Unless you have been trapped in the Upside Down for the past month, you have heard about The Duffer Brothers’ new series Stranger Things. Set in the early 1980s, the Netflix original follows the story of a mother trying to find her missing son, everything his spit-sworn best friends turned brothers will do to save him, a Sinéad O’Connor-channeling, waffle loving, telepathic runaway, and a government conspiracy with a little classic John Hughes teenage love triangle thrown in for good measure.
The show gets most of its praise for its complete atmospheric perfection, being almost Mad Men-like in its devotion to recreating the details of 80s small town middle America. And just like how finishing an episode of that AMC television classic feels as though I’ve inhaled enough second-hand smoke to give me lung cancer for the next 5 lifetimes, finishing an episode of Stranger Things forces me to remind myself that I’m not actually wearing mom jeans up to my chest as I fan the faint smell of hairspray out of the air. Stranger Things makes me nostalgic for things I’ve never even experienced as an 00s kid, almost prompting me to text my best friend to tell her we should get radios to communicate with until I remembered that was the exact function of the iPhone I was holding. It turns my laptop screen into a 22-inch television with rabbit ears, my contacts lenses into oversized glasses that take over half of my face, my bedroom into a wood-paneled, beige-carpeted den, and every creak of my old house into the Demogorgon ripping through my ceiling ready to devour me.
Stranger Things exists in the space between the real and the imagined; it is so convincing as a visceral love letter to the 80s cinematic universe that we feel it as truth in our bones. The Duffer Brothers have mastered homage and allusion; they have built their show on an impeccable mix of pop culture references and borrowed movie moments that speak so clearly to what we believe the 80s to be that we can almost forget that they are myths.
The commercial films of the 1980s—the blockbuster hits that Stranger Things draws on for inpsiration—were heavily influenced by the “Reaganomics” policies of our favorite movie star turned president Ronald Reagan. Reagan believed in a conservative revolution, of returning America to an idyllic, hegemonic, nuclear family and white picket fence past that never really existed. His new America confused pop culture of the 1940s and 50s for real history, ignoring all the social and political injustices that really constitute America’s history and entertainment media from this era followed suit. It acted as an attempt to ignore the ideological crises that plagued the nation and use media as a sedative and redemptive measure to return the U.S. to something to believe in, again. It was backwards progress through backwards narratives, using nostalgia as its weapon of choice. Yet somehow this is the era that has produced some of the most popular and most universally well-loved films of all time.
Today’s love for Stranger Things is proof of how we all have all bought into that 80s fantasy; without question and without prompting we are all willing to plunge ourselves into that world where vague nuclear threats from Russia are our biggest fear. For someone like me who has only ever lived them through VHS tape, the 80s have always looked incredibly fun and felt unbelievably safe. Nostalgia for a better time— even if that better time never existed— is a hell of a drug.
Returning to Stranger Things and its land in between times feels right and necessary when the present looks and feels more like the Upside Down—like home but dark, cold, and empty. When black people are getting gunned down in the street daily, terrorist attacks plague international communities, Harambe is dead, and Donald Trump is poised to be Reagan 2.0 there’s a kind of comfort in slipping into this childhood of radios and bike rides in the woods. The show takes the most heartwarming parts of Reaganite entertainment, leaves the worst ones behind, and infuses them with enough diversity and humor to appeal to my modern girl morality.
It was never the jump scares or the suspense (always supported by menacingly epic synth) in Stranger Things that made me cry but a little girl who did not know what the word friend meant and the boys who clamored over each other to explain it to her. It was a mother talking to her son through Christmas lights and a new camera for Christmas. It was a friend driving her best friend to a party even though she really didn’t want to go and waiting for her at the edge of a pool alone on a freezing night when she was abandoned for a Cool Jock Teen Boy just to make sure her bestie got home okay. It was giving your little brother a mixtape with all your favorite songs just to make him feel as cool as he thinks you are. It is a woman telling a little girl with supernatural powers that she has never met before that she is brave and that she is proud of her. It was a group of kids going to war for each other, believing in their friendship just hard enough to make them indestructible. Stranger Things aches with love between people— the most tender and gentle kind—every episode fills me with appreciation for how very good people can be.
Stranger Things is a HAM radio tuned to frequency of everything pure in the world—the invincibility of childhood, the vulnerability of first love, the resilience of motherhood, and Eggo waffles.