How the Netflix Series Pays Tribute to 80s Horror

Matt and Ross Duffer, the creators of Stranger Things, have referred to the series as “a love letter to the 80s” countless times. Children of the 80s and fans of classic 80s horror can note callbacks to films that changed the dynamic of terror forever, and gave cannon to monsters that even nightmares could not replicate. Yet, what is it about 80s horror that is such a comfort blanket to fans of the genre, and is it that same blanket that covers the fans of Stranger Things?

The world of Stranger Things is so immersed in 80s nostalgia, it is almost impossible not to want to grab your dice and join a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. Much like the films and books it so heavily celebrates, the series follows a group of children who must face terrors that are beyond their wildest imaginations. With each season comes another introduction to a piece of pop culture that will be explored through a lens that is entirely unique. However, the Duffer Brothers save no expense when it comes to their special effects, most of which are practical effects helping pay even more homage to an era when CGI monsters were the minority. It is no surprise that Eleven and her band of fearless friends hold a spot on the ten most-watched Netflix shows to date, boasting a total of 582 million hours streamed. Here’s how Stranger Things pays tribute to 80s horror.


Related: Shawn Levy Explains Why Stranger Things Has to End After Season 5

Inspiration from 80s Monsters

Demogorgon in the upside down

Thanks to the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978, the horror genre was able to expand. By the 80s, monsters and slashers ruled the screen. Freddy Krueger was the man of your nightmares, and Jason Voorhees gave a whole new meaning to the term “mama’s boy.” The emergence of widely available VHS tapes also helped these movies get into the hands of a wider audience. However, 80s horror icons were not just making their appearance on screen. Stephen King, the notably attributed “king of horror”, brought monsters to life in paperback form. He is also who the Duffer brothers credit with much of their inspiration and the birth of Stranger Things.

King’s most notorious character, Pennywise the clown, sheds a heavy watermark on the first season’s big bad. The demogorgon, a lanky creature with a head that opens up to a set of razor sharp teeth, preys on the people of Hawkins like a shark in frenzy. It is assumed that Will Byers’ disappearance into the upside down was caused by his attempt to escape the creature, especially after he finally flashes that set of teeth. The alien-like nature of the demogorgon, and his set of jaws pays tribute to the description that was given to Pennywise in It. In the miniseries, there is a shot of Tim Curry’s Pennywise opening his jaws as he transforms to feed.

The Heart of the 80s

Mike, Will, Dustin, and Lucas on Halloween in Season 2

It is not all just monsters and chaos in the town of Hawkins, and that is where the true heart of the show lies. In season one, before Will goes missing, the audience is introduced to the boys who are sitting around a table playing Dungeons and Dragons, a widely popular game during the late 70s and 80s. After Will survives the upside down, the boys return in season two, where the group dresses up as the Ghostbusters for Halloween. The two references call on elements of childhood rather than horror.

Stephen King isn’t the only one whose DNA is all over the sci-fi hit. Nods to Steven Spielberg are sprinkled graciously throughout and are echoed at the very heart of the show. At its very core, Stranger Things is a story about friendship and chosen family. Eleven finds family in her friends and in the brooding Sheriff Hopper who had lost his. The two are kindred souls who find each other amongst the wreckage of their pasts. These themes are placed purposely throughout the seasons of Stranger Things and are silent tributes to the movies of Spielberg himself. No matter how dark, how fantastic, or where the fates of hope lie, Spielberg’s characters always come out on top. They are the victors; the ones we are always rooting for. Spielberg’s Gremlinsas light-hearted as it may seem, has a dark undertone, and like the mutant creature that causes chaos and mass distruction, the demodogs in season two bring death wherever the stumble.

Related: The Best Netflix Shows About High School Life and Being a Teenager

The Place to Be


The mall was the central hub for American consumerism in the 1980s and 1990s. The first shopping mall opened around 1922, but served more as a pedestrian walkway with some shops. Over time and with the boom of large department stores, the mall became not only a popular hang out, but the central place to go for all of one’s consumer needs. With the children of Stranger Things turning into young teens, season three introduces the mall as one of the core meeting places for the gang. Will Byers, who missed nearly a year of his childhood, struggles to adapt to the new style of the group’s friendship. The scene is no longer Mike’s basement and board games. Viewers not only get the cinematic masterpiece that is Eleven’s makeover scene set to the tunes of “Material Girl,” but they get to see Steve graduate from their self-named babysitter to Scoops Ahoy employee.

Hawkins’ Starcourt Mall is also the battleground for the final fight scene between the Mind Flayer and the beloved group. The mall was the setting to a lot of cult classics in 80s film, not just horror. Almost the entire premise of Fast Times at Ridgemont High is set around the mall. The opening shot is the mall opening and the closing shot of the film is the mall closing. The 1986 goofy cult classic, Chopping Mall, features a group of mall employees who get trapped in the mall after their shift and are forces to fight off the murderous robots who mistake them as intruders. It is no mistake that the Duffer’s made the Starcourt the root of the core evil that lurks beneath the mall’s floors. Stranger Things season four is set to premiere in May 2022, and is guaranteed to serve up a big tray of nostalgia and an all new big bad.

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