We finished Stranger Things last night, and my usual post-watch research uncovered dedicated articles that sought to catalog its many, many references to horror and sci-fi films of the late 70s and early 80s. I was surprised that I’d seen all of them, and that I saw most within a few years of their release. The fact showed the ubiquity of both Spielberg and splattery supernatural horror among men of a certain age, maybe, or just my determination to seek out their thrills while being raised in a family and faith that loved the former and nearly forbade the latter. VCRs and sleepovers with friends who had HBO filled in my gaps, and thank God for ’em. (I’m spoiler-free, from here on in.)
While I watched, I was thinking about “pastiche” as I read the idea in undergrad. It’s the indiscriminate pomo recombination of aspects of past art in the interest of creating something that both acknowledges the past’s contribution to the present while also disregarding it. Pastiche reveals the inadequacy of the past to speak to the present moment (leaving us a “field of stylistic and discursive heterogeneity without a norm”). The resulting affect is both unhinged and over it, irony with all its who-cares glory and none of its revelatory juxtapositions. Custom made for the 80s, went the rap on it, when there was No Future anyway because we’d all be atom-dead before long.
Stranger Things borrows so liberally from the films it clearly adores it’s almost comical. We hollered the Spielberg references at the screen as they trotted by: Poltergeist, Stand By Me, E.T., Close Encounters. We despaired as to whether there was actually an idea in this movie at all, so fully did it use a vocabulary it had inherited, not invented. It was “pastiche” in ways my pomo prof back in the 80s would have plotzed over.
But I felt strangely satisfied watching it, strangely full – because all these referents were deeply charged with my own experience of them, and those experiences were among the richest and mostly deeply felt I’d ever had. I don’t mean the experience of wearing a Lands’ End striped rugby shirt and crushing on a girl in a pink oxford button-down with a Fair Isle sweater vest. I mean the experience of seeing, and reading, pulpy horror. How, when and where I found those stories are as powerful to me as what they told.
They usually came across my path when I was out of the house, on a sleepover or camping trip. The stories were usually the detritus of another family: someone else’s paperback left under the couch or in the glove compartment, or someone else’s cable package left on all night. This means that I would end up consuming them in a tightly-closed window. I wasn’t borrowing the book, so I needed to finish it before I went to sleep; I didn’t have cable, so I wasn’t going to get a chance to see this film again. All the intensity of being a good reader, and really wanting to find out what happens next, and being on the edge of falling asleep despite myself, rolled into one transgressive, sugar-rushed ball.
I found myself transported anew to those moments, and who I was in those moments, by the stories as well as by the BMX bikes (“kids treat those like Cadillacs,” someone says somewhere – oh boy, you have no idea), the dark wood paneling, the creativity of the D&D (I didn’t play, but my friends all did) and the impending Atari that would change what we all did in our basements forever. I was transported to who I was when I read them; the thrill of a story catching fire in my mind, more deeply felt than anything I’d read before, and the rush to consume it like a box of Twinkies before anyone else found them.
Cujo, Squirm, Firestarter, The Dead Zone, The Shining, The Wicker Man, It, Salem’s Lot, Carrie (thanks, Mr. King, for bending me permanently.) Videodrome, The Thing, Alien, The Fog. (Ditto, Mr. Carpenter.) Stranger Things understood that the minds of folks like me were shaped not just by the tentpole films we watched with our families, but also by the schlocky thrills we sought without them. It minces them both into a potent stew of referents and reminders that doesn’t ironically distance this viewer, at least, from their power, but intensifies it.
If this was the Duffer Brothers’ goal – this meta-whammy, this going around the horn of pastiche in order to drive home the originals’ aesthetic power, both through faithful reinscription and powerful reminder of who we were back in the day – well, bravo. But YMMV, as the kids say: maybe this show only nailed me because, as someone says somewhere, we never love anything the way we love the things we met when we were thirteen years old.
And that’s why there’s education here, especially for those who work with middle schoolers. Let us remember and honor how full our students’ lives are, even when they seem flat and distant. Let’s love all the texts, not just the ones the curriculum says you should – even theirs, the ones that don’t seem worthy, because they are, elevated by their readers’ love for them. Above all, let’s remain connected to who we were when we were young, the better to access some shred of that same intensity when we choose how and what to bring our students in the protected hours with them that school entrusts to us.
And maybe, I dunno – get The Shining out of the freezer and celebrate the summer’s end with another ride on the helltrain. What a way to go.
Image is the lobby card for Squirm, which novelization I am pretty sure was one of my late-night binge reads. Yuck. Awesome.