With summer drawing to a close, I find myself contemplating how the meaning of “summer” has evolved throughout my life. As an adult, summer means vacation, renewed gratitude for Texas-proof air conditioning, and drinking copious amounts of rosé poolside. As a teenager, summer was consumed with plans to drop the ten pounds that held me back from being irresistible, scrape together spending money, and secure a sensitive-but-jocky boyfriend. As a kid, summer was dominated by summer sports camps, vacation bible schools (blergh), and babysitting gigs. Whatever my plans, summer means watching tons of TV shows and movies, which prevent me from getting too bored and getting into too much trouble.
As a kid, I watched so many movies. Everything from old black and white classics to mediocre romcoms to trashy teen slashers. I especially adored those adventure movies of the 80s, the iconic films where a group of scrappy latchkey kids, preteens like I used to be, face a fantastic and dangerous challenge. Just like with the enticing and taboo slashers where teenagers talked and acted like adults, so too did those 80s movies suck me into dream worlds where kids answered the frightening and tempting call of adventure. The threat of injury and death were always very real. The threat lingered constantly, and the vicarious possibility of being the casualty, of never making it back home, of becoming stuck in the nightmare world, was all too compelling.
Those stories have always spoken to me as well as an untold number of my contemporaries. This is the reason why Stranger Things, fueled by what critics merely assume to be nostalgia, enjoys immense popularity.
It’s why over 40 million people fired up Netflix to watch the season over fourth of July weekend. It’s why 18.2 million people finished the season in 4 days. Based on these numbers, the vast majority of those viewers are aged 18 to 44. That shakes out to a mostly millennial audience with a hefty helping of Gen Xers.
A large part of that success is due to a strong third season. After an ambitious but ultimately muddy second season, Stranger Things returns to form with a taut plot that makes room for character growth, pop culture touchstones, and enough heart to move even the most cynical Gen Xer. It’s also just miles better than the second season.
But there’s something else going on here.
These kids are still scrappy, but they’re fully aware of the cost of their adventures. Each fight exacts payment when Elle struggles to keep up her strength as the group relies more and more on her powers. When Mike confronts his loneliness because the other boys moved past nerdy board games while he was stuck in the Upside Down. It’s in the way Joyce Byers mourns her boyfriend Bob Newby, and it’s in the way Hopper chafes under the pressure of being the kind of father he wants to be while grappling with the kind of father he might be. And while that same 80s vibe persists, with all the pop culture touchstones, the danger is growing. The stakes are rising. People are going to die. The kids will defeat the monster, but they probably aren’t going to save everyone.
As viewers, we can’t help but think of the darker classics. How that kid died in Jaws. How It refused to turn away from stuff more horrible than death. How winning sometimes doesn’t bring everyone home.
Stranger Things targets two specific groups of Americans—younger Gen Xers, and Millennials. Hopper and Joyce represent the Gen Xers (again, it’s no accident that Gen X mascot Winona Ryder plays Joyce). They’re the adults, but due to a whole bunch of shitty circumstances beyond their control, they can’t get a handle on the situation. Heck, even Mike’s mom, Karen Wheeler, lives a comfortable “perfect” life and feels hopeless adrift and unfulfilled. They’re doing the best they can because, but they’re far from being in control despite their responsibilities.
The kids represent Millennials, of course. They are smeared by the adults as babies and wusses overacting to every little thing. They are too sensitive, too needy, too imaginative. They see problems and threats everywhere, but not without reason. Eleven was experimented on by the government! Will was imprisoned in the Upside Down! Billy was possessed by the Mind Flayer! Steve Harrington got beat to a pulp by the Russians! Holy shit! And still, most of the adults refuse to believe them.
Stranger Things is about much more than nostalgia.
It speaks the same cultural language of whole generations have learned and will learn, be it by sneaking into theaters or watching fuzzy old VHS at sleepovers or unearthing treasures on the Internet. Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Zers are all distinct groups, but we understand a common tongue fashioned from The Goonies, ET: The Extraterrestrial, Poltergeist, Halloween, The Shining, It, Carrie, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, zombie flicks, slashers, action movies, and a million other pop culture references. It doesn’t matter who you are, what state you’re from, how rich your parents were, or how you watched these movies—we understand each other through this pop culture heritage.
That has always been the promise of Stranger Things. The nostalgia is part of the point—our collective understanding of these tropes unites us. Stranger Things reminds us to look for solace in each other when the things that go bump in the night come after us. We have known since we were children that the darkness is immense and full of bad things. But we’ve also known that we can overcome it. Steven Spielberg showed us. John Carpenter taught us. Stephen King told us. We watched untested children and outnumbered adults face the challenge and defeat the evil, though not without paying the price. Sometimes, that price is their innocence, which would have eventually been lost anyways; sometimes it’s something far more precious and irreplaceable.
As we grow older, we become aware of the looming challenge of inheriting a world from a generation we still don’t quite understand. It’s hard not to blame them, but then again, what is the point in pointing fingers? The kids from Stranger Things didn’t start the cold war. Hell, even Hopper and Mrs. Byers were just babies themselves when the powers-that-be molded the political, economic, social, and cultural forces that created the 1980s in America. And those people, who seem like they’re in charge, were only reacting to the forces they confronted. They inherited an ever-evolving situation without a clear resolution. The adults aren’t around because they’re off trying to solve the problems demanding their attention. As Jonathan tells Nancy, “Yeah, the real world sucks, deal with it like the rest of us.”
As the Baby Boomers near the end of their run (not to be morbid), and the younger generations advance, how do we deal with that same anxiety? That same sense of impending suckitude because we’re on our own, and we don’t want to mess everything up? We feel ill-prepared, stupid, weak, hopelessly outgunned. How can you trust yourself when you feel like you don’t even know what questions to ask? How can you assess risk when you feel like some dumb kid? We’re all just trying to do the best we can, even the adults (a sobering thought). Has every generation felt its ascension with so much hesitation?
So, if no one knows the answer, what do we do then?
We find hope in ourselves. In each other. Our scrappiness. Our determination. Our stupid pastimes and interests and weird shit that drives our parents crazy. We take strength from the very characteristics and attributes the older generations hated about us. We may live in a world beset by murky, scary forces beyond our understanding, and we may feel small and outsmarted, but at least we have each ourselves.
Stranger Things is at its best when it cultivates its characters’ relationships, when it finds bravery and solidarity underneath the synth score and garish outfits. Yes, uncertainty is an inescapable part of life, and yes, there will not always be someone older and more experienced to show you the way. You’re on your own, but only until you find someone who understands you. Even if that understanding goes back to a blurry VHS tape of The Goonies or a battered copy of IT.
And when the world feels more divided than ever, it helps to turn to a show that reinforces our common ground. Stranger Things reminds us that while we are not each other’s enemy, we will lose ourselves to the darkness if we lose sight of each other.