ByRob Taylor, writer at Creators.co
Rob Taylor

Stranger Things has taken Netflix and the internet by storm. Some point to the nostalgic appeal of the show as the main reason; others highlight the excellent pacing and tightly scripted plot inspired by King and Carpenter. Yet the nostalgia factor is arguably the biggest draw. Much as Life On Mars did a decade ago with '70s-set sci-fi drama in the UK, Stranger Things takes those of us who were kids in that era back to our childhoods, while younger viewers get to experience it for the first time.

Standing head and shoulders above all else is that, even as the show begins, we feel we know every character already. This is a deliberate and very clever tactic on part of The Duffer Brothers. Each role is written and cast to remind us of someone we loved in an earlier film or show. (Or more than one person.) It's even done to the point where actors who look similar have been cast. Don't believe me? Check this out.

Mike Wheeler

Influences

  • Gremlins (1984)
  • Explorers (1985)

One of the major influences on this show is the work of Joe Dante, notably his films Gremlins and Explorers. In casting lead actor Finn Wolfhard, the Duffers have picked someone who is reminiscent of major characters in both movies.

While younger than Zach Galligan's Billy Peltzer in Gremlins, Mike has many of the same caring qualities, and he cares for Eleven much as Billy does for Gizmo. He's aware of the dangers (or rules) and tries hard to keep Elle out of danger even though he is woefully out of his depth.

Ben Crandall in Explorers, however, is the main influence on Mike. Physically, Mike is a close match for the young Ethan Hawke and the leader of the gang just like his counterpart. Even down to the bike and coat, Mike IS Ben.

Nancy Wheeler

Influences:

  • Legend (1985)
  • Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)
  • Labyrinth (1986)

Natalia Dyer is one of the better aspects of Stranger Things, but the most striking aspect of Nancy is that she is nearly identical to Sloane Peterson from Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Nancy is similar to Sloane as a character in so many ways and starts to go off the rails in much the same way because of a boy. She is also a literal double of Mia Sara, whose second best known role was in Ridley Scott's Legend, a fantasy that saw a resourceful but beautiful heroine battle the devil. Coincidence? I don't think so!

Another character also plays a big part in shaping Nancy: Sarah from Labyrinth, played by Jennifer Connelly, is a major influence. Rather than losing her baby sibling, Nancy has lost her best friend, partially due to her own actions. Her guilt drives Nancy on a mission to find her friend. Rather than Bowie's Goblin King there is a Demigorgon, but the concept is basically the same.

Dustin

Influences:

  • Explorers (1985)
  • The Goonies (1985)
  • Stephen King's IT (1986)

Dustin is based on a few combined characters. Again channeling Explorers, the Duffers have found a young actor in Gaten Matterazo who recalls Jason Presson, who played Darren Woods, the newcomer to the gang in that film.

While Dustin isn't the slightly older kid like Darren, he shares a lot of the same traits. He's more streetwise than the others and has a more mature, common sense approach to problems than his naive and D&D-obsessed friends.

He is written to resemble Chunk from The Goonies, and is seemingly the comic relief even as his nature belies real intelligence. Chunk has his wits about him and does not get caught up in the adventure; his concern is for his friends and Sloth. Dustin's Chocolate Pudding moment is like this; his friends dismiss it but his logic is sound. They need to eat, especially Eleven. He's the only one actually thinking of such practicalities, treating her like a fellow kid rather than a freak. Chunk does this for Sloth as soon as he gets over his initial fear of the guy.

Like Jeff Cohen who played Chunk and ended up a college football star, Matterazo seems the sort of kid who will "fill out"quickly, so Dustin could change across the seasons to become very different from how he starts the show. Dustin the jock? It could happen, just as in a certain Stephen King story.

Dustin is a lot like Ben "Haystack" Hanscomb in IT. He's a bigger kid who is "different" because of his size compared to the others his age and thus a target, but his size means he can intervene where his smaller and weaker friends can't. He could easily end up as a track, wrestling or football star. With his intelligence he's the kind of kid who could get a scholarship down the line, perhaps alienating him from the rest of the gang as he gets chances they don't.

Steve

Influences:

  • The Last American Virgin (1982)
  • A Nightmare on Elm St. (1984)
  • The Breakfast Club (1985)
  • The Goonies (1985)

Steve has perhaps the most interesting arc in Stranger Things, starting off as a stereotypical pretty boy/douche and ending 180 degrees from where you expect. There's a bit of Johnny Depp from Nightmare On Elm Street in him and perhaps a little bit of Judd Nelson from The Breakfast Club. As the photo issue develops and we see Steve at his worst, he is most like Troy from The Goonies, played by Steve Antin. Indeed, there is very nearly a 'Nancy...You Goonie!' moment when he sees her with Jonathan.

As for that 'shock choice' by Nancy? Check out Steve Antin's other major role, in The Last American Virgin, where he plays the ladies' man Rick, who ends up with the girl despite having treated her terribly ... at least Jonathan didn't cry in Stranger Things.

Jonathan Byers

Influences:

  • The Goonies (1985)
  • Stand By Me (1986)
  • Flatliners (1990)

One look at Charlie Heaton, who plays the quiet loner Jonathan, and his resemblance to Kevin Bacon is clear. However it's one of Bacon's early 90's roles that influences Jonathan the most, notably Dave Labracio in Flatliners.

Both are older than the gang but seem to have the most natural affinity with the new world they've all been thrust into. Like Labracio, Jonathan is the most reluctant to enter and has a dark side that he has to tightly control. Ultimately he is the one needed most to help the others succeed.

Jonathan is still close enough to Will that they have a tight bond and he is diligent when it comes to his family and the issues they are facing. In that way he's a lot like Brand from The Goonies. Both shoulder the responsibility to find their brothers and shield them from the darker parts of their lives, even if it isn't really necessary a lot of the time. The sharing of music is a riff on Denny LaChance, from Stand By Me, sharing his Yankee Cap with Gordy. Jonathan is a look at who Denny would have been had Gordy been the one to die.

Barb

Influences:

  • Halloween (1978)
  • Pretty in Pink (1986)

Barb is one of the most popular characters, in no small part to the choice of Shannon Purser and the conscious choice to make her like Molly Ringwald.

Barb is also a lot like Laurie Strode in Halloween in that she is the good, nerdy girl who hangs out with the beautiful and popular girl... only this time the boogeyman gets her.

Joyce Byers

Influences:

  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
  • E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
  • Cujo (1983)

Winona Ryder does a great job as the harried and worried mother Joyce Byers, worried about slowly losing her sanity only to find that she has been right all along. She is most like Melinda Dillon's Jillian from Close Encounters, desperately searching for her abducted son and abandoning all sense of normality to do so.

The other major influence here is Dee Wallace Stone, who played a terrified mother in two movies that shaped this show. In ET, Stone was in a very similar position to Joyce, her son missing and strange things happening all around her with a sudden involvement of the government. In Cujo she was forced into a life or death battle to protect her child against a monster. Ryder does all of this in the show, even down to the way she holds an axe.

The final influence here is JoBeth Williams in Poltergeist. Joyce is known for her drinking and drug taking, and while not as "in your face" as it was in Poltergeist, the Freelings were known to be a bit wild among their neighbors.

Jim Hopper

Influences:

  • Jaws (1975)
  • First Blood (1982)
  • Blue Thunder (1983)
  • Extreme Prejudice (1987)

Other than the name being stolen from Predator, David Harbour's character is influenced by a few sources. Physically he is very much like Brian Dennehy in First Blood but his role is shaped by two of Roy Scheider's best known roles. Frank Murphy in Blue Thunder was, like Hopper, a borderline burnout keeping it together just enough to do his job, but quick to sense something amiss and able to take advantage of lowered expectations people had for him. And when things go wrong Hopper acts like Chief Martin Brody in Jaws, sticking his nose where it isn't wanted and refusing to take no for an answer, whatever the cost.

When Hopper goes full bad-ass, at times he is very much like Nick Nolte of the 80's, especially in Extreme Prejudice. He's a guy who doesn't look like he can do damage but can really do a lot if he is pushed. In fact you can imagine this being alt-world Jim Hopper, who left the military early and didn't go to a certain choppah to get skinned.

Lucas

Influences:

  • The Goonies (1985)
  • Stand By Me (1986)
  • Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)
  • Stephen King's IT (1986)

Lucas is a mix of many characters and the one where ethnicity really doesn't matter. There are elements in him of Chris Chambers from Stand By Me, Mouth from The Goonies; Mike Hanlon, Eddie Casbrack, and Beverly Marsh from IT; and Cameron Frye from Ferris Bueller. At times he is written to be a dick and there weren't many sympathetic characters like that in 80's movies so Lucas is arguably the closest to an original creation.

Will Byers

Influences:

  • The NeverEnding Story (1984)
  • Revenge of the Nerds (1984)
  • Cocoon (1985)
  • D.A.R.Y.L. (1985)

Will is the missing boy who starts the story off, and there are two kids of the 80's who popped into my head the moment I saw him. The first is Wormser from Revenge Of The Nerds. While Will isn't a genius as far as we know, he clearly is very smart and resourceful. He survives in the Upside Down for an extended period of time, drawing on his D&D knowledge, while "book smart" Barb lasts barely minutes. While he is naive and innocent, he's not dumb and comes back able to hide his new affliction.

The other big influence is Barrett Oliver, who played the title character in D.A.R.Y.L, the grandson in Cocoon, and Bastian in The Neverending Story. If Stranger Things was made in the mid-80's, Barrett would be the cute but vulnerable kid they would all be looking for.

Eleven

Influences

  • The Shining (1980)
  • E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
  • Short Circuit (1986)

Of course the blonde wig evokes memories of Drew Barrymore in E.T., along with Carrie White and the Shining twins. It's made clear, after all, that Eleven has done some horrific things to ultimately innocent people. Perhaps the closest character to her, however, is actually from two different, less violent movies altogether. Eleven is a lot like Number 5 from Short Circuit... yes you read that right!

Eleven doesn't start doing crazy voices or asking for input, but at heart she knows what she is, why she is being hunted and that bad things will happen if she is caught. She is also learning all the time about friends, how real people live and that she can have a future.

Like Number 5 and the aforementioned D.A.R.Y.L., Eleven is fighting for her right to live and to not be considered property of a faceless, shadowy organization. Rather than a nuclear powered laser, she has her psychic abilities. Rather than a kooky singleton companion, she has found a bunch of strong people who will protect her. With her short hair she looks like Barrett Oliver in D.A.R.Y.L., a kid who appears from nowhere, charms the adults, and can do crazy stuff to impress the kids. It's no coincidence.

In Conclusion

There are more influences that I've shown here, but this goes some way to show why Stranger Things has tapped into a vein of memories, and why it leaves us jonesing for more. Season 2 has been announced, so no doubt we will see new characters just as influenced by our past loves.

With episode one being called MadMax, that's a good place to start... my money is on the dog being called that... or a local who will have been away in an institution and looks like a young Mel Gibson. We never did really meet Dustin's family did we?

What other big influences did you spot in Stranger Things?