The fact that Netflix’s newest original series ‘Stranger Things’ managed to escape my sight until its release is an astonishing thing. The science-fiction-horror-coming-of-age-mystery-thriller (at least I think that accounts for all of the dark mechanisms moving in the intricate machine that is the show) is exactly the kind of thing I should have been waiting for with bated breath and balled fists. From its beginning in a secret government laboratory enlivened by gorgeous production design to its creatures lurking inside walls that function both as horror-of-suburbia metaphor and deft callback to Nightmare on Elm Street/Roman Polanski, Stranger Things is exactly my cup of tea.
As I have blazed my way through most of the series I’ve been impressed by some truly wonderful acting, special effects, lighting and cinematography which bring this strange world of government experiments, teen romance and telekinesis together. However the more I’ve thought about the various influences and callbacks of the series the more I’ve noticed that as well as being a finely crafted piece of thrilling science fiction television it also happens to serve a handy sociopolitical function that has everything to do with the rise of Donald Trump. Not quite with me yet? Don’t worry I’ll try to reason you around to my way of thinking.
The show is set in a small suburb in Indiana in the 1980s where a young boy, Will, mysteriously vanishes. As Joyce (Winona Ryder) despairs in the absence of her son and slowly begins to unravel, police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) begins to unravel a mystery that relates to a nearby military base and secret government experiments with LSD. Meanwhile a three of Will’s friends end up taking in a mysterious girl with telekinetic abilities who may have a direct connection to Will’s disappearance. As the series unfurls it becomes more and more obvious that sinister forces lurk beneath the happy surface of this suburban community.
You see that last sentence up there? It isn’t exactly a revelatory textual analysis is it? Oh, there is a darker side to suburbia, its quaint mask conceals that animal nature of man yadda yadda yadda. Obviously this isn’t an uncommon theme and Stranger Things executes this worn out device in a really compelling and interesting way. But what interests me isn’t so much the way in which the theme is deployed but the source material from which it comes. The primary reference point for so much of ‘Stranger Things’, and the reason it makes for such brilliant viewing for fans of the genre, is 1980s horror.
The show has a palette which extends from Stephen King to John Carpenter to Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Silver Age comic books. What makes these influences most interesting though is the way in which they play counterpoint to a glossier sheen of 80s nostalgia on the surface level of the show. The High School teen romance has deliberate echoes of John Hughes and the kids on their bikes enthusiastically MacGuyvering a plan to face down the forces of evil just smacks of Goonies-esque antics. The show’s surface aesthetic nods its head to this moral-pop-cultural complex of Reagan’s America- Hughes’ and Zemeckis’ affecting and yet uncomplicated image of suburban melodrama- and then proceeds to undermine it by reminding us that John Carpenter and Stephen King were around at the time too, depicting a very different image of suburbia- one that was more “Halloween” than “Happy Days”.
So how does all this clever metatextual moral subversion relate to Trump? Well like any good Republican Trump makes appeals to Reagan when he speaks of his lofty presidential ambitions. But what’s interesting is that there may be something to this. Not in any concrete sense of course, even if Trump does miraculously ascend to the Oval Office the policies fed to him by Goldman-Sachs and the Lockheed corporation are not likely to differ immensely from those of his predecessors. However what Trump does have in common with Reagan is the fact that rhetorically he represents a kind of ‘realignment’ of the Republican party.
In the same way that Reagan was perceived as a return to wholesomeness and family values after the dark days of Nixon, Trump is a kind of right wing fundamentalism untrammelled by a desire for “moderation” or “bipartisanship”, the wild id of the GOP let loose on the world. There is something in Trump’s plea to “Make America Great Again” that seems to construct an idealised past in the same way that Reagan’s America appealed to the deference and peace of the post-war period- for Trump it is a past which is suburban, white and middle class, a vision which appeals to many voters who feel their livelihoods have been destroyed by globalisation.
Our culture currently has a great love affair with the 1980s. Everywhere from video games to cinema the Anglo-American world is fascinated by the totally sincere, bombastic neon aesthetic that we attach to the period. It allows us to reconstruct some idealised past, usually rooted in memories of childhood, of security and certainty and excitement, in a world where the things about which we can be certain are rapidly diminishing and it seems as though the rudder has gone off the earth and we are adrift in a world of fear and violence without a ‘Star Wars’ defence system or a He-Man to protect us. However the valuable lesson that Stranger Things illustrates for us is that the world of safety, simplicity and synthesisers hearkened back to by ‘Law and Order’ Donald Trump actually had supernatural and sinister forces slithering beneath its surface.
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