Stranger Things; or, Why ’80s Nostalgia is Good For You

Naomi Michalowicz //

Stranger Things, Netflix’s hit show about kids fighting eldritch terrors in 1980s suburbia, has just concluded its fourth season. An obvious appeal of the show is its shameless indulgence in ’80s nostalgia, hitting every cliche of representing the decade—bicycles, arcades, music, quaint technology, bad hair, and of course, the full range of ’80s fashion. A recent New York Times article about Stranger Things’ creators, the Duffer brothers, recalls early criticism of the show which questioned whether it has anything to offer beyond a mix-and-match, “greatest-hits collection that charms but lacks the genius of original art”;  the fandom website Winter is Coming went a bit more blunt, asking, Is Stranger Things Just Nostalgia Porn”?  

Bypassing the question of the show’s quality (I am personally a fan), these critiques call attention to the implicit cultural assumption about nostalgia—namely, that it’s bad. Reasons for the badness of nostalgia cover a range of explanations: nostalgic reminiscence is idle, pointless, unproductive; nostalgia is escapist and leads to complacency; it is a marketing tool used to manipulate us into buying things. This last point, at least, may be justified by the surge in ’80s-inspired graphic t-shirts and retro sneakers brought on by each release of a new Stranger Things season.  

The badness of nostalgia is not a new association. The term “nostalgia”—a combination of the Greek words “nostos,” a return home, and “algos,” pain or sickness—was originally coined by a Swiss physician named Johannes Hofer in 1688. Hofer wrote about nostalgia as an actual disease, afflicting those who live far from home, a disease that might manifest in “continued sadness, disturbed sleep … decrease of strength, hunger, thirst, senses diminished, and cares or even palpitations of the heart” (386). 

However, more recent studies actually point out that nostalgia has multiple psychological benefits. a 2012 experiment that had two groups of people reflect on a pleasant experience, with one group focusing on a nostalgic memory, and the other on an anticipated, future experience. The participants were then given a list of positive and neutral personality traits, and asked to point out which of these traits they feel are applicable to them. The experiment found that “participants who reflected on a nostalgic (vs. future positive) event were faster to categorize positive self-attributes” (277); these results, the researchers conclude, “support a previously unrecognized function of nostalgia: the cognitive activation of positive self-attributes” (278). In other words, dwelling on a nostalgic memory makes it easier for people to see themselves in a positive light, thus increasing self-esteem. A study published earlier this year in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience provides further support to the benefits of nostalgia: MRI scans taken of subjects dwelling on nostalgic memories reveal that the emotion of nostalgia is linked to “brain regions associated with self-reflection” (3), and “reward processing” (4). The first point is particularly surprising considering nostalgia’s bad reputation as idle and escapist, as it suggests that in fact, nostalgia can promote self-awareness, and even critical thinking. 

In both of these studies, the nostalgic memory which the participants were asked to recall was a personal one, i.e. a memory of an experience in which they themselves played a meaningful part. This is not the case for many of Stranger Things’ viewers: the teenagers and 20-somethings now happily donning the Brontosaurus sweatshirt recently brought back by the Science Museum of Minnesota were not yet born in 1986, when the character of Dustin supposedly wore it. The nostalgia of Stranger Things, for a lot of its viewers, is what literature professors Tom van Laer and Davide Christian Orazi referred to as “pseudo-nostalgia” in a recent article in The Conversation. Pseudo-nostalgia, say van Laer and Orazi, leads not necessarily to heightened self-esteem but most obviously translates into “compensatory reconsumption,” the buying of retro fashion item and products in an attempt to recreate the moment, the period, the atmosphere which are the object of pseudo-nostalgic yearnings. 

If pseudo-nostalgia doesn’t require a personal presence, an actual first-person memory,  to evoke nostalgic yearning, why are the 1980s such a powerful source of these yearnings? It seems that beyond the appeal of Stranger Things, the end of that decade marked a shift in the cultural significance of nostalgia. A seminal article published in Advances in Consumer Research in 1991 pointed out that “one notable trend as we leave the 1980s and enter the decade of the ’90s is the increasing visibility of nostalgia…in marketing, advertising, and entertainment media” (Havlena and Holak 323). I suspect that this has something to do with the 1990s marking the dawn of the digital age. Perhaps, following closely on the footsteps of the increased disembodiment of all spheres of activities—games, conversations with friends, reading, work—came a yearning to a more analog existence. Based on the extraordinary success of Stranger Things, it seems that this yearning is a much broader phenomenon than the personal nostalgia Gen Xers might feel watching a show reminiscent of their own childhood; the walkie-talkies, the bicycles, the dirt-stained jeans, all evoke an offline existence which even those of us who would rather die than go without our smartphones for a day nonetheless long for. And if we can’t go back offline, we might as well buy a t-shirt. 

Photo credit: Pharaoh EZYPT on Pixabay

Works Cited:

Anspach, Carolyn Kiser. “Medical Dissertation on Nostalgia by Johannes Hofer, 1688.” Bulletin of the Institute of the History of Medicine, vol. 2, no. 6, 1934, pp. 376–91.

Considine, Austin. “‘Stranger Things’ Is Back, and the Duffer Brothers Made It Big.” The New York Times, 20 May 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/20/arts/television/stranger-things-duffer-brothers-season-4.html.

East, Michael. “Is Stranger Things Just Nostalgia Porn? Creators Refute Criticisms.” Winter Is Coming, 25 May 2022, https://winteriscoming.net/2022/05/25/stranger-things-nostalgia-porn-duffer-brothers-refute-criticisms/.

Havlena, William J., and Susan L. Holak. “‘The Good Old Days’: Observations On Nostalgia and Its Role In Consumer Behavior.” Advances in Consumer Research, vol. 18, no. 1, Jan. 1991, pp. 323–29.

van Laer, Tom, and Davide Christian Orazi. “It’s Not Nostalgia. Stranger Things Is Fuelling a Pseudo-Nostalgia of the 1980s.” The Conversation, 10 July 2022, https://theconversation.com/its-not-nostalgia-stranger-things-is-fuelling-a-pseudo-nostalgia-of-the-1980s-186389.

Vess, Matthew, et al. “Nostalgia as a Resource for the Self.” Self and Identity, vol. 11, no. 3, July 2012, pp. 273–84.

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