Every once in a while, something utterly profound comes along, even in the wasteland that is TV culture. For those of us who came of age in the 1980s, there’s been no greater rush of nostalgia in recent years than that provided by Netflix’s delightful and ever-engaging eight-part series Stranger Things.
In almost every way, Stranger Things captures a brief slice of time perfectly, especially for those of us who attended junior high and high school during Reagan’s first term in the White House. The show takes place over just a few days, beginning November 6, 1983, in the mythical but all-too-real town of Hawkins, Indiana. It follows the heroic actions of four seventh-grade boys, a mysterious girl who arrives in town, some siblings and their friends and rivals, a divorced mom, and a broken sheriff. There’s also an ominous modern building, a Department of Energy complex, looming over the normally quiet Hoosier town. Surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards and adorned with neo-Stalinist architecture, the building stands out dramatically in the landscape of Hawkins, much like the dilapidated Bates house overlooks its accompanying motel in 1960’s Psycho.
Even the season of the show matters, as November 6 is a date situated in the twilight realm between Halloween and Thanksgiving. No longer colorful or attractive, the remaining leaves on the trees merely hang dead, shriveled and brown, awaiting execution from the inevitable first snowfall.
Stranger Things artfully meshes elements of late Cold War-era Midwest Americana, Reagan-driven affluence, libertarian paranoia, New Wave and progressive electronica music, mad science and Leviathan, Dungeons and Dragons, John Carpenter movies, John Hughes movies, David Lynch movies, Hitchcock movies, Stephen King novels, and The X-Files to create a complete and satisfying work of art. Phew. Some critics have railed against the show for stealing the work of others, and it would be impossible to deny the charge, yet this is also what makes the show so brilliant in so many ways. Exactly because it relies on so much nerd culture of the early 1980s, Stranger Things is as comfortable as it is unsettling.
The key to the entire epic, though, is its reliance on the essential nerd game of the early 1980s, Dungeons and Dragons. The five junior-high protagonists are best friends, and they begin and end the eight episodes while playing a DnD campaign. From the moment we first see the boys, they are held in rapt attention by their Dungeon Master—Mike, the author and referee of their game. As they begin, the most menacing of DnD monsters, a prince of the Demons, a Demogorgon, has arrived. As soon as it it appears with its menacing two heads, the players fall into a panic, with one player, Will, sacrificing himself for the group, attacking the Demogorgon rather than protecting himself. His effort fails, though, as he’s rolled only a seven out of 20, not enough to destroy the newly emergent beast. A mother calls for supper, adding additional chaos to the enclosed world of fabulism, and the game must end, despite no satisfying conclusion for the boys.
As Will rides his bike home in the dark—something we always did in 1983—the real Demogorgon, having been unleashed by the machinations of the Department of Energy, emerges in a part of town the boys refer to as “Mirkwood” and takes Will captive, carrying him off to his underground lair.
Reality becomes Dungeons and Dragons, and Dungeons and Dragons becomes reality at the very beginning of Stranger Things. The series opens with an accident—or so it seems—at the Department of Energy complex. Whether the government has unleashed a being from another dimension, or whether the government complex was intentionally placed on top of a portal to another dimension, remains unclear throughout the story. Instead, the viewer knows only that two things emerge at the same time: an eleven-year old girl named Eleven (presumably after the famous scene involving guitar amplifiers that “go to eleven” in Spinal Tap) and the faceless monster that does nothing but kidnap and devour. Whether these two beings represent the two heads of the Demogorgon or whether they are merely examples of good and evil also remains unclear throughout the series.
What is clear is that the little girl was a normal human girl abducted by the government and raised by the head bureaucrat—named “Poppa”—while being experimented upon repeatedly. Now endowed with incredible powers of telekinesis, she behaves as one would expected an abused child to behave. She is at once stunningly brilliant and seriously damaged.
Again, though, what allows all of this to work—from the government, to the monster, to the small town—is the bookending game of Dungeons and Dragons.
Created in the late 1960s and early 1970s by a number of wargamers, but especially by the Wisconsin genius Gary Gygax (1938–2008), DnD became the game of choice of all outsider, geek, and nerd kids (especially boys) in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The jocks wouldn’t play it, of course, and neither would the druggies. The former were too busy looking good, and the latter too busy being spaced out. Instead, DnD was the exclusive game of all of the “gifted” kids, those deemed hideously uncool by the majority of their peers, those who watched Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who and who read J.R.R. Tolkien and Terry Brooks without apology and who wrote their seventh-grade theme papers on the effects of atomic warfare on Nagasaki, a space colony on Mars, and the dangers of acid rain. These were the same kids who went to Rush concerts (with the stoners!) if their parents would let them, and who thought Alien, The Thing, and Blade Runner the greatest movies in the history of cinema. They probably read Starlog and collected comics as well.
Though the story of Gygax is, ultimately, a rather depressing one, he did manage for a while to combine, successfully, the excitement of fantasy (especially the American pulp and horror works of Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, and Fritz Leiber) with the intensity of war gaming, creating an all-too-brief gaming empire, TSR, out of Lake Geneva, Wis.
As mentioned above, this show beautifully blends much of the past to make a very artful present. Without giving away too many plot elements, the story’s themes deal with a natural and healthy fear of government, the omnipresent tapioca conformity of the American middle class, the need for heroism at all times (no matter the cost), the little things that make community work, and the brokenness of each individual person. While the story has elements of humor, it is a dark and unhappy story without a fulfilling resolution. It also earns its TV-14 rating at times, with some of the creepiest situations imaginable and also some not-necessarily-historically-inaccurate sexuality among Midwestern teenagers.
From the opening minute to the closing, nostalgia covered me in waves as I watched all eight episodes. Now in the second half of my 40s, I find it hard if not impossible not to look back to the early 1980s and not see the glorious days of friendship and innocence, Dungeons and Dragons, and an almost complete absence of cynicism.
While I visit now only when time and work permits, I once had the grand privilege of living in Hawkins, Indiana. Stranger Things has allowed me to remember the fine citizenship I once possessed in that gloriously broken and imaginative community.
Bradley J. Birzer is the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies at Hillsdale College and author of the biography Russell Kirk: American Conservative.