The first thing we learn about Stranger Things is when it happens. November 6, 1983.
Before an anonymous lab tech is ripped up into the upside down of an elevator. Before idiot Steve Harrington’s feathered hair takes up 3/4ths of the screen. Before Will Byers disappears screaming, plain white text emerges on a starry background to tell us the exact day and year. Maybe that shouldn’t be such a big deal. It’s simple enough information that plenty of movies and television shows get out of the way right upfront–the kind of journalistic shorthand that takes a few seconds and does the narrative work of five pairs of Jordache jeans–but Stranger Things is a show marked specifically by nostalgia for the 1980s made during a filmmaking era marked by nostalgia for the 1980s, so the simple choice of what to show us first is crucial.
We usually talk about nostalgia by talking about the things we had and the things we didn’t. Each hairstyle and Swatch watch and patterned shoelace offers a heady blend of joy and embarrassment for those who lived through the era in real life, but the lack of cell phones and internet access and Uber is meant to be worn as a big medal of honor, too. Pre-Tech Suburban Survival Merit Badge. It’s an appeal to a supposedly simpler time, a mid-life stepping stone for ’80s kids on the road to Get Off My Lawn status.
The lack of all that technology also makes it easier to tell a campfire story. Despite the horror genre’s toddler steps toward what makes the internet age uniquely terrifying, few things have done more to undercut the tension built into the plots of a half-century’s worth of horror films than cell phones and data centers every few miles. Scream‘s opening? All of Halloween? Cujo? All of them change when iPhones get tossed into the mix. Amity Island definitely would have had a bigger PR problem with YouTube, viral videos, and bored national news anchors. There’s something fundamentally scarier about a ghost in your attic than one living in your modem.
Modern tech takes some of the magic away from the dark magical realism of horror. So removing it from the equation also removes a gigantic poison pill. Good for the Duffer Brothers. Bad for the characters who can’t ask Siri for directions back to the highway or tweeting a picture of the Demogorgon.
Rewatching “The Vanishing of Will Byers” is like volunteering to place your leg back into a bear trap. The trauma of the episode is still fresh and impressive, and it’s made all the more dangerous by the technologically disconnected time period and the wild Midwest setting where the town feels small yet simultaneously separated by vast, open nothingness.
The Pac-Man decade’s lack of smart phones completely isolates Joyce Byers, which is something we get an initial hint of in this first chapter. After Will goes missing, she receives her first contact with Will from the Upside Down on a cord-based phone. But like any mother anchored by her desperate need for information, any information, about her missing little boy, she can only move to the furthest edge of her telephone’s ring. Already quarantined by poverty and the town’s sideways glances, her home becomes a prison where she’s forced to bide her time until either Will contacts her again or Sheriff Hopper comes knocking with a beat-up bike and accusatory eyebrows.
Herein lies the dark side of the nostalgia. D&D and “X-Men #134” are the fun parts, but would you trade in your phone for the tyranny of a landline if a loved one went missing? To comb through a shoebox of fuzzy Polaroids to find one clear picture of your child to bring to the copy store?
In the same vein, the most advanced 1980s kid tech (the Walkie Talkie) is a fascinating prop not only because it was in every child’s backpack at the time, but also because it served to connect people solely within a small range. It was a powerful tool within a very tiny radius, and this is what Mike, Lucas, and Dustin are armed with when they search for their missing friend. They even have to leave their bikes at the side of the road.
But it’s not like the adults have it much better. Sheriff Hopper has a gun and handheld radios. The calm before the climax of the episode shows him and science teacher Scott Clarke walking with a police line through a pitch dark forest waving flashlights and making small talk/exposition, utterly lost, totally unable to find Will, with no greater tools to help.
The darkness of the scene makes us as lost as they are. As lost as Will. And then the Hawkins branch of the Losers Club steals away into the night with their Walkies and juice boxes only to stumble upon a greater piece of technology: the young woman that government agents are willing to kill for.
Eleven is the marvelous piece of technology at the center of it all. So far, the clearest thing we’ve gotten to see her do is shut off an oscillating fan with her mind, which is something we’d ask Cortana to do now, but it’s obvious from her off-camera take down of two armed agents (and, you know, her escape from a secure facility with absolutely nothing up her sleeve whatsoever) that we’re in for so much more.
The great irony of it all is that the big bad of Stranger Things has a built-in technology-killing ability, which means that the show could have been set in 2016 without many headaches. Children still could have gone missing, cell coverage still could have been spotty, the government still could have covered up what was going on. The only thing that would have been sacrificed was the tone. Maybe poor Joyce wouldn’t have felt so utterly deserted. That’s a lot to lose.
Some Stray Thoughts:
- Benny Hammond of Benny’s Burgers is the kindest character in TV history to only survive one episode. I’d watch a spin-off show set in his diner for as many seasons as it ran.
- Not sure about home security technology in 1983, but the Wheeler household definitely doesn’t have a system, which makes it easier for Steve to sneak into Nancy’s room.