Stranger Things is a pop culture phenomenon, partly due to its portrayal of life in small-town America in the 1980s. But how accurate is Stranger Things to the 80s? Here’s my perspective as a kid who grew up in a small midwestern town in the 80s.
Everyone’s perspective on the 80s will be a little different, depending on on how or where they lived at the time, among other factors. As someone who grew up in a small town in Missouri, I find Stranger Things’ portrayal fairly accurate, though imperfect. Even though its portrayal is imperfect, I still enjoy the show.
Everyone’s perspective on the 80s will be different
One thing to keep in mind about the 1980s is that the United States was less homogenized in the 80s than it is today. Trends started on either coast and moved toward the center. Some trends moved much faster than others. But they moved more slowly than today, because we didn’t have social media. We had televisions and we got 3-5 channels if we didn’t have cable TV. If we did have cable TV, we got around 20 channels.
Movies would help start or carry trends, but that moved slowly as well. Not every town had a movie theater, and small theaters had two or three screens. A five-screen theater was a large theater then. If the 20-screen movie palaces existed then, I didn’t see them. They were much less common, at least in the midwest.
My classmates and I certainly watched a lot of movies, but we saw more of them on HBO or VHS tape than in theaters. And that took time. In the small town in Missouri where I lived, kids were still talking about movies that were two years old as if they were relatively new.
If you grew up in the 80s in a city, some things about Stranger Things’ portrayal of a small town will feel quaint. Having grown up in a small town instead, its portrayal feels about right, but I know I have to account for some differences. I lived in Missouri, not Indiana.
The atmosphere of Stranger Things
All that said, the atmosphere of Stranger Things feels about right. In Season 1, the kids make a reference to Lando Calrissian’s betrayal of Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back, which was a 1980 movie. I would have said that.
The kids played Dungeons and Dragons and believed a monster lived in the woods. I was taught that Dungeons and Dragons was satanic, being raised Lutheran, but a lot of kids played it, and I knew it.
Stranger Things is a work of fiction, so of course its portrayal of a monster in the woods and a parallel universe are things I didn’t experience, and neither did anyone else who grew up like I did. Kids who watched too many horror movies may have believed monsters lived in the woods. They certainly pretended like they did. And certainly there were adults who believed there were government conspiracies and secret studies like the ones portrayed in Stranger Things. I first heard rumors of a stealth fighter in the fall of 1983, which was a good five years before the Pentagon admitted its existence. A lot of the details were wrong.
The mistrust of the government you see in Stranger Things feels fairly accurate to the 80s.
I loved the portrayal of the older brother giving his younger brother a mix tape with songs from bands like The Clash and Joy Division. I didn’t have an older brother to introduce me to music that didn’t get radio play. Songs from 1980 and 1981 being circulated in 1983 as if they were new and cutting edge is definitely accurate. I knew there was a thing called punk rock but it wasn’t until I moved to St. Louis in 1988 that I met anyone who had heard any of it.
Wandering the neighborhood
One thing you may notice about Stranger Things is the kids ride their bikes all over the place, unaccompanied by adults, except for Will. In the 80s, if you didn’t let your kids wander, you were considered overprotective. Reports of kids going missing were rarer in the 80s than they are today, and people just generally believed it was something that didn’t happen in their town.
My next-door neighbor’s kids are a few years older than I am, and we’ve discussed this. She let her kids ride their bikes a couple of miles away when they were growing up in the 70s and 80s. Today my limit is less than a mile, and she agrees with me on that, even though she used to let her kids ride a lot further than I do. And while my kids think I’m overprotective, all the other neighborhood parents follow the same unspoken rules. Kids roamed a lot more then than now.
After dark, the rules were different. Having curfews wasn’t unusual. Some parents were more lax about them than others, and in that regard, Stranger Things feels accurate to the 80s.
The Language of Stranger Things
The biggest criticism I’ve heard is that the characters in Stranger Things don’t talk the way we did in the 80s. I have to agree with that. The language has changed since the 80s, and the talk in the show feels more contemporary. If I were writing for Stranger Things, I would watch more 1980s television and more movies outside of the thriller genre.
The language in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure was an exaggeration, and that was one reason it was funny. Pre-teens in Indiana in the early to mid 1980s wouldn’t have talked like Bill and Ted, but they would have dropped the occasional 80s catchphrase more often than they do in the show.
The use of the term “mouth breather” is the language anachronism that sticks out most for me. I never heard the phrase in the 1980s. Searching in Google Books, I found it in a slang dictionary from 1996, but its use has really increased in this century. The only place I see it used in Google Books in 1980s publications is in medical books.
Also, at one point in season 2 the manager of the arcade makes reference to the Dig Dug machine having a fried motherboard. That would have been uncommon terminology in the 80s. We would have just said it was broken. And field technicians didn’t talk about fried boards much in the 80s. Back then they replaced components on boards, they didn’t swap the whole board.
The other thing that stands out is parents rebuking their kids by saying, “Language!” That’s definitely more recent than in the 80s. I don’t remember anyone’s parents ever rebuking their kids with that. In that regard, I don’t think Stranger Things is very accurate to the 80s.
We don’t associate threats of washing a kid’s mouth out with soap with the 80s, but that’s what I remember parents saying. Supposedly in previous decades they actually did it. In the 80s, it was a threat or a euphemism, as far as I ever knew. But my parents said it, and so did my peers’ parents.
The other thing was, when I was a kid, we rarely cursed in front of adults. We’d curse in front of each other, but cursing in front of adults was a good way to get your allowance taken away or get grounded.
The technology of Stranger Things
I’ve written about 1980s technology before. There certainly was a conflict between kids who liked technology and kids who didn’t care about it. I attended summer school one year and the kids who were there to learn computers definitely conflicted with the flunkies who were there so they wouldn’t get held back a grade. So the conflicts between the gawky kids who understood technology and the mouth-breathers who didn’t seems familiar, even though we never called them mouth breathers in the 80s.
I didn’t know any adults who were into HAM radio in 1983, but I’ll write that off as being unlucky. There were HAM radio enthusiasts in Missouri in the 1980s, but I didn’t know them.
An Atari for Christmas in 1983 might be a bit of a reach, but within the realm of possibility. Atari’s sales famously collapsed in 1983, but it’s not like a memo went out about it. Atari slashed prices in 1983 and someone bought them. A poor family in a small town that always wanted one probably would have been tempted by its sub-$100 price that Christmas. And the game cartridges remained available for years, even after the Nintendo NES, and yes, even in small towns. I remember going into a shoe store in Fredricktown, Missouri in the late 1980s and seeing a selection of Atari games on a shelf.
You see kids talking about Atari more than you see them playing it. In that regard, Stranger Things feels accurate to the 80s, at least the mid 1980s.
Stranger Things and government
The political climate of Stranger Things is complicated. Mistrust of the government comes in waves and certainly predates the 80s. We had mistrust due to LBJ’s policies in the 60s, and mistrust due to Watergate in the 70s, and then Reagan came along in the 80s and said the government is the problem more than it’s the solution.
Is the attitude toward authority colored by this decade? Maybe. But there was corruption in the 80s too.
It’s complicated. And that feels accurate. There are points in season three when you want the Feds to show up, and it feels good when they finally do. Letting complicated things be complicated is one of the things that makes the show great.
What about politics?
In season 2 you see both Reagan/Bush and Mondale/Ferraro yard signs. There were more signs supporting the Democrats than you would expect to see in a small town today. That’s accurate to the 1980s. Small towns probably were as conservative in the 1980s as they are today, but they weren’t as solidly Republican. In the 1980s, the parties were more ideologically diverse than they are now. Lloyd Bentsen, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in 1988, was a conservative Democrat from Texas. That’s a weird idea today.
The parties rearranged themselves along conservative/liberal lines in the mid 1990s, but that was still pretty far off in 1984. I even saw a few Mondale/Ferraro signs in southern Missouri.
Stranger Things and the Russians
If anything, Stranger Things understates Russia. Russia weighed heavily on our minds in the 80s. Elementary schools still had fallout shelter signs on their exteriors in the early 80s, because we believed we’d need them. The only adversarial country in a position to use nuclear weapons on us at the time was Russia.
Obviously, Stranger Things is a work of fiction, and science fiction at that. So I’m not saying we tried to use the paranormal to spy on each other. There’s been speculation over the years of both sides trying it, with no success to speak of, of course. If we thought something would have worked, we would have tried it.
This shouldn’t be news to anyone, but we didn’t like Russia in the 80s, and the portrayal of the Russians in the show feels true to the decade. In this, Stranger Things captures the feel of the 80s, even if what we felt in the 80s turned out not to have been perfectly accurate.
Stranger Things and commercialism
At the onset of Stranger Things, the town of Hawkins had a downtown full of locally owned, family-operated stores and restaurants. As the show progressed, chains moved in and forced many of the locally owned stores out of business. That certainly is accurate to the 80s. How, when, and why it happened varied from town to town. So I can’t fault the show for making it happen differently in Hawkins than it happened in Missouri.
In the small towns I lived in, it wasn’t a mall that did it. It was Wal-Mart. But with Wal-Mart starting in Arkansas, it would have made its way through Missouri before it reached Indiana.
From a plot standpoint, a mall is much more interesting than a Wal-Mart. Plus, large enclosed shopping malls are dying out today, so that’s a visible difference between now and the 1980s. We still have Wal-Mart.
Stranger Things’ portrayal of an 80s shopping mall is pretty accurate, as is its portrayal of a downtown being hollowed out. It was slower and more gradual where I lived. Some of the stores in the mall are real and some are fiction. The real ones look just how I remembered them.
Stranger Things and geek culture
Stranger Things’ portrayal of nerdy or geeky behavior and the way others reacted to it is mixed. The scene where Scott Clarke, the school’s science teacher, was cranking Weird Al Yankovic in his garage as he painted figures for his train layout felt contrived to me. In 1985, Weird Al was a pop star, and the people who picked on geeky people listened to him too. I don’t think that part was super accurate to the 80s.
The elaborate American Flyer train layout in his garage is straight out of the 1950s, but electric trains from that era experienced a resurgence among baby boomers in the 80s. So a science teacher having a Flyer layout in his garage in 1985 is completely plausible. They got another detail right when the plot required a small AC transformer. American Flyer trains are one of a small number that use AC, rather than DC.
Let’s talk about Bob Newby
I’ll try not to get into spoilers, but I have to give the character of Bob Newby a mixed grade as well. Bob was either the owner or the manager of the downtown Radio Shack. Many Radio Shacks in small towns were franchises, and they often were downtown, so those details are good.
At one point in season 2, Bob marvels that he gets to date Joyce Byers, played by Winona Ryder. I think this kind of thing happened in 80s movies more than it happened in the real 1980s, but I suppose it’s plausible.
My biggest problem with Bob is the point in season 2 where he encountered an unfamiliar computer system and talked about having to know Basic, which was a popular 1980s computer language. The program he typed on screen looked like a valid Basic program, but it would not have produced the menu-driven system that he used to operate the computer, and that program isn’t something he could have figured out in five minutes. And while Basic was a language that would have existed on the computer he encountered, it wouldn’t have been the most common way to use that type of system.
Admittedly, that part of the plot is a challenge, requiring you to balance making it interesting, giving it some intensity, and making Bob the only one who can solve that problem.. Maybe having Bob observe that the system was an IBM System/38 and he used one in college, then having him hack into it would have had a similar dramatic effect. But it wouldn’t have looked quite as 80s. It would have been more accurate, but it wouldn’t have made Stranger Things look accurate to the 80s.
The satanic panic
At the end of season 3, there’s a scene in which a tabloid TV show blames the strange things going on in town on satanism, and flashes to a stash of Dungeons and Dragons paraphernalia. These hyper-sensationalist news shows were staples of afternoon TV in the 1980s, and yes, the plot of Stranger Things was made for those types of shows.
Unlike Stranger Things, the satanic panic of the 1980s was very real. I experienced it myself, growing up. The idea was that satanism was taking over popular culture. Dungeons and Dragons was something people brought up frequently as being satanic, or at least the most common gateway to satanism. Rock music was another. I was told growing up that KISS was an acronym for “Knights In Satan’s Service,” and AC/DC was an acronym for “After Christ the Devil Comes.” Self-styled investigators would play music backwards looking for subliminal messages.
The 1987 Tom Hanks/Dan Akroyd movie Dragnet shows a satanic cult performing various rituals including human sacrifice. In the 1980s, a majority of conservative Christians believed these things were going on. In the town I lived in, I think there were kids who were copying the rumors they heard, or at least trying to convince people they were. Two girls I knew said they received death threats. I don’t believe it was part of a grand conspiracy, though some people I knew then might take issue with me saying that, even today.
I’m surprised this element didn’t come into the series sooner.
How accurate Stranger Things is to the 80s: In conclusion
Stranger Things does a lot of things very well, and that’s the reason it became so popular. Setting it in the 80s helps draw guys like me in, but I have coworkers who weren’t alive for any part of the 80s who love it.
Its accuracy to the 1980s is surprisingly good, especially considering its creators were born in 1984. They don’t have their own memories to lean on. The accuracy isn’t perfect. I mean, I’ve written 2,300 words about it and if I went back and watched it again I could probably find a few more items. But it does capture the feel and the spirit.
They don’t get every detail right but they capture the feeling really well, and that’s what’s more important. If you get all the details right and miss the feeling, then you miss the whole point. The characters feel like people I would have known in the 80s, and for the most part, they’re people I would have liked to have known then. And the ones I’m glad I didn’t know are the ones we’re not supposed to like.
And the characters and the storyline pull you in the directions I remember 80s movies pulling you in, too.