SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA—Stephen King had this to say about Stranger Things 2: “Ladies and gentlemen, that’s how you do it: no bullshit, balls to the wall entertainment. Straight up. Feel free to disagree, but… you would be wrong.”
Coming from someone who is on the receiving end of tons of homage from The Duffer Brothers, creators and directors of the show, this is indeed high praise.
Set in the 1980s, Stranger Things is filled with references to pop culture touch-points of the era, including King’s writing. The basic plot structure mirrors that of King works such as “Stand by Me” and “It” where a group of misfit preteens encounter a vast non-human evil that they eventually defeat with friendship, loyalty, and makeshift weapons.
Good wins over evil in all King books, always the most satisfying of endings. The contrast of the innocence of young people against the murderous depravity of supernatural creatures wins the reader over. In the end, we know that the dark side will be defeated, but for how long? And the victories are never without tremendous cost.
Stranger Things applies the King formula to perfection in this show. The shadowy government lab dabbling in arcane experiments and overall bad decision-making (The Mist), the unknown and murderous evil released from another dimension (The Mist again), and the ragtag bag of geeky children (Stand By Me, It) who somehow know just what to do and what’s going on because they play Dungeons and Dragons, are all elements employed effectively over the past two seasons.
The show’s title also recalls that of King’s novel Needful Things, which is set in a small town in Maine, like most of his works. Stranger Things, likewise, is set in a small town in Indiana.
It also helps that the show visually resurrects the ‘80s, the era of King’s most popular novels, with the clothes, interior decor, and the use of then-technology such as camcorders, tape recorders, and walkie-talkies. The show’s soundtrack is also consistent to the era, with songs by Pat Benatar, Cyndi Lauper, and Icicle Works, among many others. All these elements establish the setting effectively, making suspension of belief, so necessary to enjoying a story, all that easier.
What makes Stranger Things work as a horror story?
At some point or other, particularly as children, we’ve all felt the irrational fear of monsters under the bed, likely fed by stories told by our elders to keep us in line—“’Wag kang lumabas diyan, may mumu!” “Kung hindi ka magpakabait, kukunin ka ng aswang!” This is one of the fears that perhaps never leaves us, that makes up the stuff of our most horrible nightmares.
To watch the Stranger Things gang facing the unfathomable evil from the Upside Down, the Mind Flayer, is a hearkening back to that fear we experienced as kids ourselves, and that we tried to banish by cowering under the blanket and feverishly reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
Dustin, Lucas, Mike, Will, Eleven, and the rest of them confront their worst nightmare with nothing more than bravery and flashlights, and in the end, triumph. They do this with the help of adults who believe in them, Will’s mom Joyce and chief of police Hopper.
This speaks to the desire of children to have adults believe in them unconditionally, keep them safe, and love them and not hurt them.
Because this show is, like I said, a riff off Stephen King’s tunes, well played by the Duffer Brothers, worthy successors of the master of the macabre. (Although King is not the only pop culture icon referred to in this show – there are many others, such as that other great Steve Spielberg.) King also wrote about dismal childhoods, and how a kind adult—a substitute for the parent figure—could turn things around for the protagonists.
As King says, Stranger Things is straight up entertainment. It’s got the essentials that make a riveting tale—conflict, heroism, redemption, big hair, a slow dance at the prom, saving the world. It’s a horror story, a coming-of-age story, a story about friendship.
And this is the secret of its success—that it speaks to us on so many levels. It reminds us of what it was like to be children on the cusp of adulthood and of what it was like to believe in six impossible things before breakfast.
It also reminds us that love is all we need to defeat the darkest evils ever conjured.
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