“Stranger Things”: the power of nostalgia

Warning: contains spoilers.

“Nostalgia,” reckons the journalist Alexis Petridis, “is a type of curation: you edit out the bad stuff.”

Seeing as “the bad stuff” is pretty integral to Netflix’s fantasy horror “Stranger Things”, which became an instant hit when it debuted back in July, it may seem odd that so many of the comment pieces about it have used the term “nostalgia” to identify a key ingredient of its appeal.

But like the blues being a sad music that makes you feel good, the best horror – and in my opinion “Stranger Things” ranks among the very best – is a paradox: scary, yet also comforting. John Carpenter – one of several directors whose work is knowingly referenced in the wonderfully named Duffer Brothers’ creation – says that audiences feel good after watching a horror movie because they survived it: they’ve experienced all the symptoms of dread and imminent death without any of the fatal consequences. The thrills are all vicarious, but they leave the cinema feeling more alive all the same – an echo of the strange elation we often experience after a genuine near-death experience, like a car crash.

The choice of setting for “Stranger Things” is revealing – the story unfolds in the fictional small town of Hawkins, Indiana, when local lad Will Byers disappears one evening when cycling home from playing Dungeons & Dragons with his friends Mike, Dustin and Lucas. On the outskirts of town lies a mysterious government laboratory (is there any other kind?), and it’s quickly obvious that Will’s disappearance – and the simultaneous appearance of an otherworldly young girl named Eleven – is connected to it. But it’s the time in which the story is set – November 1983 – that is the reason its many fans have come over all nostalgic (even though many of its viewers – and indeed even its creators – weren’t even born in 1983).

The Eighties have been having a bit of a “moment”for a while now, and usually I find the recycling of fashion / music / politics that I have already lived through (I was born in 1974) pretty tedious. However, I’m willing to make an exception for “Stranger Things”, not just because of the way it smartly corrals a certain kind of pop culture of the period – from the blocky lettering of the opening titles, to the Tangerine Dream and Vangelis-inspired soundtrack, to the obvious debt to the work of Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and Stephen King – but also because it’s a genuinely unsettling reminder that, though the Eighties can sometimes seem like a simpler time, at least for those of us who grew up in the West (no mobile phones, no Internet, no Islamist terrorism), this is in fact a seductive myth.

I remember my childhood being haunted by the very real threat of nuclear Armageddon, which found its cultural outlet here in the UK with work such as Raymond Briggs’s graphic novel “When the Wind Blows“, and TV dramas like “Edge of Darkness” and “Threads” (which I was too young to watch but was nevertheless aware of). And even in quiet, rural Somerset, it was impossible to ignore the enormous political upheavals of the Eighties, with whole communities left floored by the effects of Monetarism, privatisation, and rapid de-industrialisation.

“Stranger Things” certainly isn’t a political show as such – though, as with so many American dramas of this type, the government – at state and federal level – are definitely Up To No Good, its representatives invariably nefarious and prepared to use violence to protect their interests. Their interests being, in this case, pursuing experiments on vulnerable adults – and their offspring – in order to try and get inside the heads of the pesky Soviets. Unfortunately, they bite off more than they can chew when they open a portal into a parallel universe – and something very nasty indeed comes crawling out…

The idea of the “Upside Down” – as Mike and his friends come to call it – and the way it (quite literally) tends to burst through into our own world is hardly original, but brilliantly and convincingly realised, and the performances of the young cast – from whose point of view the story is mostly told – superb, especially Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, and Finn Wolfhard (another great name) as Mike. David Harbour is well cast as the decent-but-troubled Chief Jim Hopper, and, in a neat piece of casting, two actors who first made their name back in the Eighties appear in prominent roles – Matthew Modine as Dr Martin Brenner, the man in charge of Hawkins Laboratory, and of course Winona Ryder, who plays Joyce Byers, mother of the missing Will. I wasn’t totally won over by her performance myself, but then she does have to play a character who’s pitched somewhere between wired and hysterical for the entire series – not an easy ask for any actor – as well as contending with the frumpiest wig of any TV drama in recent memory. And it’s good to see her back in a starring role.

The way the Duffer Brothers bring together the three main plotlines – Mike and his friends befriending Eleven; the shifting relationship between Nancy, Mike’s older sister, her witless boyfriend Steve Harrington, and Will’s brother Jonathan; and Joyce and Jim’s determination to get to the truth – is cleverly done, and moves towards something all too rare in dramas these days – a Proper Ending (as opposed to those open endings where all the plot strands are just left dangling so there can be another series). A well-crafted plot, where the various stories are actually resolved – God how refreshing! And with just enough of a hint of what a second season might hold (which the Duffer Brothers have insisted will be a “sequel” rather than a continuation), and “Stranger Things” seems to have hit the mother lode. It’s reassuring to know that, along with all the other Eighties influences they have picked up, its creators have also remembered something that was common back then but now seems to have been forgotten: how to tell a good story.