In case you weren’t aware, today marks the first-ever Stranger Things Day! Netflix has decided to celebrate the anniversary of the smash-hit series, but it’s not in honor of the Summer 2016 premiere in the real world but rather the 35th anniversary of the disappearance of young Will Byers in the fictional one. That’s right, we’re headed all the way back to 1983 to celebrate the plucky youth of Hawkins, Indiana and their battle against the dark denizens of the Upside Down. And what better way to do so than by checking out Joseph Vogel‘s immersive new book, “Stranger Things and the ’80s: The Complete Retro Guide”?
Last year, we took at look at Guy Adams‘ “Notes from the Upside Down: An Unofficial Guide to Stranger Things”, a companion book that offered up all sorts pop culture trivia which I covered in my review. Vogel takes a different tack. Rather than just offer up another trivia guide, this book attempts to recreate the feeling of what it was like to grow up in the 80s, to revel in the works of Spielberg, to listen to New Wave, Hair Metal, and other derivatives of punk, to read the tomes of King, and to enjoy the convenience of home gaming PCs and consoles for the first time ever. For those of you (like me) who remember this decade fondly and would love to revisit it, or for those of you who missed out on the 80s but want to know more about the decade (if only to better understand Stranger Things), this is the book for you.
“Stranger Things and the ’80s” is broken down into chapters such as Stephen King, Spielberg, or The Reagan Era, making it rather easy to jump to a section of your choosing. This helps to focus the book, something that’s sorely needed when tackling a time period as vast and varied as the 80s and when comparing it to the pop culture-packed show, Stranger Things. After Vogel’s introduction, readers are taken on a journey through King’s insane roller coaster run of publications in the 80s. These tomes–including “IT”, “Cujo” and “Different Seasons: The Body”–heavily influenced Stranger Things, mostly because they heavily influenced 80s babies/showrunners and co-creators Matt and Ross Duffer.
As hard as it was to escape the macabre influence of King in the 80s, Spielberg’s big-screen wonder and awe were just as unavoidable. Vogel makes special mention of the fact that King and Spielberg have never collaborated on a feature film, though they’ve come close. The closest a King/Spielberg crossover has come to fruition so far is, in fact, the Duffers’ own series, Stranger Things. Vogel does a solid job of matching classic moments in Spielberg films like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Jaws, and The Goonies with their parallels in the series. The retrospective also includes a half-dozen other films from the veteran director that arrived between 1975 and 1993, heavily influencing the young, up-and-coming generation of filmmakers and other creatives.
But Spielberg, dominant as he has been in his career, didn’t rule over the 80s alone. Vogel delivers another chapter on 80s movies from the likes of John Carpenter, John Hughes, Ridley Scott, George Lucas and Ivan Reitman, names that should be familiar and nostalgic for the 80s babies out there. But this list, and the one in the preceding chapter, act as a fantastic primer for film students and enthusiasts looking to get a handle on what the decade in cinema was all about.
From there, Vogel’s writing veers into the other corners of pop culture, namely delivering a veritable mix tape of 80s bands and hit singles that can be heard and referenced (or are at least felt) throughout the seasons of Stranger Things. (The adults of the series get to indulge in some 60s and 70s hits as well, so don’t be a square.) What’s equally interesting here is the music that’s not included, like the pop trio of Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Prince; I’d be willing to wager that rights issues and cost are a contemporary factor here. And as if the music and movies weren’t enough to ground the show in the early 80s, there’s the inclusion of era-appropriate tech like ham radios, early Apple computers, and all things Carl Sagan; early personal entertainment devices like the Nintendo Entertainment System, Sony Walkman, and even the stylish calculator watch; and of course the Cold War politics of the Reagan Era, including Reagan’s landslide re-election exactly 34 years ago today. (Go vote, if you haven’t, by the way.)
Vogel wisely takes the time to explore the less factual and more “feel-good” side of the 80s, namely the nostalgic feeling of childhood, playing games and riding bikes with friends, sneaking snack cakes and soda/pop, and getting a sugar rush from brand-name Halloween candy during trick-or-treating. That, along with a handy fashion guide to the retrospectively insane looks and fads of the 80s, goes a long way toward revisiting the oft-adapted decade and giving readers a sense of what it was really like to live it.
“Stranger Things and the ’80s: The Complete Retro Guide” wraps up the story so far with an analysis of its protagonist, Eleven, and her hero’s journey, fittingly compared to 80s icons who once embarked on a similar perilous path. And if you read all of Vogel’s chapters leading up to Eleven’s jaw-dropping moment(s), you’ll be well-equipped to understand the time and place that Eleven and her new friends found themselves in, and better able to appreciate the intangible quality that makes Stranger Things such a joy to behold.