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Supernatural, perhaps ...

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"El" gets the Millennium Falcon to fly - ever so briefly - in "Stranger Things."
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OKLAHOMA CITY – The arrogance of human beings. That is what I thought about while watching Stranger Things. But I also thought about the importance of friendship, a theme that comes up quite a bit over the course of the eight episodes – or “chapters” – of this remarkable, original Netflix series, released this month.

Set in November 1983, Stranger Things takes us to the small, bucolic Indiana town of Hawkins, a town which also plays host to a secretive U.S. Department of Energy laboratory (a toxic mix of CERN, DARPA and the Stanford Research Institute, to quote Jay Dyer) where the locals think “space weapons” for “Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’” program are being developed. (That’s “S.D.I.” – noted in Dust Devil Dreams post “Guns in the sky").

Yes. Indiana in 1983 was best-known for John Cougar Mellencamp Americana, “Pink Houses” and “Jack & Diane.” And Reagan-led “Morning in America propaganda.” But in this fog-shrouded version of Indiana – an Eerie, Indiana, as it were, stranger things are, indeed, happening. One suspects the creators of Stranger Things were also fans of that cult kids show.

As a dimwitted deputy notes early on, “I guess we’re going to blow the Russkies to smithereens.” (Cue my Dust Devil Dreams post "Smithereenies.")

The lost highway out of Hawkins, Indiana. (21 Laps Entertainment)

But the true focus of the series is on a close-knit crew of four pre-teen boys – Will Byers, Mike Wheeler, Dustin Henderson and Lucas Sinclair.

As someone who was their age when Stranger Things was set, I can relate to the “outsider” nerd quality that the quartet endures. In fact, there is a lot I can relate to in this show. They love science-fiction and Dungeons & Dragons (a game I played once when I was nine and never picked up again). And yes, they are the target of school bullies. Sad, but not surprising. But their little geek gang becomes a force to be reckoned with as our spooky story moves along.

Young Will heads home in the dark after a lengthy game of D&D. But along the way, Will encounters something on the dark road. What is it? Will tries to escape, but is unsuccessful and eventually is assumed to have disappeared and died. The "evidence" seems to point to that, anyway. Regardless, it's all very scary

It is here where I should note (as have plenty of other reviewers and analysts of Stranger Things) that this show, created by the mysterious Duffer Brothers (Matt and Ross), pays homage – quite heavily, I should note – to the work of Steven Spielberg and the 1982 film E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. In fact, it goes beyond that – this series is full-on EIGHTIES. And anyone who reads my stuff know I pull a lot of sync material from that decade.

So, you have allusions to Poltergeist, The Goonies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Stand By MeBreaking Away, to even Less Than Zero, as evidenced by the use of a swimming pool featured during a shocking scene where the Bangles cover of the Simon & Garfunkel song (which actually came out in 1987), “Hazy Shade of Winter,” is used to eerie effect – “Time, time, time – see what’s become of me.” 

A screenshot from The Bangles' 1987  music video for "Hazy Shade of Winter," taken from the Less Than Zero soundtrack.

But what is interesting is that few people have referenced the 1984 film Firestarter, based on the 1980 Stephen King novel. Drew Barrymore (think E.T. AND Donnie Darko) plays a girl who develops not telekinetic abilities (via a “secret government agency”) but pyrokinetic abilities – starting fires – and the ability to foretell the future. And just like with El in Stranger Things, nosebleeds are involved when these "powers" are invoked. I also thought of The Visitor, a weird, syncy film made in Atlanta, not far from Jackson, Georgia, where Stranger Things was filmed. In fact, the Butts County Courthouse clock tower is notably highlighted in one scene, reminding me of cinema's most famous clock tower - the one in Marty McFly's Hill Valley, California in Back to the Future.

It's five o'clock somewhere. The clock tower returns in Stranger Things. (21 Laps Entertainment)

Something curious about this show is that being set in November 1983, is that it takes place just a few weeks before the release of the nuclear-war drama The Day After, which starred the wonderful actor Jason Robards, who starred in Something Wicked This Way Comes, which came out earlier in the year. In fact, I recall seeing it on Friday, the 13th of May in 1983 with my dad and Stranger Things seems to sync a bit with that gothic-horror film set in neighboring Illinois and based on the gripping Ray Bradbury story, also referenced in my DDD piece "Something strange and wonderful." Again, friends working together to overcome dark forces.

Yes, this Stranger Things struck a deep chord with me. Kept me up at night. So many memories. So many things to consider. Gnosticism. Kabbalah. Secrets. Government cover-ups. And more Eighties references than I can mention here.

And they went to a lot of trouble to get things right. As a friend noted, it's hard to believe this wasn't actually released in 1983. From the moody, synth-heavy, New Age music used in the opening credits to the clothing styles to the set design and even the battered 70’s automobiles, which would have been accurate in the early 1980’s, of course.

On a personal note, I want to say that 1983 – the year I turned 11 (the young MK-ULTRA victim with telekinetic powers is named “11” or “El”) – was when I was becoming fully-aware of the dangers of the Cold War and also of the supernatural. I recall a strange event in April 1983 where I encountered some “young people” in a field, connected to a seminary surrounded by an imposing and ghostly forest. And this just blocks from my house. Me and other neighborhood kids saw lots of weird things in those "Satanic panic" years of creepy cults, missing kids, heavy metal suicide, poisoned Tylenol tablets and LSD-laced Halloween candy.

And so in Stranger Things, after something horrifying is released at the lab, we then see an androgynous girl emerging from the woods and sneaking into a roadside diner, until she is caught by the cook/owner Benny.

When this takes place, the Jefferson Airplane song “She Has Funny Cars” is playing (as noted here by Christopher Knowles at The Secret Sun) and later, the Alice in Wonderland-inspired “White Rabbit” (pulled from the same album, 1967’s Surrealistic Pillow) plays during a key scene involving El, Benny and a woman claiming to be from child protective services.

And since we are on the subject of the music used in the show, I have to say that the focus on The Clash song “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” (which I heard in a restaurant today) is eerie in light of my own experience over the years with it.

In Stranger Things, Will’s protective older brother, Jonathan, is big into alternative music of the time – Joy Division, The Smiths, Television, David Bowie – and he turns Will onto The Clash, a band that has found its way into my sync writings multiple times here at Dust Devil Dreams.

“You shouldn’t like things becase people tell you you’re supposed to,” Jonathan tells Wil in the Clash-laden flashback.

They are shown in Jonathan’s room, bopping along to “Should I Stay Or Should I Go,” which Jonathan gave to Will on a mixtape. (I should note that in Will's bedroom is a poster for the film Jaws. Dwell on that during the swimming pool scene early in the series).

For years I had a mixtape with the same song on it. And after “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” played on this particularly mixtape of mine, I had some dialogue from the 1934 horror film The Black Cat on there to fill out the remaining length of tape.

Sounds like a lot of supernatural baloney to me,” says skeptical honeymooner Peter (David Manners).

Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not.” Replies Dr. Werdegast (Bela Lugosi).

The Black Cat is essentially about a satanic cult that is sacrificing people. There is a Russian angle and the administering of tranquilizing drugs. It’s a weird one and in light of its odd sync-link to that Clash song and the Cold War/LSD mind-control experiment angles in Stranger Things …well … and then there is allusions to Twin Peaks and even True Detective.

Anyway, I took this bit of Black Cat dialogue from the 1968 film Head soundtrack (it’s titled “Superstitious”), starring The Monkees, along with everyone from Frank Zappa to Victor Mature.

I reference this Black Cat/Head dialogue in a two-year old Dust Devil Dreams piece I did called “Wanting to feel, to know what is real,” which syncs with a lot of things I noticed in Stranger Things. It’s as if the Duffer Brothers were reading Red Dirt Report in addition to watching and re-watching Beyond the Black Rainbow

But back to Stranger Things

Winona Ryder, an actress I’ve liked for years, does a great job as Joyce, the frantic mother of the lost boy Will. And Matthew Modine, the evil scientist behind the experiments with El that led to the release of this evil entity, is almost a blank slate, lost in his own madness as things spin out of control underground and above ground.

Matthew Modine's sinister Dr. Brenner in Stranger Things. (21 Laps Entertainment)

Recall that Modine most famously played “Private Joker” in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. It's eerie how in my post "Tumbling dice" and "Devil inside," I reference Full Metal Jacket and Joker's (Modine's) comment "The duality of man. The Jungian thing, sir!" as well as references to CERN, portals and the "cola wars" of the 1980's. Yes, Coca-Cola makes a rather overt appearance in Stranger Things, as it does in E.T. (Note my DDD post "Stuck with you").

I noted another Kubrickian pastiche in the scene where Joyce strings up Christmas lights in her house, hoping to contact her boy. Recall in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut that Christmas lights play a role in the film – a film starring Tom Cruise. And it is Cruise’s visage we see on a poster in the sister Nancy’s room in an earlier scene. (Note my Dust Devil Dreams post "Cheap tricks and secret sauce"). And most suspect Tom Cruise, with his obsession with Scientology and bizarre, controlling behavior, to be a mind-control victim himself. 

Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers. Trying to communicate with her son through electric lights. (21 Laps Entertainment)

And what is interesting is that in the parallel universe – the “Upside-Down” plane, as it were – everything is inverse and dark and sinister. This CERN-like lab experiment has unleashed things that seem beyond man’s control. And that’s why when I opened this piece I mentioned man’s arrogance. It's like detonating a nuke and not knowing if it will ignite the atmosphere into a global ball of fire. That kind of thing. 

But friendship – and love – play a role as well. A friend is missing and his three pals – with a little help – are determined to find him, even at great danger to themselves. It’s a difficult path and a perilous journey for all involved. I don't want to give too much away, except to say that pop culture junkies will catch a lot of winks to current days, starting with that clip of Reagan talking about Syria on TV ...

But along the way both the characters – and those of us in the audience, glued to the screen – learn a lot about what’s really important in this uncertain world of ours (friends and family), a world that is quite close to another reality we know little about.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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