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The 10 Best References You Might Have Missed in Stranger Things

9 minute read

In the Olympics of classic movie references, Stranger Things wins. The hype-worthy throwback series is an homage-a-minute factory. The show didn’t just have Netflix’s three most-binged genres — thriller, horror and sci-fi — it was packed with everything except a gong for the Duffer Brothers to strike every time they threw in a tribute to one of their cinematic favorites. Even some of the creators who the show calls back to — from the in-your-face: Stephen King, John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg to the sly: Guillermo del Toro — have approved the nerd hat tips.

It’s truly exceptional how many references — from cinema in the ’70, ’80s and beyond — there are. Here, TIME runs through the ten best.

MORE 10 Questions Stranger Things Still Needs to Answer

E.T. (1982)

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial 1982
E.T. The Extra-TerrestrialUniversal Studios

The biggest reference point is E.T., which, like Stranger Things, was about a charming, but totally threatening creature from another world. Instead of Reese’s Pieces, Eleven has her Eggo’s. Dee Wallace, the mom in E.T., was financially struggling and divorced, and in Stranger Things, Joyce (Winona Ryder,) is also a cash-strapped divorced single mom, who just can’t seem to hang onto her child during an alien visit.

Similarity speed-through time. Kids on bikes. Check. Creature experiencing the wonders of television for the first time. Check. Kids dressing up the creature like a normal in a blonde wig. Check. Creature taking off the blonde wig because let’s be real, it’s not like the other kids. Check. Kid hiding an alien who somehow lives with them completely undetected. Check.

Of the smorgasbord of E.T. references, Mike, dear, sweet, innocent, these-are-all-my-science-fair-trophies Mike (Finn Wolfhard) protecting Eleven was the most E.T. part of Stranger Things. And then there was that great moment when the vans full of evil people were chasing the kids and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) who was like, I could get captured, or I could just flip a van over with my mind. This was an inversion of that unforgettable scene from E.T. when everybody sails over the cops on their bikes. Let’s just call this whole series E.T. with Winona Ryder and The Clash.

The Goonies (1985)

Stranger Things; The Goonies
Stranger Things/The GooniesNetflix; Amblin Entertainment

In Stranger Things, we follow a band of noble cute kids who bond over X-Men (another reference to a story wherein a girl unleashes a force she can’t handle.) Anyway, these misfits have a lot in common with those other misfits in The Goonies. The kids in Stranger Things, who have never done a bad thing in their lives besides throwing an imaginary fire ball in Dungeons and Dragons, are supposed to come up with a master plan to overthrow an all-powerful creature from another dimension. And in Goonies, the squad is also very innocent. The main difference would be that those Goonies kids were looking for secret treasure because of this neat map they found, while the Stranger Things crew is on a quest for their dead (kinda!) friend.

Another thing. We’ve already noted that no one on Stranger Things glanced at Barb’s face long enough to be able to describe her to a police sketch artist, which is why when she was yanked from third wheel hell to a way worse hell with slugs in your face. But fans paid a lot of attention to Barb’s short-lived life, and they’ve observed that she looks a lot like Stef (Martha Plimpton) in The Goonies.

Carrie (1976)


In the movie Carrie based on the Stephen King novel, Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) has telekinetic powers that she sometimes uses for violence. Sound familiar? Carrie and Eleven are both total goody two shoes who wouldn’t harm a fly. Unless they’re provoked, in which case they would totally harm several flies, household objects and people. But it’s the sixth episode that has the most blatant Carrie callback when Nancy’s hand bursts through the portal to the Upside Down. It resembles the scene when Carrie’s hand pops out of the dirt covering her grave.

Firestarter (1984)

Stranger Things; Firestarter
Stranger Things/FirestarterNetflix; Universal Studios

The Stockholm syndrome good times continue to roll with comparisons to Firestarter, based on the Stephen King novel. In the movie, Charlie McGee (played by Drew Barrymore) has a delightful upbringing that tracks closely with Eleven’s under Dr. Brenner’s watch. Both little girls get to develop daddy issues with guys who encourage their superhuman powers. Both also wear brain wave monitors so everyone can see how they’re progressing.

As the movie’s title gives it away, the wee little pyro Charlie can set things she doesn’t like on fire when prompted. Over in Hawkins, Ind., Eleven incidentally sets a radio set ablaze after overloading it to get in touch with Will. Eleven’s make-your-nose-bleed powers are way more powerful than Charlie’s, but they have a lot in common so the ’80s ladies could definitely bond over waffles some time.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

A Nightmare on Elm Street
A Nightmare on Elm StreetNew Line Cinema

In A Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy Krueger drops in on teen dreams to make their lives terrible. And in the remake, the wall swells as the attacker stretches the wall. It’s just like in Stranger Things when the monster similarly makes the wall do weird things.

There’s more. The scene that really screams A Nightmare on Elm Street happens when Nancy and Jonathan try to lure the dimension-shifting killer into Jonathan’s pad with booby traps, and they torch the place in their attempt to destroy it. In Nightmare, another character named Nancy, the hero, also sets up booby traps in her house for the monster. She then lights Freddy on fire. Just like in Stranger Things, fire doesn’t cut it.

Alien (1979)

Alien20th Century Fox

Back to haunt a new generation forever, the monsters from Alien aren’t so different from the monster we meet in Stranger Things. In Alien, the slimy creatures want to take all the innocent people to slime time and borrow their bodies real quick to use for incubators. Oh, and kill them. They want to do that too. In the movie, terrifying creatures cover every surface of the victims’ faces. This little treat is reminiscent of the web-like slugs we see plugged into Will and Barb’s faces. And just like in Stranger Things, people in Alien search for the answers in Hazmat suits because safety gear could definitely keep everyone safe from murderous supernatural beings.

Close Encounters (1977)

Stranger Things; Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Stranger Things/Close Encounters of the Third KindNetflix; Columbia Pictures

In Stranger Things Winona Ryder‘s Joyce is confident that Will’s making the lamps light up. It’s a theory generally regarded by her son and the townsfolk as one of her wackier ideas. (Eventually Hopper and others come around to see the woman is most definitely onto something, but in Close Encounters everyone thinks the mom’s lost her crackers too.)

The similarities continue when she redecorates, and manages to have a mother-son conversation via the Christmas lights (it’s the ‘80s equivalent of Face Time when your child’s spending some time in another plane of existence.) Joyce uses this system to try to ask Will where he is. The mode of communication invites comparison to the grand finale in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, when governments scientists chat with aliens through lights. (The family in Poltergeist also talks through the walls, so we’ve been here before with the living things in the walls and lights.)

Stand By Me (1986)

Stand by Me
Stand by MeColumbia Pictures

Moving on to number 3-billionth thing that has Stephen King written all over it. Sure our heroes had some It Loser Club vibes going for them, but the Stand By Me moment was major. In Stranger Things, the boys walk along the train tracks in search of Will. Same deal with the film adaptation of Stephen King’s novella The Body. The boys also walk along the tracks, chatting about Superman, and then a train actually comes hurtling toward them and they escape. Otherwise, their lives are fairly easy compared to our Stranger Things heroes who have a monster, a shady government agency and a bully who is also a budding psychopath on their hands.

Minority Report (2002)

Minority Report
Minority Report20th Century Fox

When the Stranger Things guys turn a kiddie pool into a makeshift sensory deprivation tank so Eleven can check to see if Barb and Will are dead or not over on the other side, with Joyce as her spirit guide, it’s a very Minority Report scenario.

Despite the good news that Eleven’s able to gather on the little angel Will front, things are still terrible for Eleven in the end. Speaking of pool time, during Eleven’s experiments in Stranger Things, she gets into the tank at Hawkins lab for happiness-deprived children so she can slide into the another dimension (a.k.a. the Vale of Shadows that also invokes the movie Silent Hill) to have a look around at the cool deadly stuff that’s there. The Hawkins lab tank also recalled the Ken Russell science fiction film, Altered States (William Hurt’s character takes the dip in that isolation tank to tap into latent parts of his mind, like Eleven.)

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Pan's Labyrinth
Pan's LabyrinthTelecinco Cinema

Designed by Aaron Sims, the Stranger Things monster has an eye-catching flower face that snaps open when it’s time to snatch up another kid. In the film Pan’s Labyrinth, director Guillermo Del Toro introduced a gross wrinkly nude monster that looked somewhat like the Stranger Things creature. This was also a story about a kid who wanders around a terrifying world that’s close by our own. The Stranger Things monster also looked a little bit like the vampires in Blade 2. All of the monsters were also all extremely inconvenient.

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