It Follows

Stranger Things 2016–, still from a TV show on Netflix. Season two.

IT’S HALLOWEEN NIGHT, 1984, in the new season of Stranger Things, and police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is talking to a locked door. The show’s telekinetic heroine Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is on the other side, age thirteen, reenacting Poltergeist (1982) with the TV tuned to a dead channel. “Sorry, kid,” he mumbles, trying to be a dad. “I lost track of time . . .”

That could be a hot new slogan for Netflix, which produces the series. In the fictional small town of Hawkins, Indiana, the 1980s are brought back from the dead in high definition, every frame like a window into a dollhouse from the era of Farrah Fawcett hairspray and Purple Rain. Tangerine Dream synths drift like ominous fog over fields of mutilated pumpkins, and boys go nuts over Dragon’s Lair at the arcade.

In 2017, Stranger Things has become, since its first transmission last summer, the object of teenybopper hysteria and febrile nerd worship alike, with its cast turning into internet royalty. Track the reverberations: the magic of Winona Ryder regaining her status of everybody’s favorite misfit heroine through the role of matriarch Joyce Byers, Finn Wolfhard (aka Mike) appearing in a woozy Dazed shoot by Collier Schorr, and Millie Bobby Brown becoming the face of Raf Simons’s Calvin Klein reboot. In the pages of Dazed in 2016, the show’s producer, Shawn Levy, spoke about how “there’s an innocence to its world that is enviable. Really, really enviable.” No points for guessing why anybody craves such a world at the present, but that doesn’t seem like the only ghost at play in the show’s success. There’s a whole Rubik’s Cube of disorientations, mixing up innocence and eeriness, real space versus its simulation, past and future, daydream and nightmare, into a monstrous phenomenon. All of which darkly relates, of course, to where we are now, though its suburban pastoral backdrop seems as far away as Neverland. Puppyish Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) pinpoints the ambient instability while freaking out about the extraterrestrial virus at work inside him: “It got me everywhere!”

Millie Bobby Brown Raps a Recap of Stranger Things: Season One

In the face of all this dizzying hype and the various trippy questions the show excites, the only plausible option sometimes seems to be going totally Buzzfeed with a multiple-choice interlude:

If Nabokov’s Pale Fire is the crucial book within the labyrinth of Blade Runner 2049, what volume has the same power in Stranger Things?

a) The novelization of Ghostbusters by Richard Mueller
b) Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television by Jeffrey Sconce
c) Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak

Which of Winona’s lines as goth princess Lydia from Beetlejuice (1988) most echoes whatever’s happening in Stranger Things?

a) “I am utterly alone . . .”
b) “You guys really are dead!”
c) “What if this is a dream?”

What do we crave from the 1980s?

a) Proof that the gremlin within (“inner child”) is not dead
b) Freedom to be tasteless
c) Dry ice

Like opioids, nostalgia is a powerful source of consolation for millennials who find themselves in a future where politics is a hellscape and employment is as substantive as a hologram. Certain historical phantoms vex the concept of the ’80s as a dreamtime idyll—Reagan, AIDS, the Cold War, are evil presences still awaiting exorcism—but the show stays faithful to its child’s-eye view of the world, in which these horrors scarcely register. Yet their ghosts, along with other contemporary menaces in circulation (amnesia, PTSD, disembodiment, monsters gone viral), haunt this tale of traumatized children and wrecked adults. Will, now known as “zombie boy,” finds himself in a rerun of The Thing (1982), as tentacular creatures invade his body and delete his mind. Meanwhile, orphan Eleven asks Hopper the alien question, “Do I have a mother?” not knowing what the role involves. Soon, in search of answers like a waif version of Frankenstein’s monster, she breaks out of quarantine to explore the wild world beyond. She returns from her antics in the city looking rad, eyes ringed purple and sneakers filthy, like a feral punkette from the X-Men.

Stranger Things 2016–, still from a TV show on Netflix. Season two. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown).

Eleven’s education in just how dangerous she might be was the discovery of the new season but little else has grown scarier or stranger. This sequel operates like a video-game expansion pack, elaborating on the first season’s Lovecraft-meets–John Hughes universe with a glut of extra lore (check how Eleven illuminates her origin story by replaying her mom’s electroshock-addled memories), acid-trip levels of microcosmic detail in production design (shout-out to Will’s poster for The Dark Crystal!), and the budget upped astronomically so way more hideous creatures writhe. Attention to textural minutiae over action is the source of the show’s powers: It isn’t a drama so much as a wormhole into an imaginary environment, like the treasure map in The Goonies (1985) or Dungeons & Dragons’s Player’s Handbook. In these magic realms, background trivia is what matters, as it creates a luscious verisimilitude and the space to zone out from waking life. Oddball extras, cubistic flora and fauna, aberrations in the climate: that stuff means the parallel world, live. But even if the Upside Down is the best transdimensional wilderness and/or account of depression at its most dissociative extreme since The NeverEnding Story (1984), what’s truly discombobulating and kind of sad about Stranger Things is the “real” world above.

It’s a science fiction about the 1980s: not as a historical time, but how it appears in the movies from that decade. Nobody could avoid melancholy or ferocious recognition of what’s been lost and festering unchecked since, or the reasons for such a crush on the past (for example, note how Trump first toyed with the thought of running for president on Late Night with David Letterman in 1987). In this galaxy far, far away, analog isn’t extinct, fantastical creatures run amok (Prince! Sandra Bernhard! David Bowie!), and a bunch of sci-fi and horror hits feed the imaginations of pubescent introverts. Maybe what makes millennials uniquely prone to nostalgia is that their formative technologies—VHS, CD-ROM, compact cassette—are gone, encoding childhood memories as they vanished. It’s no accident that the major device in the first season was a mixtape, since the show itself plays out like the shape-shifting contents of an ancient VHS cassette, mixing elements from the Duffer Brothers’ repeat rentals at Blockbuster until it somehow assumes its own life as an original work. Replicant squads of Brian, “the brain” from The Breakfast Club (1986), would be required to unspool the ouroboros of allusions made to ’80s movies within its simulation of the ’80s.

The Halloween bash in the season’s second episode, “Trick or Treat, Freak,” is a complex pop-culture treasure hunt choreographed to Mötley Crüe’s hair-metal anthem “Shout at the Devil.” Phantom cameos abound: Michael Jackson pre-werewolf transformation in the video for “Thriller” hangs out in the kitchen and Siouxsie Sioux vamps by the doorway. By the time Nancy (Natalie Dyer) is knocking back punch in her Rebecca de Mornay in Risky Business costume, this wax museum transcends the hallucinogenic and hits sublime, the whole thing funkily acknowledging the Duffer Brothers’ art of playing with undead materials from the past.

Stranger Things 2016–, still from a TV show on Netflix. Season two.

Another kind of doppelganger anxiety is in the air too. This new season comes in the wake of It (2017), Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s killer clown epic. With its cast of cute kids (including Mike) discovering the creepiness of suburbia in an ’80s time warp, It feels like Stranger Things’s evil twin. Together they survey the different kinds of fright lurking within King’s works: The Duffer Brothers chase PG-13 goose bumps while It discloses traumatic gore. Long before Dubya promised No Child Left Behind, King was tracking the anguish of being an ordinary American kid and imagining supernatural malignancies. The Duffer Brothers’ story of Eleven is the next installment of the case files that King opened in his studies on Danny from The Shining, Charlene in Firestarter, or blood-soaked prom queen Carrie. All these kids use their powers to triumphantly wreak revenge on a world that has scarred or rejected them, but their presence hints, too, at how horror and childhood always remain ghoulishly entwined. According to King’s sly guide to the genre, Danse Macabre, 1981, the best horror opens up a vortex that “knocks the adult props out from under us and tumbles us back down into childhood.” Time warp induced, those early experiences of fear reactivate: “And there,” the master writes, “our shadow may once again become that of a mean dog, a gaping mouth or a beckoning dark figure.”

Billy (Dacre Montgomery), the poodle-rock sociopath who struts his way through season two like some backwoods tribute to Kiefer Sutherland in Stand by Me (1986), calls this state by its playground nickname: “the heebie jeebies.” Stranger Things is all about those moments when reality suddenly quivers with malevolent promise—the squelch of slime against flesh, evil screeches in the dark—with nobody more vulnerable to their attack than Eleven, since she experiences the “normal” world as if it were another manifestation of the Upside Down, a vast haunted house in which she can never be at home. Brought up between lab tests and isolation tanks, Eleven is still the show’s heart. Brown plays her near-mute character in enigmatic fashion, half Edward Scissorhands, half bad Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as she moves through hellacious intensities of rage, vulnerability, or bewilderment. She shatters windows with her fury; she screams at her reflection in the water. Roaming around the paranormal blackout zone of her mind, she remains unable to touch anything she loves, making her the perfect embodiment for teen rat-in-a-cage angst. Nothing in season two is as odd as that scene from season one, episode two (“The Weirdo on Maple Street”), where she wanders around Mike’s house like an inquisitive ghost, slowly fathoming what home, family, and girlhood might mean, step by shivery step.

As the first season climaxed by literally retching at the thought of a happy ending—remember Will barfing up that parasitic slug on Christmas Eve?—this season, too, slow fades on a sinister note. The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” was deployed as both a romantic jam for the kids smooching at the Snow Ball and the stalker vow of the hydra-like supervillain known as the Mind Flayer watching over it all from the Upside Down. Now the mutant phase of puberty looms for the cast, the monster swirling outside mimics the one within that makes the body distort and the self get slippery. All that supernatural activity is another way for Stranger Things to deal with the really spooky question at play in the best ’80s teen flicks (Rumble Fish [1983], Pretty in Pink [1986], Heathers [1989]): What happens when that fabled “something strange in the neighborhood” is you?