Stranger Things and the Perils of Looking Endlessly Backwards

Thoughts on the infinite nostalgia cycle as the show's second season looms


    Last year, when Black Mirror came to Netflix (and to the U.S. by proxy, for the most part), the “San Junipero” episode became a massive breakout hit for the series. But one of the more popular dialogues around that episode has always been a little bit confusing: how it’s the only Black Mirror with a “happy ending.” After its time-crossed lovers manage to accept death in all of its true finality, they’re inducted into adjacent spots in a digital crypt, sent to ‘heaven’ to live out the rest of eternity in the embrace so cruelly denied to them both in life.

    In a vacuum, it’s a beautiful sentiment. After all, what’s promised by the common notion of heaven (or, broadly, the afterlife) if not the possibility of living your best and most idyllic life, surrounded by the people who care most? Yet there’s an eerie, tragic undercurrent to the world of San Junipero just the same. You get to go back to all the music and clothes and textures that felt the best at the time in your life when you were at your happiest, but you remain there. You’re tethered to those things forever. What happens if they grow banal for you? What happens if you get there, only to realize that the paradise of your memories is inimitable, and trying to reclaim it is the kind of fool’s errand that only ends in pain? Now you’re still stuck there forever, at least until the servers crash and you get to experience whatever real, actual infinity is out there.

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    Last summer, Stranger Things became the kind of cultural phenomenon that felt borderline impossible in a world increasingly beholden to clique-like fetishism of specific fandoms. It was the kind of thing that spoke to everybody, transcending ages and generations to become the sort of spectacle that leaves people saying, “You know, I don’t get into a lot of shows like this, but you have to watch it.” Although Netflix doesn’t currently disclose its own viewership data in any meaningful sense, independent research suggests that it was among the most watched Netflix shows, with millions of viewers tuning in to follow Mike, Lucas, Dustin, Eleven, Nancy, Steve, and the rest of Hawkins, Indiana on their nightmarish paranormal adventures.

    But what’s seemed to linger most in the year and change since the show isn’t necessarily the narrative, although there’s certainly been quite a bit of talk of whether we might all be living in the Upside Down these days. It’s the powerful sense of nostalgia that the Duffer Brothers managed to invoke with the series, returning to a world of nighttime bike rides, basement D&D campaigns, clandestine makeout sessions in suburban houses, horror movies, and the alternate excitement and fear that only the oncoming specter of adulthood can invoke. Sure, it hearkened back to the goofy songs and goofier outfits of the ‘80s, but it also tapped into a deeper cultural vein, one that’s warranted no shortage of its own discussion in talk of the show. It teleported viewers back to perhaps the last time when the world still felt mysterious.

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    The ripple effect of that nostalgia has overwhelmed pop culture in the year sense. IT, the modern update of a miniseries that seriously is not as good as you might remember it being, has become the highest-grossing horror film of all time, if you take inflation out of the mix, just a month and a half after its release. Stephen King properties in general are experiencing a boom period, and given the frequent and liberal invocations of King’s work throughout Stranger Things, it makes eminent sense that the source materials would enjoy their own revival. VHS nostalgia has been in a boom period for several years in its own right, the grainy aesthetics of clamshell tape becoming their own horror movie subgenre, but the past year or so has noted a dramatic increase in the number of throwback-style posters and fan-art. We chortle at “Too Many Cooks” and other such revivals of corny sitcom intros, we take mediated jabs at outdated culture while also simultaneously gazing back at it with misty, wistful eyes. Stranger Things is arguably among the very best of these odes to bygone pop culture, but it’s also exposed something in the hyper-aggressive fandom it’s engendered in the years since. We don’t just want to look back to that time; for some, it’s a time to which we wish we could return entirely.


    In 1981, two years before Stranger Things takes place, the IBM PC became the first widely owned home personal computer. It was the first object to become TIME’s “Person of the Year,” and it heralded the dawn of a new age, a more interconnected and technologically developed time. But then the wave never crested; it continued to grow in size. By the end of the decade, we had bulky cellular phones and pagers, the first bastions of constant personal access. A few more years into the ‘90s and most American homes were either wired to the Internet or hoping to be in the near future. Ten more years, and you could carry all your music on your phone, along with your entire Rolodex. Presently, the phones are more powerful than those original home PCs could’ve ever dreamt of being, and we use them to yell at each other about politics and turn everything we encounter into the dankest possible memes.

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    With the dawn of the information age came the crossing of a rubicon. The Spielbergian magic of the unknown was sidelined in favor of the more pressing question: “What if we could know everything?” Instead of wondering what that cabin in the forests outside your subdivision was, we developed the technology to search it on Google Maps and find a complete history of who once owned it and what happened to it to leave it so dilapidated, so abandoned by time. A few minutes of effort could tell you where those mysterious drainpipes lead, and hell, who maintains them throughout the year. Ghosts become urban legends and monsters become your disturbed neighbors with a few presses of a keyboard. The mystery of the terrifying bigger world was gone, replaced with the far scarier reality of all the actual dangers out there just waiting to invade your quaint Midwestern town.

    Stranger Things, like many stories of its ilk, draws out the parallels between the passage into adulthood and the associated terrors of leaving youth and all of its quiet joys behind for good. (IT also does a mostly great job with similar material.) But to make the show in the modern era is to expressly highlight the ways in which it’s also an ode to the bygone half-analog world, when cameras were still new and exciting and not a requisite part of daily life, when information was accessible without being an endless and infinite flood, when your fears could be imaginary instead of force-fed to you at every hour of the day by people thirsting to profit from them. And like many of those stories, it elides the reality of so many of these things even in its own time; Reagan only exists for era-specific texture, somewhere far away in the background, and the AIDS panic of the time is likewise happening somewhere beyond Hawkins. Another Upside Down already existed, it’s just that many didn’t realize it quite yet.

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    At its best, Stranger Things makes literal what happened figuratively to a generation of a certain age. The Internet went from a vague sci-fi notion to Black Mirror paranoia in three decades flat, and in that transition, an innocence was certainly lost, even if that loss mostly just served to expose what always existed under the surface. Nudie magazines gave way to instantly accessible hardcore porn, campy slasher movies became the Saws and Hostels of another decade, and the ability to live in a world free of overarching fear died forever for many on a late-summer day in 2001. The world of Stranger Things speaks to the encroaching dread of the unknown that was soon to follow, in a way that only hindsight can. The world wasn’t just about to get bigger, it was about to become wholly unrecognizable.

    Yet, and as so much nostalgia tends to forget, this is the natural process. Sure, the Internet has become terrifying in a way few could have imagined. We consent daily to making aspects of our own lives available in a way that was once brushed away with the simplicity of a “stranger danger” talk from parents. But it’s also become a way of broadening worlds, of leaving behind the comfortable lie of the “nice small town.” Although so much satire has highlighted the seedy underbelly of that one-time fantasy (hell, Suburbicon is out in theaters doing it now as we speak), the largely conservative fear of globalism has so many ugly roots in discrimination and forced domesticity that it’s hard to take somebody seriously who would truly want a world like that to return. But even in that same breath, we all look backwards. It’s a natural part of the world, and of life. Memories of high school dates and blurry college parties and the acute sensations of youth enter into every brain, no matter how pragmatic. Looking back to a time when the world made more sense than it does now is only natural.


    However, it’s also important to moderate the looking back. Do it too much, and you start to go to extremes to regain the impossible. You start to adopt outdated attitudes, for the sake of bringing back the world in which they existed. You become addicted to old art to the point where you begin to lionize even the movies and TV shows that weren’t very good and probably needed to stay in the time from which they were born. You begin to wish for an older world, a less equal and enlightened one over all, simply because the process of accepting a new world is difficult and often terrifying. Yet you must, because otherwise you engender the future that Don Herzfeldt outlines in World of Tomorrow, where people go to museums just to watch memories, and after a while the viewings are simply of older people watching even older memories. To go ceaselessly backwards is to refuse the natural order, and to demand that time stop moving as it inevitably does.

    This isn’t to say that looking back is harmful, again in moderation. Watch Stranger Things 2 tomorrow! We will be, and everyone else will be, and we’ll have fun conversations about ‘80s kitsch and probably nominate another two-scene player for an Emmy. It’ll probably be great, especially now that the Duffers finally have the budget to not hide most of their creatures in shadow anymore. It’ll be the best kind of throwback, a throwback to when a piece of pop culture could become a God’s-honest cultural event and have everybody from every imaginable walk of life discussing its merits, sharing something in common. But eventually the 10-episode season will conclude. And we’ll return to this world, not any other one.

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    To end where we began, it’s natural to miss things so badly that you wish you could go back. People miss all kinds of things. Me, I’d give anything to walk through a packed Blockbuster on a Friday night once more, not because it was actually that great a place but simply because that was the location and the texture of a particular childhood. But nobody should want to live in San Junipero, even if it’d be an admittedly wonderful place to visit. There’s no going back, just retaining the feel of what was, with the knowledge that it’ll never be again.


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