When I remember my dreams—which is rare these days—I can’t recollect colours or textures or smells; only residual feelings. Perhaps the cold, sweaty clamp of fear. The gut-flopping thrill of flying through space. The hungry hope of jolting myself awake and hoping that everything I’ve imagined is real. Then there are other bits and pieces I remember when I least expect—a television that won’t turn off; the colour blue, spreading everywhere like an inkblot; a tunnel that stretches forever. Perhaps that’s what draws me to movies—the feeling of being able to explore something that exists as a ‘now-memory’ rather than a past or future. The feeling of riding down a road on a bicycle with no hands steering me ahead. Sun spots in my eyes. CinemaScope vision. In the northwestern Melbourne suburbs where I grew up, one of the last living Blockbusters that I would visit every Tuesday and Wednesday for half-priced rentals in high school dies off like a dinosaur, a nondescript charcoal chicken shop opening in its wake, and I resort to watching movies on my laptop in bed in protest. I remember as a kid the day we got a brand-new VCR at home after moving overseas. How colossal the images all looked on the 4:3 television screen in comparison to my tiny body, and how I marvelled at the power of being able to freeze an image in time, drinking in all the colours, studying every tiny detail trapped in the frame like a butterfly wing under a magnifying glass.
Somewhere on the other side of the world, two twin brothers in North Carolina spent the 80s and 90s also glued to their own VCR, watching and rewatching their favourite movies, taking note of the emotional high that comes from watching a particular kind of film, and committing to recreating—and repackaging—that feeling professionally, in the uncanniest of ways, for all of us in the future.
Urban legends can be as oddly captivating as they are blood-chilling—think ghosts who appear when called by name, spider bites that turn your body into a parasite, and hook-handed lunatics chasing after you. However, it’s possible that the biggest fright of all could be the potential end of the world as we know it. How this will happen is open to as much speculation as when it will happen. A lot of it depends on the stories we grew up with in our own cultures, as well as the stories we swapped with other kids in the dark, sitting around campfires or with our faces illuminated just by torchlight. These tall tales can help us identify hidden angst as we come of age and process scary feelings. While these stories have been exchanged by word-of-mouth for centuries, they have also been a lucrative source of fascination for Hollywood. This is why much of the success of Netflix’s made-for-television phenomena, Stranger Things 2—the sequel to 2016’s summer breakout hit, Stranger Things—can be credited to its marketing as a pre-packaged apocalyptic vision wrapped in a curious blend of Hollywood mythology and twentieth century folklore.
A mash up of the horror, science-fiction and adventure genres that found unparalleled success in the 80s—remember The Goonies and E.T.? —the first season of Stranger Things took the cautionary tale of children going missing in small-town America to new heights. One of the main characters, Will Byers, is a young boy who is abducted and goes missing in a parallel dimension called The Upside Down. Another, Eleven, is a young girl with telekinetic powers who runs away from a scientific research lab where she was being held hostage and experimented on. Despite these dark and potentially distressing themes, the show’s narrative glue is the ‘all-in-this-together’ camaraderie of the young key players of the story—Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and red-headed new-girl-in-town ‘Mad Max’—who form a gang that doubles as a rounded ‘party’. This social structure mirrors one that is integral to the adventure role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, in which each player ends up being a symbolic talisman with different strengths and abilities.
While the title ‘Stranger Things 2’ was met with some apprehension from Netflix’s executives—following the bad omens surrounding Hollywood sequels (otherwise known as ‘sophomore slumps’)—the show’s creators, auteurs Matt and Ross Duffer, were confident that their work would sit within the canon of successful Hollywood follow-ups. Whether its charm can endure critical scrutiny and the high expectations of its admiring fans is another thing altogether.
The Duffer Brothers have essentially created an insular snow-globe world that is perpetually stuck in 1980s small-town America. In 2017, it comes as a refuge from the unrelenting 24-hour news cycle filled with stories about the mistreatment of asylum seekers, racist politicians, rampant homophobia, ill-fired tweets from short-sighted public figures, sexual assault perpetrators outed on a near-weekly basis, and the quiet creep of global warming and rising sea levels. Known as a place where ‘nothing ever happens’, Hawkins, Indiana is actually a dreamworld fuelled by an intense childhood love of 80s video games and the films of Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and Brian De Palma. In that sense, sometimes this world feels like it’s stuck in a perpetual adolescence: why grow up and commit to humdrum reality when, unbeknownst to our parents, the robust inner worlds and alternate universes we find and create with our friends offer so much more?
Early in season 2, the gang of teenage boys dress up as Ghostbusters—the namesake supernatural 1984 comedy starring Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver—only to find out that when they arrive at school, they are the only kids dressed in costume. As they walk down the halls, red-faced and subject to sniggers and taunts, they reflect on how it was an unspoken rule that everyone dressed up last year. ‘Who makes these rules?’ yells curly-haired Dustin, aghast that the costume his mother painstakingly sowed isn’t impressing as planned. ‘It’s a conspiracy!’ The earnestness and excessive devotion to childhood heroes in this moment seems emblematic of how feverish The Duffer Brothers became, not just wanting to make a show about the 80s, but also creating a cultural product that felt like it could’ve been made in the 80s too—gendered tropes and blinkered storytelling mechanisms intact.
With this sequel set a year after the original series, the dynamic of the boys’ friendship group has shifted. Their friend, Eleven, has disappeared again after saving them from an evil monster known as the Demogorgan in last year’s finale, leaving an awkward, unspoken gap in their gang. Their friend Will has recently returned from The Upside Down, but isn’t quite the same carefree boy he was before—he is reluctantly hosting a residual evil creature from The Upside Down in his teenage body. While they often chase the opportunity to be regular kids—trick or treating, attending parties, scrounging spare change to play games at the local arcade, studying for class—there is a lingering residue of trauma in the air. Thematically, we’re getting the best of both worlds: moments that are reminiscent of the sentimentality of Spielberg films, thrown into a blender with the horror of Stephen King’s novels and films.
Sometimes the need to reference every Hollywood vehicle that has ever moved or disturbed the Duffers feels deliberate to a point of seeming forced. In her cinema-inspired short story collection Beauty Talk & Monsters, Masha Tupitsyn tells us: ‘If I’m going to be larger than life, it’ll have to be subtle in the frame, like a little bird flying around in the background. Everything can go in that way. If I mattered on my own, I wouldn’t need movies.’ The same feels true of Stranger Things 2. Much about childhood, coming of age, and surviving trauma can be gained from watching, but none of it could have existed without the legacy of the Movie Brats (Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Coppola), who were largely concerned with referencing each other as peers in their work, and reflecting the worlds they often escaped to as children with access to filmmaking equipment and absent or divorced parents.
Spielberg, who was adept at the art of self-defence, came prepared for his detractors who often accused him of making middlebrow films. The commercially successful nature of his blockbuster work, they claimed, shouldn’t be confused with something mainstream film wasn’t—art. To this, he responded that it was ridiculous to claim that ‘art is serious and that art can’t move you; art can’t be on a bicycle and fly across the moon—that that can’t be art.’ And while it can be useful to criticise and dismantle the things that we love, it’s also worth chiming in sometimes: Why can’t the story of an alien who wants to go home, and instead makes some lifelong friends, be art?
The internet is full of memes: elements of a culture or systems of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means, especially online. A meme can be a dancing baby, or a Muppet, or a recently escaped teenager from a science lab who is experimenting with gender identity for the first time. Memes often go viral— as has Stranger Things, which is available to stream and watch online in over 190 countries—but memes can also grow tired and annoying through repetition and eventually become degraded, losing their original first-time magic. Our constant desire for new content, stories, experiences, scoops, exclusives and breaking news means we are as good as speeding towards fatigue as we are towards being the first to get to the heart of something. The things we loved as children—Tamagotchis, Furby babies, Minefield—do not impress us as much when we become sophisticated and grown up. And then, on the other hand, there is the danger of loving something so much that you just might end up destroying it.
Like a Rubik’s Cube, Stranger Things twists and turns purposefully, symbolising the co-existence of order and chaos. If watched back several times, the show could act as an instructional for how to survive the oncoming apocalypse. When the end of the world arrives, will we hear it? Perhaps it’ll be the sound of a car roaring towards us as we’re cycling home in a Ghostbusters costume. Perhaps it’s something waiting for us in the basement, or lurking at the bottom of a trash can. Or perhaps it’s something more subtle—the death of original storytelling, in favour of derivative, expensively-made visual junk food. In its worst moments, the show lands badly, pompous in its own self-regard like a pop-culture obsessed Narcissus, bemused by its own Technicolour reflection of its teen idols. In its best moments, Stranger Things 2 speaks to the gumption required in survival. Not just in growing older, but in also having the worst things happen to you—losing friends, loved ones, exorcising your literal demons, loss of freedom or hope, knowing that somewhere out there danger still lurks—and being able to say, ‘Well, I’m still here.’
Nathania Gilson is a Melbourne-based writer and editor. She tweets @unicornology.