Stranger Things: Why Is 1980s Nostalgia So Powerful?

strangerthingsposterBased on what I’ve seen on social media, Stranger Things has been a huge hit for Netflix over the last month. I knew I would watch it at some point, but it wasn’t going anywhere and I had Deadwood to watch, so I put it off for a few weeks.

A few days ago I finally plugged in the ole’ Netflix, and I was instantly hooked.

The first few scenes have a very familiar feel to them. The tone is of a coming-of-age 1980s Spielberg movie, with four boys playing D&D and then biking home through a woodsy small town. It’s paired with a supernatural mystery, of course.

It’s wonderful. I don’t quite know what it is about that classic Spielberg tone. I was a boy of the ’80s, but my experience was very different from the kids in Stranger Things. Yet it evokes a sense of nostalgia that feels really good. It feels like home, if that makes sense?

My hat is off to the directors, the Duffer brothers, for so perfectly capturing that tone. It also happens to be a fantastic show otherwise–it’s something between television and movies, as each episode isn’t at all episodic.

Please, if you comment, no spoilers or anything even close. I’m only through 3 episodes, so there’s a lot I don’t know. I can’t wait to watch more, though.

15 thoughts on “Stranger Things: Why Is 1980s Nostalgia So Powerful?”

  1. I agree, a large part of the allure of this show is a setting familiar to so many of us Gen Xers plus all the little nods to everything from E.T. to Close Encounters, etc. I guess our generation is old enough and wealthy enough that our sense of nostalgia can be pandered to. (I also notice the music at the grocery store these days seems heavily weighted toward stuff I recognize from my high school years.)
    Since everything is political with me, I wonder too if there is a strong sense of nostalgia for the 70s and early 80s, not just for Gen X, because that was just before America and the rest of the English-speaking world turned its back on Keynesian economics; elected Thatcher, Reagan and their ilk; and adopted the Chicago School neoliberal policies and philosophy of trickle-down economics, union busting, and deregulation. Can anyone really argue, perched as we are at the precipice of environmental devastation and social upheaval thanks to an untenable haves/have nots divide and ongoing militarism, that this wasn’t a disastrous path to take?
    Personally, despite all that was wrong even in the 70s, I’m so grateful my most formative years were in the era before greed was declared good.

  2. For me, I think the biggest part of why it evokes so much nostalgia is that they delivered on the theme from the first couple of minutes all the way through the last. There isn’t more than 30 to 60 seconds in the entire series where you do not have anything in a scene that works to reinforce the entire theme from top to bottom.

    The moment you see the Stranger Things logo, through how the chapter titles work, to the clothing, hair styles, posters, crappy faux wood paneling, vehicles, way of talking; everything.

    I think there is a lot of producers throughout entertainment, from Video Games and Board Games through to more traditional like Music, TV, and Movies, that could benefit from the lessons from Stranger Things.

    With board games specifically, all too often I see games take the “easy way out” way too frequently with everything from art to pieces. Their logo, box art, and sometimes either card art and/or game board will often times be themed really good, but they won’t be consistent across the board. You need to hit it all, even if sometimes it causes a minimal impact to readability or usability, hitting the theme can really help to immerse players.

    – Miniatures need to fit
    – Art on Cards and Game Board need to be the same theme and match what people saw on the box
    – Adding tag-lines, quotes, or flavor text that reinforces the theme and setting
    – Humor and/or other Flavor in the manual that reinforces the theme while players are first learning to play
    – Iconography that isn’t just generic, but also themed
    – Consistent use of fonts and fonts that are carefully chosen to fit the theme, era, etc…
    – Components not just die-cut to be circles or squares, but cut to be shaped in interesting ways that also fit the theme

    I am sure there are many more aspects of board games that can also be adjusted, but this is what I was able to draft up quick off the top of my head.

    One great game to look at that handles the theme throughout in Kingdom Death Monster. From top to bottom, it is themed. From the tiniest details on the miniatures to the header on each card, the word “Death” written over and over and over on the outside edge of the inner box, and all the story content in both the manuals and on the Settlement cards. It oozes theme throughout and really draws you in. It does such a great job that it will have tables of players laughing when their entire party just got wiped by a sequence of attacks by a hunt or nemesis monster.

    • Anthony: This is a really interesting analysis. I agree that Stranger Things has done a great job at injecting the tone into every aspect of the show. It does it in a way that doesn’t wink at the camera (well, except for once, when a kid is talking about how big his TV is at 20 inches).

      I like how you brought this into the board game world as well. I’ve seen games do this in a number of ways (in addition to what you mentioned, I’ve seen some games that are able to embed the theme into the insert).

    • “Their logo, box art, and sometimes either card art and/or game board will often times be themed really good, but they won’t be consistent across the board.”

      …And this is why I struggle to read the theme of Magic the Gathering. So many cards are extremely thematic in isolation… But the metaphors that make those cards thematic seem to change from card to card, which isn’t always in line with the metaphor that the game itself claims to frame itself around.

      The trees are great, often extremely thematic. But the theme just falls apart as soon as you start looking at the forest, or sometimes just the wrong two trees side by side that uses the same mechanic flavoured in two completely different ways. Which… Can even occur in the same set, so it’s not just that they’ve shifted the game’s theme to mechanical metaphors over the years.

  3. The beauty of the show to me was that it focused on a story that was already well developed (the first season was pulled from a larger story) and emphasized character development. It used offscreen as well as onscreen events to build and relieve tension, and steered away from gratuitous gore, sex, and mundane tropes.

    Shoot me an email when you have finished watching the show: I’ll tell you the three things that bothered me and we can both share our most satisfying moment.

    • That’s interesting, Jim–I didn’t know that the show came from a bigger story. I must admit that I wish I didn’t know that there would be a Season 2, as it’s a signal to me (before I’m even done Season 1) that the story won’t be complete after this season. I kind of viewed it as a long, stand-alone movie. But I’m sure I’ll want more when I get to the end.

  4. I read somewhere that what this show does best is retell familiar themes and plot devices, rather than copy them outright or “reboot” them. I think that’s the difference between Stranger Things and the countless reboot movies these days. Spielberg movies from that time left such an impact on so many people back then. And I think the 80’s, for whatever reason, is an oft longed for period of time.

    Please, God, Jamey; make a Stranger Things board game! 😉

    • jehayward: That’s a great point. I feel like the new Star Wars movie did that pretty well too–it was fresh material, but it still felt familiar.

      Usually when I watch/read something I love, I want to make it into a board game. Oddly enough, that hasn’t happened with Stranger Things yet. But I’ll see if the last 4 episodes strike inspiration. 🙂

  5. I know you would like it! I also wished that I didn’t know there will be a second season, but it did make me want to watch it to see why there will be one. I dragged out those episodes because I didn’t want it to end. Now I have to wait… It’s like Game of Thrones! I don’t like to wait! Give me all the episodes NOW!!!

  6. Another series that trades heavily in 80s nostalgia is Ashes to Ashes, so you may want to check that out at some point (British 80s nostalgia, granted). It’s the follow up to the original, and more successful than the US adaptation, British version of Life on Mars (Which the US version deviated a fair bit from so you may want to watch that first if you do check it out)

    British series, so 8 episode seasons. LoM lasted 2, A2A lasted 3.

    …What’s interesting is that shows like that also seem to resonate with those of us who shouldn’t be nostalgic for those eras – I was born in 1985, so a show trading on 80s nostalgia can’t be appealing to me on a nostalgic level, yet alone one trading on early 70s nostalgia, so I think there’s more to the power of 80s (and 70s) nostalgia than simply nostalgia.

    Possibly the way that sort of period fits in the weird period between ‘historic drama’ and ‘modern setting’ – Too different from now to feel modern, but not different enough to feel historic. A temporal version of that ‘exotic but not too exotic’ feel that tourists are often looking for? Or, to quote The Ninth Doctor “The past is another country. The 1980s are just the Isle of White.”

    • Thanks for the recommendations, Stephen! I’m curious to see if British 80s nostalgia has the same effect as American 80s nostalgia.

      I think you hit the nail on the head with this: “Too different from now to feel modern, but not different enough to feel historic.”


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