Late Thursday night, Netflix unveiled the hotly-anticipated second installment of its smash genre hit Stranger Things. By Friday morning, a number of fans, thirsty for the continuing adventures of Mike, Dustin, Lucas, Will, and Eleven, had already devoured the nine-episode season. But not everyone has been so quick to binge. So in the interest of serving everyone, this article has been divided by episode. In other words, you’ll have ample warning when it comes to spoilers.
So don’t be afraid to dive in as we break down 29 historical, and pop cultural references woven into the demonic clash threatening to rip Hawkins, Indiana to shreds. Though Stranger Things is famous for riffing on popular 80s callbacks, you’ll find more than a few references that stretch outside that decade. So warm up some Jiffy Pop, slick back your hair, slip into your most stylish velour, and enjoy all the tidbits you might have missed.
Two actors who got their start in the 1980s joined the cast of Stranger Things in Season 2: Sean Astin of The Goonies (1985) fame and Paul Reiser, the corporate antagonist of 1986’s Aliens. Obviously, neither of those films had premiered in the fall of 1984, when Stranger Things 2 takes place, but that didn’t stop showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer from sneaking in an homage or ten.
The Company Man: In the first episode, Reiser’s Dr. Owens is introduced almost identically to the way his Aliens character, Burke, appears on the scene in that film. Both approach the sickbed of the traumatized survivor of the first installment and try to gain their trust. Both are employees of a company our hero has every reason to distrust. In Aliens, Burke is lying when he tells Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley she can trust him, so audiences watching Stranger Things may view any Reiser character as skeptically as Winona Ryder’s Joyce does. Whether or not he deserves that skepticism remains to be seen as the season progresses.
Billy Don’t Be a Hero: If you’re wondering where on earth the Duffer brothers cooked up the wild, mulleted look of Dacre Montgomery’s new bully character, Billy, well, look no further than Rob Lowe’s character named, oh yes, Billy in St. Elmo’s Fire (1985). Both the tragic hair and, in a later episode, the dangling earring are lifted directly from Lowe’s Billy who, it should be noted, is much kinder than his Stranger doppelgänger. In fact, the Duffers told Montgomery to emulate Jack Nicholson’s addled villain in The Shinning as he torments his step-sister Max (I don’t need to explain her Mad Max gaming handle, right?) and her new friends.
A Very 80s Halloween: I won’t insult you by spending a second on the Ghostbusters (1984) costumes worn by Mike (Finn Wolfhard) et. al., (except to say that their Winston debate was a delight). But take some time to peruse the costumes in the background of this Hawkins, Indiana high school Halloween party as “Like a Virgin”-era Madonna (1984), Alex Owens from Flashdance (1983), Rocky from Rocky (1976), and Johnny from The Karate Kid (1984) cheered Billy’s keg stand on. (There’s also a puking Bluto from Animal House (1978) somewhere in the bushes.)
Kiss and Tell: You could probably tell by her reaction to Jonathan’s (Charlie Heaton) guess, but this girl is not dressed as Kiss. Nor is she Robert Smith from The Cure nor Dr. Frank-N-Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). You can keep your basic Madonna and Flashdance costumes because this very cool high schooler is dressed as Siouxsie Sioux from the British punk band Siouxsie and the Banshees. I’m afraid, Jonathan Byers, that she’s too cool even for you.
Frisky Business: Straddling the line between the uncreative teens gathered around the keg and the super niche Siouxsie Sioux, we find Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Steve (Joe Keery) who, according to Steve, spent a very long time on their couple’s costume. Really, Steve? He’s popped on some shades, a blazer, and, really, done nothing with his hair in order to look like Tom Cruise from Risky Business (1983). We’ll give him some credit for not going with the super obvious pink button-down and underwear look. Nancy has gone slightly more obscure but nonetheless on-theme with a lesser-known outfit Rebecca De Mornay wore in the same film. De Mornay’s striped shirt and purple dress have become, over time, more iconic but they’re not very Nancy, are they? Nonetheless, Nance, you get bravery marks for dressing as a hooker in 1984 Indiana.
The Days of Our 1984 Lives: Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) zooms past a couple of options when she’s stuck at home watching TV—including a trailer (??) for The Terminator (1984). But she stops, mesmerized, on Susan Lucci as Erica Kane somewhere near the beginning of her staggering four-decade run on the soap opera All My Children.
A Few Simple Rules: In the summer of 1984 the movie Gremlins came out and forever cemented a few rules on the care and keeping of Mogwai: don’t get them wet and definitely don’t feed them after midnight. The third rule is often forgotten but it looks like it applies to Dustin’s (Gaten Matarazzo) slimy little pet, D’Artagnan, as well: “keep him out of the light, he hates bright light, especially sunlight, it’ll kill him.” I don’t know about the killing part, but D’Art’s aversion to light certainly explains why later in the season certain things mostly come out at night. . .mostly.
Cat-like Reflexes: If Jonesy in Alien (1979) taught us anything, it’s that cat reactions to slimy things should not be ignored. But Dustin doesn’t heed the warning of his cat Mew (Mew-Mew?). I wonder how that will pan out for everyone concerned?
Even Rocky Had a Montage: If you’re wondering why the soundtrack for Steve’s basketball practice made you want to get up and train alongside the Hawkins High School team, it’s because that song, “Scarface (Push It to the Limit)” (1983) by Paul Engemann, scored one of the most notoriously cheesy 80 montages of all time in, you guessed it, the movie Scarface. In 2002, South Park mercilessly mocked “Push It to the Limit” with the parody “Montage.” The use of it here in Episode 4 is actually much more restrained than it might have been.
Untamed Heart: The tabloid-esque headline on the cover of Mr. Sinclair’s newspaper, “Baby Fae’s Baboon Heart,” is a reference to a real-life medical case that took place in October, 1984. Stephanie Fae Beauclair was the first successful infant heart transplant case and, yes, they used a baboon heart. Your mileage may vary when it comes to calling it “successful”—Baby Fae died within a month of the procedure.
A Challenge: Speaking of bummer news in the Sinclair household, it looks like Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) has a model of the NASA space shuttle Challenger in his bedroom. The ship had its maiden flight in 1983 but broke to pieces tragically during a mission in 1986 killing seven crew members, including a civilian school teacher. So I don’t anticipate that model sticking around for Stranger Things Season 6.
Snatched: There are a number of possession references we can use to explain what happens to Will (Noah Schnapp) when the Shadow Monster infects him—and we’ll get to a few more. But for now let’s marvel at Schnapp’s terrifying impression of Donald Sutherland’s famous screech in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978).
Farrah Hair: On the red carpet, Steve actor Joe Keery has credited genetics for his incredible head of hair, but in the show we can thank Fabergé Organic shampoo and conditioner for his amazing look. Though Steve mentions the famously well-coiffed Farrah Fawcett—who put her name on the Fabergé hairspray—it was the similarly blonde and genetically blessed Heather Locklear who represented the brand in a 1984 TV spot that encouraged users to tell a friend about Fabergé. Mission accomplished, Steve.
Of Carpenters and Kings: It’s unclear whether Stranger Things is referencing the 1980 John Carpenter horror classic The Fog or the 1980 Stephen King story The Mist here. The fact that the Demodogs and Shadow Monster look an awful lot like the creepy prehistorical critters that loom in King’s mist gives the latter the advantage.
Clever Girl: Sure 1984 is too early for Jurassic Park references. The Michael Crichton book came out in 1990 and the film in 1993. But this isn’t the last Jurassic references we get this season—nor is it even the most obvious. Still, the fact that Steve almost gets attacked from the side while focusing on the Demodog in front of him is classic Velociraptor hunting tactics.
Stay Frosty: Speaking of overt references to not-yet-released films, it’s hard to ignore the Aliens (1986) allusion when the Hawkins Laboratory guys go down into the caverns to hunt some creatures. In both that film and this episode, Paul Reiser is watching closely and anxiously on a grainy monitor as their shoulder-mounted lights cut through the dark and misty tunnels. If there were any doubts remaining that this is as blunt a reference as can be, one of the lab guys advises the troops to “stay frosty, boys”-an oft-quoted Aliens phrase.
That Thing You Do: I promised more classic horror possession tropes and here we are. When a monster can look like one of its victims, it can eavesdrop on plans. That’s what makes the titular demon in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) such a challenge to defeat and why Mike and the rest were taken by surprise when Will led the Hawkins men into a trap. The way Will was infected—with smoke tendrils invading every orifice—recalls the tentacles of that 1982 body-hopping monster. Joyce even repeatedly calls what’s inside her son “that Thing.”
A Much More Recent Callback: You don’t have to go back too far to figure out why Eleven called that pushy Chicago stranger a “mouthbreather” with such relish. It’s an insult Mike taught her back in Season 1. So, more subtle than references to Eggo waffles and Barb, but still a nice healthy bit of world-building.
Who Is This Punk?: Fun fact. The game show Supermarket Sweep was on in the mid-late 60s and then went away before returning with a vengeance in 1990. That means this punk is quoting a. . .decades-old game show? Odd. Anyway, it should ring a bell for children of the 90s who know full well that freshly-ground coffee and frozen turkeys are the keys to winning this particularly strange game show.
From Punks to Punky: When Eleven and her long-lost “sister” invade the home of someone who can help them unlock their past, they find the man pathetically watching Punky Brewster (1984-1988) all alone. Because Stranger Things does have a younger fan base, I’ll pause here to note that Punky Brewster was a show about a young, abandoned girl (Punky) who is eventually adopted by a grouchy, older man. Sound familiar? The Duffer brothers took the Eleven comparison even deeper by digging up an episode where Punky talks about going to the doctor and being tormented by a giant needle. No wonder that guy watching (played by the great Pruitt Taylor Vince) looks so guilt-stricken.
Breaker/Breaker: Well you don’t get much more overt, reference-wise, then the exact same line. Both Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour) and Jurassic Park’s Muldoon (Bob Peck) are understandably curious about how many beasties they’ll have to get past in order to find the circuit breaker and turn the lights and door locks back on.
Open Sesame: And while we’re talking about door locks, let’s give a few rousing cheers to Bob Newby (Sean Astin) for playing the part of Jurassic Park’s Lex (Ariana Richards) and getting those locks functioning again. Unlike Lex, however, poor Newb didn’t make it to the end.
An Awfully Big Adventure: Steve is being a bit self-deprecating when he calls himself an amazing babysitter but, remember, the 1980s were all about babysitters. Starting with Laurie Strode from Halloween (1978) and continuing on with the book series The Baby-Sitters Club (launched in 1986), Adventures in Babysitting (1987), and wrapping up around 1991 with Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, child-minders had a pretty prominent place in pop culture for about a decade. So you’re in good company, Steve.
Never Say Die: Stranger Things spared Sean Astin any major Goonies nonsense, but we can’t help but think of the 1985 Richard Donner film when the boys (and Steve) go below ground for their own side quest in the finale. Steve even gets to wear the same red bandana Josh Brolin’s Brand (another badass babysitter) sports in The Goonies.
Exorcise Daily: Our second-to-last possession reference comes courtesy of 1973’s The Exorcist where a demon-infested girl named Regan (Linda Blair) knocks her mother (Ellen Burstyn) around. Joyce doesn’t fair much better once a possessed Will gets a free hand and within choking distance of her.
Doomed: Our final possession story is 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where a concerned Short Round (Goonies star Jonathan Ke Quan) burns his “best friend” Indy (Harrison Ford) on his side in order to drive a demon out. Perhaps inspired by that film (which came out in May, 1984), Nancy sears a possessed Will with a hot poker on his side and, you guessed it, drives the demon possessing him straight out the door.
Strictly Professional: I’ll accept that this one is a bit of a stretch, but it’s hard for me to look at a lethal little girl and her older, male protector and not think of Luc Besson’s Léon a.k.a. The Professional (1994). Perhaps we can blame the oft-mentioned comparisons between Millie Bobby Brown and young Natalie Portman.
We Didn’t Start the Fire: Speaking of lethal young women, how can I look at Eleven telekinetically taking care of business while surrounded by flames and not think of Drew Barrymore in 1984’s Firestarter—specifically the promotional material. Sure there are other comparisons we could make (X-Men’s Dark Phoenix anyone?), but this feels like the most timely.
The Duckie Effect: Poor Dustin may not get the girl at the big dance, but, like Jon Cryer’s Duckie in Pretty in Pink (1986) before (or after) him, he does get a girl. Nancy takes pity on her brother’s friend and asks him to dance. Cryer, on the other hand, gets a far less platonic moment with a young Kristy Swanson. Either way, both young men are absolutely rocking that shellacked ducktail hair.