Through a series of clever allusions, Netflix’s Stranger Things pays homage to two of America’s greatest storytellers: writer Stephen King and filmmaker Steven Spielberg.
Inside the Duffer Brothers’ Netflix horror/sci-fi show fourth season stranger things, we see Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) being bullied at her new high school in California – she moved there with Joyce (Winona Ryder), Will (Noah Schnapp) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton). But every new city of stranger things comes with his mean girls-style clicks and here Eleven is being bullied by her classmate Angela. In a poignant scene, we see her close to breaking point, even as laughing, mocking children surround her in a circle, led by Angela. The backdrop to this scene is that by the end of last season, Eleven had lost her telekinetic abilities. So when she finally tries to hit Angela with her powers, nothing happens and everyone bursts out laughing.
This scene is a loving tribute to Stephen King’s classic 19070s novel Carrie, where a telekinetic young girl is bullied by her classmates in a particularly ruthless way – and she responds by killing almost every one of them with her powers. Over its four seasons, Stranger Things has carefully placed references to the works of its two biggest influences – Stephen King in the writing department and iconic director Steven Spielberg when it comes to visuals. King and Spielberg are, of course, two of America’s most beloved storytellers and their works are now considered pop culture staples. Let’s take a closer look at how stranger things weaves in these references, one by one.
According to the Duffer Brothers, the creators of stranger things, the inspiration started with the title card itself. The font Netflix uses to spell the show’s name is actually inspired by the “big, thick and ominous” title fonts from Stephen King’s 1980s paperbacks – the show itself is like a letter d. developed love to this decade. I personally remember owning a copy of Stephen King’s novel Necessary things where the title font was indeed very similar to the one used by stranger things (see picture below).
Take a long look at the basic premise of the first season of stranger things – a group of nerdy pre-teens from the town of Hawkins grow up and find themselves battling an otherworldly monster, discovering a new corpse at one point. It’s reminiscent of two different Stephen King stories – THIS, which featured killer clown Pennyworth haunting a group of children. The other, of course, is ‘The Body’, which was later adapted into the classic 80s film. support me, starring River Phoenix and Will Wheaton. In this story, a group of children discover an abandoned corpse near the train tracks and it sets in motion their classic bildungsroman (coming of age) tale. THIS finds another mention in the second season of stranger things, when Bob (Sean Astin) gives Will (Noah Schnapp) advice on dealing with his personal demons and mentions that for Bob, that demon was a creepy clown called Mr. Baldo. In the same way, support me is referenced in the Season 2 scene where Dustin and Steve are laying down pieces of meat along the train tracks (the monsters in stranger things are usually drawn that way, remember the Demogorgon hunt towards the end of Season 1)
And what about Eleven herself, the super-powered teenager at the heart of Stranger Things. We already established his Carrie connection at the beginning of this article. But there is another Stephen King novel that closely resembles the plot trajectory followed by Eleven – Fire starterwhich also involves a young girl, superpowers (in this case, pyrokinesis), and top-secret government projects that use children for experimentation.
In Season 3, we meet a new unhinged character called Billy Hargrove (Darcy Montgomery), who is brash and impulsive and at one point tries to chase our heroes off the road with his sports car. Billy’s car is actually the biggest Stephen King reference to find in Season 3 (which is less of a horror story and more of an action-adventure, classic 80s Indiana Jones, which also finds a few mentions) . You see, the way the car is presented to us, the camera angles used in this sequence, is a throwback to a Stephen King novel called Christinaa book about a killer car (yes, you read that right).
Billy Hargrove is one of the season’s villains, and his big manic moment in Season 3 finally occurs when he sticks his whole head through a sauna door, ripping it open to grab his terrified sister Maxine. This moment was reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s iconic scene in the brilliant where he does something very similar and then says “Here’s Johnny!” the brilliantof course, is one of the most famous and acclaimed Stephen King adaptations of all time, directed by Stanley Kubrick.
Spielberg, the American hero
For an average American child growing up in the 1980s — stranger things‘ chosen decade – Steven Spielberg was, in all likelihood, the lord of cinema. Spielberg made some of the most critically and commercially successful films of that time – HEY, Jaws, Dating of the Third Kind etc He also produced and wrote classics like Fighting spirit (1982). Its narrative style (mixing a coming-of-age story with elements of horror and/or sci-fi), its camera angles (its lengthy opening scene of Colombo is still taught in film schools) and the emphasis on Americana has truly made him the nation’s most beloved filmmaker.
stranger things‘ visual style is heavily inspired by an all-star lineup of Spielberg classics. Look at the very first scene of the first season, for example. Young Will Byers is seen separating from the rest of his group. He approaches a bright light off-screen, drawn to something or someone, before being taken to the Upside Down (the alternate dimension that houses stranger things‘ monsters) by an unknown creature. This is a clear reference to when we first see the titular alien in ET: The Extra Terrestrial.
Then there’s the matter of Eleven’s disguise – she’s been experimented on since early childhood, so her hair has been cut in a buzz cut. To help her fit in at a Hawkins High School, Mike and the gang give her a blonde wig and a frilly dress. It’s almost identical to how Gertie dressed ET in a much-loved scene from Spielberg’s film.
The beloved of Chris Columbus Goonies (1985) was based on a Spielberg story and like Stranger Things, it featured a bunch of nerdy kids. In fact, if you look at how the respective nerd groups are characterized, you will find a lot of overlap. Dustin in Stranger Things is a foodie and something of a lovable idiot, just like Chunk in Goonieswho also loves her food very much. Fighting spirit (1985), written and produced by Spielberg has even more direct links with stranger things. In this film, haunted child Carol Anne “talks” to the static emanating from her parents’ television. In stranger thingsWill, who is trapped in an alternate dimension called the Upside Down, communicates with his mother Joyce through the latter’s Christmas lights and radio sets.
And while we’re talking about Joyce, it’s worth noting some of her main character traits – she’s chronically anxious, she suspects a large-scale supernatural conspiracy in her hometown, and she believes secret government agents and hidden experiments are to blame for all the chaos in Hawkins. All of these same character traits, in one way or another, are also found in the character of Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) from Spielberg’s Dating of the Third Kind (1977). Like Joyce, Roy has had to struggle with the fact that almost no one believes him. Roy builds a shrine-like mountain inside his house, raising eyebrows among his family and neighbors. It’s quite similar to when Joyce’s standing in her house with Christmas lights (in order to communicate with her son Will) is seen as a symptom of her deteriorating mental health.
In Season 4, when we first see Home Video, Hawkins’ local video rental establishment, there’s an ad for Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. This is also in keeping with the series gradually becoming more of an adventure like the Indiana Jones films.
There is no doubt that Stephen King and Steven Spielberg are two of the definitive American storytellers of the past 50 or so years. They have both created enduring classics, audience-pleasing stories, and record-breaking blockbusters. And they’re both still going strong – King in particular is going through an unusually productive span of around four to five years, even by his prolific standards. Spielberg has just finished manufacturing West Side Storyperhaps his finest work since Minority report. The success of stranger things (by any metric, one of Netflix’s most successful products worldwide) shines a light on the back catalogs of these two legends and fans are encouraged to check out these films and books, to see where comes the magic.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based freelance writer and journalist currently working on a book of essays on Indian comics and graphic novels.
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