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How Stranger Things turns nostalgia upside down

Stranger Things opens with four X-Men-reading, Star Wars-quoting kids at the climax of a ten-hour Dungeons & Dragons campaign. The timid Will struggles to decide how to deal with the big bad creature that has just been slammed onto the board by Dungeon Master Mike. Meanwhile, chubby, lisping Dustin screams from under his baseball cap to cast a protection spell, while the suave but hot-headed Lucas demands an attack with fireballs. As Will rolls his die, the game is interrupted by Mike’s mother announcing home time and the other boys mount their bikes (the ten-year-old’s Cadillac) and ride off into the misty suburban streets of small Indiana town, Hawkins. Through much stammering, Will admits to Mike before leaving that he opted for attacking to protect the group rather than save his own skin.

Immediately after we meet these four friends, the heart and sensibility of Stranger Things, we say goodbye to one of the boys in a standard monster-movie abduction sequence. The picture fades to black. Pulsing bass notes and synth arpeggios swell as a floating neon-red title fills the screen. It is the sound of fear and excitement from many a childhood. In a breath, we are whisked away to fonder times of sneaking out from under our bedsheets to crack open a dusty VHS jacket filled with spooky capers and Mystery Machine gangs.

Responsible for Stranger Things’ Tron-style heartbeat are Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, one half of Austin electro outfit S U R V I V E. When shopping the series to Netflix and 21 Lots, Ross and Mike Duffer (the Duffer Brothers) cut together a trailer of 25 clips from 80s sci-fi and horror classics. Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, ET and Poltergeist, to name a few, were matched to John Carpenter’s The Fog soundtrack. But the brothers also included a song from Dixon and Stein’s then little-known synth project. The group, whose main influences include Tangerine Dream’s Thief and Sorcerer soundtracks, were symphonic children of scores to films like Jaws, Halloween and Videodrome – soundtracks that functioned like characters in their own right. The Duffers, inspired by Cliff Martinez’s electro wonderland in Drive, and True Detective’s character-driven soundtrack, wanted their composers to be involved from the inception and approached Dixon and Stein early on during the Stranger Things production process. Provided with a look-book containing story synopsis, character profiles and movie stills, the duo scoured old demos and arranged new compositions until they had over 14 hours of music. Most of the surviving songs are from the original batch of demos first sent to the Duffers, as is the main theme music, and the titles themselves are inspired by Richard Greenberg, designer of sequences for The Goonies and Superman, and modelled on the scarlet block lettering of Stephen King book covers. The aesthetic of this opening sequence is a time capsule which defines the series.

80s pop culture references permeate the series. The series’ genre-mash casts a spell over late 80s and early 90s babies who will quickly identify each The Thing poster and Poltergeist reference in spite of the fact that they didn’t actually experience this era first hand. Like the terrifying alternate dimension of Upside Down, an idolised decade is the perfect setting to ensnare the Netflix generation who burn through junk-food-fuelled television marathons in search of reminders of the magic of our childhood and how dull our life has since become. Yet in spite of the sentimentality inspired by Stranger Things, this series doesn’t so much remind people of an era they lived in but the era they escaped to. Adulthood is the Upside Down to the innocence and richness of our youth, and Stranger Things is our wormhole to freedom.

Once you’ve sifted through its haunting score and 80s gimmicks, Stranger Things is simply about escape. Will, Mike, Dustin and Lucas escape reality by playing D&D. Eleven escapes the experimental government facility where she was raised in captivity. The Demagorgon escapes its alternate dimension. And the central plot revolves around Will’s family and friends trying to save him from the Upside Down. At one point Will’s mum, played by Winona Ryder, escapes into a world of blinking lights and interdimensional phone calls rather than deal with the town-wide manhunt for her lost boy. We witness all this while escaping our own lives: a habit cultivated in youth, when wonder and imagination were heightened by how little of the world we had actually experienced. Then we grew up. We became the monsters, the Demagorgons, and our reality the Upside Down. Stranger Things is a portal through which we make direct contact to the days of E.T and Stand By Me, when movies were our escape and our reality.

Mysterious runaway Eleven sits down at the boys’ Dungeons & Dragons table, closes her eyes and reopens them then identifies the wizard piece as Will’s. Mike asks if she knows where their friend is. El casts aside the other pieces and flips the board wrong way round. She slams Will’s moniker in the centre and says he is. Mike asks who he is hiding from. She places the Demagorgon piece next to the wizard and a percussive gunshot rings. The very game the boys use to escape reality is now the symbol of their friend’s entrapment. Much like how our own vicarious escapism reasserts the Upside Down that is our own reality? Well, stranger things have happened.

 

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Kieron Byatt is a Melbourne based writer and hip-hop artist. His 2015 EP ‘Invalid’ received radio-play on 3RRR and Triple J and his written work has appeared in Voiceworks, Verandah and Going Down Swinging. He currently teaches creative writing and runs the hip-hop department Victorian youth music organisation The Push.

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