Stranger Things, video tapes and the fluttering nature of nostalgia

VCR and tape

Every generation has a way of accessing their childhood entertainment that ends up being wholly redundant. Technology drags us forward at breakneck speed, yet those moments in time carry such satisfyingly plump nostalgic weight, they stay important to us long after their method of delivery turns naff. VCRs have been flung into local council skips for years. Last week, the very final unit was manufactured.

For those of us whose childhoods bled between the late 70s and the 1980s, the video tape was king. There was no internet, no streaming, no instant scrolling, no jumping through chapters on DVDs or Blu-rays to find a particular spot. You sat and watched. You could pause, rewind or fast-forward but that meant literally waiting for the tape to wind one way or another. If you were lucky, you had a VCR that allowed you to watch the screen as it wound rather than take a guess at where to stop. A task that seemed entirely reasonable at the time but would now make us ache with its lack of instantaneous gratification. It jumped, it flickered, many a-time we had to hook trapped tape around pencils with the precision of a bomb disposal unit to draw it out from the rollers without snapping, but it was ours. It brought the world into our homes.

It seems bizarre now that you saw a film in the cinema or you waited for it to be shown on TV. The VHS boom of the 80s allowed for a buffer that cut the waiting time in half and put the power into your own hands. You decided when you watched, much the way On-Demand services allow for now but with less convenient hardware. Of course, video rentals only permitted a short window of opportunity to watch them within, so absorbing it quickly and multiple times became crucial. I'm convinced this is why so many 80s movies left indelible marks on our brains. The nostalgia isn't completely about the clunk of pushing a video into the machine and feeling the pull as it mechanically drew the hunk of plastic away from your fingers. It was also about what we watched. It was sometimes about what we shouldn't have been watching.

video shop 1980s

The video shop was a treasure trove. Before Blockbuster turned rental into a global franchise, local video shops plastered their walls with overwhelming choice and filled their windows with posters that are now worth a fortune. Each decision on which nugget you took away was intensely important. Floor to ceiling, empty rectangular boxes sat begging to be picked up and handed over, all utilising covers saturated with fluorescent colour and enticing typography to draw you in.

The best thing about it was that the horror, sci-fi and mildly smutty 18+ films were just... there. As kids, we could ever so slowly walk past them, taking mental pictures of each terrifying but equally enthralling cover. There is nothing quite as desirable as seeing something you're allegedly too young for. If nobody was looking we could pick up the horror videos and flip them over to see which even scarier pictures they'd dared to paste on the back. Everything from Hellraiser and Poltergeist to Fright Night, House and utter garbage like Ghoulies would stare back at us week after week. We looked at them every time. Sometimes with some persuasion and distraction techniques we even managed to rent them. I can still summon that feeling of the forbidden by closing my eyes, taking myself back to the well-trodden carpet and mentally inhaling the strong smell of acetate.

Crystallising what triggers intense feelings of nostalgia for each individual is a little like catching butterflies; they flutter toward you for a fleeting moment before taking off again and leaving you not completely sure whether you touched it or not. And yet, Netflix's Stranger Things series has given us the ability to tap into all that was great about being a child of the 80s in eight simple hours of television. The casting is brilliant, the story perfectly paced and the script flows effortlessly in a way that everyone can enjoy it. It's great TV! But for those of us whose younger years were spent dressed in those clothes, it does something spectacular. It takes the hundreds of films that influenced the series and distils them down for our consumption in one package. It's the TV version of having a glass bottle of Corona Orangeade delivered to your doorstep.

stranger things kids

So how did The Duffer Brothers do it? Layering. Brick after brick of sounds, images, tones, type, teases and language all designed to cocoon us in the 1980s. And the fact that nobody really knows which genre to pin it to makes that retrospective blurriness all the more successful. The soundtrack and score are possibly Stranger Things' biggest triumph. The moody, distorted synth and thumping heartbeat of the theme tune sound as if they're an amalgamation of every 80s horror film that met our eyes and ears. The soundtrack is time-appropriate in all the right places and the score turns every torch-lit, creaky stomp in the dark into a moment I want to run away from but somehow don't. It takes me back to when I watched films I was too young for, which only adds to the thrill of the fright.

The colours too have a familiar brownness to them, which are punctuated with bright shocks of vibrance from toys, trinkets and clothes. The 80s really felt like that. Watch E.T. or Flight of the Navigator, Weird Science, Batteries Not Included, Short Circuit or The Goonies; they all have a gorgeous tea-stained grain across them that sets them distinctly inside that decade. I'm not someone who generally finds modern horror frightening, but watching Stranger Things with its classically written suspense scenes was a time-machine to when I did get the creeping knot of fear in my stomach. It replicated it all over again. It Follows did much the same job for exactly that reason. The styling and wardrobe were enviably curated, with the expertly sourced props and details worth a second round of viewing to clock them all. The words placed in the actors' mouths and their casual delivery felt like we'd heard it all before while still seeming new. That confusion is what made it work.

The sensation of both contemporary and versed viewing side-by-side really boils down to the film directors and writers Matt and Ross Duffer have deliberately paid tribute to. Every episode topples with hat-tipping. Steven Spielberg gets the adventure and sci-fi nods. Stephen King and John Carpenter the horror applause. Even John Hughes' masterful teen romance and comedy movies make an appearance - pretty girls, dorky but adorable best friends, nerds bullied by insufferable popular kids, worried but strangely cool parents, alliances that hit the rocks but survive the worst of times. It's all in there and it's tempting to play bingo with it, but they've blended it all so well with a new story that they've made it difficult to land on one spot and stay there too long. That's the real key to producing evocative nostalgia. You touch it for a moment before it flits off again.

stranger things cool kids

The immediate worldwide success of Stranger Things has been extraordinary. Without prior fanfare, it's spawned street murals and pages full of fan-art. The DJ Yoda Mixtape reprising the show's music has had anyone who's listened to it grinning, and other attempts to pinpoint which past production each scene reminds us of have only intensified the love for the series. The 21st Century equivalent of me wearing out the carpet of the video shop trying to pick something to watch, is scanning through Netflix without knowing what to choose next. Where I felt overwhelmed with choice as a kid because everything looked cool, I certainly feel it now with the sprawling landscape of digital entertainment opportunities available at the touch of a screen. With so many outlets clamouring for our precious time, the word 'special' gets wildly overused. But to have made and distributed a series using the best of modern technology while initiating intense fondness for a time before it existed, that truly is special. Yes, a new fandom is born, but it's chosen one hell of a robust base to jump off.

Barb forever!