O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
-- William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5
The Netflix series Stranger Things revels in the strangest things conjured by pop culture: monsters, like those that spring from the twisted imagination of Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth); government conspiracies, straight out of The X-Files; horror-thriller hybrids lifted from Stephen King; plot points that depend on Dungeons & Dragons for context.
By contrast, the eight-episode series' debt to Steven Spielberg, and especially 1982's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, seems sweetly natural. Mothers and fathers, resolutely going to hell and back to save their children. Teenagers who make immature decisions, and then wise ones. Courageous children whose steadfast friendships strengthen them to face both bullies and monsters.
I was born in 1983 and didn't grow up watching popular films and TV shows, so my hook into Stranger Things had little to do with the nostalgia most people seem to experience watching the show, with its myriad references to films, TV shows, and music of the era. (I first saw E.T. in February. This February.) I was hooked purely by Stranger Things' plot, which melds monster horror, conspiracy thriller, and plain, old-fashioned suspense: Will Byers, about age 10, disappears one night, which sends his single mom Joyce (Winona Ryder, in the show's most obvious nod to the 1980s), his brother, and his friends and their families into a tailspin as they try to find him.
Eventually they realize something paranormal is going on—especially when the lights in his house seem to start blinking and Mike's sister Nancy's best friend goes missing. There's also a strange girl with a shaved head named Eleven who turns up, for reasons nobody can understand, and Mike and his friends Dustin and Lucas (named, I think quite obviously, for the Star Wars creator) hide her in the basement while they try to figure out how to rescue their friend. There's also the local sheriff (David Harbour), who lives a hermit's life after the loss of his own daughter, and stumbles into the story and knows he has to get involved.
One of the central conceits of Stranger Things is the existence of a plane of existence the boys call “The Upside Down,” a parallel dimension that exists alongside our own, but swaps out decay and death for every bit of life and flourishing on our own plane. Experienced sources (aka my husband) inform me that this, along with one of the show's major monsters, is drawn directly from Dungeons & Dragons, the role-playing game many evangelicals were warned away from in the 1990s. The show's children—its central characters (who, to the one, are fantastic)—are avid D&D players. In fact, that's how we meet them: playing a many-hours-long campaign in the basement, and unable to defeat a menacing in-game monster with their powers and rolls of the die.
Eventually it turns out that their game knowledge is applicable to real life—they take for granted that things beyond common “philosophy,” as Hamlet puts it, are there, and that instead of sitting around contemplating this mystery they ought to focus on the objective and save their friend. Joyce has a harder time convincing people that she isn't crazy to believe that Will is communicating with her through Christmas lights.