‘Stranger Things’ & 90s Babies
I’m a fan of almost every 80s culture piece Stranger Things makes reference to, from E.T. to Stand by Me. Stranger Things help to capture an era and an entire tone of what made all those various works so special. Many critics have pointed out what a crystal-clear homage Stranger Things is to all of these respective works. But, as a millennial born in the early 90s, watching Stranger Things brought back some beloved childhood memories of watching live-action Nickelodeon shows, as well as various other memories of other assorted 90s properties, particularly the Animorphs and Goosebumps books and their respective television adaptations. The lead kid characters on 90s live-action Nickelodeon shows were always independent. A subversive attitude tinged many of these shows. The idea that kids had agency, and could work together against overwhelming odds were themes and messages that stuck out to me. Adults on these shows were typically shown to be oblivious, so Nickelodeon dared to say to kids “maybe the grown-ups don’t actually know what’s best for you.”
Timewise, it even makes sense that the creators of Stranger Things, the Duffer brothers, would call upon the 90s. They were born in 1984, the year the second season takes place in. While they were certainly exposed to some of the late-80s pop culture zeitgeist, they would have both been the impressionable age of 10 when the things I’m about to mention were at their peak of popularity. While I will not deny that Stranger Things is obviously an homage to 80s pop culture, I think that it is more so steeped in 90s-era nostalgia.
For example, my absolute favorite live-action show from this era was The Secret World of Alex Mack. The show focuses on Alex Mack, who is involved in an accident on her first day of junior high and gains superpowers, including telekinesis (though she can hardly do the kinds of things Eleven can do on Stranger Things). Like Alex, it’s implied that Eleven is probably somewhere in her late-tweens.
Alex’s status as a “normal kid” is emphasized even in the show’s opening monologue over the credits. Eleven, in contrast, is anything but normal. However, the way that the boy characters of Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) interact with, support and try to hide Eleven from the people trying to get her is very similar to the way Alex’s best friend Ray (Darris Love) and sister Annie (Meredith Bishop) try to support and hide Alex. The thing that I consider the biggest similarity is the ever-present threat of “the company” trying to take our female protagonist in order to perform experiments on her. In Alex Mack, the chemical plant that accidentally dosed Alex with the chemicals that gave her powers is constantly trying to track her down.
Throughout the 4-season arc, Alex has to constantly outwit and outrun the chemical plant, their evil corporate leader, Danielle Atron and the various henchmen she sends after her. On Stranger Things, Eleven is also being tracked down by the Hawkins Laboratory people, who want her back to perform further experiments on her. There is even a Danielle Atron-equivalent in Matthew Modine’s character Dr. Martin Brenner. The way he seeks to control Eleven for the ultimate goal of military superiority in the Cold War mirrors Atron’s attempt to capture Alex as a way to prevent any financial or legal setbacks for the products her plant produces.
Throughout the entire series run, neither of Alex’s parents find out about her superpowers until the very last episode of the show. Both Mr. and Mrs. Mack are painfully oblivious about their daughter’s double life. On Stranger Things, despite that Eleven lives at their house for a time, Mike’s mom or dad never find out about her. In particular, Ted Wheeler’s total obliviousness to what is going on around him is played for laughs, much the same way it would be for a typical Nickelodeon-parent character. Both of these shows seem to represent this core principle that the kids don’t need the adults, and that even when things look bleak, they never need the intervention of a grown-up to make it right.
It probably doesn’t hurt that Stranger Things producer/director Shawn Levy got his start directing episodes of Alex Mack in the 90s. The Stranger Things, episode “The Lost Sister,” is maligned, but I will say that Eleven’s makeover in that episode did remind me of Alex’s transformation into Evil Alex in a popular season 3 episode called “The Other Side.”
I can see the influence of other Nickelodeon shows, like The Adventures of Pete & Pete. Pete & Pete in particular chronicles the lives of two similarly-named brothers, Big Pete (Michael Maronna) and Little Pete (Danny Tamberelli), who live in a small town and attempt to avoid the typical awkward adolescent pitfalls. In dynamics similar to the Wheeler kids on Stranger Things, the two Petes have different sets of friends with whom they interact. They also have run-ins with bullies who usually show a sign of cowardice by the end of the episode, a theme that happens multiple times on Stranger Things. Much like Stranger Things, everything about these characters, including the way they dress, needs to portray them as uncool outsiders. But there was also this sweet, tender fraternal relationship between the two Petes that reminded me a lot of Jonathan and Will Byers’ connection. While it’s decisively more comedic and less genre-oriented than some of the other 90s content I have or will mention, I can certainly see the influence the aesthetic of Pete & Pete might have had on Stranger Things. This is a positive, fun depiction of young, geeky male adolescence, and it’s easy to see how that could have served as a major inspiration.
Similarly, Nickelodeon’s are You Afraid of the Dark? captures some of what Stranger Things does, and is a much more genre-heavy show. The show, which was a stalwart presence on Nickelodeon’s schedule for most of the 1990s, involves a group of teenagers called “The Midnight Society” who exchange scary stories. It is this that works as the frame narrative that introduces the audience to whatever scary story it is that they will be witnessing. About that Midnight Society: while it’s obviously a frame narrative (supposedly based on Rod Sterling’s introductions to episodes of The Twilight Zone), the companionship of “young people coming up with fantastic stories” can’t help but remind me ever so slightly of the comradery between the ST kids playing Dungeons & Dragons, but that’s hardly the most direct comparison. Most episodes of AYAotD (are you afraid of the dark) deal with younger kids battling and ultimately persevering against a supernatural threat, and I believe that is the biggest influence on Stranger Things as a whole. AYAotD is inherently genre, no ifs, ands, or buts. The total devotion to genre, apparent in its tone and atmosphere, is one of the easiest connections to make between this show and Stranger Things. It takes some dark turns, not unlike the way Stranger Things does. It is interesting to me when I hear that the Duffer brothers originally wanted Stranger Things to be an anthology, a format that recalls not just The Twilight Zone, but also Are You Afraid of the Dark?, a show that would have been easily accessible when they were growing up. Who knows if the format they originally envisioned is one that more closely resembled this classic Nickelodeon show, but it is enough for you to wonder.
But these comparisons are hardly exclusive to the realm of television. Two of the most popular pre-Harry Potter book series (an important distinction) aimed at kids, and both popular in their own right, were R.L. Stein’s Goosebumps series and K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series. Both of these series were eventually adapted for television, but for argument’s sake, it doesn’t matter which medium, as both respective adaptations are relatively close to their original source material. Goosebumps is much like Are You Afraid of the Dark? in that it’s unapologetically genre. It’s about kids confronting terrifying supernatural threats. While Stephen King was the master of horror for adults, R.L. Stein introduced a new, younger generation to it with riveting stories. Admittedly, few of the stories featured in Goosebumps have much to do with the type of narrative Stranger Things has, but something Goosebumps stories typically have that Stranger Things has as well are strong familial bonds. An assorted group of parents and siblings usually help the protagonist stop the supernatural threat, or are otherwise aware of it in one form or another. My favorite Goosebumps book/episode growing up was always “The Haunted Mask,” the story of a girl named Carly Beth who, after trying on a scary mask for Halloween, gets possessed by it. The only way the mask is defeated is by using a plaster model of Carly Beth that her mother made, a symbol of her mother’s love. Tell me that plotline doesn’t remind you of the scene from season two where Joyce and Jonathan Byers tried to get Will back by reminding him of the nice things he does. The strong dynamics between the families featured in Stranger Things (particularly after season two introduces us to both Dustin and Lucas’ families) feel like they might have been directly influenced from Goosebumps.
On the other hand, Animorphs deals with five teenagers receiving special powers from an alien. These powers allow the quintet to transform into different types of animals, as they battle to stop mind-controlling aliens named the Yeerks from taking over Earth. (The design of the Yeerks look a lot like they came from/belong in the Upside Down.) The idea of an inner-community who knows about the supernatural threat, but are forced to keep it a secret, is the thread from Animorphs that I believe is most apparent in Stranger Things. This is especially true in the second season, as characters like Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), who know the truth of the whole situation, take on a bigger and more active role in fighting the threats from the Upside Down, and the introduction of characters like Max (Sadie Sink) who are invited to join the inner circle through the giving of information.
Something I took away from these shows is that sometimes the adults are clueless, or don’t always have your best interests at heart. That through-line is prominent in Stranger Things as well, with the menacing Hawkins Lab a practically-omnipotent presence, as well as the oblivious adults who don’t seem to know as much as the kids. One of the biggest takeaways I have from reading Mathew Klickstein’s book Slimed!: An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age is that 90s-era Nickelodeon would gamble by giving a lot of creative control to the showrunners. This is not unlike the business model Netflix, which produces and distributes Stranger Things, operates under today.
As I continue to delve into these television shows and book series, I realize that not only is there inherent value to them, but that they could have easily served as influences for Stranger Things. Maybe they aren’t as important as the work of Spielberg, Carpenter, King, etc. are in terms of the context of the show. But considering when the Duffer brothers came of age, I don’t hesitate to say that it’s possible some of these shows were formative experiences for the Duffer brothers that served as a first exposure to things like genre, as well as the concepts that help to define Stranger Things and make it what it is.