t used for wrong, something Eleven in Stranger Things will be more than familiar with.
D.A.R.Y.L. / War Games
Rounding off Stranger Things’ homages to the sci-fi tropes of the ‘80s is both D.A.R.Y.L. and War Games. Both brilliant movies in their own right, they celebrate and play with the mood of the era they were made: the mid ‘80s, when the Cold War was at its coldest. Stranger Things also taps into this fear-factor with numerous mentions and shares the same fish-out-of-water storyline as D.A.R.Y.L., which focuses on a government experiment to create the perfect human/AI hybrid. Stranger Things also manages to take the War Games idea that the government is chasing a bunch of kids who have no idea the trouble they have gotten into. If only they had stuck to playing Dungeons and Dragons in their basement...
‘80s Horror Homaging
The Eighties was witness to some of the greatest and grizzliest horror movies around, thanks to advancements in prosthetics and indie kids coming in and taking full advantage of the low budgets there were given, painting over plot cracks with gallons of fake blood. Stranger Things may not be outright horror but it does cherry pick from the following…
The Fog / The Thing
We’ve already discussed how Stranger Things was borne from the Duffer Brothers love of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, but there’s one more name to add to that list and that is the equally brilliant John Carpenter. A poster of The Thing hangs on the wall in one of the children’s bedroom and the show’s music owes a great deal of debt to Carpenter who, like Dennis Waterman, writes his own theme songs. The atmosphere of The Fog is a constant in Stranger Things too, especially when anyone ventures into the ‘other world’ in the show. Lovely stuff.
Halloween 3: Season of The Witch
Not quite the classic that Halloween was, and not affiliated with John Carpenter in any real way, but this oddity in the successful franchise (Michael Myer’s isn’t actually in it) actually has some close ties with Stranger Things. The biggest being the similar break-ins that happen in both films, where the protagonists want to know just what the hell is happening in their town. Oh, and the fact both Stranger Things and Halloween III: Season of the Witch have cover-ups featuring dead bodies that aren’t actually bodies at all. And then there’s Matthew Modine silver hairdo, which looks like it’s been modelled on Halloween III’s creepy Conal Cochran.
Night of the Creeps / Monster Squad
Another equally spooky movie that Stranger Things has definitely dotes on is Night of the Creeps. Director Fred Dekker, who also made the equally superb Monster Squad, creates a film about a burnt-out detective who goes to a cryogenics lab break-in to find some of the bodies in the lab are missing. Weird alien things also appear that look mightily like the things in Stranger Things. As for Monster Squad – kids get together to fight a whole lot of evil in the ‘80s. Sound familiar?
A Nightmare on Elm Street
While there’s nothing in Stranger Things that’s quite as horrific as Wes Craven’s horror classic, the show still nods to the film in a number of ways. The most obvious – other than one of the characters called Nancy who has a boyfriend that comes in through her window, just like Johnny Depp does in Elm Street – is the brilliant scene where ‘something’ tries to come out of the walls in the Byers household. This is a great riff on the famous scene in Elm Street where Freddie pushes his face through the wall to get at Nancy.
Incidentally, this iconic shot was made on the cheap with a sheet of spandex which Wes Craven borrowed off of Mr Motivator. The last part may not be true.
The nod to Poltergeist in Stranger Things is one of the most obvious in the whole show: Joyce Byers promises to take her son Will to watch the movie. After this, hints of the film appear all over Stranger Things, with Will becoming a similar spirit to what’s seen in Poltergeist – something stuck in another place that wants to get back to the real world.
Watchers is the sometimes-forgotten gem of ‘80s horror. Starring Eighties stalwarts Corey Haim and Michael Ironside and penned by Dean R Koontz, it’s about the dodgy goings-on in an experimental lab, and features a disgruntled cop – there’s a pattern here – and a kid with something to hide. Out of all the movies mentioned here, this is perhaps the one that acts as the biggest blueprint to the show’s plot.
Ever seen that scene in Scanners where that dude’s head blew up? That, but replace dude with multiple dudes when Eleven tries to break out of her laboratory prison.
The monster in Stranger Things is menacing but fleeting. We know it’s there but we only get glimpses throughout the show. When we do witness it, though, it looks both scary and recognisable – like your gran after one too many sherries. Here's our pick of the monsters that may have been mashed together (we've left out Alien as we've already mentioned it earlier on) to make the Stranger Things creatures...
Like Stephen King, Guillermo del Toro also tweeted about Stranger Things, thanking the Duffer brothers for their obvious affection to his own movie monsters. He isn’t wrong, either. The creatures in Stranger Things bear more than a passing resemblance to Pan and his monstrous friends in Pan’s Labyrinth, mainly because they are real – as in not made by CGI but prosthetics.
Silent Hill / Last Of Us
The Duffer brothers have explicitly mentioned Silent Hill as an influence on the otherworldly other world in Stranger Things and it's easy to see why, they've picked up on Silent Hill’s nightmare dreamscapes perfectly and Pyramid Head has a similar feel to the Stranger Things’ monster. As for Last of Us, the first look of the creature feels like the first time you see a clicker in the game.
Clive Barker’s kinky characters in Hellraiser feel part of the fabric of Stranger Things. While the monster in Stranger Things may not look like Pinhead, the Duffer brothers have certainly taken the lean, menacing presence of Barker’s monster and added this feel to their own creature. They have taken out any references to BDSM, though – this is a strictly first-base show.
The first time we see the monster in Stranger Things, it definitely has a Predator vibe. The way its face peels back on itself is reminiscent of what Schwarzenegger rightly calls “one ugly mother fucker”.
Getting the gang back together
One of the biggest tropes in ‘80s films was kids teaming up together to overcome a bigger adversary. In the movies, this involved adventures that were magical and dangerous and full of derring-do. Whenever you actually tried to reenact them in real life, however, they always lead to bitter disappointment and maybe the discovery of a damp porn mag in a bush. Thankfully Stranger Things plays out more on the fantasy of children’s adventures and these brilliant coming-of-age movies...
Richard Donner’s The Goonies is possibly the ultimate children’s fantasy tale and the feel of the movie is all over Stranger Things. The ragtag bunch of kids in the show are reflections of those found in The Goonies and the idea of children overcoming the big bad is also a big part of the show. Oh and Nancy’s friend Barb has definitely been taking fashion cues from the equally gawky Steph in The Goonies. Sadly there’s no Truffle Shuffle to be seen, though.
Eerie, Indiana was one of those special shows that was way ahead of its time. Like Stranger Things, it focused on the weird happenings of a small town in Indiana and a small group of friends that try and make sense out of the weird goings-on. It was a show that’s far more lighthearted than what Stranger Things offers but they both tread similar paths.
We could have chosen anyone of Joe Dante’s movies – the Christmas lights scene in the show could have easily been something straight out of Gremlins – but Explorers is the one that has the most in common with Stranger Things. Starring Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix, Explorers centres on a group of kids who are obsessed with making things out of electronics. This obsession leads them to making a DIY spaceship. One of the biggest callbacks to Explorers in Stranger Things is the great use of over-sized walkie talkies the kids use.
When Stranger Things stops being weird, there’s a definite John Hughes vibe to proceedings. It’s not just the high-school setting, the poppy ‘80s music used or the hairstyles but the fact that Steve – the doofus boyfriend whose role in the show is brilliantly subverted by the end – is blatantly based on Jake from Sixteen Candles.
Not as explicit as the other things Stranger Things references but the following almost certainly have the Duffer brothers seal of approval…
The creatures in Stranger Things seemingly smell blood like Jaws does in Spielberg’s film (you can see this when Barb, feeling left out because Nancy is getting jiggy, sits by the pool with a cut hand) but the biggest Jaws reference we could see was in the police officers uniforms. They look like a carbon copy of what Police Chief Brody and the rest of Amity Island’s shark fighters wear.
There's no real spaceships, lightsabers or Yodas in Stranger Things but there is a ‘Lando’ moment and a model Millennium Falcon make an appearance, both of these in reference to the original Star Wars trilogy. Dustin, by far the most annoying kid in the show [aw, he's my favourite! (Gerald .ed.] mentions that someone maybe doing a Lando – double-crossing them – when the team are in the run from the shady government folk.
The Evil Dead
Sam Raimi’s grizzly horror that has its severed tongue firmly in its cheek makes a couple of appearances in Stranger Things. It’s there as a poster on a kid’s wall and when Nancy gets swallowed by the tree when investigating the creature’s lair. When we finally see her hand appear, the whole thing has an Evil Dead vibe.
Another Carpenter special, The Thing may not have much in the way of similar themes to Stranger Things but the boy’s science teacher Mr Clarke watches the film with his girlfriend and yet another poster nod creeps up in the show, too. Oh, and the soundtrack very much sounds like The Thing in places – a soundtrack that is a rare thing for a Carpenter movie, as it wasn’t created by the director himself but the legend that is Ennio Morricone.
Modern Life Is Refurbished
Stranger Things ‘80s vibe may mean that it takes most of its inspiration from the movies of that decade but there’s been a few modern movies and TV shows that have either inspired Stranger Things or gone down the same ‘pick apart the past’ path. Here’s our final choice of things to watch after watching Stranger Things...
It Follows is one of the more recent movies to have that Stranger Things feeling throughout it, as it’s also a movie that takes ‘80s horror tropes and subverts them to its liking. It’s also got a cracking Tangerine Dream inspired soundtrack like Stranger Things.
Midnight Special would have been the best homage to the ‘80s this year if Stranger Things hadn’t come along and stole that crown. Starring Michael Shannon, it is also about a child that has something special about them and people after them as a result.
Twin Peaks is another one of those shows that Stranger Things doffs its cap too. The idea of strange things going on in a small town pretty much began with Twin Peaks and not even Stranger Things can top David Lynch’s show for weirdness. One other show that does try is Wayward Pines. Based on the books by Blake Crouch, which actually started off as fan fiction for Twin Peaks, these shows together make perfect bedfellows for the show.
X-Files is another obvious one now we are on the subject of strange shows and Stranger Things would be nothing without it. Government conspiracies, aliens on Earth and kids with special powers are just a fraction of the themes Mulder and Scully have to deal with. And then there’s Fringe, a carbon copy of X-Files but one that actually has a stronger connection to Stranger Things. Based on the idea of fringe science, the show tackles sensory deprivation, children with special powers, other worlds and last but not least shadowy government agents that want to keep the whole things a secret. Oh, and it also stars Pacey from Dawson’s Creek and had the late Leonard Nimoy as a returning character. Superb stuff.
Frequency, The Cell and Under The Skin all get call backs and nods in Stranger Things, too – albeit much smaller than some of the others mentioned in this list. Frequency is on this list because of the way Stranger Things has Winona Ryder trying to communicate with her missing son through a crackly telephone line. In Frequency the same thing happens – but through the radio – between John Sullivan (Jim Caviezel) and his long dead father, played by Dennis Quaid.
For all its visual flourishes, The Cell is a bit of a limp movie but it does have imagery similar to Stranger Things, notably when Eleven is in the sensory tank, and they both have character travelling to alternate universes – in Stranger Things case, the Upside-Down. And this is where Under The Skin comes in too. Jonathan Glazer’s stark black design work for when Scarlett Johansson’s alien snares a man is borrowed almost shot for shot in Stranger Things, when Eleven enters the other world.
Donnie Darko is the film before Stranger Things that perfectly captured the nostalgia of Eighties movies and it has a lot in common with the show. The biggest take is the use of soundtrack. Darko had some classic Eighties tunes – Tears for Fears and Echo And The Bunnymen to name just two - and some blistering covers too. Stranger Things has the same, using the Bangles cover of Simon and Garfunkel's Hazy Shade of Winter and Peter Gabriel’s take on David Bowie’s Heroes to superb effect.
X-Men is a pretty obvious cultural touchstone for Stranger Things and is actually called out in the show, when Dustin admits to Will that he still has his X-Men #134 – the issue where Jean Grey goes off the rails. This and Eleven struggling to contain her powers are definite knowing winks at the X-Men. Also, this is where we plead that the Duffer brothers get a chance to show what they can do with an X-Men movie. Let the petition start here!