It’s been six years since Eleven and the young nerds from the town of Hawkins, Indiana, smashed those Netflix ratings, taught everyone how to say “Demogorgon,” and made the internet collectively demand justice for a fictional character. It’s been all of six years, and the show is still out here, making its gang of somewhat older goofballs fight for their young lives when all they really want to do is play Dungeons and Dragons and live in the ‘80s forever. 

But just exactly how did this show come to be the big billing of any given year? How did this sci-fi fantasy horror series manage to turn everything we thought we knew about television upside down? How did these kids — who no one thought would be able to carry an entire series on their own — basically win television? 

What follows is the strange tale of Stranger Things' strange success story ...

The M. Night Shyamalan - Stranger Things Connection

Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers

Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

The Duffer Brothers wrote and produced a horror film called Hidden in 2015 that had strong Shyamalan influences. The film was acquired by Warner Bros., yet it never managed to get a wide release. It did, however, grab the attention of a Wayward Pine producer who brought the brothers on to work alongside Shyamalan on the science fiction TV show. It was while learning about writing and producing an entire television show that the brothers started developing and pitching Stranger Things.

Hugh Jackman’s 2013 Prisoner Movie Inspired Stranger Things

Hugh Jackman, Prisoners, Paul Dano

Warner Bros.

The brothers initially looked at the movie’s central theme of a father searching for his missing daughter who then goes into a “moral freefall.” “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t that movie have been even better in eight hours on HBO or Netflix? So we started talking about a missing-person story.”

Winona Ryder Was The Perfect ‘80s Actress To Cast

Winona Ryder, Stranger Things

Netflix

Casting director Carmen Cuba suggested Ryder as Joyce to the Duffer Brothers, who immediately liked the idea since Ryder herself was a teen in the ‘80s, starring in Beetlejuice in 1988 and Edward Scissorhands in 1990.

Said Matt Duffer: “Joyce wasn’t that interesting of a character until we cast Winona. She’s such a unique actress that we wanted to lean into her skill set. So she became Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and that’s where we came up with all the Christmas light stuff. I don’t know if any of that would have existed had Winona said no to the role.”

The Duffer Brothers Used Their Millennial Background And Knowledge

Stranger Things

Netflix

While the brothers were born in 1984, they regard themselves as more ‘90s kids. After all, they couldn’t really remember the Cold War much, and they grew up slightly less nerdy by playing more Magic: The Gathering instead of D&D. 

“We have vague memories of the Eighties. But we were still pre-Internet and pre–cell phone for most of our childhood. We were the last generation to have the experience of going out with our friends to the woods or the train tracks and the only way our parents could connect with us was to say, ‘It’s time for dinner.’ … We were also movie nerds and had all these VHS tapes of all these classic Eighties films that we would watch over and over again. That was our point of reference for what it was like in the late Seventies and early Eighties.”

The Goal Was To Create A Spielberg-Type Blockbuster, For Television

Stranger Things

Netflix

The Duffer Brothers took inspiration from all the big ‘80s movies they grew up with — from the adventures in The Goonies to the sci-fi effects in Alien to the coming-of-age drama in Stand By Me. They also looked at E.T. “When I look back at something like E.T., it feels timeless. The intention was always that Stranger Things would play as a summer popcorn blockbuster. ”

The Show Was Rejected, A Lot

David Harbour, Stranger Things

Netflix

Matt Duffer says the show was rejected by various networks between 15 and 20 times before Netflix finally picked it up. Some networks wanted it to be a full-blown kids' show; others wanted Hopper to be the main character — a detective who investigates all kinds of paranormal shenanigans in a Twin Peaks kind of town.

“We were told you cannot put kids in the lead roles of a show that’s not intended for a kid audience,” said Matt Duffer. 

They Could Add A Big Bad Monster Without Making The Show Outright Horror

Demogorgon, Stranger Things

Netflix

The brothers explained that if the show was a movie, it would’ve been less about the characters and all about the monster.

“If you’re doing a movie, the minute you put a monster in it, it becomes a horror movie. And if it’s a horror movie nowadays, it’s basically a haunted house ride. You’re trying to get jump scares every six, seven minutes. You just don’t have the time to spend with characters. We love monsters, but if it was a movie, it would be all about the monster. But a place like Netflix, they actually care a lot more about the characters. So we’re able to tell these very character-driven stories and also appease our childlike sensibilities by putting a flesh-eating monster in it.”

Gaten Matarazzo (Who Plays Dustin) Had A Killer Audition

Stranger Things, Dustin

Netflix

The brothers looked at a lot of kids’ auditions, but Gaten Matarazzo immediately stood out thanks to his raw authenticity (and probably adorable face).

“The minute we saw Gaten, who plays Dustin, we basically cast him off the first tape that he sent in. When you see someone like Gaten, and he pops the way he does, you’re just like, ‘This kid, we’re putting him in the show, 100 percent.’”

The Show Carries The DNA Of The Greats In Both Storytelling And Filmmaking

Freddy Krueger, Stranger Things

New Line Cinema

Stephen King, John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Steven Spielberg, and Sam Raimi are the five most influential storytellers when it comes to the Duffer Brothers and their work. The show was originally going to be set in Montauk and also be called that due to Montauk’s Spielberg-Jaws ties, but they ultimately decided to make it a fictional town instead, to better incorporate the fantastical elements. The name Stranger Things was inspired by King’s novel Needful Things.

The Synth Music Made The Show Unique

Stranger Things music

Netflix

Not only is the synth music very ‘80s, but it also helped give the show its own vibe. “That’s one reason we wanted to do synth music, because we thought it would help differentiate from Spielberg. It was going to have a slightly different tone than a lot of his movies.”

Video Games Inspired The Duffers Too, Obvs

Silent Hill, Stranger Things

Konami

The biggest gaming influences on Stranger Things have been Silent Hill and The Last of Us. The brothers have also mentioned anime Akira and Elfen Lied as part of their work’s DNA.

Barb From Stranger Things Became An Instant Hit Character 

Barb, Stranger Things

Netflix

Season one saw Barbara Holland, commonly known as just Barb, getting dragged by a Demogorgon to the Upside Down to die. Viewers collectively lost their minds and the hashtag #JusticeForBarb has haunted social media ever since. It was an unexpected character that seemed to connect with, just, so many people. 

Said the brothers: “High school was terrible for us. We both hated it and just felt very much outside the whole time, looking in. Let’s just put it this way: It was not difficult to write the Barb character.”

Said Shannon Purser, the actress who played the fallen friend: “I tried to play her as very independent and unapologetic of who she is and confident in her logic and reasoning. I know a lot of fans have speculated that she would get into a really good college, make the most of herself in a career, and really take charge. And I could totally see that, too.”

Stranger Things Season 1 Got The Stephen King Endorsement

Stephen King, Stranger Things, Twitter

Netflix

The Master of Horror tweeted his approval following the release of season one (that he presumably binged just like the rest of us):

They Made Sure To Establish That It’s A Big New World Worth Exploring

Stranger Things

Netflix

No one was sure if the show would be a once-off miniseries type, or if there would be more strange things to come. Season one tied up its main mysteries pretty well, but the Duffers made sure to leave much room for expansion. Said Matt following the end of the first season: “We want it to feel like a big movie. But there’s a bigger mythology, and there’s a lot of dangling threads at the end. We could explore it if Netflix wanted to continue.”

The Kids Were So Darn Cute

Stranger Things kids

Netflix

And also relatable. And fun. And giant nerds. And cool. Said Matarazzo (Dustin) about being in the show after season one’s wrap: “Nowadays, you don’t see kids riding their bikes. It was really fun to be a kid in the ’80s.”

Thumbnail: Netflix

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