Stranger Things is a Netflix monster, thanks to its blend of horror, adventure, comedy, and 80s nostalgia. The story of a small town’s terrifying alternate dimension has kept us hooked. Even if you’ve binged every episode and know exactly how many Eggos Eleven eats, we bet there’s plenty you don’t know about Stranger Things.
We collected surprising behind-the-scenes facts and hidden references that will turn your mind Upside Down.
The show was originally called ‘Montauk’
While pitching the show to different networks, the Duffer Brothers had a mock-up book cover created to convey the intended mood of the series, a mix of 1980s Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. They picked the title Montauk because it was the setting for Jaws (with Amity Island standing in for Montauk).
In addition to the Jaws connection, Montauk is the site of the Montauk Project urban legend, which supposedly was researching supernatural phenomena during the 1980s. The Duffers ultimately decided to set the show in a fictional location, so that they would have more freedom to subject the town to bizarre events.
The Duffers were mentored by M. Night Shyamalan
The Duffers wrote and directed a film in 2014, called Hidden, that was very much inspired by the writing and style of M. Night Shyamalan. While the movie wasn’t a hit, it led to the Duffers getting to work for Shyamalan himself.
The Duffers were recruited to work on the TV show Wayward Pines, for which Shyamalan was an executive producer. Their work with him on that series led the Duffers to develop their own creepy show, which would become Stranger Things.
The show was rejected by over a dozen cable networks
Stranger Things is one of the most popular shows around right now, but it definitely wasn’t a sure-fire hit. The Duffers shopped their original pitch to over a dozen cable networks, and were rejected by every single one before Netflix picked it up.
Bizarrely, many of the executives they met with told them they couldn’t center Stranger Things around the four main kids without making it a children’s show. The Duffers were told to instead rework the show to be about Chief Hopper (David Harbour) investigating the paranormal, like The X-Files.
The title was partially based on two Stephen King novels
When the Duffers decided that the show was no longer going to be set in Montauk, they obviously needed to change the title, unless they wanted to seriously confuse their audience. So, they sat down for a rather unique brainstorming session.
They bought an old copy of Stephen King’s novel, Firestarter, and began to pitch different title options using the font on the book’s cover. The brothers went back and forth, experimenting with different titles in the retro typeface, until they finally settled on Stranger Things, in part because of its similarity to another King novel, Needful Things.
Even then, the title wasn’t a done deal. According to the Duffers, they continued to argue about it for quite a while before officially retitling the show.
The child actors were cast by reading lines from ‘Stand By Me’
According to the Duffers, they auditioned around 1,000 child actors for the various roles. To capture the right mood, they had each actor who auditioned read lines from the classic Stephen King adaptation Stand By Me, about a group of boys on an adventure to find a rumored dead body in the woods.
Finn Wolfhard (Mike) was already a fan of films and pop culture from the 1980s, so he was an easy fit. Gaten Matarazzo (Dustin) was cast after the Duffers viewed his audition tape a single time – they felt he was too authentic a performer to pass up.
Winona Ryder was cast partially because of her status as an 80s icon
The Duffers were absolutely committed to having Stranger Things capture the look and feel of classic horror, science fiction, and adventure films from the 1980s. The casting of Winona Ryder as Joyce was yet another homage to the decade.
Ryder was a young actress in the 80s who rose to fame thanks to roles in films like Heathers and Beetlejuice. She was suggested to the Duffers by their casting director and they immediately attached to the idea of having a former 80s it-girl play Joyce, the anchoring performance in the first season.
David Harbour was the first and only choice for Hopper.
The Duffers were already interested in casting David Harbour as the grizzled, beaten-down Chief Hopper. Previously, Harbour had mostly played villains. The Duffers felt he’d been “waiting too long” for the chance to play a leading role and a hero.
Here’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Easter egg: Harbour’s character, Jim Hopper, is named after a doomed commando who is killed by the titular alien in Predator. It’s yet another subtle example of the Duffers paying homage to 80s films and pop culture.
The series was greenlit AND cast before it was fully written
The Duffers had written a pilot script and a 20-page pitch book full of potential ideas for the series in order to shop it around to different networks. Netflix bought the show and greenlit it based entirely on their pitch materials, before any other episodes had been written!
The Duffers had to cast the various parts for the show while they were still writing the rest of the episodes. As a result, many of the actors influenced how their characters were written, in particular the four main boys and Matthew Modine, who plays Dr. Brenner.
To capture the 80s film “Look,” they scanned in grainy footage from real 80s movies
The Duffers wanted Stranger Things to look and feel as much like a throwback Spielberg film as possible. To capture the “look” of watching an old film, grainy footage from real 80s movies was captured digitally and then applied to each episode in post-production.
In addition to the actual “look” of the footage, the Duffers also wanted to use old-school effects. They relied primarily on puppetry and practical effects for the various scenes involving the Demogorgon and the Upside Down, and used CGI as little as possible.
The series was partially inspired by a movie about a kidnapping
While brainstorming ideas for a TV series, the Duffers’ initial concept was inspired by the 2013 film Prisoners, in which a father goes to extreme lengths to find his kidnapped daughter. The brothers wanted to explore a parent’s emotional struggles while dealing with a missing child.
The decision to make the show focused around children and child-like sensibilities led to the addition of a monster. The idea of kids combing the woods looking for both a monster and their missing friend led the Duffers to set the story in the 1980s, and Stranger Things was born.
The Poltergeist Easter egg
Joyce takes Will (Noah Schnapp) to see the classic 80s horror movie Poltergeist before he disappears, which involves a couple whose young daughter is kidnapped by ghosts and brought to another dimension. They can communicate with her through the walls, and eventually travel through a creepy portal to rescue her.
You might have noticed that the plot of Poltergeist is is almost identical to what happens to Will in the first season of Stranger Things. He gets trapped in another dimension, Joyce communicates with him through the walls, and ultimately carries him back through a portal.
Eleven is heavily inspired by ‘Firestarter’
The Stephen King novel that would serve as the inspiration for the show’s title font is also clearly a primary inspiration for the character of Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). Firestarter is about a little girl named Charlie with powerful psychic abilities, gained from her parents, who were involved in the MKULTRA program.
MKULTRA was a real top-secret government project that experimented with LSD and psychic abilities. Eleven gained her powers from her mother, who, like Charlie’s mother, was also involved in MKULTRA. She also gets a nosebleed when she uses her powers, like Charlie’s father does in Firestarter.
There’s a big X-Men Easter egg
In the very first episode, Dustin challenges Will to a bike race. Will wins and announces he wants Dustin’s copy of X-Men issue #134, which is the exact issue in which Jean Grey becomes Dark Phoenix, the most powerful psychic being in the universe.
This was a nod to particularly savvy comic fans, foreshadowing Eleven’s arc. Eleven is a powerful psychic with the ability to open gateways to other dimensions. And like Jean Grey, she apparently destroys herself at the end of the first season to save her friends.
The sensory deprivation tank is a reference to a classic 80s sci-fi horror film
Throughout the first season, Eleven is subjected to sensory deprivation tanks in order to unlock her powers. The idea of using LSD and sensory deprivation to unlock psychic abilities was featured in the 1980 horror / sci-fi film Altered States.
Altered States is about a scientist who, after experimenting with psychoactive drugs and sensory deprivation, is able to transcend known reality, similar to how Eleven contacts the Upside Down. The Duffers also used Altered States as an inspiration for the series’ opening title sequence.
The bike chase is straight out of E.T.
Stranger Things contains an incredible amount of references to Spielberg movies, in particular E.T. the Extraterrestrial. In E.T., Elliot and his friends escape federal agents on their bikes when E.T. uses his psychic abilities to make them fly over the agents’ roadblock.
In Stranger Things, Mike and his friends are fleeing the military when Eleven uses her psychic powers to help them escape in a similar fashion – she makes the cars fly over them, instead of the other way around. It’s a nod to the famous sequence, with a crazy twist.
Two of the cast members are 80s references themselves
In Season 2, Sean Astin appears as Bob, Joyce’s kind but bumbling boyfriend. Astin played Mikey, the leader of the gang of bike-riding, treasure-hunting kids in The Goonies, from which Stranger Things draws much inspiration. Bob even makes a reference to buried treasure!
Paul Reiser also appears in Season 2 as the slightly sinister Dr. Owens. Reiser played the duplicitous Carter Burke in James Cameron’s 1986 film, Aliens. The Duffers specifically wanted audiences to distrust Owens based on Reiser’s previous role as Burke.
Seriously, there are SO many E.T. references
In addition to the bike scene from the first season, Season 2 keeps the E.T. references coming. When Will is asked what his favorite candy is, he responds “Reese’s Pieces.” This candy was featured heavily in E.T. as the titular alien’s favorite snack.
Also, Dustin keeps the baby pollywog, Dart, hidden in his room from his parents. This echoes Elliot’s efforts to keep E.T. from being discovered by his parents. And finally, the disguise Eleven wears to school is very similar to the disguise Elliot puts on E.T., particularly the blonde wig.
The Eggo Connection
Eleven’s favorite food winds up being frozen Eggo waffles, which could be seen as another reference to E.T.’s infatuation with Reese’s Pieces. There’s a behind-the-scenes connection as well – originally, E.T. was supposed to love M&M’s, but Mars denied permission to use their candy in the film.
Reese’s Pieces agreed to have their candy featured, and saw an immediate increase in sales and brand recognition when E.T. became a mega hit. Similarly, Eggo was not involved in the production of Stranger Things, but saw a huge increase in sales after the show premiered. They allowed Netflix to use a retro 1980s style Eggo commercial in their Season 2 teaser that aired during the Super Bowl, and have released special retro packaging for their waffles as a tie-in with Season 3.
The second season was almost completely different
The Duffers wrote the first season of Stranger Things to be a standalone, complete story, in case it wasn’t picked up for more seasons. However, even when the show became a hit and Netflix greenlit a second season, they didn’t immediately think to continue the story.
One idea the brothers had was to make Stranger Things an anthology series, like American Horror Story, and introduce an entirely new storyline with different characters. Another idea was to do a sequel set many years later, in the 1990s, with the main kids returning to Hawkins as adults.
Stranger Things is popular enough to bring back New Coke
Coke is releasing a limited run of special retro-style New Coke, with a special retro commercial featuring Steve and Dustin, to tie in with Season 3. New Coke was originally released in 1985, when Season 3 takes place, and the drink has already proven to be very difficult to come by.
Ironically, when New Coke was originally released in the 80s, it proved to be so unpopular with consumers that it sparked actual public protests, as well as internal lawsuits among Coke’s bottlers. Coke reintroduced Coca-Cola Classic only three months later, and New Coke has gone down in history as one of the biggest marketing blunders of all time. Stranger Things is so popular that this famous misfire is now a bestseller.
Steve was originally an irredeemable villain
Steve has one of the more interesting arcs in the show – in season one, he’s a huge jerk, but by the end of season two, he’s a full-blown hero, and BFFs with Dustin. But in the Duffers’ initial pilot script, Steve is an unrepentant villain who actually rapes Nancy.
In the script, Steve is described as “the biggest douchebag on the planet,” but after casting Joe Keery and discovering that he was more likeable than they intended, the Duffers reworked the entire character. His more villainous qualities were transferred to the violent bully Billy (Dacre Montgomery) in Season 2.
Hopper’s Wrist Band
There’s an interesting Easter egg centered on Chief Hopper’s wristband. He wears a blue tie around his wrist for most of the first two seasons, which we eventually see was a hair tie his terminally ill daughter used to wear before she died.
At the end of Season 2, when Eleven goes to the school dance, she is wearing the band around her wrist. The band could be seen as representing Hopper’s grief, which he has carried for so long and finally decides to let go after adopting Eleven.
The show costs as much as a movie to produce
Netflix took great pains to ensure the series captured the look and feel of classic 1980s films, as the Duffers had envisioned. Consequently, the budget of the show is the same as a Hollywood film, which is fitting, because the Duffers conceived of the first two seasons as being two very long movies.
The first season’s eight episodes reportedly cost $6 million each to produce, while the second season’s 9 episodes cost $8 million each. That’s a total of $120 million, the price of a big-budget movie. That’s more than it cost to make Jurassic Park, even adjusted for inflation!
There are secret literary references hidden everywhere
Apart from the obvious inspiration, there are several subtle nods to the works of Stephen King. Steve is referred to as “King Steve” by his classmates. A character is seen reading Cujo, another King novel. The episode “The Body” is the title of a Stephen King story that was adapted into Stand By Me.
King isn’t the only horror giant that gets a nod. The military facility is called Hawkins Power and Light, the initials of which form HPL, which could be a reference to H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft wrote stories about monsters from parallel dimensions, and the Hawkins Power and Light building contains portals that release monsters from a parallel dimension.
There will be four (or five) seasons
We could spend years in Hawkins, Indiana, but the Duffers have stated that their initial vision for the series was to have a finite ending, rather than go on for multiple seasons. They’ve suggested that Stranger Things will end after four or five seasons.
It’s since been revealed by the show’s producer, Shawn Levy, that a fourth season is “definitely happening,” and that a fifth season is “a possibility.” However, the Duffers insist that five seasons seems too long, and that it’s more likely the show will end after Season 4. We’ll just have to wait and see.
The cast got huge pay raises for Season 3
For the show’s first season, Winona Ryder was the highest-paid cast member, owing to her status as an established leading actress. Once the show blew up in popularity, every cast member received salary increases. Ryder and David Harbour, as the show’s two leads, reportedly now make $350,000 per episode.
The four main kids, who originally were paid $20,000 per episode, now make a purported $200,000 per episode. Millie Bobby Brown, who plays Eleven, is rumored to be making almost as much as the two adult leads. Those are some big raises.
A retro mall was constructed for Season 3
Much of the third season of Stranger Things takes place at the newly-built Starcourt Mall. The real-life Gwinnet Place Mall in Duluth, Georgia served as a stand-in, with several reconstructed retro store fronts, including The Gap and Waldenbooks, appearing as they would have during the 1980s.
The third season was teased with a faux commercial advertising the opening of Starcourt Mall, and featured a shot of Steve working at an ice cream shop in the food court alongside a brand-new character, Robin (Maya Hawke).
Justice For Barb
In the first season, Nancy’s nerdy friend Barb (Shannon Purser) is killed off by the Demogorgon early on, and virtually no one in the entire town of Hawkins seems to notice. Fans immediately took to Barb, and began hashtag campaigns, called #ImWithBarb and #JusticeForBarb, to either bring the character back or actually have some resolution to her untimely demise.
The fan outcry actually influenced the Duffers while writing Season 2. As the second season begins, Nancy is struggling with whether or not to tell Barb’s parents what really happened to her. She actually says “nobody cares about Barb,” echoing the fans’ sentiment.
The show has been nominated for multiple awards
Altogether, Stranger Things has received 31 Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Drama Series, Outstanding Writing For a Drama Series, and Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series. David Harbour and Millie Bobby Brown have also received two nominations each, for Best Supporting Actor and Actress in a Drama Series, respectively.
While none of those nominations were wins, the show has won several Creative Arts Emmys, which recognize the technical achievements of the show, including awards for the main title design and theme music. And Winona Ryder received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance as Joyce.
The unique soundtrack was composed by a modern synth band
The Duffers wanted a throwback electronic score that sounded like something you’d hear in an old John Carpenter film (there are several references to Carpenter’s classic film The Thing throughout the first season). They ultimately hired two members of the synth band Survive to write and perform the show’s popular soundtrack.
After originally discovering the band by hearing a song they had contributed to the horror film The Guest, the Duffers decided to use one of Survive’s tunes to score a mock trailer they’d made to sell Stranger Things to Netflix. The song was such a perfect match for the tone and mood of the show that they asked the band to compose the score.