Stranger Things owes a lot to an unheralded era of TV where only kids could solve life's mysteries
'It takes an abandonment of beige, grown-up thinking to believe in magic'
Anne-iversaries is a bi-weekly column by writer Anne T. Donahue that explores and celebrates the pop culture that defined the '90s and 2000s and the way it affects us now (with, of course, a few personal anecdotes along the way).
I wasn't allowed to watch Are You Afraid of the Dark? as a kid because after too many episodes of Unsolved Mysteries, I came to believe Robert Stack was hiding in the bathroom. Thus, my parents (rightfully) determined that I was too uptight for anything scary-centric, and my knowledge of the canon Canadian series was limited to YTV previews and after-school sneak peeks. Of course, by the time I was old enough to revel in latchkey kid status, I'd grown out of sneak-watching series star Ross Hull telling stories around the campfire and had graduated to seeing him dating Amanda Zimm (Ready or Not) or working on the student paper (Student Bodies). So obviously what I'm telling you is that Ross Hull played a large role in my life.
The thing is, he and the rest of the Midnight Society on Are You Afraid of the Dark? — on top of other classic TV shows from the same era (enter: Goosebumps) — did more than hook us onto scary stories (to tell in the dark). In fact, they helped lay the foundation for series like Stranger Things — shows that feature tweens and teens facing danger in ways that only tweens and teens can: earnestly, enthusiastically and with complete and utter abandon.
Which is a premise that so many strong, iconic franchises lean on: in addition to Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Goosebumps, book and TV series like Nancy Drew, The Boxcar Children, The Hardy Boys and Sabrina the Teenage Witch put into motion the idea that kids could see details and figure out patterns and solutions that adults tend to overlook. And while the children and teens in these were still looked after by an adult who cared about them, their ventures into the world of murder, mystery and the supernatural were always pursued with friends their own age. Their age wasn't a problem — it was an advantage.
And of course it was: adults are boring. Our lives revolve largely around going to work and to restaurants, and we engage in petty feuds that, explained aloud, are as foolish as they are embarrassing (see: very). At the same time that we realized we had to pay bills and use weekends to run errands — hell, even going back to when we started high school and the social landscape completely changed — we also aged out of hopping on bikes or in cars and solving mysteries. The Goonies may have never said die, but at one point they absolutely had to say, "I can't, man, I'm studying for a final." In the end, we are all Chrissy, Sam, Teeny and Roberta of Now & Then, realizing that with age comes a great inability to just believe. "Real" life takes over. And even if a heroine like Veronica Mars chooses to stay the course, she's stuck realizing more and more how low and how dark humans can get — as if that's the tradeoff for refusing to let go of mysteries.
The Goonies may have never said die, but at one point they absolutely had to say, 'I can't, man, I'm studying for a final.'- Anne T. Donahue
In Stranger Things, a unique two types of magic exist: first, the supernatural type that entices our young characters — but also the type that restores a belief in magic among select adults. Which is special: Sabrina the Teenage Witch may have made Sabrina's witch aunts her allies, but Stranger Things assigns no such power to its grown-ups. Instead, it instills a hope in anybody watching that when you're old, your heart doesn't necessarily die (as Ally Sheedy stated in The Breakfast Club) — and that although we may have grown to dismiss the types of mysteries obsessed over by younger generations, it might suit us to revisit that time. Or, at the very least, revisit the parts of ourselves that believed in trying to band together and solve mysteries once upon a time. Ultimately, it invites us all to be a part of our own Midnight Society.
And Stranger Things makes doing that easier. Because it's set in the 80s, we're immediately transported to a world most of us haven't visited since we were children (or have never been to because we weren't born yet). But more importantly than the synths, clothes and Sheriff Hopper's moustache, the setting actually illuminates the timelessness of the show and stories like it. So clearly it doesn't matter when they're set or where they take place — the plot and characters are enough to keep us entertained, intrigued and all-consumed.
Plus, we're rooting for actual children. And while we may be enveloped in nostalgia and Winona Ryder's general presence, the show also reminds us of the way kids tend to see what adults can't or refuse to. And that's not just empowering for younger viewers — it's a jolt for boring olds (greetings!) whose cynicism and selfishness tend to shield us from seeing anything that isn't obvious or rooted in cold, hard, awful reality. Finally, we're granted admission to the magic of youthfulness. We're transported back into our wee baby selves whose ideologies weren't dictated by bill payments; temporarily, we're kids who hop on our bikes and solve mysteries thanks to precious naivity.
But that means to really enjoy it, we've got to lean into our own vulnerabilities. (I hate it, I know — we'll be fine.) It takes an embracement of joy to dive into a supernatural story headed by a group of kids and/or tweens, and it takes an abandonment of beige, grown-up thinking to believe them or to believe in magic or to believe that solving mysteries isn't a waste of time.
It's a jolt for boring olds whose cynicism and selfishness tend to shield us from seeing anything that isn't obvious or rooted in cold, hard, awful reality. Finally, we're granted admission to the magic of youthfulness.- Anne T. Donahue
But maybe to start, revisit the Midnight Society. Just don't tell my parents if you see me there, too.