Film & video

9 Iconic Movie and Pop Culture References in Stranger Things

It’s back, demonerds! As "Stranger Things 4” gets its long-awaited release, we take a look at some of the top inspirations behind the show

In movies and TV, pop culture references allow creators to pay homage to the influences and fellow creatives that inspire them. They’re also an opportunity to connect with an audience on a deeper level, showing an understanding and appreciation for the world that has shaped them.

When it comes to ’80s references, few modern-day series do it better than Stranger Things. Created by Matt and Ross Duffer, the Netflix show—set in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana—has been praised for its attention to detail in the setting of its supernatural storyline.

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"Stranger Things" is packed with iconic '80s pop culture references and Easter eggs. Image credits: courtesy Netflix.

To celebrate the long-awaited release of Stranger Things 4 (May 27), we take a look at some of the biggest pop culture influences behind the new season, and explore some of the iconic references (and Easter eggs!) through the series so far.

1980s pop culture references in Stranger Things

From vintage denim, mullets, and bomber jackets, to interior set designs complete with wood paneling and floral wallpaper, style is one of its most recognizable tributes to the decade. But the show’s wardrobe and design choices are just one of many ways we see the ’80s honored throughout the seasons.

You’ll find a whole host of pop culture references in the Stranger Things—from a soundtrack featuring hits from the likes of Madonna and David Bowie to Eleven’s obsession with Eggo Waffles. Each of these details alone might seem insignificant but, together, they construct an entire world in which Stranger Things fans are able to immerse themselves and make an otherwise unlikely storyline believable.

The show writers also draw from classic '80s movies and iconic characters for their own storylines. But, what inspired the latest season, and what does it mean for the new episodes?

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In season one of "Stranger Things", Eleven is obsessed with popular 1980s breakfast food, Eggo Waffles.

Movies and series that influenced Stranger Things 4

The Stranger Things writers made sharing their inspiration for season four a regular feature as part of their Video Store Fridays series. In their final Tweet, the writers shared a whiteboard filled with movie references that they describe as “the DNA that makes up season four”.

Karate Kid, Edward Scissor Hands, The Descent, and Forrest Gump are a few of a long list of well-known titles that feature on the board.

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A whiteboard of movie references with “the DNA that makes up season four”. @strangerwriters, via Twitter.

Giving a breakdown of the official season trailer, the Duffer Brothers also discuss some of their influences for what the creative duo describes as their “more horror leaning season” in line with the maturing of its protagonists, so it’s no surprise that a number of them belong to the same genre…

Read on to learn some of the creative inspiration behind the new season: spoilers ahead!

1. A Nightmare on Elm Street

From the Mindflayer to Demogorgons, Stranger Things has had its fair share of villains from the Upside Down—and things look set to get even darker in season four.

When it came to creating their “big new baddie” for the new season, Vecna, the Duffer Brothers took to the iconic and “very dark” antagonists that terrified them growing up for inspiration.

According to the pair, Vecna (named after a Dungeons & Dragon villain) is influenced by a combination of supernatural villains including Pennywise from Stephen King’s IT, Pinhead from Hellraiser, and, one of cinema’s most well-known monsters, Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street.

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The new season's big villain Vecna is inspired by “very dark” 1980s antagonists.

References to Freddy Krueger don’t stop there—they refer to it as “a season so deeply inspired by the Nightmare series." So much so that actor Robert Englund, who originally played Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street, will also appear in the new season as “disturbed murderer" Victor Creel.

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Robert Englund playing Victor Creel (left) and Freddy Krueger (right).

2. Game of Thrones

While the ’80s are undeniably a huge inspiration for the creators of the show, inspiration for Vecna’s look also came from Game of Thrones’ supernatural villain, the Night King. The pair even share the same prosthetic makeup artist, Barrie Gower. According to the team, Vecna’s costume is made using 90 percent practical effects.

In more comparisons to the HBO hit, the Duffer Brothers refer to the latest season of Stranger Things as their “Game of Thrones season”, perhaps hinting at an ambitious storyline that spans continents and points in time.

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Vecna (left) shares the same prosthetic makeup artist as "Game of Thrones" villain the Night King (right).

3. The Shining

In another nod toward a classic 1980s horror, the writers were keen to introduce a haunted house to the series with the Creel House—the old home of one of the season’s aforementioned villains, Victor Creel, and his family.

Drawing comparisons to events that unfolded in The Shining’s Overlook Hotel, the Creels’ life gets turned upside down after moving into the haunted Hawkins house in the 1950s.

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The Creel House (left) and the Creel family in the 1950s (right).

In a Creel House teaser trailer, what starts out as a picturesque portrayal of family life descends into a picture of a father with two lifeless children lying on the floor in front of him. It’s a shot that directly references an equally harrowing scene with Grady Twins from the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s iconic psychological horror.

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This shot set inside the Creel House directly imitates a scene with Grady Twins from "The Shining".

More iconic ’80s influences and Easter eggs in Stranger Things so far

While the references hinted at in Stranger Things 4 reflect the show’s creators leaning into the darker side of the horror genre, all of the seasons are packed with references and Easter eggs from iconic 1980s adventure, comedy, sci-fi, and horror movies. Let’s take a look at some of the acclaimed titles that have inspired Stranger Things

4. The Goonies

A tight-knit group of small-town kids taking on a greater evil—sound familiar? The Goonies has been a core inspiration for Stranger Things throughout the seasons.

Although the Stranger Things gang arguably has more to contend with than criminals in search of treasure, the parallel between the two plots is clear, and it’s something we’re likely to see continued in the new season. The Duffer Brothers refer to the challenges the core group of friends faces in the next phase of their life as a key emotional conflict in the newer episodes.

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The gang in Stranger Things 4 (top); The Goonies (bottom).

5. Ghostbusters

No list of ’80s comedy-sci-fi inspiration would be complete without the mention of Ghostbusters—its likeness to Stranger Things is clear when you consider that both storylines center around the hunt for supernatural beings, with a dose of humor.

The creators paid tribute to the franchise in the second season when main characters Lucas, Mike, Dustin, and Will dressed up in the iconic Ghostbuster outfits for Halloween. Subtle nods also continue into season four, with Easter eggs like an “I’ve been slimed” Ghostbusters button already appearing in the trailer.

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Lucas, Mike, Dustin, and Will dressed up in the iconic "Ghostbuster" outfits for Halloween (top); the Ghostbusters (bottom).

6. Back to the Future

Set in the summer of 1985—the year Back to the Future was released—season three is rammed with Easter eggs from the classic time travel movie, starting with a Back to the Future movie poster up in the mall cinema in episode one.

One of the more notable nods comes in episode seven where some of the gang lay low in the cinema while Back to the Future plays on the big screen, followed by a series of events reminiscent of the comedy/sci-fi—including a mall parking lot with speeding cars.

Some fan theories also suggest the references could hint at time travel being a theme in season four.

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"Back to the Future" is shown at the cinema in Stranger Things 3.

7. WarGames

The attention to detail is what makes Stranger Things stand out from the crowd, and the name of the arcade in the second season is a perfect example.

First seen in the season two premiere, the Palace Arcade in Hawkins gets its name from the 20 Grand Palace Arcade that features in the 1983 Cold War sci-fi, WarGames—a film about a computer hacker who accidentally almost starts World War III.

Like many movie references in Stranger Things, little nods to WarGames appear throughout the series, including small Easter eggs like a shot of the film in VHS form along in the background of the Byers’ household.

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The Arcade Place in "Stranger Things" (top) was inspired by 20 Grand Palace Arcade in "WarGames".

8. E.T.

Another recurring influence, references to Stephen Speilberg’s E.T. can be spotted throughout all the seasons. From Eleven’s homemade ghost costume in season two to the figurine of the iconic TV alien in Dustin’s room, E.T.’s influence is undeniable (ScreenRant shares a long list of times ET references crop up through the seasons).

The initial plot outline itself even appears to mirror that of the movie: a protagonist (Eleven) forced to adapt to a world they’re not used to and spend a good portion of time hiding in their best friends’ bedrooms in the process.

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Eleven's (top) and E.T. (bottom) wear the same costume trick or treating.

9. Gremlins

Gremlins is another classic ‘80s title you’ll find multiple references to. They range from subtle Easter eggs—like boxes of the Gremlins on sale—to the less so, like the time Dustin finds himself caring for a growing Demogorgon, just like Billy with the Gremlins in the 1984 horror/fantasy.

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"Stranger Things'" Dustin looking after a baby Demogorgon (top); Billy looking after a Gremlin (bottom).

Which movies, TV shows, and other pop culture references do you think have influenced Stranger Things? Share your favorites in the comments.

Learn more behind-the-scenes facts from movies and TV

- Learn about iconic inspirations behind the epic Star Wars saga with a breakdown of art and myth influences referenced in the movies.

- From Star Wars to Toy Story, discover ten of the best movie Easter eggs hidden in classic films.

- Discover the skills needed to make your own movie or TV show by exploring all of Domestika's online movie, video, and TV courses.

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