How Stranger Things is the Rare Modern Thriller For and About Children

It’s no secret when one looks at the trailer for Netflix’s latest original series  Stranger Things, which premieres this Friday, that it’s heavily influenced by pop culture in the 1980s.  Steven Spielberg and  Stephen King are ever present, however, the show manages to walk that fine line between nostalgic homage and complete originality.

In our interview with the young cast and the Duffer Brothers who created the series, we learned that there was some required viewing before production began:  Stand By MeThe GooniesE.T., and  Poltergeist, to name a few titles. But as the Duffers explained, there was more to this than just a couple of tips of the hat to the entertainment of our childhoods.

A different kind of material could get made back then, where characters who happened to be kids were treated with respect, and when there was something more substantial going on beneath the surface of horror, science fiction, and fantasy.

“I think part of the reason we want to do this is that we’re genre fans, but it’s becoming harder and harder to make the kind of movies that we love where they’re actually characters and it’s doing interesting things and it’s not just about jump scares,” Ross Duffer tells me on the set during the final week of shooting in Atlanta. “And if you look at Stephen King and early Steven Spielberg, these are movies that are about more than just making the audience jump every once and a while. They’re about character… What we want to see, we can’t get it done in film. And then we started seeing what people were doing in television, we saw an opening there. We’re like, that’s the way that we can tell a story that we want to tell.”

Matt Duffer added, “I think even when we were young, even when we were 12, stuff like Stand By Me resonated with us because it never felt like it was talking down to us. It felt like these were actual kids behaving in these extreme circumstances behaving like kids really do—even if that involves language, or these kids are actually in danger. So that was really important to us.”

Ross added that even as adults, movies like Stand by Me continue to resonate with him. “We were all kids at some point so I find stories about kids and growing up, coming of age and dealing with very real, scary situations, is something I think everyone can identify with,” he said. “And I don’t think just because it stars kids it has to be solely for kids and I think if a kid does watch this show, I like that it feels more edgy and dangerous for them watching. The IT miniseries, we saw that really young. It’s not good now but at the time, it had a major impact on me. It scared the living shirt out of me.”

One thing that Stranger Things does, and it does very well, is give the kids who lead the show real characters to play. They feel like real kids, like sweet kids, who care about each other and who have to stand up for what is right. They react authentically and they have feelings whether that comes to their parents falling apart, the loss of their best friend, being picked on at school, or a new person who comes into their lives. For the Duffers, authenticity was key to making a show like this work.

“I guess the one thing that we were always careful of was make sure that the kids are reacting in very real ways to these situations,” Matt told us. “Because there’s a tendency of people when they write kids or even direct them to be cutesy and fun about it and it’s like… No, but it’s dangerous and it’s scary.”

Ross added, “Goonies and Stand By Me, they take everything very seriously. They have fun on their adventures but they take it very seriously so we wanted the stakes to feel really high.”

One thing adding to the stakes: the monster. While coming-of-age genre definitely is at the core of this series, horror is always lurking around the corner, and the Duffers are admirers of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy from all different forms of media. “There’s [John] Carpenter, there’s Silent Hill, there’s Clive Barker, there’s some anime references. We’re sort of pulling from everything. We’re not even consciously referencing this stuff but we’re pulling from it,” says Matt Duffer.

There’s also a hint of H.P. Lovecraft, which is obvious when one looks around the sets that are dressed for episodes that come later in the series. “I think the Lovecraftian thing that you’re seeing is that, when it’s horror, I think it’s always scariest when it’s not quite explainable and it’s a little weird and it doesn’t quite make sense so we’re certainly pulling from those references,” Ross said.

In today’s bing-viewing culture, there’s no question that audiences will devour the eight-episode series, which the brothers describe as “novelistic,” in only a few sittings. Can fans look forward to more Stranger Things or will the story of Mike, Will, Eleven, and the rest of the town be done for good when we finish the last chapter?

“We tied a bow but it’s not perfect… There’s unanswered questions but just enough that it’ll satisfied people and leave the door open.” Having seen the series, I can only hope.

Images: Netflix

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