Stranger Things went from this bizarre little Netflix project to an absolute juggernaut of a cultural phenomenon. You can even get Demogorgon ice cream at Baskin Robbins now along with a special edition Funko pop as well as LEGO set. Few things could possibly be a bigger indicator of popular acclaim.
The draw of Stranger Things is partially its stellar production and killer cast, but it also trades heavily in nostalgia. Kids who were the age of the Eleven, Mike, and the gang in the ‘80s are now into middle age, looking back on their childhoods when every bookshelf was dominated by Stephen King (he even had his own monthly book club), E.T was the best movie ever made, and too many people were certain that dark cults lurked in daycares. Lindsay Ellis did a great video on this subject.
The third season has a slightly different look so far, though. The trailer is undoubtedly high on monsters and otherworldly action. That is what draws in people in an age where Avengers: Endgame is the dominant box office event of the decade, but the posters are different. They don’t call to mind films like Firestarter and Poltergeist so much as they do the young adult novels of authors like Norma Klein, whose covers I have arbitrarily used to make this point because there are such good examples. Even the tagline, “One summer can change everything,” sounds more like a girl’s coming of age novel than the culmination of an intense monster franchise.
Let’s look side by side, real quick.
On top of everything else, the show has always been the story of a young girl discovering who she was. Just as monsters often stood in for parental abuse and other banal horrors in the films that Stranger Things clearly draw from, Eleven’s journey is more than just a quest to thwart the dangerous denizens of the Upside-Down. Her random trip in Season 2 to meet others like her might have felt a bit jarring for a show that is famously insular to its location of Hawkins, Indiana, but it made perfect sense if you spent time reading ‘80s young adult fiction where running away into a new and possibly more understanding world was a staple.
The themes in ads and posters are ones of impending adulthood and all the baggage that comes with it. Kids are finding jobs, discovering love and sex, and more importantly seeing that monsters often choose human faces.
The last trailer makes it look as if Billy Hargrove will embody the evil of the Upside-Down, using his as a host. That, too, is a hallmark of YA fiction, particularly ones aimed at girls. Guys they thought they could trust and love often end up expressing the worst of society in cruel ways. Hold on a second...
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The more and more I look back at the show thus far, the more it seems like a classic high school library book that has been wrapped in a sinister package to appeal to horror fans. The beings from the other side made it clear in the trailer that they are going to demand a place in our world, sort of like how evil will always be found in the souls of regular people. Seeing the demonic forces hosted in Billy, the show’s stand-in for every date-rapey jock bad guy in a million ‘80s fiction vehicles, puts the upcoming season in terms that we can understand from a teenage level.
Somewhere inside us, probably housed in the same place as all the nostalgia, is the memory of bad things and cruelty that comes with growing up. I love how the Stranger Things imagery has highlighted the characters as people about to go through a myriad of vague changes instead of just heroes against beings from other worlds. It looks messier and more real. What could be a somewhat simple creature feature is obviously much more interested in the pains of growing up. The third season has embraced not just the fantastic, but the awkward. That is what has always made this show great. It doesn’t stop at the creep factor. It wants to be the thing you curled up with to understand the world better.
Stranger Things premieres on Netflix Thursday, July 4.