Anyone who writes or reads stories about children knows an important part: getting the parents out of the way. Growing up, my favorite stories were about orphans. From ‘Anne of Green Gables’ to ‘Jane Eyre’, kids can’t get into trouble, an essential part of fiction, if parents are there and solve everything. Or, if Google is there. Or, cell phones.
“Stranger Things,” the much-loved Netflix hit now wrapping up its fourth season, easily sidesteps these issues by playing the stories of Hawkins, Indiana in the 1980s. And at first, the time period seemed like an aspect that viewers adored the most. The synthesizer soundtrack! The Starcourt Mall! Elf’s scrunchies! Will’s bowl cut! Even the elements of the era that were less than pleasing (see: cup-cut cut) felt endearing, riddled with thinking pieces, replicated in fashion lines where everything old became new or at least briefly became cool again—so endearing that some critics feel started to wonder if the story relied too heavily on nostalgia.
But longing for the past isn’t what makes “Stranger Things” such an emotional watch. It longs for escape. It’s not the ’80s we’re reacting to, that era that also brought us Just Say No, the me generation and New Coke. It’s the freedom that kids like Mike, Dustin, Will, Lucas, and Max have, freedom that just isn’t possible these days.
RELATED: From “Stranger Things” to TikTok: Kate Bush Speaks to Lonely Kids. This is why
“Stranger Things” is part of a long series of stories about kids doing things alone, preferably top secret dangerous things. From the crime-solving, adventurous kids of “The Hardy Boys,” “Nancy Drew,” “Scooby-Doo,” “Goonies” and “The Boxcar Children” to the intrepid teens and tweens of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Locke & Key” and “Yellowjackets” – kids work better alone, not adults loudening their buzz, discrediting their theories, interrupting their burglary, or letting them go to bed.
Forget helmets. We didn’t even have standards. We rode down the hills standing up, the playing cards in our wheel spokes chattering and the pendulums on our handlebars flying.
The children of “Stranger Things” live in a time and a world that is not ours. It’s not exactly the ’80s (at least, not technically perfect, historically speaking), but it’s also a world away from the lives most kids lead today. The Hawkins kids have bikes, meaning freedom, a kind of light-hearted effortlessness that’s been a bit lacking in recent seasons, as beloved anti-hero Steve and now lovable Argyle have real wheels and anyone can ride around.
Sadie Sink as Max Mayfield, Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin Henderson, Caleb McLaughlin as Lucas Sinclair and Priah Ferguson as Erica Sinclair in “Stranger Things” (Netflix)As a child in the 80s and 90s, a bicycle meant independence. I cut through the hedges that separated my lower-middle-class neighborhood from my best friend’s affluent neighborhood of new McMansions and chemically green lawns. It was like entering Narnia. Forget helmets. We didn’t even have standards. We rode down the hills standing up, the playing cards in our wheel spokes flapping and the streamers on our handlebars flying like hair. There were no bike paths. If we fell, we were okay. We rarely told our parents what had happened to us, whether it was a bicycle accident, harassing teenagers, or demo dogs.
TThe parent units of ‘Stranger Things’ are clueless for the most part. About everything.
Like most children of the time, I spent much of my childhood blissfully unsupervised. I had to return home in the dark; our neighborhood had no streetlights to flicker on and warn us. No one wore a watch and without cell phones it was impossible for parents to contact us or find us. Who knew where we were, what we were doing (discovering a barn full of forgotten fireworks, going into a huge drainage tunnel in search of killer clowns).
This equates to the “Stranger Things” parent units who are clueless for the most part. About everything. Ted Wheeler, Nancy and Mike’s father, doesn’t even realize his wife is actually having an affair, and none of Wheeler’s parents know that having escaped the human experiment Elf crashes into their basement. In this season, mom Joyce went to Russia, assuming that everything is fine at home. (It’s not, it never is, and the kids aren’t even there.)
Sadie Sink as Max Mayfield and Maya Hawke as Robin Buckley in “Stranger Things” (Netflix)My group of friends, made up of neighborhood kids, those classic childhood friendships of location, location, location, devised elaborate scenarios similar to those of the Hawkins crew. The only difference is: their fantasies are actually Real. We thought a man living in the forest was a Russian spy; after all, it was the time for it. We thought the trees were full of ghosts, the pond was full of drowned souls (yet we went skating on them).
Growing up, we were unreachable. The world was unknowable.
Without the internet we didn’t know much. There is darkness and sadness for not knowing – one of my childhood best friends, who is gay, said he would have been much happier if he had known he was not alone.
On the plus side, there’s the excitement of mystery, of making it all up or figuring it out yourself because you have to. Google would have ended multiple “Stranger Things” subplots in the blink of an eye. If the story were set now, there would be countless TikToks or Vecna sightings, lengthy YouTubes describing the Mind Flayer or the death toll from the Upside Down.
Without internet we were bored. And boredom gave rise to its own kind of magic, magic we had to make ourselves† I became a writer partly because I was left alone, partly because of that boredom. As a child I had to make my own world. So I did.
Maya Hawke as Robin Buckley, Joseph Quinn as Eddie Munson, Natalia Dyer as Nancy Wheeler and Joe Keery as Steve Harrington in “Stranger Things” (Netflix)This is different, much different from the constant entertainment we now have with our phones – pocket computers – always within reach. So also we always within reach. We know what time it is. We know what year “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)” was released. We can watch everything, listen to everything, figure everything out. We all know, so maybe we don’t dream so much. Maybe we don’t guess or create.
It’s no stranger danger in Stranger Things. It’s a monster danger – and I feel like we can take them.
Our kids are always just a text away. “Stranger Things” has fallen back on walkie-talkies and ham radios a lot this season, something that wasn’t a staple of my childhood, nor, I think, many others — at least not. good walkie talkies with that kind of distance. But for the most part, we were unreachable growing up. The world was unknowable. And that’s not the case for my Gen Z son, or probably even most Millennial kids before him.
I was a key child. He’s a kid who, like many of his friends, got a smartphone sooner than I planned, at the start of a deadly pandemic that both separated him from school, family and social life as well as giving him even more ways to be digitally connected. are: Discord, Zoom. Only in our homes do we stare at our screens as outside the world grows darker.
“Stranger Things” is scary and in its final season, more horrifying and tonally darker than ever. But it’s nothing compared to the world. The horror of the show is a breath of fresh air. Sucked upside down, given the Cruciatus curse by Vecna, or attacked by demodogs, those still seem to pale in comparison to mass school shootings, abuse, children being taken from their parents. It’s no stranger danger in Stranger Things. It’s a monster danger – and I feel like we can take them.
Natalia Dyer as Nancy Wheeler, Joe Keery as Steve Harrington, Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin Henderson, Maya Hawke as Robin Buckley, Sadie Sink as Max Mayfield and Caleb McLaughlin as Lucas Sinclair in “Stranger Things” (Tina Rowden/Netflix)Despite the reaching clutches of the dusty Upside Down, the kids of “Stranger Things” run off into the night. Their parents let them in – and that’s just not freedom that kids know now. They haven’t known for years. them just can not without a parent accused of negligence, without anything terrible happening, especially for families of color. Halloween remains my and my son’s favorite holiday, because it’s the only night of the year when you can venture into the dark somewhat unattended, in a costume, your arms outstretched for joy.
Want a daily summary of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
It was hard for me to say goodbye to my freedom when I became a teenager with a summer job, then an adult with my own child, jobs, rent – you can’t just abandon those renters of adulthood, you can’t just run away from. It was hard for my son to say goodbye when we moved from a small rural town to a big city: his bike was stolen our first week here; we don’t know our neighbors and the radius where he can play is drastically small. And it will be hard to say goodbye to “Stranger Things” and the childhood freedom that invites us to remember.
Because I want my son to be able to get on that bike and ride into the sunset with his friends: no phone, no worries, just magic and the hope of a mystery to be solved. I still remember that feeling. I wish I could drive away too.
More monster danger