How 'Stranger Things' became our generation's 'Wonder Years'
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
My wife and I can’t get enough Stranger Things. Like many in our generation, we’ve been captivated by the Duffer brothers’ nostalgic Netflix series. So much so that if they ever come out with Stranger Things on Ice, we’ll be among the first to buy tickets.
Stranger Things is a prime example of a story that says more about the world of its audience than the world of its characters. Writing for First Things magazine, Chris Morgan calls the show an “interactive diorama”—a world populated by the relics of 1980s culture: mix tapes, rotary phones, and let’s not forget Tommy’s Flock-of-Seagulls-inspired hairdo. Even those who didn’t grow up in the 80s grew up in the culture of the decade—preserved in VHS copies of E.T. and The Goonies.
This is hardly the first time a TV series has capitalized on this sort of nostalgia factor. The boomer generation saw their childhoods reanimated in the ABC drama The Wonder Years. The 1960s setting seemed a comforting reminder that amid the social turbulence, there remained a residual optimism that order could be rebuilt on the ashes of Camelot.
The same can’t be said for my generation. We’ve grown up amidst conspiracy theorists, economic insecurity, and social division. So while the narrative worlds of The Wonder Years and Stranger Things share some superficial similarities, they capitalize on the themes of nostalgia and adolescence in wildly different ways. Stranger Things, as many have noted, is equal parts Steven Spielburg and Stephen King. Horror tropes abound, as does an inescapable feeling of dread. What The Wonder Years was for the previous generation, Stranger Things is to the present generation.
Nostalgia and the power of myth
Part of the reason for this generational appeal has to do with the show’s nostalgia factor. What is nostalgia? The term itself was coined to integrate the longing for home—nostos, in Greek—with algos, its attendant pain. Nostalgia, at its core, is a sort of homesickness, a bittersweet yearning or joy over memories of the past. And while this pain was once classified as a mental defect, contemporary psychology increasingly recognizes nostalgia as serving an important human function. The human heart is a nostalgia machine.
In a recent study from the University of Southampton, participants were asked to read an essay on the utter meaninglessness of life. Those who read the essay were more likely to recall memories that made them feel nostalgic. Likewise, those who were asked to recall such memories were less likely to be convinced by this bleak essay. Nostalgia, it seems, provides a means of adapting to the harshness of our surroundings rather than being overcome by it.
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.
The same is true of story. The greatest prophets of our age—from novelists to college professors—unanimously testify to the fact that story is a culture’s common vocabulary. Story is the way we make sense of our world. After the death of Ray Bradbury, Time magazine’s Lev Grossman summarized our fascination with stories of the bizarre:
“Why do we seek out these hard places for our fantasy vacations? Because on some level, we recognize and claim these disasters as our own. We seek out hard places because our lives are hard. When you read genre fiction, you leave behind the problems of reality—but only to re-encounter those problems in transfigured form, in an unfamiliar guise, one that helps you understand them more completely, and feel them more deeply. Genre fiction isn’t just generic pap. You don’t read it to escape your problems, you read it to find a new way to come to terms with them.”
The success of Stranger Things is its ability to integrate the consoling power of nostalgia with the illuminating power of myth. We visit Hawkins to understand our world better. We visit Hawkins out of a desire to return to an age when we first began to wrestle with questions of purpose, of love and loss. But we also visit Hawkins because it is here that our intangible fears take shape, and are explainable through the plot points of Dungeons and Dragons and X-Men comics. Hawkins—like all fairy tale worlds—re-orders our problems and organizes them around a concrete moral trajectory. And that fills us with hope.
The story of the world in Hawkins, Indiana
But if all fairy tale worlds do this, what makes Stranger Things so different? What makes it so popular among the younger generation? The 1980s setting is only part of the appeal. For any story to succeed, it must resonate with the moral universe of its audience. And while Stranger Things offers us a highly-textured world, it is Science that lies at the heart of its narrative.
For the citizens of Hawkins, science looms large. It forces them to literally re-evaluate the way they view reality. For the generation that grew up in and around the 80s, it’s very much the same. My generation grew up in the dawn of the internet age. Just as in the town of Hawkins, technological innovation has offered progress as much as peril. What is the world really like, now that we live in a digital age?
(1) Hawkins lab and the disappearance of childhood
Science has long been heralded as the champion of the modern era. Max Weber famously said that the world had become “dis-enchanted.” Rational explanations left no room for magic or the supernatural. For Weber, the world would be ordered not by religion, but by the emergence of a bureaucracy.
Deep in Hawkins labs, we meet Dr. Brenner—a man who, by all accounts, fits Weber’s description of “bureaucrats” as “specialists without sprit” and “sensualists without heart.” In the world of Stranger Things, technological progress and soulless bureaucracy go hand in hand. But Brenner’s promethean experiments run away from him—literally—revealing that control over nature is always an illusion.
But Brenner’s work would have a direct impact on the town in general, and Will and Eleven in particular. The show’s audience is no stranger to the way technology has impacted our childhoods. In 1982, Neil Postman famously wrote of “the disappearance of childhood.” In Postman’s view, there was a time in which the world of children was segregated from the world of adults. The line that separated them was a simple one: literacy. The ability to read naturally sequestered the world of adults from the world of children. But a “post-literate” world would change all that. A world of television screens and billboard images would allow children access to an “adult” world at an earlier age. Social pressures and technological access all had the same effect: kids grow up too fast.
When he wrote these things, Postman could never have predicted the way that the digital revolution would throw gasoline on this fire. The children of the 1980s now live their lives in a world of social networks and wireless devices. Our identities have become detached from ourselves, scattered through a “worldwide web” as a set of usernames and passwords. Douglas Rushkoff coined the term “digiphrenia”—the sense of distress from being physically one place, but mentally somewhere else. Perhaps this experience is not at all unlike being lost in a parallel reality…
Ultimately, the show appeals to a generation lost in this digital ether, where meaning and wisdom have been supplanted by endless chains of information. For us, the viewers, the show’s deeper narrative isn’t about the disappearance of Will Byers; it’s about the disappearance of childhood altogether.
(2) The re-enchanted world
But the world of Stranger Things is not as bleak as all that. I tend to agree with Jacques Derrida, who observed that today’s technology is so advanced that it might as well work by magic. Think about it for a second: can you explain how your computer or your cell phone really works? For all intents and purposes, the device you’re reading this on may just as well be magic. You and I can no more easily explain the technology behind a text message than we can the blinking of Joyce Beyers’ Christmas lights.
And that’s the point, you see. Science hasn’t diminished our capacity for wonder and mystery; it’s only opened up new avenues for it. As Simone Weil once put it, it’s only because we have “forgotten the existence of a divine order of the universe” that we fail to see that “labor, art, and science are only different ways of entering into contact with it.”
We live in a re-enchanted world, a world where the boundary between the ordinary and the supernatural is porous—if it exists at all. Yes, the re-enchanted world is a scary place, but it is also a place where wonder abounds. The re-enchanted world of Hawkins stretches our minds past the boundaries of the obvious to see the really real.
The inconsolable secret
This also means that today’s culture shares a common interest in exploring their “spirituality.” But the fact that this term holds so many conflicting meanings only testifies to the need for a common story.
In his book Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff points to the narrative limits of the serial drama. They never seem to end, he says. It’s not about “creating resolutions,” but about “keeping the adventure alive and as many threads going as possible.” In my opinion, Stranger Things fares better than most—though season 1 concludes with enough unanswered questions to keep fan theories booming. But our desire for meaningful resolution testifies to a greater instinct. In his famous sermon “The Weight of Glory,” C.S. Lewis points out that our nostalgia, our sense of beauty, ultimately points to a desire for something greater still:
“[O]ur lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation…That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods. They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can’t…Or not yet…But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.”
To paraphrase an old line: the young man who signs onto his Netflix account is secretly searching for God. Stories thrill us; they fill us with wonder. They help order our world. But Christianity offers a better story. A true story. A story where wonder and mystery never die.