The 10 classic '80s movies that inspired Stranger Things

It’s no secret that Stranger Things is an '80s extravaganza. The critically-acclaimed Netflix show is set in 1983 and that means dorky kids, preppy teens, and a soundtrack that would make Donnie Darko proud. It’s everything I love about the '80s, including those ten-hour Dungeons & Dragons sessions and songs from Joy Division and The Clash. Let’s face it - Stranger Things is so '80s, it should have been released on VHS. But it’s more than just a heavy dose of nostalgia.

Stranger Things owes it all to the films of the '80s. Everything from Aliens to Poltergeist can be found lurking within the small town landscape of Hawkins, Indiana. Does Dustin remind you of Chunk from The Goonies? What about the Demogorgon’s uncanny likeness for John Carpenter’s The Thing? Here’s some of the ground-breaking '80s movies that inspired Stranger Things.

Oh, and if you haven’t watched season 1 just yet, go away - there are spoilers ahead.

1. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

The quintessential '80s sci-fi flick, E.T. is a major influence on Stranger Things. Ever since the show’s first trailer appeared online, Stranger Things has been described as a love letter to Steven Spielberg and for good reason. His 1982 classic sees a young boy named Elliot befriending an extra-terrestrial who has become stranded on Earth. Doggedly pursued by government agents, elements of their story can be seen throughout Stranger Things. The growing friendship between Mike and Eleven, her exploration of Mike’s house when she’s all alone, and even Eleven playing dress-up are taken directly from the movie. 

But what about that bike chase? Episode 7 sees Mike and the gang helping Eleven escape from the shadowy grip of Hawkins National Laboratory, which leads them off on a thrilling bike chase that’s almost exactly like the one at the end of E.T. This time, their telekinetic friend is a bit more violent in her approach - instead of levitating their bikes out of harm’s way, Eleven chooses to flip a Hawkins van that’s driving right at them. Ouch.

2. The Goonies (1985)

I know - Dustin never does the truffle shuffle. But he’s basically the new Chunk. The Goonies tells a very different story to Stranger Things, but the show makes more than a few nods to this 1985 cult classic. Threatened with eviction from their homes, the kids from The Goonies set off on an adventure to find the treasure of One-Eyed Willy. Not quite the same as trying to find a missing friend, but the similarity between the characters is obvious.

Mike and Mikey are both the leaders of their oddball gangs, with Lucas and Mouth as their second-in-command and the voice of reason. Enter Dustin and Chunk as the lovable goof alongside Eleven and Sloth as the outsider who saves the day. There’s even an older brother who helps solve the mystery - in The Goonies it’s Brand, in Stranger Things it’s Jonathon. Oh, and '80s kids rode their bikes everywhere. That’s just a fact.

3. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

One, Two, Demogorgon is coming for you. A Nightmare on Elm Street has a lot more in common with Stranger Things than you might think. Enter Nancy - the name of Will’s sister in Stranger Things and the leading lady in Wes Craven’s horror classic. But these two share more than just their name. Nancy’s boyfriend Steve clearly bears a striking resemblance to Glen from the 1984 slasher, and with teen promiscuity as a big theme in both, it’s clear that Stranger Things is channelling those '80s horror tropes. Steve even pays Nancy a late-night visit by climbing in through her bedroom window.

Most importantly, there’s the Home Alone style booby traps which both Nancys set up to catch their monstrous stalkers. In Stranger Things, she teams up with local oddball and Will Byers’ brother, Jonathon, in an attempt to defeat the nightmarish Demogorgon. It’s a much better tactic than going it alone in A Nightmare on Elm Street. At least they both survived.

4. Firestarter (1984)

Based on a Stephen King novel, Firestarter tells the story of Charlie - a girl with telekinetic powers, much like Eleven in Stranger Things. But Charlie and Eleven have far more in common, especially when it comes to how they got their powers. Their parents were human test subjects in shady government experiments, which gave both girls their abilities. The US government abducts them both when they realise they can harness their powers as a weapon.

There are plenty of other similarities, too - Firestarter also shows psychic powers causing nosebleeds in those who use them, and a synth-heavy soundtrack completes the '80s vibe. Eleven may be a bit more violent when it comes to her powers, but nobody’s perfect, right?

5. Poltergeist (1982)

It’s the greatest ghost story of the '80s - Poltergeist is a chilling story of what happens when an American family’s home suddenly becomes spook central. It soon turns out that Stranger Things is no ghost story, but the 1982 horror classic is explicitly mentioned on the show - in the first episode, Joyce gives her son Will some tickets to see the movie. Best. Foreshadowing. Ever.

For the next few episodes, Stranger Things turns into a ghost story itself - the Byers’ family home becoming a haunted house of sorts, which is clearly affected by the Upside Down. After receiving that chilling phone call, Joyce realises that Will is trapped somewhere in their home and attempts to communicate with her son by scrawling letters on the wall and getting him to light the appropriate Christmas lights, like an improvised Ouija board. Much like Poltergeist, the house appears to have taken one of its children, and behaves entirely unnaturally as electronic appliances turn on and off with monstrous creatures trying to climb through the walls. The only thing missing is a staticky TV set.

6. The Gate (1987)

It’s one of the cheesiest horrors of the 1980s, but even The Gate offered up some inspiration for Stranger Things. Starring a young Stephen Dorff, The Gate tells the extraordinary tale of two boys who accidentally open a portal to hell beneath their home. You know, as you do.

If that wasn’t bad enough, their parents are out of town, too. Talk about bad luck. There’s nobody to turn to and nowhere to run, so it seems they’ll have to take on the demonic hordes themselves. Obviously, the idea of accidentally opening a portal to another world is the bread and butter of Stranger Things. But we’re more concerned with their phones. The way Joyce’s telephone burns out every time Will calls from another dimension is exactly like the phones spontaneously combusting in The Gate. Still, at least Joyce hasn’t got to worry about any horrific monsters… oh wait.

7. Stand By Me (1986)

It’s another coming-of-age classic. Not content with lifting characters straight from The Goonies, it looks as though Stranger Things also borrowed from Stephen King’s Stand By Me. The similarities are obvious - a group of four childhood friends (led by Wil Wheaton of Star Trek fame) set off to find the body of a missing boy.

This tale of adventure and camaraderie is clearly embedded in Stranger Things. In fact, the film was such a huge influence on the show that its creators, the Duffer Brothers, got their potential young actors to recite lines from the movie during their auditions. Obviously, that paid off - the chemistry between Mike, Dustin and Lucas (and Will before his disappearance) is completely natural. But the similarities go way beyond themes of childhood friendship. Stranger Things features scenes with Mike and his pals hanging out at a local junkyard - exactly like Stand By Me. There’s even a shot of our heroes wandering along a train track. But this time around, the body they find at the quarry isn’t exactly what they were expecting.

8. Aliens (1986)

In the Upside Down, no-one can hear you scream; a chilling thought made even worse when you compare Ridley Scott’s Aliens to the Demogorgon. After debuting in Alien back in 1979, the Xenomorph proved itself to be the stuff of nightmares. With pure acid coursing through its veins, the iconic alien has spent decades terrifying sci-fi horror fans, and now it lends some of its weird physiology to the monster of Stranger Things.

The Demorgorgon’s oddly-humanoid appearance strikes a chord with those who were terrified by the original Alien, and this creature seems to have a similarly weird life cycle. After capturing Will Byers, the monstrous creature keeps him alive and cocooned, much like the cocoons in Aliens. Has the Demogorgon implanted him with slug-like offspring? Will the slugs evolve like the classic Alien facehuggers? At the moment, we have no idea… but bonus points for those Alien-esque eggs seen in the Upside Down. Creepy.

9. The Thing (1982)

Clearly, John Carpenter’s The Thing made quite an impression on the creators of Stranger Things. After all, it’s referenced not once, but twice throughout the series. We first find a poster for the film on Will’s bedroom wall, and then in a later episode, their science teacher is spotted watching the movie at home with his girlfriend.

Why is The Thing so important? There are clear parallels between Stranger Things and the 1982 horror classic, with a horrific creature stalking the landscape in both. Speaking of the landscape, with The Thing set in Antarctica, it seems like a rather neat nod that the Upside Down features snow-like flakes floating through the air. Then there’s the Demogorgon - the stuff of nightmares with a gaping maw that’s surely inspired by the creature from The Thing. Still, at least the Demogorgon doesn’t absorb its victims. So that’s something.

10. Scanners (1981)

There are plenty of '80s films featuring telekinetic powers, but Scanners shows us what Eleven would be capable of if she wasn’t quite so restrained. David Cronenberg’s sci-fi classic tells the story of the scanners - people with unusual telepathic and telekinetic powers. Much like Stranger Things, the movie features a shady agency (known as ConSec) which attempts to use the scanners as human weapons. Just wait ‘til you see what they can do. Attacking their enemies with psychic precision, the scanners are able to kill with a mere thought - exactly like Eleven. Its most iconic scene even depicts a scanner making a man’s head explode.

Eleven does almost exactly the same thing in Stranger Things when she’s cornered by a pair of heavily-armed goons from Hawkins National Laboratory. Using her powers to squeeze their heads until blood pours from their eyes, she doles out violent justice to her tormentors. Not quite as explosive as Scanners, but she gave it her best shot.


Writer at GamesRadar+ and fully fledged geek. Still hopes to one day build his own Iron Man suit.
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