It’s safe to say that Stranger Things is the surprise sci-fi hit of the summer. In eight brief episodes, the Duffer brothers managed to craft a vision of 1980s Indiana that feels both familiar and expansive, complete with a stunning alternate dimension shot in murky gray-green, with flakes of decomposed … something falling softly over a skewed version of the world.
In the weeks since Stranger Things dropped, guides to its deep roots in '80s pop culture have popped up all over the internet. But although the show’s reverence for the '80s is undeniable, critical focus on any single decade comes at the cost of ignoring the larger science fiction influences entangled in the show’s pop culture DNA.
Stranger Things’ '80s trappings are most apparent on a visual level: A scene where Mike, Eleven, and their friends frantically bicycle away from a threatening fleet of government vans strongly summons Steven Spielberg’s E.T. But our first glimpse of the show’s supernatural monster is a spitting image of Halloween’s Michael Myers, when the monster pauses among the laundry lines, a hulking shadow on the brink of changing everything. Halloween is a classic horror flick — but because it came out in 1978, it’s been excluded from most Stranger Things supercuts.
When it comes to the show’s supernatural monster, 1980s allusions are a particularly limiting lens through which to examine the complex threads of its science fiction genetics — starting with its name.
The roots of Stranger Things’ monster mythology extend far beyond the '80s
Nicknamed the Demogorgon after a demon prince from Dungeons & Dragons (which rose to prominence in the late 1970s), the show’s lurking beast is linked to some of the oldest monster stories in existence. Sinister creatures dubbed "demogorgons" appear in texts including Paradise Lost and Prometheus Unbound, apparently inspired by a book written by 14th-century poet and author Giovanni Boccaccio.
Etymological notes aside, the monster’s behavior ties it closely to iconic creatures from films of the 1970s and 1990s. Specifically, the Demogorgon could be the interdimensional love child of Jaws (1975) and Tremors (1990).
Like Jaws’ rogue great white and Tremors’ giant toothy sand worm (or "Graboid," if you want to get technical), the scariest thing about the Demogorgon is its ability to strike at any moment, from any direction. Like Jaws’ shark, the Demogorgon is lured by blood, which we learn in a visually striking scene where Barb’s hand, injured in a humiliating drinking game accident, drips vivid red blood into a backyard swimming pool.
And like Tremors’ Graboid, the Demogorgon’s tulip-shaped head is essentially a giant, yawning mouth, lined with layers of gnashing teeth. All three monsters are essentially built from the same parts, with some slight differences in cosmetic finish. The Atlantic Ocean isn’t so different from the Nevada desert or from the walls and ceiling of the Byerses' house; all three take on a head-spinning vastness when there is the possibility of unexpected violence erupting at every turn.
Beyond the physical elements of its predatory nature, Stranger Things’ Demogorgon also resonates with one of The X-Files’ creepiest creations: the horrifyingly pallid, sewer-dwelling flukeman featured in "The Host," which aired during the show’s second season in 1994.
A classic monster-of-the-week episode, "The Host" begins on a Russian ship a few miles off the coast of New Jersey. When a crew member is tasked with investigating the ship’s malfunctioning sewage system, he is abruptly yanked into the overflowing tank of wastewater — only to be found a few days later, his body half-eaten.
The pattern repeats shortly after, when a Newark sewage worker is pulled underwater by a similar force. Unlike the Russian sailor, he manages to escape alive. But in the aftermath of the attack, he vomits blood while showering — plus a slippery silver fluke worm that slides out of his mouth and down the drain, back to the sewer where the Russian ship’s powerful flukeman now lurks. Ultimately, the flukeman turns out to be a horribly mutated fluke worm, its body scrambled by waves of radioactive energy thrown off by the Chernobyl meltdown.
All this should sound very familiar to viewers who’ve made it to the end of Stranger Things. In the first season’s final scene, Will excuses himself from the dinner table to wash up. In the bathroom, unknown to his mother and brother, he grips the sink, horrified as the world rapidly flickers between reality and the Upside Down’s moldering chill.
Suddenly, he coughs violently, and what seems like it might be a panic attack becomes even more unnerving when he vomits a gleaming slug into the sink — the same kind that slithered out of Barb’s mouth after her death. The Upside Down is still inside him, and not just in an emotional sense.
The Demogorgon is ultimately a distraction from the show’s true villains
When Stranger Things returns for a (not yet official, all-but-certain) second season, it’s reasonable to expect the plot will deal, in part, with the suggestion that Will is now a vector for the Upside Down, possibly even hatching its creatures inside his body. In the heat of Joyce and Jim Hopper’s hunt for Will in the Upside Down, it was easy to assume that the vine that inserted itself down Will’s throat was somehow feeding on him — but in light of that fat slug, it seems that it may have been depositing something that will inevitably resurface.
All of these elements add up to a monster that is ultimately a distraction, a clever tertiary red herring that distracts from Stranger Things’ true villains: the mad scientists at the Department of Energy. The Demogorgon is at the heart of Stranger Things’ most suspenseful scenes, but it’s also a senseless beast that shows no particular ill will toward any of the characters.
Like Tremors’ Graboid or Jaws’ shark, the Demogorgon is really just hungry, and humans happen to be its favorite food. It appears, it destroys, and it disappears again, with none of the complicated motivations and histories that humans bring to every interaction.
That isn’t to say the Demogorgon isn’t an effective and frightening presence; on a functional level, the Demogorgon's dumb hunger and deep roots in monster mythology help keep Stranger Things from going off the rails. The show manages to serve pitch-perfect nostalgia because it does little to challenge conventional thinking about the world, freely drawing on familiar small-town tropes and Cold War conspiracy theories.
By contrast, Fringe (another recent television show that explored interdimensionality) had more sweeping ambitions that ultimately bogged down the show in meticulous discussions of the fraying politics between its two parallel universes.
On a structural level, Stranger Things' Demogorgon displaces attention from the show’s most insidious evil. By popping through walls or thundering through otherwise quiet woods, the Demogorgon adds instant danger that a more somber examination of the Department of Energy’s abusive scientific experiments could never provide.
Similarly, Jaws’ rogue shark becomes the vastly more enthralling symbol of a drier battle between local officials who squabble over the relative value of public safety versus tourist dollars. The suspense these monsters generate gives both stories the latitude to dissect trickier moral dilemmas by keeping viewers engaged and terrified.
Stranger Things is a love letter to the '80s, but ignoring influences beyond the arbitrary borders of any single decade ignores one of the best aspects of science fiction: the way stories endlessly riff on each other to question or clarify our world.
Whether it’s a malfunctioning great white in 1975 New England or a Demogorgon in 2016, science fiction monsters can serve as symbols for humanity’s worst temptations. It’s an ongoing process that is bigger than nostalgia, bigger than the 1980s, and bigger than Stranger Things itself.