Stranger Things, It, and the Rise of Nostalgia Horror

According to innumerable think-pieces—and I use the term with the utmost sarcasm—Millennials are killing just about everything from napkins to the diamond market. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that horror tailored for such a bloodthirsty demographic is carving a vicious swathe through the box office and slaying the ratings. 

The financial success of the It reboot and the instant, overwhelming popularity of Netflix’s Stranger Things proves that Millennials are more than happy to support products catered to their interests. We don’t give two figs about unnecessary businesses like Hooters when we could be spending our meager funds on things that actually resonate with us.

“Millennial” has become a handy catch-all term for almost anyone between the ages of 20 and 40. We’re ’80s babies and those whose formative years are full of ’80s pop culture. We grew up on a steady diet of Transformers, Nintendo video games, and Cyndi Lauper. Most of us have incriminating childhood photos full of feathered hair, Day-Glo shirts, scrunchies, and leg warmers. 

These days, we may be tattooed and sporting undercuts, but we can’t escape our glittery, bedazzled past. Truth be told, we don’t really want to. We can’t forget the thrill of owning a Trapper Keeper, listening to a cassette on our first Walkman, or how bitchin’/dreamy Kiefer Sutherland looked in The Lost Boys

Every generation looks back at their childhood with rose-colored glasses. To a time when life seemed easier and more exciting. Before bills and global worries, when we could focus purely on our own entertainment and adventures. 

The past often holds a sense of safety and security. Nostalgia is an emotion that never goes out of style. And—considering the uncertain state of the world, with nuclear Armageddon practically around the corner (again)—is it any wonder that so many Millennials are finding comfort in the trappings of their childhood?

Leggo Eleven’s Eggos

2011’s Super 8 was the herald of nostalgia horror. J. J. Abrams’s ode to Spielberg has it all: a plucky band of young heroes, a misunderstood alien, and perfect early ’80s aesthetics in the fashions, the houses, and the music. 

Like Spielberg, Abrams has a gift for coaxing incredible, resonant performances from a young cast. Elle Fanning and lead Joel Courtney are especially impressive, supporting one another through the loss of a parent and the extraterrestrial madness that overtakes their small Ohio town. If not for the CGI and special effects, you could believe you were watching a film made in between Indiana Jones installments.

Flash forward to last summer when Netflix dropped Stranger Things. The overnight success of the series wasn’t all that surprising—Stranger Things has something for almost everyone. 

See also: Stranger Things Is the Best Thing to Happen to Its Genre

If you’re a diehard Goonies fan, you’ll most enjoy the kids’ D&D-influenced storyline as they search for the lost Will and defend new friend Eleven (who could have been ripped from an early Stephen King novel). 

If you’re more into teen horror, there’s Nancy, Jonathan, and Steve’s story, full of rampaging hormones and slavering monsters. Their plotline has shades of The Breakfast Club but with more blood and screaming.

And, if you’re all about evil government conspiracies, there’s Hopper and Joyce’s narrative rife with interrogations, ominous agents, electronic bugs, and references to MKUltra.

Thanks to its episodic format, Stranger Things manages to be everything that was awesome about ’80s sci-fi and horror. Wrapped around the three parallel stories are peak ’80s fashion—Barb has the best high-waisted Mom jeans, while Steve’s bouncy hair is a thing of beauty—Spielbergian flourishes, and incredible performances from a predominately underage cast. 

Millie Bobby Brown as non-verbal powerhouse Eleven is especially impressive, while Winona Ryder’s twitchy, frantic Joyce is a mom determined to scream defiance in the face of gaslighting. David Harbour’s Chief Hopper is also a fantastic play on the usual trope of the “bumbling sheriff” so often seen in ’80s horror; his performance and the script elevate him from the expected buffoon to a competent, badass investigator. 

Season 2 drops today, and thousands will be binging with giddy delight. For the Millennials in the audience, Stranger Things is a retro-flavored dessert we’ve been craving—a chance to enjoy more classic Richard Donner-esque adventure with contemporary production values. 

See also: 13 Books to Read If You Loved Stranger Things

Pennywise the Dancing Clown and New Kids on the Block

When a reboot of It was announced, there was the expected grumbling that no one could ever surpass Tim Curry’s iconic turn as the monstrous clown. When it was announced that the reboot’s time frame would be moved up from the ’60s and ’90s to the ’80s and present day, the usual crowd of purists was angry with the decision.

But, on the whole, there was a huge wave of anticipation for the new take on the Stephen King classic. Updating the story made sense, as most of the audience would have been kids in the ’80s rather than the ’60s. As beloved as the original made-for-TV miniseries is, everyone agrees that its biggest failing is the subpar special effects—this big-budget remake promised to have incredible CGI. 

As the box office returns proved, the new It was a smash. Director Andy Muschietti and screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman cut out some of the most troubling, problematic aspects of the original story (namely Bev’s role in getting the others out of the sewers) and updated the setting without losing the small-town tone. 

Is it a perfect adaptation? No. But nothing ever is. There’s more of a focus on Pennywise as a pure monster rather than a greater societal evil preying upon the young and the disenfranchised. But then, that could be highlighted in the adult-starring sequel. As monster movies go, this was a satisfying one.

Thanks in large part to another group of stellar child actors. Jaeden Lieberher’s wounded Bill and Sophia Lillis’s fierce Beverly are standouts, while Finn Wolfhard’s motormouth Richie gets the best lines and practically steals the climactic scene. Nicholas Hamilton as sociopathic bully Henry Bowers is frequently more terrifying than Pennywise—and what about that Dancing Clown? 

The Curry vs. Skarsgård debate is ultimately a futile one. Nothing can detract from Tim Curry’s beloved performance in 1990 and, for many, Bill Skarsgård’s take will be “their” Pennywise. 

See also: Three Clowns Talk About It

Skarsgård made an effort to avoid emulating Curry’s performance—playing Pennywise with more cartoonish, jovial menace—and his physicality and costuming further divorce his performance from the original. 

Isn’t there room enough in this world for multiple demonic creatures disguised as clowns?

The comparisons between It and Stranger Things began as soon as the first trailer dropped. Look, it’s another band of gutsy kids riding bikes and facing monstrous evils! It’s another small town surrounded by woods and full of oblivious adults! Isn’t that Finn Wolfhard again?

But that’s a chicken-versus-egg argument. The newest It was updated to the ’80s, yes, but the original story had already pressed its fingerprints into Stranger Things’ clay. It’s a Möbius strip of pop-culture nostalgia. Both franchises are packed full of established, beloved tropes and familiar characters—and therein lies so much of their charm.

Finding Comfort in Horror and the Familiar

Humans crave repetition and the familiar. We like having routines—to a point, anyway—and get anxious when bombarded with too many surprises or problems. 

Almost every story we tell, be it in books, movies, or TV, has already happened in one form or another. Writers take established narratives—man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. the unknown—and use the same character molds to tell variations of stories that have been around for thousands of years. Just look at world mythology and how often the same themes reoccur. 

Some of the detractors of Stranger Things and It complain that they’re too predictable. That the plot twists and character moments can be anticipated long before they happen. 

Fair enough. 

But others love them for that very reason. There’s a lot of enjoyment to be had in seeing an old dance done with skill and panache. Watching Eleven face down the Demogorgon with her telekinetic powers and the Losers take on Pennywise with pipes and reckless bravery is akin to hearing a masterful cover of a classic song. 

Sometimes, the covers even surpass the original. It can be reassuring to know the words well enough to sing along.

In a world that seems to be teetering on the verge of total destruction—full of mass shootings, hate crimes, natural disasters, inept governments, and increasing tensions with nuclear-powered dictatorships—we crave comfort. We long to feel safe. And nostalgic horror gives us that.

“But horror?” you might scoff. “Comfort and safety through horror?”

It’s really not that far-fetched. Plenty of people suffering from anxiety and stress disorders have already discovered the healing power of the genre.

Consider this: when you have an anxiety disorder, you worry about things utterly beyond your control. You deal with varying degrees of dread all day for no specific reason. Why are you anxious? Answer: because. Just because. 

Perhaps you worry ceaselessly that a comet will strike the earth. That you’ll be hit by a car. That someone you love will die. You can try to logically talk yourself down from these fears, but reason doesn’t help.

All you can do is worry, and this often leads to the feeling that you’re losing all control—which is terrifying in and of itself. 

This is where the magic of horror comes in. When you watch a horror film, you suddenly have a reason to be anxious and afraid. You can pin your negative emotions on a concrete culprit. Why are you anxious? Because there’s a killer clown on the loose. Now you have an explanation, and you can begin to regain a sense of control.

At the same time, you can distance yourself from the fear by focusing on how you’re safe on a couch or in a movie theater—the people on the screen are the ones in real trouble. You can enjoy the adrenaline and thrill of danger without ever being in danger.

According to psychologist Dr. Mathias Clasen, who has been studying the effect of horror movies for over 15 years, “The genre allows us to voluntarily—and under controlled circumstances—get experience with negative emotions.” 

In a world that seems to be teetering on the verge of total destruction—full of mass shootings, hate crimes, natural disasters, inept governments, and increasing tensions with nuclear-powered dictatorships—we crave comfort. We long to feel safe. And nostalgic horror gives us that.

In other words: you are choosing a source of anxiety. You’re no longer being dominated by formless fears. You’re back in control. If things get too heavy, you can always hit the pause button.

Now, wrap up a horror movie in familiar trappings. Fashions and interior design that evoke memories of your childhood. Music and pop-culture references that are tied to your fondest experiences with old friends. 

Populate the cast with characters you already know and love, people you went to school with: geeky boys in giant glasses passionate about D&D, cheerleaders with feathered hair and pink bedrooms, teens in acid-washed jeans with attitude problems. 

Adding nostalgia to the mix casts a warm, reassuring glow over everything. While you’re watching characters you love fight for their lives, you can cheer them on, enjoy the ride, and stop worrying about everything else for a couple hours.

Does horror work for everyone? Of course not. But it’s proven to be a great outlet for many in desperate need of venting.

A killer coping mechanism, if you will.

As countless franchises have shown us, the past never stays dead. The ’80s—like punk vampires and vicious clowns—has become the undead. It continues to rear its familiar bleach-blond head in our movies and TV, reaching out with hands clad in fingerless gloves. 

Thanks to the booming success of Stranger Things and It, nostalgia horror will only grow in the coming years. I, for one, can’t wait to see what we get next.

Watch the Final Trailer for Stranger Things 2!


Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.

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