Decade-ism can be tricky. When the clock struck midnight on Dec. 31, 1979, there was no mass directive to boot up your synthesizer and swap out your old shoelaces for fat neon ones. But as someone who was eight years old (and on the Mall in Washington) when Reagan was inaugurated, and 16 when Do the Right Thing came out, for me the Eighties are as bookended as they could be.
It was as though someone flipped a switch, and we changed from a smooth, analog, melancholy world to one that was spastic, digital, and forcefully positive. It was a ramped-up, wide-awake (though not woke) decade. “Morning in America.” “Nothing exceeds like excess.” “This one goes to 11.” The Cola Wars were literally a battle over how best to caffeinate ourselves. I remember thinking that I was born at the right time, at the most exciting moment in human history. I mean, 10 years earlier and we wouldn’t even have had Pong.
What would you give for your kid fears?
But because I was a child and not Gordon Gecko, the excitement of ’80s excess was married to fear. Really three fears: technology, drugs, and nuclear war, and each were about exponentiality, things spinning out of control.
Technology was a menacing presence in ’80s culture — something that had the potential to go sideways in a hurry –—War Games, The Terminator, Weird Science. Computers had gone from giant machines that used paper punch cards like electric abacuses to small powerful mysteries that lived in your house. On a good day, Matthew Broderick used one to hack into his high school and change his attendance records, on a bad day he hacked into NORAD and nearly started World War III.
Eighties technology wasn’t just the pandora’s box that the foolish human set in motion, like Richard Pryor in Superman III. It was dehumanizing. Before the Macintosh became more prevalent and the 90s gave us rounder, more user-friendly tech, science was the spacemen and white plastic sheeting in E.T. It was the sterile lab of Ivan Drago in Rocky IV — and the cold, inhuman room where Eleven sleeps. (And Will Byers’ fake corpse.)
Drugs in the ’80s got an all-new Reaganite spin. Cocaine, a white powder that made white people hyper and inspired some cool songs, was now presented as decidedly bad stuff, that could even be mutated into crack. White people didn’t know what crack looked like, but we were told it was an epidemic that caused black men to go ‘wilding.’
In preppy America though, crack fears were only about being shot, by either someone dealing it or on it. Acid actually held the special position as the worst drug that one was likely to take. Baby Boomers no longer saw it as an experimental adventure that could change the world, but something that, like the fallout after nuclear war, had exponentially lingering effects.
Our current ’80s nostalgia (there is a show about G.L.O.W. for crissakes) often ignores the decade’s unique fear of Nuclear War. It was in The Road Warrior, “99 Red Balloons,” The Day After, the Ray Bradbury books I read, it was in a little Gregory Peck movie I loved called Amazing Grace and Chuck. It was an episode of “Silver Spoons.” My elementary and junior high schools had yellow and black fallout signs.
When I was a kid, nuclear annihilation was like a weird blanket that you were used to the smell of. I miss it, like I miss sleeping under the same roof as my siblings. I can still feel it, almost taste it, the sense of the missiles hitting and the white hotter-than-hot blast, and the fallout, everything radioactive, changed.
This was different than postwar nuclear scares. ‘The Bomb’ had become ‘Global Thermonuclear War,’ we’d gone from one mushroom cloud to unending white streams arcing across the map until the entire world was white. It made the world feel connected, electrified. Mutually-assured destruction was at least mutual.
We love Stranger Things because of its 1983 setting and its homage to many movies, adventurous boys walking on train tracks recall Stand By Me, escaping the feds on bikes is like E.T. But it does more than quote — the whole conceit is a mash-up of the three big ’80s fears: the ‘Department of Energy’ abducts the daughter of an acid-test burnout and trains her in a white-walled, state of the art lab to be a weapon against the Soviets.
That’s Why the Lady is a Demogorgon
At least for me, the face of ’80s fear and loathing was Ronald Reagan. When your president from age eight to 16 is a pomaded, not-exactly-grandfatherly old man who scapegoats liberals and Welfare Queens and whose only message for you is “Just Say No,” the negativity tends to stick.
Or was it Nancy Reagan’s fault? “Just Say No” was really hers. She was not warm and grandmotherly either, though the ideal ’80s woman was a rather icy look. (“Michelle Pfeiffer that white gold.”) Second-wave feminism of bra-burning and the ERA was fading, many women proudly renounced feminism. Hillary helped get Bill back in the Governor’s Mansion by taking his name and taking off her glasses. In a decade of underground dissent and music, women fought back by joining, getting in the workplace, strapping on shoulder pads, running for office, leading anti-drug campaigns.
Which brings us to the great mystery of the Demogorgon. It’s not every ’80s fear rolled into one; it doesn’t have a crack pipe in one hand and the nuke codes in the other. But it does look like a flower, and it’s distinctly tied to Eleven. She says she is the monster, and is able to disintegrate it and herself in the same moment. When Eleven conjures her powers she bleeds in strange places, and the monster is drawn to blood. It’s a monster borne of the id of a pre-pubescent young woman whose powers have been manipulated by men and their tribal, warlike aims.
Mike likes Eleven, but he has no idea what’s really going on with women. He and his buddies are literally throwing stones at the monster. And Barb gets eaten up by it while Nancy is upstairs with Steve.
The Demogorgon, a raging, violent flower, is the perfect monster for a decade when women finally made a place in a world that may have already been geopolitically and environmentally ruined.
Role-playing in Peoria
[W]hen the vast jigsaw puzzle that is this country’s regional scheme coalesced into more or less its present configuration after the Civil War, somebody dropped a piece, which left a void, and they called the void “central Indiana.” — John Jeremiah Sullivan, “The Final Comeback of Axl Rose.”
Like the lukewarm Altered States tanks where Eleven floats, Indiana is essentially the isolation chamber of the country, floating there in the middle, so blank you can’t help but hallucinate.
By default, that blank void is often just considered “America.” Midwestern speech used to represent the “plain” American accent of anchormen. Eighties movies were set in suburban Chicago to depict archetypal American life. Midwesterners fell for Make America Great Again because for so long they were told they were the true countrymen, living in the Heartland.
There’s a sense in watching Stranger Things that no one is really ever in too much danger — mostly because of Mike, Lucas, and Dustin. Girding themselves with their role-playing game fantasies, the boys take on an epic challenge, pretending to be Rambo or the Goonies as they go after the Demogorgon (their appellation).
And they have good company, with a Role-Player-in-Chief in the White House, an Illinois native who fancied that it was “Morning in America” when it wasn’t, especially in Hopkins, Indiana.
Not only was it no longer any kind of metaphorical morning, it was no longer really one America. The concept of commonality was dying out fast. We were headed towards a red-state/blue-state world, one with greater income inequality, one where everyone can be a something-nerd, ramen, coffee, sneaker, book.
We moved from three TV channels to 57 — one for each age group, ethnicity, political persuasion. All sorts of little countercultures began to pop up. Unlike the Sixties, these “alternative lifestyles” had less to do with making the world a better place than with making your world a better place, like Dungeon Master Mike Wheeler in his basement.
In the RPG we play now, the Midwest plays the role of “America.” And if America started to fracture in the early ’80s, where does that leave that missing puzzle piece of Indiana? As a portal between two worlds?
Like Will Byers in the bathroom at the end of Season One, the Midwest, more than any other place, floats between two Americas at once — the decaying Rust Belt and the Heartland of a once and future Greatness.
Do you know where your kids are?
Julie Lythcott-Haims in her anti-helicopter parent manifesto How to Raise an Adult pinpoints the early ’80s as the origins of our fear of child abduction. The first milk carton kid appeared in 1984. Six-year-old Adam Walsh was abducted in 1981, leading to a 1983 movie and his father John’s career with the show America’s Most Wanted.
But it was still new. In 1980, at age six, I would walk home from school by myself — a mile away. I was allowed to play all day in the woods behind our house. My parents were by no means laissez-faire; this was just the norm. Overall our fears and concerns were still larger, less intimate.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, a television PSA came on every night: “It’s 10 o’clock, do you know where your children are?” At 10 o’clock at night! Can you even imagine that now, when our children have cell phones so we can pinpoint their location at every second? The TV might as well say “Don’t blow menthol smoke in your child’s face” or “Don’t store leaded gasoline in your pantry.”
The ’80s were the last time when society both ignored children and expected heroic, or at least adult, things from them. Winona Ryder’s character was likely born around 1946. (Her name is Joyce, if that helps you wrap your mind around that.) Her father would have fought in World War II. Hopper could have been drafted for Vietnam. Joyce doesn’t realize Will is missing till the next morning because she’s a working single mom and she relies on her teenager to co-parent.
Astronauts used to be our most famous federal employees. We’ve gone from Sally Ride to the White House Cabinet. Can you name a hero from the War on Terror? Pat Tillman? The government asks very little of us — just that we buy lottery tickets, pass our standardized tests, and maybe create an app while letting the lower classes fight our battles.
Stranger Things is the ’80s show for our time, because it projects our present-day fear of stranger abduction onto the blueprint of a time when fears were less intimate and more communal.
And what happens? The dweeby, bullied kids who hang out in the ham radio room and play D&D assume bold characters in real life and go out on a rescue.
It’s not just the absence of the Internet that prevents them from staying home posting “thoughts and prayers for Will Byers” online.
It’s because of their parents. Maybe the true hero of Stranger Things Season One is Mike and Nancy’s dad. Maybe beneath those coke-bottle glasses is a doting father, suppressing his inner helicopter parent. Ted and Karen Wheeler pretend to be a lame suburban couple, allowing Nancy the space to experiment and rebel. (Once we get Barb out of the way.)
Come on, you know they know what’s going on in Nancy’s room, Jonathan falling asleep on the floor, sticky with goo from the portal to the upside-down. Mike and his friends have full run of the basement. It’s hands-off parenting, benign neglect.
This is not about nostalgia for a halcyon time. There’s a theory of American history that I can’t let go of, and it’s tied up, like most people’s theories, into where I personally fit into the timeline. (That is, is this a theory or am I just a nostalgic 44-year-old?) But I can’t let go of the idea that we are living in a Post-Empire America. That nations rise and fall and somewhere in the melancholy of the late 1970s, when a very smart but not terribly charismatic president would come on TV and ask us to conserve water and energy for the greater good, that we kind of said, You know what, not going to happen. It’s over. Bring in an old actor with a new spin, and we’ll focus on manageable things.
It’s not at all the same thing as saying America sucks now. Any more than France or England or Spain are ruined. Just that we had our moment and maybe we’ve gotten a little too big, too fractured to still think of ourselves as a Shining City on a Hill. This divergence is evident in that this essay assumes we’ve all seen Stranger Things — when in fact the nation never gathers around the set anymore. The Seinfeld finale was 20 years ago.
Stranger Things catches a perfect moment, when big childhood fears peaked, just as childhood freedoms and big motives started to plummet. It marks a turning point in this country’s sense of itself, when the world turned upside-down.
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