Horror is an ever-compounding genre, like a set of Russian nesting dolls. Except instead of dolls on the inside, there’s blood. And impossibly clumsy damsels in distress. Indeed, horror has a time-honored tradition of borrowing from itself and paying respects to its own greats. One need look no further than A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Evil Dead. Wes Craven, director of the former, had a running joke with Sam Raimi, director of The Evil Dead. While filming Elm Street, Craven made sure to include a shot of Nancy Thompson watching The Evil Dead. In response, Raimi gave Freddy Krueger’s glove a cameo in his sequel, Evil Dead II.
Needless to say, after years of referencing itself, it’s not hard to see why horror might relegate itself to a sort of cheap formula, opting for what works over what’s new. But what happens when those two things meld? Stranger Things and its show-runners, The Duffer Brothers, brought something to the stage that I don’t think we even knew we wanted. A mix of ‘80s movie nostalgia and Stephen King worship, the 2016 Netflix-produced show revived the classic monster tale, with a hint of sci-fi thrown in for good measure. Naturally, being set in the 1980’s, the show-runners had no shortage of material to work with and throughout the maddeningly short first season, references were about as ubiquitous as the thrills they accompanied.
For fans of movies in general, Stranger Things is a blast and a half. For diehard fans of the genre, the benefits only compound. Assuming you’ve just finished the series and are wondering how you’ll ever watch anything again, let’s take a look at fifteen references that will delight horror geeks and movie buffs alike. It should go without saying that from here on out, spoilers lurk patiently, awaiting unsuspecting faces to which they may adhere themselves. Like some sort of…
15. Alien (1979)
You can’t tell me that shot of Hopper and Joyce going in to The Upside Down isn’t a direct homage to Alien. From the suits, to the dark, dank environment, there’s a sense of creeping dread reminiscent of the Ridley Scott space-horror film that launched a million “In space, nobody can hear you…” jokes. Of course, when Hopper and Joyce stumble upon Will, he’s decidedly reticent, probably due to the inter-dimensional worm creature lodged in his throat. Luckily, this story forgoes a harrowing chest busting scene and goes straight for the “pull it the hell out” strategy. Lovers of Will rejoice. But possibly the biggest reveal (and least subtle nod to Alien) was the hatched egg that Hopper finds in The Upside Down. It appears to be where the current monster came from, but might it also have been a sign that the Demogorgon was not an independent agent? You decide.
14. The Thing (1982)
Perhaps the most obvious one on the list. John Carpenter’s terrifying 1982 monster flick is heavily referenced throughout the show, to the point where I eventually thought someone was going to turn to the camera and mention it. And then that actually happens when Nancy refers to the monster/Demogorgon as “that thing” several times. Granted, one might struggle to find a less vague title for a faceless monster with a mouth that opens like a flower, but considering the reference-happy Duffer Brothers, I’m erring on the side of subtle nod. There’s also the poster in Mike’s basement, which can be seen in several scenes, though most prominently in Episode 6 (which is not-so coincidentally titled, “The Monster”). Additionally, there’s Mr. Clarke, wooing his date with a night of good-old fashioned Thing watching. As an added bonus, we get a fun fact out of him. Teachers gonna teach.
13. Jurassic Park (1993)
While the monster never quite reaches the levels of utter destruction that Spielberg’s prehistoric crew do, it certainly wreaks animalistic havoc in its own right. From the very first scene, we are introduced to a creature with the familiar cunning of the infamous velociraptor. Stalking the scientist into the elevator, it gives a low growl from above and drags him into its mouth? Or somewhere as equally unpleasant. One part velociraptor, one part tyrannosaurus rex, the Demogorgon has no shortage of parallels to the flesh-hungry dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. There’s the telltale warning sign before it approaches, much like the trembling water that heralds the coming of the tyrannosaurus rex in Jurassic Park. Then there’s the ill-fated government lackey sent into The Upside Down by Dr. Brenner. Finally, the blood-covered chain they reel back in after he meets the monster resembles every vegetarian’s favorite cow scene from Jurassic Park.
12. Winona Ryder
Ryder, a prolific actress in the 1980s, has fallen off the radar a bit in recent years. She shows up every once in a while, as in Black Swan as the aging dancer who is spurned by Vincent Cassel’s character in favor of the younger Natalie Portman. But, as a general rule, she’s been fairly quiet. Not always so, Ryder had a stint in the late ‘80s and early ’90s where she frequently showed up in creepy horror-esque movies, starring in Beetlejuice (1988), Edward Scissorhands (1990), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992).
It’s also worth noting her role as the aloof Veronica Sawyer in the cult-classic Heathers (1988). While not a horror role, her performance as a bored suburban teenager who meets the dark and rebellious J.D. is incredibly similar to the dynamic between Nancy and Jonathan. Though, Jonathan opts for a more peaceful (and alive) ending.
11. Firestarter (1984)
Also a Stephen King story, the 1980 novel is definitely the clearest example of where the writers sourced Eleven’s story. From the LSD experiments conducted during pregnancy to the whole young-girl-that-can-control-matter-with-her-mind thing, The Duffer Brothers evidently borrowed heavily from Firestarter when constructing Eleven’s character. Naturally, there are some differences. For one, unlike Eleven, Charlie of Firestarter is a pyrokinetic, meaning her telekinesis is limited to fire. Also, although Charlie’s parents (also telekinetics) have similar reactions to using their powers to El, with sustained use causing fatigue and nosebleeds, Charlie seems to be able to do more and more without needing to rest as the story progresses. And then there’s the… how should I put it, disparity of innocence between the two. Although both are seemingly nice little girls at the start, Charlie eventually evolves into something a little more vengeful in the end.
10. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)
Poor Joyce. For a good three episodes or so, she is relegated to “Crazy Street Corner Lady” and pretty much disregarded by everyone around her. That is, until the truth reveals itself. Dramatically. If this at all sounds familiar, it’s because Spielberg’s classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind had a very similar plot. Roy Neary, played by Richard Dreyfuss, sees what he can only describe as a UFO and tries his best to explain this to his wife. She subsequently leaves him, annoyed by how much he’s babbling on about those damn aliens. Similarly, Joyce is visited by dad of the year, Lonnie, who tells her it’s all in her head. Oh, and did I mention the lights? One of the most famous scenes in Spielberg’s movie involves Dreyfuss communicating with the aliens using a system of lights. Much like Joyce and her holly jolly chat room.
9. E.T. (1982)
Yes, yes, I know. E.T. is not a horror film. Unless you count the scene where Drew Barrymore dresses him up in a wig. That’s the stuff nightmares are made of.
Also directed by Spielberg, E.T. follows a merry band of children that find a remarkably gifted being who seems to be confused by everything their world has to offer, often to great hilarity. Told by The Duffer Brothers to emulate E.T., Eleven actress, Millie Bobby Brown performed her task admirably. Eleven is nothing but confused by the world Mike and his friends live in. Simple things like kindness and friendship must be taught and the television is a fascinating magical box. Most notably, El’s obsession with Eggo waffles mirrors E.T.’s Reese’s Pieces problem. And then there’s that bicycle chase.
8. A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
Back to the realm of ‘80s horror, this legendary Wes Craven slasher film set the stage for a host of copycats and eye-roll worthy sequels. But besides being an unwitting progenitor of cheese, Elm Street also acts as essential source material for Stranger Things. The two stories follow remarkably similar patterns, albeit with far fewer dead teenagers in one over the other (aside from Barb #JusticeForBarb). But as for the monster who stalks and slowly terrorizes a group of unassuming suburban kids until they say “screw it” and take matters into their own hands, there’s a far more direct comparison.
There’s the two Nancy’s (Thompson in Elm Street and Wheeler in Stranger Things). Thankfully, the latter has a competent, if slightly douchey, boyfriend in direct contrast to Johnny Depp’s introductory role as the incredibly irritating and useless Glen. Nancy’s, it would seem, have questionable taste. As a bonus, the shot of Freddy pushing through the wall above Nancy’s bed looks exactly like several scenes where the monster does the same.
7. Donnie Darko (2001)
Not an ‘80s movie. Arguably, not even a horror movie. But a creepy, inter-dimensional story about an angsty teenager all the same. The film’s titular character, Donnie, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, could very well be the brooding predecessor to Jonathan Byers. Misunderstood by his parents, Donnie finds himself at the brink of insanity and begins seeing a man dressed in a giant bunny costume, identifying himself only as Frank.
Ok, so maybe that element is missing from Stranger Things, but there’s something far more glaring that eventually rears its head. The boys, desperate for answers about where Will might be after his “dead body” washes up, confront their science teacher, Mr. Clarke on alternate dimensions. Clarke is hesitant at first, but eventually spills the beans on inter-dimensional travel, much to the boys’ delight. A similarly awkward encounter can be watched in Donnie Darko, wherein Donnie approaches his teacher and asks him about, you guessed it, alternate dimensions.
6. Carrie (1976)
Except much nicer and much cuter. Eleven and her material world-defying superpowers harken back to Stephen King’s inaugural novel and subsequent Brian De Palma movie, Carrie. But instead of a disgruntled (to put it lightly) Sissy Spacek massacring a high school full of teenagers, we have El. Thoughtful and quiet, she uses her powers sparingly, owing in part to the fact that she loses a lot of energy performing her telekinetic abilities. Examples of El’s telekinesis abound but the most Carrie-esque moment for El comes when, upon being cornered by Brenner’s henchmen, she turns everyone’s brain to mush and covers the ground with blood. Yeesh, El. Couldn’t you have just knocked them out?
Of course, beyond mere displays of super powered death reigning, there’s the element of ‘80s middle and high school bullying that acts as an almost anachronistic reminder that being a weirdo wasn’t always the cool and trendy thing it is today. If only Carrie had been born a millennial.
5. The Title Screen
While we’re on the topic of more abstract references, the title screen is easily the most immediate and satisfying homage to 1980s horror, acting as a time machine and wrenching us from our cozy 2016 seats, back to a world where film grain was inevitable, not a filter. Viewers wearing glasses reported marked increase in lens size, as well as a sudden desire to listen to Genesis.
The font is reminiscent of Stephen King books of the day, with the red lettering serving as a classic reminder that what we’re about to watch or read is going to be bloody and scary. Along with the steady underlying electronic track, the whole opening title sequence serves as a shot to the nostalgic heart for any ‘80s kids out there.
4. The X-Files (1993)
In fictional worlds featuring the paranormal especially, the looming presence of “the government” is ever-nearby. Acting as an all-knowing force, long aware of whatever disconcerting or otherworldly being is currently creeping around our world, the government often serves as an object of exposition, dumping conveniently curated piles of research and information into the laps of main characters. Not so with Stranger Things, however. Much like The X Files’ Mulder and Scully, Dr. Brenner is looking for the truth. He just happens to be doing so with fewer morals in mind.
One might also draw comparisons between the Joyce-Hopper storyline and Mulder and Scully’s romp through the world of the weird and inexplicable, complete with skepticism and a very slight hint of sexual tension.
3. Poltergeist (1982)
Surprise. Another Steven Spielberg creation. The ‘80s really were a nice time to be named Steve. I digress. The 1982 film classic really kicked off the tradition (started by The Amityville Horror in 1979) of haunting houses and using Native American burial grounds as the de facto villain. Neither is true for Stranger Things, unless you consider the monster’s frequent visits to the living room a “haunting.” But other comparisons exist in droves. For one, there’s the portal in the closet in Poltergeist. Although less menacing, the portal in Stranger Things leads straight to The Upside Down. Unless I’m remembering incorrectly, I don’t think we ever really see where the Poltergeist portal leads, but it certainly isn’t anywhere good.
2. Scream (1996)
Speaking of the phone…
Joyce’s run-in with the prank-caller from Hell is a reminder of Wes Craven’s 1996 slasher movie about a horror-movie obsessed killer who likes to pester his victims about their favorite scary movies. Neither the monster nor Will ever take the time to ask any trivia, but they sure do a lot of breathing into the phone. It’s never quite explained why, exactly, the phone seems to be a conduit through which the world of The Upside Down can communicate with the real world, but it seems to be an important factor nonetheless.
Of course, Craven has a history of making the phone scary, inspiring many to never hold a phone to their face again after getting a tongue full of Freddy in Elm Street. Joyce could learn a thing or two from our Craven-induced anxieties.
1. Stand By Me (1986)
I know what you’re thinking. “He’s really going to end this list with a non-horror movie?” Yes, I am. Because it’s important to point out just how influential Stand By Me is to the Stranger Things story. Also, it was written by Stephen King who may as well have his own number in the list at this point. But as a story itself, Stand By Me follows the misadventures of a group of kids, brought together by tragedy and in search of…. something. Truth? Or adventure?
It doesn’t really matter, I suppose. Just as Will is, arguably, the least important main character of the bunch, so too is the dead boy in Stand By Me. Regardless of whether or not the stories would exist without them (they wouldn’t), they both act more as a catalyst that fuels adventure. And that’s an important thing to note when discussing horror movies (and movies in general) from the ‘80s and ‘90s. The victim, so to speak, sets the whole thing in motion, leaving the remaining characters to deal with the aftermath.
And if that’s too abstract for you, the kids also walk along the train tracks. Happy?