When Stranger Things joined Netflix’s line-up of original programming in July 2016, it quickly became one of the most successful Netflix-branded shows, with over eight million viewers watching in the first two weeks. Stranger Things starts with the disappearance of 12-year-old Will Byers and the subsequent appearance of Eleven, a peculiar girl with supernatural powers. The story follows Will’s group of misfit friends, Will’s mother Joyce (Winona Ryder), Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour), and the local teenagers. Their stories intersect as they all fight to discover the truth about Will’s disappearance while battling a secret government agency and transdimensional monster.
With allusions to classic 80’s movies like E.T. and Stand by Me, Stranger Things came swooping in during a time when the world’s weariness of modernity was at its peak and stole our hearts with the nostalgia effect.
In the case of Stranger Things, we bear witness to what may be an unimaginable time-period to today’s youth—a time when children were allowed to move without constant supervision, without being reachable via cellphones.
The Psychology of Nostalgia
Nostalgia, in its simplest form, is a feeling of wistful longing for a time or experience in the past. In psychological circles, it’s often referred to the desire to return to a time in the past that never actually existed, implying that we often view the past with rose-colored glasses and omit any negative associations.
In marketing, the Nostalgia Effect refers to the proven increase in buying behavior when consumers are exposed to something that inspires a sense of nostalgia. In the case of Stranger Things, would the show be a success if it had been set in 2013 rather than 1983? Would Generation X have “bought in” to Stranger Things if it wasn’t a reflection of their childhood?
A Plethora of Pop Culture References
Stranger Things has been referred to as the hypothetical lovechild of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, and it shows while watching. Subtle references to Spielberg’s E.T. are apparent as the kids flee to escape a government agency on their bicycles with their supernatural friend. In that same line of thought, we see young Mike hide Eleven in his house without his parents finding out, as Elliot managed to pull off with E.T. Less subtly, we see a Jaws poster on the wall in Will’s bedroom.
The references to King’s work are delicately woven throughout the series. The plot itself seems to be an inspired exploration of the question “What if the boys from Stand by Me met Charlie McGee from Firestarter?” The scene of the children walking along the railroad is the most blatant confirmation of Stand By Me being a source of inspiration the show’s creators, the Duffer Brothers. More understated references include the characters themselves referring to Cujo, It, and directly comparing their predicament to Firestarter.
Aside from obvious tributes to the creative masterminds, Stranger Things is chock-full of pop culture references and consumer goods of a bygone era. From the recurring appearance to the Millennium Falcon figurine, to the long range walkie talkies, the Duffer Brothers managed to trigger an abundance of “I remember those!” and “When I was your age…” conversations. Even the starting credits were pure eighties, with neon lettering and a synthesizer instrumental piece. Dungeons and Dragons—the original RPG—was not only featured in Stranger Things but quickly became an integral part in the development of the story. That was a marvel in itself during the summer of Pokémon Go.
Almost thirty years have passed since Winona Ryder became one of the most iconic actresses of her time. After her debut performance in Lucas in 1986, Ryder went on to star in classics such as Beetlejuice, The Heathers, and The Age of Innocence. Reaching her peak in the 90s, the girl who inspired Johnny Depp’s “Winona Forever” tattoo nearly disappeared during the 2000’s. As such, Ryder may be the nostalgic pièce de résistance in Stranger Things.
Ryder’s portrayal of Joyce Byers—the frazzled, single mother of missing Will Byers—is stunning, shocking, and often outright hilarious. With her wide range of emotional conveyance and undeniable acting skills, Ryder ‘s mania permeates the fourth wall and instills a sense of suspense and anxiety in the viewers’ hearts. Her incredible performance earned Ryder nominations at both the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Golden Globes.
Nostalgia for the Next Generation
If nostalgia is a contributing factor to the success of Stranger Things, how does one account for the countless viewers who were born after the apex of the eighties? Studies have shown that nostalgia can affect individuals who never experienced something, as a result of having heard romanticized anecdotes from their elders.
One such study focused on the effects of nostalgia through music. The administrators were not surprised to find that the participants had a strong emotional response to the popular music from their youth. They were however surprised by the equally strong emotional reaction to music from their parents’ youth. The administrators referred to this phenomenon as cascading reminiscence bumps.
In the case of Stranger Things, we bear witness to what may be an unimaginable time-period to today’s youth—a time when children were allowed to move without constant supervision, without being reachable via cellphones. While nearly half of users indicate that they couldn’t live without their smartphone, (Gallup) people often find ourselves longing for a time of disconnect and face-to-face interaction. While observing the strange adventures of Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Eleven, it’s no wonder that young viewers are filled with a sense of “anemoia.” Coined by John Koenig in his artistic compendium A Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, anemoia describes the feeling of nostalgia towards a time or place one has never experienced.
Things are Getting Stranger
The long awaited season two teaser trailer aired at Superbowl and successfully capitalized on that other tried and true marketing method: anticipation. Set for release on Halloween 2017, the teaser trailer and follow-up photos show the kids trick-or-treating in Ghostbuster costumes and facing another transdimensional horror show. Worth mentioning is the inclusion of the vintage Eggo commercial at the start of the season two trailer, an actual clip which originally aired in 1980.
While the Duffer Brothers undeniably used the nostalgia effect to their benefit, one can conclude that while this was a contributing factor to Stranger Things’ success, it isn’t the only value the show has to offer. With a killer cast, and storyline that balances suspense, comedy, and heartache, twenty years from now Stranger Things will instill a sense of nostalgia for Netflix shows of a bygone era. Will this roaring success lead to the creation of more shows set in the recent past? You know what they say: stranger things have happened.