Stranger Things has become a phenomenon ever since it first hit Netflix in summer 2016. With at least four seasons planned, the horror-tinged, ’80s-set series isn’t going away anytime soon.
One of the show’s most endearing qualities is how it wears its inspirations on its sleeve. Series creators Matt and Ross Duffer are upfront with the fact that their show is essentially one big love letter to ’80s pop culture. The downside in this is that much of the shows younger demographic are either too young or weren’t even born yet. In fact, there’s a good chance that many of the show’s references to the era have gone right over their heads.
In celebration of the recent teaser for season four, we thought it would be fun to break down some lesser-known facts about Stranger Things.
Stranger Things > Montauk
Some might be surprised to learn that Stranger Things was actually sold to Netflix under the working title “Montauk”.
The Duffer brothers had originally intended for their sci-fi horror series to take place in Montauk, Long Island. However, after the series was picked up, the location was changed to Hawkins, Indiana.
Interestingly enough, the Duffer brothers chose Montauk because of the cities connection to “The Montauk Project”. This alleged government experiment involving the abduction of children during the early ’80s is a significant source of inspiration for the brothers’ script.
“The Montauk Project”
“The Montauk Project” was used as inspiration for Stranger Things. But what was “The Montauk Project”?
In the early ’80s, there was allegedly a government experiment that took place at the Montauk Air Force Base in Long Island. It supposedly involved kidnapping young children for experimentation. The government is said to have been experimenting with time travel and psychological warfare techniques. All of which are detailed in Preston B. Nichols and Peter Moon’s book The Montauk Project: Experiments in Time.
The Show Was Rejected More Than 15 Times
Before finally landing at Netflix, Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer had their show rejected by seemingly every network on earth.
In a 2016 interview with Rolling Stone, the brothers estimated that the show was rejected anywhere from 15 to 20 times by various networks. As they explain it, the chief reason why nobody wanted to touch Stranger Things was that network executives couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea of a show that featured kids as leads, but wasn’t actually a children’s show.
The Duffers were essentially told that they’d have to choose one or the other:
“You either gotta make it into a kids show or make it about this Hopper [detective] character investigating paranormal activity around town,” one [network executive] told them. Matt recalls replying, ‘Then we lose everything interesting about the show.’”
Considering how successful the show has been for Netflix, we’re sure there are more than a few executives out there kicking themselves for not picking up Stranger Things when they had the chance!
Casting the Children Took Time
Although it might sound a little excessive, the Duffer brothers actually auditioned a staggering 906 boys and 307 girls for the roles of children in Stranger Things. Each was asked to read parts from the 1986 coming-of-age film, Stand By Me.
Casting children can be a difficult task for a handful of reasons. The Duffer brothers deserve a lot of praise for casting such a talented group of children. Millie Bobby Brown is an outstanding actress poised to take over Hollywood and the hilarious Finn Wolfhard has already landed roles in the 2017 remake of Stephen King’s It, as well as the upcoming Ghostbusters: Afterlife. It’s only a matter of time before Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp, Sadie Sink, and Gaten Matarazzo begin landing bigger roles as well.
Gaten Matarazzo’s Auditon Tape
As mentioned above, the Duffer brothers auditioned thousands of children for Stranger Things. According to the brothers, Gaten Matarazzo’s audition tape was simply unforgettable.
During an interview with The New York Times back in 2016, Matt Duffer explained that they had to comb through hundreds of children’s audition tapes, many of which were turned off after “five seconds”. That was until they got to Matarazzo’s audition:
“The minute we saw Gaten [Matarazzo], who plays Dustin, we basically cast him off the first tape that he sent in. When you see someone like Gaten, and he pops the way he does, you’re just like, ‘This kid, we’re putting him in the show, 100 percent.’”
The Upside-Down Has a Ton Of Backstory
The netherworld realm known as the “Upside Down” is the beating dark heart at the center of Stranger Things. According to Ross Duffer, there’s a ton of backstory behind it.
In an interview with Variety, Duffer revealed that there’s an intricate 30-page document about the Upside Down. It details “what it all means, where this monster actually came from, and why aren’t there more monsters.”
The brothers plan to explore the Upside Down’s history more in later seasons of the show.
Pennywise Says Hello
Watching Andy Muschietti’s 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s classic horror novel It, it was hard not to be reminded of Stranger Things. Both are set in the ’80s and feature children as the leads.
That’s probably because those connections weren’t accidental. The Duffer Brothers have been pretty upfront about Stranger Things being heavily influenced by King’s work. In fact, the duo originally pitched a remake of It to Warner Bros. but was turned down due to their lack of experience. They went on to create Stranger Things instead.
However, the It connections don’t end there. Finn Wolfhard, who plays Mike Wheeler, also stars in Stephen King’s It as Richie Tozier. Wolfhard was actually offered the role of Richie before being chosen to play Mike. He nearly had to back out of Stranger Things before development delays on It made him available to participate in both projects.
In a knowing wink to King’s story, the final episode of Stranger Things‘ first season sees the kids trying to kill the Demogorgon monster with a slingshot. This is similar to how the kids use a slingshot to try and kill Pennywise both in his clown and spider forms.
Other Stephen King Nods
It isn’t the only Stephen King work referenced in Stranger Things. In fact, the series actually alludes to quite a few of the Master of Horror’s stories, including:
- The series logo resembles the font used on the covers for the original 1980s editions of Cujo and Christine;
- At one point, a state trooper guarding the morgue can be seen reading Cujo, and;
- Phil Callahan, a police officer at the Hawkins Police Department, can be read as a reference to Father Callahan, a character from Salem’s Lot and the Dark Tower series.
Another, slightly more subtle nod is Eleven’s nose bleeds whenever she uses her telekinetic powers. This symptom is shared by David Keith’s telekinetic father in the ’80s cult classic Firestarter.
Gaten Matarazzo Has a Real Medical Condition
During the pilot episode when the boys are confronted by a group of bullies, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) is mocked about his teeth. Dustin replies that it’s because he has “Cleidocranial Dysplasia”. Not only is this a real medical condition, but it’s one that Matarazzo is actually affected by.
Matarazzo was born with Cleidocranial Dysplasia, a rare congenital disorder that primarily affects the development of bones and teeth. Typically, the collarbone is either poorly developed or absent, which pushes the shoulders closer together. In Matarazzo’s case, his condition is mild and non-genetic. Meaning that his particular affliction is actually extremely rare, as the condition is typically passed down through the genes.
In addition to Stephen King, Stranger Things pays homage to another famous “Steve” in Steven Spielberg.
One Spielberg reference that is carried on throughout the series is the Hawkins Police Department’s vehicles and uniforms. They are identical to those used by the authorities in Jaws and Jaws 2. Specifically, this includes the tan uniform, Amity Island triangle-shaped patch, and beige SUV. The blue uniforms and hats are worn by the patrolmen also match the Amity Island Police uniforms from Jaws.
The show, in general, has a very Spielberg-inspired vibe. The director’s 1982 film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is an obvious influence. Here are just a few examples of the E.T./Stranger Things parallels:
- Both feature early scenes of a group of boys playing Dungeons & Dragons;
- The scene where Will runs into the shed during episode one was an intentional homage to a similar shot in E.T.;
- The bond between Mike and Eleven is reminiscent of the friendship between E.T. and Elliott, and;
- Both feature a scene where the kids escape from government agents on their bikes.
Oh, and the Duffer brothers have admitted that Winona Ryder’s character Joyce was heavily inspired by Roy Neary, the character played by Richard Dreyfuss in Spielberg’s 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
All the child actors in Stranger Things are great. But if one were to declare a breakout star, it would be Millie Bobby Brown. She has been sensational thus far as the mysterious telekinetic girl Eleven.
Interestingly, Brown was eleven years old when she was cast in the role. Even though she only has approximately 42 lines of dialogue in the first season, she was still able to make a lasting impression. Part of the reason for that was likely due to Eleven’s shaven head, which was modeled after Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road.
You can actually find footage of Brown’s mom shaving her daughter’s head in preparation for her role. An event that was apparently so traumatizing for her father that he ended up sobbing and not being able to watch.
Stranger Things‘ inspirations don’t begin and end with ’80s pop culture. The series seems to draw inspiration from the Silent Hill video game series. Particularly Silent Hill: Homecoming.
There are obvious parallels between Silent Hill‘s “Otherworld” and the Upside-Down. Both mirror the real world but are decrepit environments shrouded in haze and falling ash-like flakes. Both worlds also feature living wall portals. At one point in Stranger Things, an agent named “Shepherd” tears into the wall so he can pass through, just as protagonist Alex Shepherd does in Homecoming.
In addition to similarities between these parallel worlds, Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) bears a striking resemblance to Alex Shepherd’s little brother, Joshua. Plus, the Wheeler surname is shared with Deputy Wheeler from Homecoming.
Another prominent video game reference can be found in the blonde wig and pink dress disguise that Mike and his friends dress up Eleven in. Role-playing game aficionados will recognize that Eleven’s appearance is nearly identical to that of Paula, one of the party members from 1994 Super Nintendo classic Earthbound.
Similarly to Eleven, Paula possesses psychokinetic powers and travels around quaint American towns on bicycles with boys fighting otherworldly evil.
The Last of Us Connections
Another game that shares a few similarities with Stranger Things is The Last of Us. The Last of Us is the award-winning action-adventure game developed by Naughty Dog. It features a man named Joel accompanying a young girl named Ellie on a journey across the post-apocalyptic United States.
The Duffers have explicitly noted that The Last of Us is a game that inspired Stranger Things. One connection that the Duffers have alluded to is the similarity between Eleven and Ellie, as both are similarly named preteen girls with remarkable qualities. Additionally, Eleven reminds Sheriff Hopper of his deceased daughter, just as Ellie reminds Joel of his deceased daughter.
Some of the Episode Titles Are Homages to Classic Horror
Each episode of Stranger Things is designated as a chapter. While some of the episode titles are pretty straightforward — “The Vanishing of Will Byers” is self-explanatory — a few of them are references to other horror-themed stories.
“Chapter Two: The Weirdo on Maple Street” could be a nod to Stephen King’s short story “The House on Maple Street”. Also, it seems to be referencing Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone classic, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”.
Meanwhile, “Chapter Four: The Body” is a straight reference to the Stephen King novella of the same name. This novella would later be turned into the movie Stand by Me. The story of four friends who set out in search of a dead boy their age — just as the group goes looking for Will. In fact, many scenes in this episode parallel the events of Stand by Me. In particular, when the kids walk along the railroad tracks and when hiding at the local junkyard.
The final noteworthy episode title “Chapter Seven: The Bathtub”. It is possibly a nod to the famous bathtub sequence in The Shining.
The boys’ name season one’s monster after the Demogorgon from Dungeons & Dragons.
In the tabletop game, Demogorgon is the powerful, self-proclaimed Prince of Demons who lives on the 88th layer of the Abyss. Besides both being monsters, there aren’t many similarities between the two Demogorgon. The D&D version has two snake-like heads with individual minds that are ironically bent on killing the other.
While the Demogorgon is a real Dungeons & Dragons creation, the “veil of shadows” is not. It seems to be based on Shadowfell, a plane connected to the material world that is populated by the undead and evil creatures.
The Lord of the Rings References
In addition to Dungeons & Dragons, another fantasy property that the Stranger Things boys are obviously big fans of is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. As such, there are a few allusions to Tolkien’s work.
The most notable is when Joyce goes looking for her son Will at Castle Byers. She has a flashback, which reveals that the password to get in is “Radagast”. Radagast is one of the five wizards from Lord of the Rings. The other four being Gandalf the Gray, Saruman the White, and Alatar and Pallando the blue wizards.
In an interesting bit of stunt casting, Sean Astin, who played Samwise Gamgee in the Lord of the Rings films, plays the character Bob Newby in the show’s second season.
Connections to The Walking Dead
Stranger Things is well-recognized for its many homages to classic ’80s films and pop culture. However, you may not have noticed that the show has some connections to another horror-themed TV series.
While there aren’t any explicit references to AMC’s The Walking Dead, the two series are linked in a couple of small ways. For instance, twin actresses Anniston and Tinsley Price, who plays Mike and Nancy Wheeler’s younger sister Holly, made her acting debut on The Walking Dead, playing baby Judith in the show’s fourth season.
According to the Duffers, the twins made the most of their limited screen time by improvising all of their best moments. This includes when she gets upset by Dustin and sinks in her chair in “Chapter Two” and when Joyce asks if she saw something in the wall and she replies back confidently “yes”.
Additionally, the scenes at the quarry are the same location used in The Walking Dead‘s season one episode, “Vatos.”
Steve Was Originally Going to Be a Huge D-Bag
One of the most surprising character turnarounds in Stranger Things has to be Nancy Wheeler’s boyfriend Steve. He starts the first season off as kind of a jerk and bully. However, he ends up reforming by the end and becoming an all-around decent guy.
According to the Duffer brothers, Steve was originally not supposed to have a third act turnaround. However, actor Joe Keery was so good and charming in the role that they felt like they had to give him a proper arc:
“[H]e was much more likable and charming than we originally had envisioned. If you read the pilot, he”s the biggest douchebag on the planet…. Joe was so good we started to fall in love with the idea that he has an arc himself. He’s maybe not the perfect guy, but he’s maybe in with the wrong crowd. As opposed to him turning Nancy to his side, maybe it’s more Nancy turning him to her side. We liked giving him that arc.”
Looking back, we probably should have seen Steve’s turnaround coming considering he wears the same shoes as Marty McFly from Back to the Future throughout the season.
Nancy on Elm Street
Nancy Wheeler, played by Natalia Dyer, is actually an homage to Heather Langenkamp’s character from the original A Nightmare on Elm Street. She is such a homage that her clothes and hairstyle are similar at times.
The similarity between the two only becomes more apparent as the first season draws to a close. Just like her Elm Street counterpart did with Freddy Krueger, Nancy Wheeler is determined to stop the monster that is terrorizing Hawkins and sets up a number of traps to try and kill the Demogorgon.
The final showdown is also reminiscent of Nancy’s battle with Freddy Krueger. Only this time, neither of her male friends is swallowed up and murdered by their beds like poor Johnny Depp’s character was.