Eighties nights: why Stranger Things has me hiding behind the sofa

This week, I return to the Eighties with Stranger Things on Netflix and BBC2’s The 80s With Dominic Sandbrook.

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I come a little late to the Netflix series Stranger Things. But then, what does that even mean? The days of missing stuff are long gone. All eight episodes of Stranger Things are there on your laptop, and will be for ever more. You could watch them now, in the dog days of summer, or you could save them for when the nights draw in. Either way, you’re in for a supersonic treat.

Stranger Things is a coming-of-age sci-fi series – in essence, it’s come out the way ET might have done if Spielberg had wanted to terrify the pants off us – written and directed by the Duffer brothers Matt and Ross, who made the 2015 thriller Hidden. I didn’t know anything about the Duffers before I watched their first outing for Netflix, and I still don’t know much, save that they were born in 1984, so they were only six at the close of the decade in which Stranger Things is set. Crikey. What fanboys they must be: Rob Reiner on their laptops, Giorgio Moro­der on their iPods, Stephen King (on old-school paper) in their manbags. I’m guessing that, when they’re stuck in the edit suite, their drug of choice is cherry-flavoured Pez.

Their show is set in Indiana in 1983 and almost every scene is a homage: to Reiner, to King and to many others (the soundtrack is the work of an Austin, Texas synth band called Survive, but boy does it whiff of John “Halloween” Carpenter). The story begins in the basement of the Wheeler house, where the 12-year-old Mike (Finn ­Wolfhard) is playing Dungeons & Dragons with his three closest mates. For a few moments, we see their fierce involvement in the game – kids, this was the rabbit hole down which geeks used to slip before the internet – and then the spell is broken. Mike’s mum calls time, and his friends, Dustin, Lucas and Will, must head out into the night.

On his way home, Will takes a short cut past a secret government facility run by a scientist played by Matthew Modine (even the casting is retro: Winona Ryder stars as Will’s mum, Joyce), and disappears. He has been taken, it would appear, by a monster, an escapee from the lab. And then all sorts of things happen, almost all of which are creepy and hide-behind-the-sofa exciting. Not that the Duffers needed to do much to keep me onside. I was lost from the moment the boys set out on their bikes, pedalling frantically, their journey down suburban wooded lanes lit as much by boyish exuberance as by their headlamps. Miniature detectives. Having been one, once – I was forever fingerprinting my father – I find them impossible to resist on screen.

Ah, the Eighties. Unlike the Sixties, the whole point seems to be to remember them, though surely how you do depends on your background: someone who attended a northern comprehensive, say, will likely feel rather differently about the age of snooker and shoulders pads from a person who was at a private school in the south. I’m not certain where the fortysomething Dominic Sandbrook spent his formative years, but his take on the decade in his latest documentary series is nothing if not upbeat – and no wonder, given that among the booty his family bagged early on were an Austin Metro, a VCR and, for little Dominic, a BBC computer. Meanwhile, I had only to get on the bus (2p a ride, in our magnificent Socialist Republic) to feel as if I was stuck in the video for the Specials’ “Ghost Town”.

In the first film, Sandbrook posited, somewhat weirdly, that it’s more useful to see the Eighties in terms of Delia Smith than Margaret Thatcher. In the second, still encased in his does-my-bum-look-big-in-this? parka, he theorised that the miners’ strike is more interestingly viewed not as a struggle between Arthur Scargill and the then prime minister, but as an internal war between the miners, who functioned as a microcosm of society. Those who went on strike in, say, South Yorkshire were collectivists who cared not at all for white goods, while the refuseniks of Nottinghamshire were all about family, aspiration and, perhaps, VCRs and Austin Metros. Hmm. I, for one, don’t really buy it, though I like the series soundtrack. Toni Basil, Blancmange, the minor hits of Tears for Fears: the Duffer brothers would love it to pieces. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 11 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, From the Somme to lraq