Here’s Every Single ’80s Film That Helped Inspire ‘Stranger Things’
'Stranger Things' doesn’t wear its influences on its sleeve -- it’s the whole damn outfit.
Nobody wanted to make Stranger Things.
The show’s creators, twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, estimate their pitch was rejected 20 times by various networks.
The premise was simple: what if Steven Spielberg directed a Stephen King novel?
To help sell the idea the Duffer Brothers made a fake trailer where they combined footage from E.T: The Extra Terrestrial with the score from John Carpenter movies like Escape from New York. These reference points not only helped to get a ‘yes’ from Netflix, but went on to define the tone of the show.
Stranger Things doesn’t wear its influences on its sleeve — it’s the whole damn outfit.
The Duffer Brothers never shy away from confessing to the the show’s nostalgic 1980s aesthetic, which is more of a pop culture memory of the decade rather than an accurate portrayal: look to The Americans for 80s authenticity.
The series is packed with nods to the films that inspired the upside down, telekinetic teens, and the giant hair of Steve Harrington. A lot of these films span the decade the Duffer Brothers obsess over the most because they were born in ’84, a year after the setting of the first season, but there are a few modern surprises, too.
If you can’t get enough of Stranger Things we’ve put together a list of the must-watch films that inspired the series.
Stranger Things Season 1:
The Demogorgon is heavily influenced by the xenomorph from Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic.
Firstly, the creature comes from an egg, leaves behind a lot of slime and silently stalks its victims. The Demogorgons then either kill or kidnap humans to use as incubators. Will Byers is seen connected to an organic tube that implants Demogorgon larva like the face-huggers in Alien.
The Evil Dead (1981)
A poster for Sam Rami’s horror film can be found in Jonathan’s bedroom, much to his father’s disapproval.
The Evil Dead is notable because it’s a low-budget horror film that inspired a generation of ‘do it yourself’ filmmakers. These creatives who would begin make films of their own in the late 80s, and 90s, would go on to inspire The Duffer Brothers.
The film is about a demonic presence that rises from the underground to possess college students, and there’s a parallel between what’s unleashed from the Upside Down onto the residents of Hawkins.
Altered States (1980)
In Altered States, a scientist and psychology professor (William Hurt) experiments on himself using sensory deprivation tanks to access different states of consciousness.
Eleven is shown in sensory deprivation tanks so she can travel to the Upside Down. The design of the suit Eleven wears in the lab is a nod to the contraptions in Altered States.
Stand By Me (1986)
Rob Reiner’s film about teenagers who spend a long weekend in search of a dead body is based on one of Stephen King’s short stories: ‘The Body’.
Chapter four of season one in Stranger Things is called: ‘The Body’.
Scenes from Stand By Me were given to young actors to perform if they wanted to audition for the show and the series is packed with shots directly referencing the film. Look out for the Stranger Things gang walking along the train tracks on the outskirts of town.
E.T: The Extra Terrestrial (1982)
The film that helped Stranger Things get made is in the DNA of the show.
Eleven is like E.T, lost and then taken in and protected by a bunch of kids.
The aesthetics of the homes and the clothing in Stranger Things looks like it was modelled directly from E.T. The bike chase scene from chapter seven is a great tribute with Eleven unleashing her powers to flip a van in one of the series most unforgettable moments.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Hawkins is split into the real world and the Upside Down, and the Demogorgon travels between both dimensions.
It’s like the way Freddy Krueger exists in the real world and the dream world in Nightmare on Elm Street. The Duffer Brothers pay tribute to Wes Craven’s horror film many times with pulsing walls, and blurred lines between reality and the Upside Down.
Nancy Wheeler is also named after the lead in Nightmare on Elm Street, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), and they share a similar look and character traits.
Another King influence, drawn from his novel and Brian De Palma’s film adaptation.
Telekinesis is big theme in a lot of King’s books (we’ll get to the others soon) and its represented in the series via Eleven’s abilities. Eleven lives a sheltered life in the lab under the eye of Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine) so she comes across as innocent but is capable of rage-induced violence like Carrie (played by Sissy Spacek in the film).
Eleven does a lot more head crushing and bone snapping with her powers in season one.
The Thing (1982)
Another poster reference, which can be seen on a wall in Mike’s basement.
In John Carpenter’s sci-fi thriller, an alien infiltrates a remote research based in Antarctica and poses as its victims. The monster from The Thing inspires the design of the Demogorgon, and a little of Carpenter’s themes of paranoia slip into Hawkins as Hopper and Joyce investigate a stealth invasion by an otherworldly force.
A bunch of ghosts mess with a family in Poltergeist.
There’s so much nightmare fuel in the film but the moment you never forget is when cute little Carol Anne (“They’re here”) gets sucked into another dimension by ghouls. The scene is echoed in Stranger Things when Will is taken by the Demogorgon to the Upside Down, and later when Joyce tries to communicate with her son using Christmas lights.
Under The Skin (2013)
Not every single reference in Stranger Things is pulled from the 80s.
The scenes where Eleven uses her powers in the sensory deprivation tank are inspired by Under The Skin, a sci-fi film where an alien takes the form of a woman (Scarlett Johansson) and preys on men in Scotland.
The scenes in Under The Skin where this technique is used are breathtaking so it’s easy to see why the Duffer Brother’s chose it as a way to visualise Eleven’s powers.
Stranger Things Season 2:
The gang’s group Halloween costume is the Ghostbusters, of course, which is not only a reference to what was popular at the time but representative of the group as Demogorgon hunters. Seeing Ghostbusters would have been too real for the kids of Hawkins.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
The Duffer Brother’s tip of the hat to Spielberg’s UFO film crosses both seasons one and two.
In the first, Joyce’s obsession with finding Will mirrors two characters from Close Encounters: Richard Dreyfuss’ flying saucer obsessed dad, and Melinda Dillon’s mother who is in search of her missing son.
The second season continues the Close Encounters theme by using similar imagery from the film, most notable in the season two posters.
In the first Alien there is just one xenomorph. In the sequel, directed by James Cameron, there’s a whole colony! Stranger Things follows the same path by adding more Demogorgons. They also double down on the reference by adding Paul Reiser to the cast who played a corporate villain in Aliens.
The Exorcist (1973)
One of the most intense scenes in the second season is when they must get the Shadow Monster/Mind Flayer out of Will.
If you’re going to do an exorcism scene you’ve got no choice but to borrow from the best: The Exorcist. If you’ve never seen The Exorcist it’s about a girl (Linda Blair) who gets possessed by the devil, and most people rarely sleep afterwards; I still haven’t for over 20 years!
The Goonies (1985)
Hello, I am Captain Obvious. The Goonies is a huge influence on Stranger Things but mainly because The Duffer Brothers chose to focus the story on kids.
Also, they got a Goonie: Sean Astin, who adds another layer to the reference in season two.
While pitching the show the Duffer Brothers were told constantly to take the focus off the kids and make the show more about Hopper or Joyce. Several executives believed nobody would care about the kids enough to stick with the series.
With The Goonies in mind The Duffer Brothers stuck to their plan and the rest is history.
A small American town gets terrorised by creatures. But we’re not talking about Stranger Things, we’re talking about Gremlins.
There’s lot of similarities to Gremlins in the first season but it gets a little more precise in season two, mainly in Dustin’s relationship with Dart, who goes from cute to Demodog. Dustin is like Billy Peltzer in Gremlins who befriends a cute Mogwai, Gizmo, and accidentally unleashes are horde of evil gremlins.
King’s greatest hits keep on coming. Cujo is a little different to his supernatural stories, because it focuses on a rabid dog that traps a mother and child in a car during an extremely hot day.
The book and the film adaptation influence the scenes where the Demodogs surround Steve. The whole canine threat of the Demodogs is tied up in King’s rabid dog tale.
Sixteen Candles (1984)
Jail time would be in order if we didn’t mention a John Hughes film.
There’s lots of references to Hughes’ films in the coming-of-age elements of Stranger Things, but the biggest drops during the second two finale at The Snow Ball dance. Both have an insane amount of hair spray in common, but the dances represent a place where emotions are high, there are hook-ups and heartbreak (Dustin!), and we get to see them be normal teenagers for once.
The Warriors (1979) / Firestarter (1984) / Scanners (1981)
Eleven’s road trip with stereotypes of 80s punks was divisive, but it’s because the Duffer Brothers were drawing inspiration from how gangs were represented in films like The Warriors.
There’s also another King reference in the mix when Eleven learns there are telekinetic punks, which riffs on Firestarter, the film where a lil’ Drew Barrymore burns things with her mind. The mind power fun continues with a nod to Scanners, which is about warring factions of telekinetic people.
Stranger Things Season 3:
A minor spoiler warning for the third season.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
The Mind Flayer runs a recruitment drive in the third season and its got echoes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a film were aliens take over the bodies of humans to claim Earth as their own. There’s something not quite right about certain residents of Hawkins and the Mind Flayer’s plan has gobsmacking consequences.
Rocky IV (1985)
Yep, there are Russians in the third season to amp up the Cold War paranoia. But keeping with the tradition of Stranger Things they are stereotypical 80s movie Russians. American and Russian relations haven’t been this formulaic since Rocky IV and Stranger Things shares its fondness for thick accents.
A Russian enforcer in the third season hunts down anyone threatening to ruin what’s going down at Starcourt Mall, and his mannerisms are identical to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s in Terminator. The enforcer’s relentless pursuit mirrors several sequences from Terminator, and he rides around on a motorcycle to give off those Terminator 2 vibes, too.
The Blob (1988)
The Mind Flayer’s resurgence in Hawkins is extremely gross and it has links to The Blob.
A ball of goo became terrifying in the film about a blob that slowly absorbs everything in its path in an American town. The body horror of the Mind Flayer’s physical form in the third season is one of the most spine tingling things the Duffer Brothers have thought up.
Halloween II (1981)
The sequel to John Carpenter’s iconic slasher film is set in a hospital where Michael Myers hacks his way a ward in pursuit of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). There’s an awesome sequence in the third season of Stranger Things where the gang face off with the Mind Flayer and its minions in a hospital that’s an unsettling nod to Halloween II.
Dawn of the Dead (1978) / Day of the Dead (1985)
Steve helps the gang sneak into a screening of Day of the Dead and it’s clear the Duffer Brothers are huge fans of George A. Romero’s zombie films.
Stranger Things season three is set around a shopping mall so it also riffs heavily on Dawn on the Dead, especially when the Mind Flayer’s army show up.
Cabin in the Woods (2011)
Starcourt Mall has its secrets and a lot of the action takes place underground in the latter half of season three. The compound built under the mall is similar to the complex in Cabin in the Woods that unleashes monsters. The scale of the infrastructure for villainous plan in Stranger Things season three is staggering.
Red Dawn (1984)
American teens versus the Soviet Union. There are shades of Red Dawn as the teenagers of Hawkins take on the Russian presence in their town. The Russian stereotypes are just exaggerated, too.
Jurassic Park (1993)
We’re getting close to Spielberg bingo.
The Demodogs on the loose in season two have shades of the velociraptor sequences in Jurassic Park, and there’s another big reference in season three. When the gang flee Starcourt Mall in a car, the Mind Flayer is seen in pursuit and it mirrors the T-Rex chase scene.
Eleven’s powers continue to grow in the third season, and we discover she can travel into people’s minds.
When Eleven first goes on a mind trip she washes up on a beach and it’s like the opening of Inception where Leonardo DiCaprio washes ashore. During this sequence we see Eleven experience other character’s memories and it’s reminiscent of the way the mind is visualised in Inception.
Die Hard (1988)
There’s a lot of air vent action in season three. Infiltrating what’s underground Starcourt Mall is reminiscent of John McClane’s wild night at Nakatomi Plaza. When Hopper arrives on the scene, he gives off big Bruce Willis energy, too.
The Stuff (1985)
Robin and Steve hideout in a cinema playing Back to the Future but you look on the marquee in the foyer there’s a list of what’s playing.
One of the movies that gets a shout out is The Stuff, which is about an addictive ice-cream that turns people into braindead drones. The Stuff is an under-appreciated gem, and its got more in common with season three than most of the heavy hitters on this list.
Stranger Things 3 is currently streaming on Netflix.
Cameron Williams is a writer and film critic based in Melbourne who occasionally blabs about movies on ABC radio. He has a slight Twitter addiction: @MrCamW.