Since its premiere in July of 2016, Stranger Things, the Netflix Original series, has won the hearts of viewers worldwide; the third season amassing 40.7 million views in the first four days after its airing. Stranger Things has amassed such success due in large part to the distinct empathetic way it connects with its audience – especially its millennial viewership that makes up nearly half of the show’s viewers.
Throughout the show’s three seasons, the plot has consistently stayed true to a specific 80’s-cult-classic-horror genre that shockingly attracts such a large and diverse audience from a single age group. The answer to this peculiarity is that it is a show created by older millennials (the creators of the show, the Duffer Brothers, are at the top of the age range for millennials), for younger millennials that are just at the cusp of adulthood and are preparing for all that that will entail. The show was intentionally created to stand as a microcosm of all that scares and excites this new era of adults about this “grown-up” world and to finally allow them to feel as if others understand the crucible they face.
For the purpose of this analysis, we will focus on the first season because the subsequent two seasons were built on the foundation of trends and storytelling that was devised in the first.
Why, though, did a sci-fi/horror show about a group of kids searching for their lost friend, adopting a traumatized telekinetic, and discovering a dark and mysterious version of their world, enrapture so many of this troubled age group? The short answer: empathy and guidance.
In each season the show generally follows a few simultaneous storylines. Following the model of the first season, there is a plot for the group of kids – including their leader, Mike, and the telekinetic-turned-friend, Eleven and later joined by the coolest high schooler in town, Steve Harrington, there is a mystery Nancy Wheeler and Jonathan Byers – sibling of two of the kids – must solve, and there is a greater government conspiracy that Joyce Byers and Sheriff Jim Hopper must unravel. In each season, in the last few episodes, the separate teams must come together, compile all their individual pieces of the puzzle, and stop the respective Big Bad
Why, though, are millennials drawn in by this niche-genre style plotline?
According to the Pew Research Center, a “millennial” is anyone between the ages of 18-34 in 2017. That group alone is roughly half of the almost 11 million viewers (between the ages of 18-49) that Nielson calculated watched the premiere of the second season of Stranger Things.
Okay, now strap in for some boring statistics that are important for understanding the mentality of millennials!
According to the U.S. government census, many millennials find it important to finish formal schooling and get a full-time job that can support a family, but that significantly fewer find it important to get married or have children. Even fewer actually accomplish these goals. The census also explains that, compared to 1975, more people live with their parents than their spouses. Half as many people now live the combined lifestyle of living independently, being married, having children, and being in the labor force than it was back in the 70’s.
The point of all these numbers: they demonstrate how millennials fear adulthood and how hostile it is to them in return.
Along with this, while entering adulthood, they are facing an unstable financial, social, and professional future that is genuinely quite frightening. To quote from an article by Peter Turchin from the University of Connecticut, we are seeing “growing income and wealth inequality, stagnating and even declining well-being of most Americans, growing political fragmentation and governmental dysfunction.”
According to Rocky Pincus, a millennial at Stern College, she feels “less than capable of dealing with anything, like, 90% of the time,” and, her friend Yael Nissel adds, she herself feels “vastly unprepared” because she wasn’t taught how to deal with adult responsibilities during her teenage years. It is through these feeling of instability and insecurity that Stranger Things resonates with its young audience.
One of the main ways the Duffer Brothers reached such pathos with millennials and their elders alike, effectively amassing such a large audience, is their use of nostalgia. They use it as a means with which to tell the story, rather than just throwing in a few casual references to make the show feel true to the time, and the power of such intense reminiscing holds a massive draw.
Nostalgia represents the safety and security of the past; it is known and sure and clear how events will unfold. This counters the severe uncertainty millennials hold about the future, much like the anxiety and unease caused by ‘trauma memory’ that is felt by the characters in the second season (due to the events of the first), and which they have to overcome to live normal lives in the third.
With the show’s deep use of referential material, like naming the monster the children face after a fantastical creature in Dungeons and Dragons, having scenes that nearly replicate classics from the time such as Stand By Me, and maintaining a general Stephen King style tone throughout the show, Stranger Things surpasses the reminiscent tone of any 80’s style period piece and becomes a transporting experience for its viewers.
By being so absorbed in the time, the audience gains an almost nestled feeling while they watch a horror unfold; a show filled with monsters, death, and the terrible unknown. That security is what allows Stranger Things to transcend its genres and touch so many. The viewers do not need to generally enjoy 80’s flicks, sci-fi, horror, or mystery to feel they belong watching this show because it is not just a simple story that falls into one of those categories.
The show is a microcosm of everything they feel and everything they are scared of. By maintaining the comfort of the past, the creators expose the hardship of the literal and figurative unknown world in a way that allows the audience to let down their defenses and connect to it in a deeper way. The audience can then take it a step farther and learn from the show that as terrifying as this upside-down world may be, they can rise to the occasion, and the monsters can be defeated.
That is why it was imperative that the Duffer Brothers set up the discovery of their new world through the perspective of children; because most millennials entering adulthood now have felt, to a large degree, thrust into it and thus feel almost like children discovering a world not meant for them. By having the main protagonist riding around town on bikes, dressing up as Ghost Busters for Halloween, and hanging out in the mall food court, it allows the viewers to empathize. By seeing literal children facing down terrorizing beasts, the audience acknowledges that they are, at the very least, more adult than kids and can face the far less horrendous monsters their futures in the real-world hold for them.
Children facing a big bad upside-down world they need to discover all on their own. Sounds just like the young millennial condition. Which is why it is significant that the discovery of the Upside-Down is largely left to the children; they are kids literally discovering a new scary world with young eyes to parallel the young adults discovering the new scary adult world with eyes that feel to them as if they belong to children.
Often in the show, the more childish a character is, the more adult the monsters they must face become and vice versa. In the first season, for example, Eleven survived years of psychological testing as well as physical and emotional isolation and manipulation, which resulted in an, understandably, traumatized twelve-year-old girl. She then had to stand alone to face her abusers head-on, while trying to protect the only friends she has ever had, from an interdimensional rabid animal.
Meanwhile, Joyce Byers, one of the oldest protagonists, struggles with losing someone she loves and being unable to contact him because the situation is outside of her control; much like how the strife of childhood is out of one’s control due to their youth. She is shown as even more of a child when her teenage son must tend to her and play a more active role in searching for his brother because she is trapped at home, waiting for the next time Will opts to contact her from the Upside-Down. It is only when she chooses to claim her adult responsibility and take action by setting out to uncover the mysteries of the government lab with Hopper that she begins to rule over the events happening to her, instead of the other way around. This shows the young audience that to take hold of the situation and accept one’s own adulthood and capabilities is the only way for the situation to get better,
Empathy, more than anything else, is the real superpower of Stranger Things. Through every brilliant reference and carefully crafted scene, the main message is “you are not alone.” It calls to its audience of scared young millennials and wraps them up in the warm comfort of nostalgia, shows them that it understands how they feel unprepared for the unknown world ahead of them, and offers some guidance. The show does not claim to say that the adult world will be easy – fighting a faceless inter-dimensional monster certainly is not – but it does show that it understands who its viewers are and that it has faith in their capacity to overcome all life has in store.
The show’s popularity suddenly makes a world of sense: every tweet, every Facebook post and blog entry, every squeal from a fangirl, or ‘like’ from a casual viewer, feels well deserved when it is put in the scope of gratitude. Gratitude for being understood in a wholesome and honest way, instead of in the silicone and neon of regular media.