Netflix’s series Stranger Things has been received, largely with favor, as a pop-culture artifact of “Reagan-era nostalgia.” This characterization is understandable given the show’s plethora of savvy references to all things 1980s, from the Ghostbusters (1984) Halloween costumes worn by the youthful ensemble cast to funny period slang like “bitchin’” and diegetic rock songs by The Scorpions blaring from rumbling gas-guzzlers that peel out of small town high school parking lots bursting with teen angst and desire.
The opening credits compress the show’s intent. The text evokes the memorable fonts used for Stephen King’s novels of the 1980s, with the letters arranging themselves somewhat in the fashion of the kinetic type credits of Altered States (1980). Our screen is then overlaid with visual artifacts to make it look like an analog film that has been screened enough to get scratched up. This is streaming video as imitation vinyl record, but its manufacturing of the past is precisely the difficulty with Stranger Things.
The series shapeshifts amusingly enough from one established subgenre to the next: crazed government experiments into the paranormal, wormholes into alternate dimensions, predatory extraterrestrials, demonic possession narratives, people holed up in houses under attack from beyond, etc. The resulting confection forms a seven-layer cake of pastiche that’s effective when it is witty and judicious about its use of its saccharine packets. The most obvious precursor for the Duffer brothers in this regard was surely Richard Kelly’s far more surreal and subversive Donnie Darko (2001), with its Patrick Swayze jokes and its slo-mos, fast-forwards, and camera-swirls over school lockers overlaid with Tears for Fears’ 1985’s ballad “Head Over Heels.”
But another thing going on in Stranger Things is even stranger than nostalgia, and a little bit troubling. Call it timewashing. Timewashing involves the fabrication of a past that feels suspiciously clean and palatable to our contemporary sensibilities, as if the nightmare befoulments of history have been blasted away by a high-pressure hose. Accompanying the clean decor and sanitized physical sets of timewashing narratives is a mental disavowal of lived experience, and an anachronistic projection of our present-day moral or political values in works of historical fiction.
This is time travel as wish fulfillment, especially regarding ideals of equality that fail to exist in the present, never mind in the past. Our bad collective conscience is massaged when we sense grossly unjust imbalances regarding casting, for example, being consciously redressed from corporate HQ. We cannot help enjoying the sweet consumption of this doctored picture, but we might well worry that fictional victories are being offered up as commercialized compensations for real-life defeats and setbacks. We take pleasure in the fact that the heroine of Stranger Things is a strong girl surrounded by a closely knit group of friends who are racially cool and also very accepting of her as their natural leader, more or less from her first appearance. We badly want things to be like that, in life now, or in movies then, from the period being recreated. But this element sometimes feels Photoshopped.
In fact, the popcorn movies of the era being revisited in Stranger Things were more like Stand by Me (1986, based on the King novella “The Body”), with its poster of an all-white, all-male group of four friends exploring the unknown together. We’re put at ease by this not happening in Stranger Things, but that ease itself should also be unsettling. If there’s a younger viewer in the room, we want to be sure they know that in important ways the attitudes portrayed by the culture industry have gotten better since then, not worse. To be sure, it’s not that such micro-climates of solidarity across lines of gender and ethnicity were impossible in real life then, or that honest historical fiction about minority experiences of small-town Midwestern life in the 1980s aren’t anything other than necessary. But timewashing gives us the feeling that we get to relive previous decades and finally get it right this time around, to remember it wrong, and to see it as less warped than it really was. It’s a deliberate, effective marketing plan based on a dubious conception of allyship. What it’s not is radical or unpredictable on any level.
In fact, the horror genre was put to progressive use in the 1980s by writers like King and filmmakers like George A. Romero and John Carpenter. Romero, who already had cast a classically trained Black actor, Duane Jones, as Ben, the lead in Night of the Living Dead (1968), was often an acid social critic in his archetypal nightmares, taking in the bomb-shelter mentality of the Cold War 1960s and the literally zombified shopping malls of the late 1970s in Dawn of the Dead (1978), in which consumerism takes on a grotesque but droll metaphorical meaning. Little of that spirit imbues Stranger Things because it’s Spielbergian at its core. Spielberg is contemporary cinema’s most popular timewasher — he manufactures the past in order to make us feel better about ourselves. But should we?
King, meanwhile, created both a practice and a theory of what might be called liberal horror that attempted to overthrow the classical fear of the other and the outsider, making inroads against the genre’s status as “conservative as an Illinois Republican in a three-piece pinstriped suit” in his critical study Danse Macabre (1981). Romero and King collaborated on the 1982 anthology film Creepshow, another key precursor to Stranger Things, in the specific sense that Creepshow hearkened back to the EC Comics horror stories of the reactionary 1950s, just as Stranger Things attempts to navigate its tricksy time travel between now and the the 1980s. But the 2017 filmed adaptation of King’s It (directed by Andy Muschietti) does a far better job of uncovering the nasty underbelly of Reagan’s “Morning in America.” The splatterpunk sensibility shared by the novel and the film conveys darker truths about the viciousness of abuse, bullying, violence against women, and prejudice. It, absurd as it is in many ways, tells some really scary truths about what it was like to grow up marginalized in an average town. Stranger Things, not nearly as much.
As an example of timewashing, Stranger Things means well but its good intentions are part of the problem. The series makes things too easy on the consumer of this corporate simulacrum of a kinder, gentler, and bogus past. Ultimately the series’ trajectory towards melodrama causes Stranger Things to slip awkwardly out of the generic territory of horror at key points. The second series ultimately reveals itself to be a contemporary superhero narrative, with its world-saving young woman, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), leaping out of horror movie tropes and crashing this multi-genre narrative as a comic book savior figure.
In fact, Eleven’s character arc is more structurally similar to that of Rey [Daisy Ridley] in the new Star Wars franchise films than anything else. Both characters add a pleasing female-centric spin to the archetype of the “hero’s journey” narrative from obscurity to world-shaking importance after harnessing their powers and descending into the Underworld. And why not? Rey allows us to “re-experience” Star Wars alongside a cast from “a long time ago” that represents the way things ought to have been in the original films. (Lucas acted as his own timewasher, releasing retrospectively altered and digitized versions of his early Star Wars pictures and urging fans in promotional spots to “See It Again…For the first time.” But he failed to take up The Phantom Edit, a recut of the prequels that removed the “antics” of Jar Jar Binks, among other things.)
It’s not that badass female protagonists were totally lacking in the 1970s and the 1980s, of course, although Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the Alien films, to name the most prominent example, was certainly designed to cut against the grain of typical representations of the day. Unlike another one of her key precursors, the gifted girl Charlie in King’s novel Firestarter (1980), Eleven’s extrasensory powers are harnessed to preserve the world rather than simply destroy her government captors or find a way out of a personal hell. By contrast, Eleven’s “sister,” Kali (Linnea Berthelsen), takes a different and more destructive path, like King’s Charlie (and his Carrie), seeking murderous revenge on her government captors and tormentors rather than redemption and acceptance by the small town that is under existential threat. Episode Seven of Stranger Things 2, which takes Kali as its focus, was, tellingly, singled out for severe critical panning. Kali’s orientalized name says it all — she’s the goddess of death, too radically other for this series, or at least for this particular Season. Melodramatic narrative structure almost requires her to become either a super villain or a reformable member of the community in future seasons. Hats off if a different and more radical alternative is found.
One of the basic problems with timewashing is that it avoids confronting unpleasant truths about how the culture was then that have determined how the culture still is now. Perhaps it would be unreasonable to expect a bubble gum and baseball card production to tackle such issues in any sustained or subversive way. Ultimately Stranger Things becomes a family adoption narrative in which community finally gains the upper hand. It’s mostly harmless and good fun — it’s also deeply conventional. In an ideal world, Stranger Things would be more strange, or at least a little bit more estranging.