Stranger Things Is Making Me Grow Up All Over Again — and I Don’t Like It
The hit Netflix show has entered its awkward adolescence, and it’s dragging me along for the ride
For me, Stranger Things is less a TV series and more of a time machine.
I know its many fans dig the show’s retro setting and style, but that’s not what I’m talking about — not exactly. See, I’ve watched a lot of TV series and movies inspired by the entertainment of my youth, primarily because ’80s nostalgia makes up a significant portion of pop culture now. I’ve seen remakes of ’80s movies (too many to list), sequels made 30 years too late (Blade Runner 2049), action films set in the ’80s (Bumblebee), stuff content to simply list things people used to like (Ready Player One), and… you get the picture. I’ve seen every homage, allusion, tribute, and straight-up rip-off of ’80s entertainment possible, ranging from charming to blatantly pandering. Stranger Things is different.
When I first began watching Stranger Things when it came along in 2016, I was one of the many who benefited from knowing nothing about the retro horror series other than a small but increasing buzz. I’m still grateful for that, because the experience of watching the show’s first season without really knowing what to expect was magical. The story of a group of schoolkids and a psychically powered girl/escaped science experiment known only as Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) who come together to rescue their friend Will (Noah Schnapp) from the Upside Down, Stranger Things was made up of pieces of many ’80s classics, to be sure, but they felt like part of the show’s own DNA. It’s as if the series came out of the same cultural source material that generated Goonies, It, Stand by Me, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and more, instead of being a modern show doing a karaoke version of the past.
When I watched it, I felt like I had gone back in time. I was watching something actually made in the ’80s, which had just been unearthed. I was not just reminded of my childhood — I relived it. I felt the exact same feelings and sensations I felt watching those earlier classics as a 10-year-old in suburbia. Stranger Things made me feel like a kid again, an experience for which I am profoundly grateful. As a result, I’m not just a fan. I’ve formed a deep, emotional attachment with the show… and that’s the problem.
By necessity, Stranger Things is growing up. When the show’s first season filmed in 2015, the show’s child stars were about 12–13 for the most part, under the wire to play elementary school kids. In season two, the slightly older kids defeated the giant, tentacle monster called the Mind Flayer, all while a far more insidious foe began its assault: puberty. The innocent camaraderie of the kids was threatened by hormones as much as extra-dimensional lizard-dogs, resulting in a fracturing of the group and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas’ (Caleb McLaughlin) fight for the affections of newcomer Max (Sadie Sink), among other issues.
When I watched season two, it slowly dawned on me that I was still emotionally attached to the show — and this connection wasn’t necessarily benign. The best example is from the final episode when the boys go to a middle school dance called the Snow Ball and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Eleven share their first kiss. It’s cute and all, but I couldn’t enjoy it. I was on the edge of my seat, paralyzed with nervousness and embarrassment — because the Stranger Things time machine had transported me back to every middle school dance I ever went to, and it was horrible.
When I watched it, I felt like I had gone back in time.
Nothing specifically awful happened to me back then; I certainly avoided most buckets of pigs’ blood. But check out Dustin in the episode’s final moments. I didn’t have his incredible and unwarranted self-confidence, but I completely remember how overwhelming it was to enter the hormonally and socially high-stakes world of a dance held in a school gymnasium. Like Mike, I remember exactly what it was like to see my friends (however occasionally) go off to dance with a girl and to seethe with both jealousy and shame at not being dance-worthy. Watching Dustin awkwardly and repeatedly call the name of a girl who refuses to even acknowledge his presence hit home in the worst way. And all of that misery, for what? So I could extend my arms as far out as possible, then put them on a girl’s waist, ensuring there were four million cubic meters of air space between us? Ugh. And yet, they were somehow all that mattered in the world.
The scene brought all these memories and feelings crashing back, just as the first season had, but in this case, they were mostly traumatic. I had lived through the nightmare of early pubescence once, and somehow survived the gauntlet that was middle school; I had no desire to do it again. But such was Stranger Things’ hold over me that I no longer had a choice in the matter, and was merely along for the ride.
On one hand, this is a marvel. For a piece of art to be so accurate — not just factually, but tonally — as to remind me exactly how it felt to be a 12-year-old is a stupendous achievement. On the other hand, please don’t make me go to a middle school dance ever again, mentally or otherwise. Just remembering the gold chain and cheap cologne boys used to wear back then to “formal” occasions is enough to make me shudder in shame.
It makes me genuinely apprehensive to think about what’s coming in the show’s third season, premiering July 4 on Netflix. It was filmed in 2018, when the bulk of the show’s youngest tier of characters were about 16. I think it’s a reasonably safe bet to say that this will be their age in the season, where they’ll be waist-deep in the perils of high school, still reeling from the final ravages of puberty, minds clouded by hormones and their ability to perceive objective reality splintered by emotions, constantly turned to maximum.
Presumably, Stranger Things won’t go so far as to make its main characters’ that special brand of obnoxious and maddening that teens so often are — there have been several teen characters on the show already and they have generally fared pretty well. But the show’s ability to relentlessly drag me back through my youth, and replicate both its highs and lows in stunning clarity, makes me worry about what’s coming — or, rather, what’s coming back to me.
What dark secrets about my high school years does Stranger Things remember that I have intentionally forgotten? What stupid acts and horrible decisions will I see on-screen that parallel something I did that was stupid and horrible? I don’t know, but whatever it is, I’ll feel it to the depths of my soul. (If Mike gets so super-needy about Eleven that it drives her away, I may not make it through this.)
I’m trying to have some hope in that since season three is set in 1985, and I started high school in 1990, maybe the cultural touchstones between my life and the show will be different enough that I won’t be involuntarily teleported back through a lowlight reel of what it’s like to be a teenaged nerd before nerds were cool. But I’m not holding my breath.
Maturation can be a painful process for anyone. But Stranger Things has managed to tap into something so authentic, to access something so deep inside me, that I don’t seem to have any choice in the matter — other than not actually watching it, of course, but that’s not happening. The fact is that kids, both real and fictional, grow up so fast. Hopefully the same holds true for nostalgic, 40-something nerds.