I love Stranger Things. And apparently, so does everyone else.
Despite its popularity, the rampant critical acclaim of Netflix’s Stranger Things was unprecedented upon its release. The initial script produced by the series’ creators, the Duffer brothers, had been repeatedly rejected by a string of cable networks. It was simply uncategorizable. The ensemble of children at the heart of the TV show—Eleven, Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Will—made producers question: was Stranger Things a children’s show? Would adults enjoy it? And if it was geared towards children, shouldn’t the tone be lighter?
Thankfully, the Duffer brothers never changed their stride, and neither did the show. It was picked up by Netflix in early 2015 and here we are: a homage of 80’s synth pop, jean jackets, and sci-fi movies later, Stranger Things now sits atop Netflix’s most-watched series list, and boasts a 95% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
So what was it that pushed Stranger Things over the edge of indie film territory and into pop culture appeal? Was it the soundtrack? The stellar casting? Steve Harrington’s hair? Maybe, but the response might also have something to do with nostalgia, and Stranger Things certainly had plenty of that.
You might have caught some of them, but here are 10 references you may have missed in Netflix’s monstrous hit.
No surprise here; thematic shades of E.T. are all over Stranger Things. We see it in the cinematic shots of the series—kids on bicycles, anyone?—but it’s also stunningly prominent in the parallels between Eleven and E.T. As an “alien,” so to speak, Eleven and E.T. share a fixation on one type of food (leggo my eggo), have both dressed up in blonde wigs to blend in, and are both in hiding from shadowy government figures.
2. Dungeons and Dragons
I think we all caught this one. After all, the series opens with a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, in which Will fails to kill a popular a mythical creature in D&D lore. This scene does two things: first, it foreshadows Will’s capture, which happens immediately after and drives the entire season one plot; and second, it contextualizes the creature in terms that the kids (and us as the audience) can identify. For the rest of the series, the unknown creature from the Upside Down is known as the demogorgon.
The demogorgon in Stranger Things has a few nods to Ridley Scott’s aliens. It leaves a lot of goo in its wake, and (spoilers!) it likes to incubate its victims with smaller creatures by forcing its victims to swallow them.
They’re kind of like…worms. Or snakes. It’s gross.
4. Stephen King
I’ve listed Stephen King as a category in a vague sense, because Stranger Things has multiple horror motifs typified by King during his prolific career as a writer. Mainly, Stranger Things takes its cues from King’s novels Firestarter and Carrie. In both cases, Eleven’s telepathic and occasionally erratic powers, along with her abusive and watchful upbringing, align her with Carrie White and Charlie McGee.
5. Star Wars
This one is a bit more obvious, as the characters often voice the references directly instead of the Duffer brothers hiding them under cinematic quality. Eleven has “jedi powers,” Mike owns a Yoda action-figure and talks about the Force, and when Lucas thinks Eleven has betrayed the group he calls her “Lando,” after the Star Wars character who betrays Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.
6. Nightmare on Elm Street
Episode 8 of Stranger Things has Nancy and Jonathan trying to go head-to-head with the monster, luring it into Jonathan’s house with a brigade of traps and eventually setting it on fire. Sound familiar? It should—the climax of the 1984 Nightmare on Elm Street played out in a similar way.
7. The Goonies
Everyone loves a good ragtag group of misfit kids. And we see a lot of similarities in the playful and mischievous behaviour of the Goonies squad to the Stranger Things crew. The main rule: no adults allowed. (But as a lover of Stranger Things, I’m willing to point out that we do have Joyce and Hopper involved, but they act pretty autonomously for the majority of the show and are in their own separate ‘clique’).
X-men also has misfits, yes, but we’ll give that to The Goonies instead. A trickier reference to the Marvel comics actually happens in the first episode, when Dustin and Will are talking about an X-Men comic; the specific issue they argue about is volume 134, in which “Jean Grey mentally snaps…and inadvertently unleashes the Dark Phoenix, a cosmic force beyond her control,” which is a tip of the hat to Eleven later in the series.
9. The Thing
The 80’s horror movie The Thing makes a few appearances in Stranger Things. This one is a bit like Star Wars, in that there are a couple of casual mentions you can spot if you’re looking for them. In Mike’s basement there’s a poster for the movie on one of the walls, and when Dustin calls Mr. Clarke for information on how to build a sensory deprivation tank (which is the most awkward and amusing thing on the show), guess what Mr. Clarke is watching? That’s right: The Thing.
10. Minority Report/Fringe
Last but not least, I’m going to throw in a debatable one. When the characters on Stranger Things make a sensory deprivation tank for Eleven to heighten her telepathy and enter the Upside Down, some people got flashes of the 2002 movie Minority Report. Specifically, the scene when Spielberg’s pre-cogs lay in their own sensory deprivation tanks to get flashes of the future.
Now, as it’s Spielberg we’re talking about here (whose other movies are a big influence on the show), it’s probably a homage to him. But! For anyone who watched the hit TV series Fringe—did you not get flashbacks of psychic Olivia Dunham concentrating in a sensory deprivation tank? I did. I really did.
So, did we miss anything? Let us know if you caught something strange that we missed, and bonus points for the more obscure the reference is!
-Contributed by Lorna Antoniazzi