The Duffer Brothers have also used the series to debunk the ‘1980s myth of the idyllic middle American town in which prosperity flows evenly to all, an image happily promoted by the politicians and pop culture of the time. In Hawkins, the Byers live in a much more humble home than the Wheelers. The trailer park where Max and her mother end up in season four is humbler still. And as much as the show’s third season celebrates the heyday of the American mall, it doesn’t ignore the effect malls had on the downtowns of places like Hawkins, hollowing them out as mom and pop businesses folded.
These gentle, if insistent, correctives to the idealization of small towns are informed by Springwood just as surely as Vecna’s informed by Freddy. Tina (Amanda Wyss), the first to fall victim to Freddy in A Nightmare on Elm Street, has a dad who’s disappeared and a mother who may as well have. Her boyfriend, Rod (Nick Corri), has a history dealing drugs (and for some reason styles himself like a 1950s greaser). Nancy’s mother Marge is rarely seen without a bottle in her hand. When Freddy starts making the rounds, they all respond by ignoring and denying the problem, because that strategy has worked so far. When Marge finally accepts some danger is looming, her ultimate solution is to tear down the rose trellis outside her home and replace it with bars, a doomed attempt to shut out the outside world when the real problem is within her own walls.
Stranger Things owes its deepest Elm Street debt to the series’ third entry, 1987’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. Directed by Chuck Russell and written by Russell, Craven, Frank Darabont, and Bruce Wagner, it pits a misfit band of psychiatric hospital residents, all descendants of Krueger’s murderers, along with a returning Nancy, against a resurgent Freddy. While the original Elm Street survivor and the patients seem fatally outmatched by Freddy, he will learn he’s underestimated their resilience—much as Vecna is felled by a group of bike-riding kids. The Stranger Things’ underdog high schoolers have more in common with the Dream Warriors than the young heroes in E.T. and The Goonies: With all respect to the FBI and the Fratellis, neither was as dangerous or purely evil a threat as the creatures of the Upside Down. (And as a more on-the-nose note of comparison, there’s the fact that both projects have a plucky teenaged girl named Nancy who goes from naive damsel to confronting the bad guy head on.)
Stranger Things has been (at least up until this penultimate season) more reluctant to kill off its core characters than the Nightmare films. But if the Hawkins kids suffer less dire casualties than the Dream Warriors, they’re still repeatedly put in dangerous situations for which, like Elm Street heroes throughout the series, they find little in the way of adult help.
And that, more than Vecna’s Krueger-like approach to terrorizing Hawkins, is the Elm Street films’ deepest influence on Stranger Things. These are kids living in a world their parents built for them then largely left them to navigate alone, dangers and all. The Hopkins kids find allies in Joyce and Hopper, but even they tend to get lost in the Upside Down or get abducted by Russians or possessed by the Mind Flayer or otherwise taken out of the picture. In the end, if the world is going to be saved from the Upside Down, it’s going to be up to them. In Hopkins as in Springwood, the kids are not all right. But they’re not going to give up without a fight, either.