- Nostalgia, Fantasy, and LossStranger Things and the Digital Gothic
Released on Netflix in 2015, Stranger Things, created by Matt and Ross Duffer, is set in the everytown of Hawkins, Indiana, in the year 1983. The eight-episode first season and nine-episode second season follow the adventures of four boys—Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin)—and one girl, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), as the boys go from just playing Dungeons & Dragons to struggling with a real-life version of the popular fantasy role-playing game. In the first episode the series' three animating events happen; a monster attacks the mysterious Hawkins National Laboratory, Will Byers vanishes, and Eleven emerges from captivity, held for experiments at the same lab as the monster. Throughout the remaining seven episodes, the boys battle with the monster, Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) does all she can to get her son back, and Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour) helps Joyce when no one else does. At the end of both seasons, the Duffer brothers successfully fuse together the reality of Hawkins and the people who live there with a world just beyond their grasp, a world of monsters, darkness, and unexplained phenomena. The two worlds exist side by side, but most of the citizens of Hawkins are unaware of this mysterious world, a world the boys refer to as the Upside Down. In terms of the narrative, Eleven and her telekinetic powers are the conduit between the two worlds; aesthetically, the Duffers link these two worlds with lights, specifically light bulbs powered by electricity, which flicker whenever the two worlds intersect with each other. [End Page 136]
Before any discussion of Stranger Things can move forward, however, we must begin by reimagining what it was like to be in a videogame arcade in the 1980s. We went to arcades in the mall, and these places were separate worlds—darkened rooms full of flickering screens, in which we could get lost for hours at a time. The time you spent in these dimly lit and isolated worlds depended on a combination of factors: your amount of quarters, your skill level, and the rules (or lack thereof) established by your parents for how long you could be gone. The arcade was a place to get lost in the various fantasy worlds of games like Frogger, Pac-Man, and Galaga. Key to the arcade's appeal was its separation from the rest of the world. In the arcade, the most inadequate athlete or uncool mathlete could be a conquering hero, a delicate fantasy always threatened by reentry into reality. Returning to the real world brought changes to our bearing. When we emerged from the cocoon of the arcade, we squinted our eyes and blinked until our sight readjusted, a physical reaction that forced us to recognize that we had left the darkened room and to accept the shock that went with our leaving the fantasy world for reality. Today, in the digital era, videogames have changed significantly. People can now play games as prosthetic extensions of their bodies. Videogames today are like Pokemon Go, which uses digital technology to braid together the real world with the fantasy world of the game. The two worlds are no longer separate; instead, they operate together, the fantasy woven into the fabric of our reality. In the article that follows, I would like to suggest that the aesthetic appeal of Stranger Things rests on this distinction between the arcade of the 1980s and digital mobile-phone technology of the twenty-first century. Stranger Things is built like a new digital game while masquerading as one from an arcade in the 1980s. It appeals to our desire to separate from one world and get lost in the next, but it never leaves us feeling like we will not return.
A remarkable aspect of Matt and Ross Duffer's Stranger Things is how it activates a tapestry of signifiers from the 1980s. Indeed, each and every one of these popular culture signifiers from the 1980s are worthy of their own individual discussion. The show's playlist includes a range of well...