Stranger Things, the Netflix fantasy-horror show, begins with its four main characters playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons, and uses D&D throughout as an explicit metaphor both for the fantastical horrors the four boys encounter and for their bonds to each other as a member of a “party,” the show’s way of expressing their loyalty to one another and codifying their friendship. The game also serves as an easy way for the filmmakers to establish the setting, since middle-class, nerdy boys like the main characters were the game’s target audience and the early 80’s were its apogee of direct cultural impact. More than that, though, the game tells us something about the type of nostalgia (in its audience and in its creators) Stranger Things is trying to leverage, the kinds of desires the show instantiates.
As I argued last year, the show uses its own moves between original material and borrowings from a number of mainstream kids’ science fiction and horror movies of the 1980s as a parallel to the characters’ movement between the ordinary world of small town Southern Indiana and the mysterious and ominous world of the Upside Down. As in the (more constrained and forced) postmodernism of A Force Awakens and Rogue One, where each visual and narrative element is assessed not by whether it contributes to an imaginative world but whether it looks and feels like a Star Wars movie is supposed to look, Stranger Things draws its effects in large part by inviting the viewer to spot the references to the movies they remember from when they were kids, and the audience is consciously not kids the same age as the protagonists but adults (who would at most have been the same age around the same time as the show takes place.) Even the rating (14 and up) would exclude the main characters in the show’s first season, who are only 12, and for many parents the relatively explicit teen sex scenes among the first few episodes probably would as well.
There is a wink and a nod to adult viewers here, because though parents might not want their kids to see the show, the implication of many of the references is that the viewer saw things they weren’t supposed to, back when they were kids. The twins who created the show, the Duffer Brothers, weren’t even quite born when the first season takes place (another example perhaps of how the world of artistic possibility is a grasp at the unspoiled world of before we were born, ) and in any case we all had an older brother who let us watch Risky Business on the condition that we didn’t tell our parents that he had watched it. This inappropriateness is itself a part of what the show is selling, the sense that childhood and growing up were once less constrained, less under the hothouse supervision of parents and school personnel, more dangerous and more free.
There is a tangent to be made here, the recent widely discussed evidence that today’s kids are growing up more slowly along multiple dimensions than my (X) Generation, and the way that electronics have allowed parents to offer kids an illusion of freedom while keeping them ever under their anxious eyes. And guilt over having imposed this constraint on their kids, or perhaps for younger viewers a sense that they themselves missed out on the time when you could be out with your friends for hours unsupervised far away from home and able to break things and build things and explore, is obviously a part of the show’s appeal. At the same time, the show recognizes that the sign-posts to growing up, even a generation ago, were themselves the superreleasers of mass culture, the toy Millennium Falcons and Eggo waffles and Ghostbusters Halloween costumes that are as much or more our memories as what happened to us ourselves uniquely. We were and are living in the Magic Kingdom of Intellectual Property, most of the time if not all.
This is, I think, where Dungeons and Dragons comes in. Will Wheaton a few years ago wrote about the weight of nostalgia he felt for DND (the picture above is his) and about playing the game with his own kids and their friends. There’s an irony here, since Wheaton himself became a piece of the imagistic residue of the 80s that Stranger Things so enthusiastically mines; I vividly remember when first watching Stand by Me seeing myself as a younger and chubbier version of Wheaton’s character Gordie and having no trouble identifying one of my best friends as Chris, one as Teddy, one as Verne. My versions of Chris and Teddy and Verne were a bit too cool and normal for us ever to actually play a full game of DND; I would read Talmudically the rule manuals and convince one or all of us to make characters and then shortly into the first adventure everybody would get bored and we’d go find some real, or at least more real, adventures to get involved in.
But this is, I think, central both to what Dungeons and Dragons promised to an increasingly alienated generation and what Stranger Things tries to reclaim. The two great themes of both Tolkien and the endless swords and sorcery spinoffs that Dungeons and Dragons are based on are male camaraderie and the sense that each of us, small and uncertain though we are, can venture forth to see the great things of the world and to be among and part of the doings of others whose identities are less tentative, more heroic than our own. As a kid I had my own private worlds, given me by reading, but as happens implicitly in The Hobbit and more explicitly in many “portal” series like Narnia or The Neverending Story and their imitators, the subject of much children’s fantasy is the porousness of the barriers between our ordinary, dull, tea-kettle-boiling-on-the-hearth world and the world of dragons and adventure over the water and beyond the hills. This is not only because the modern world we inhabit is dull, constraining, limited and inert, relative to a just accounting of our souls, but because for young people and perhaps especially for young men, the formation of what the world is to us is a matter of shared imagination, what we can see and tell one another we have seen, even if it never was. The appeal of fantasy is not to submerge us in an imagined world, alone, and never let us out- this is almost exactly what the terrible world of the Upside Down threatens to do, what The Matrix suggested we might be locked within, and also what, I think, more and more of us, as our lives are more and more electronically mediated, feel has already come to be. Fantasy’s appeal is that the road goes ever on and on, that our own world is wider than we yet know, that there are great trees as well as dragons, beyond the turn in the path, and that we’ll see them with a friend.