Part of the fun of watching any season of Stranger Things is noticing the number of references the series pays to its key influences. For example, eagle-eyed and nostalgic fans of 1980s films are sure to recognize the clear inspiration movies such as Poltergeist, E.T., and The Goonies have had on Season 1 of the series.
Each new season of Stranger Things has similarly built off its own range of influences and inspirations, containing dozens of nods to pre-existing TV shows, movies, comics, and board games of its day.
The fourth and most recent installment of Stranger Things is no exception to this rule. Taking on a darker, more mature tone than any season we’ve seen thus far, the show's fourth season is filled with homages to dozens of horror and sci-fi movies that clearly influenced the tone or narrative of the season.
With Season 4 having only just wrapped, we thought we’d compile a list of the films that most clearly inspired the latest installment as we await the next one.
WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR STRANGER THINGS SEASON 4.
1. A Nightmare on Elm Street
A beloved ‘80s classic and one of the most popular slashers ever made, A Nightmare on Elm Street tells the supernatural story of Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), a demonic serial killer able to slip into his victims’ dreams and murder them as they sleep.
Perhaps the biggest influence on Stranger Things’ fourth season, it’s hard to ignore the obvious similarities between the dream-dwelling killer Freddy Krueger and his Stranger Things counterpart Vecna. Both villains are able to infiltrate their victims’ minds, inducing them into a dream-like (or literal dream) state, and killing them while they’re in a defenseless trance.
The subsequent efforts of the teenage cast to stop Vecna and beat him at his own game (entering the Upside Down and killing him there) also owes a lot to the final act of A Nightmare on Elm Street, which sees the protagonists launch a similar plan to drag Krueger from the dream world into their own.
The series even has Englund appear in the recurring role as Victor Creel in a very clear nod to the slasher franchise.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is streaming on Netflix and HBO Max.
Halloween doesn’t have as much of an overt influence on Stranger Things 4 as A Nightmare on Elm Street, but the inspiration is still clearly there. Widely considered to be the slasher that elevated the genre to mainstream popularity, the movie follows a masked killer who returns to his hometown after 15 years in order to continue his killing spree.
Early in Stranger Things 4, the character of Victor Creel — who supposedly murdered his family without any provocation — has definite shades of Michael Myers, the main slasher at the heart of Halloween. When the main characters describe the killings in Stranger Things, they even mention the eerie similarities Creel’s murders had to Myers’ rampage.
Of course, Creel turns out to be just as much a victim of Vecna as his unfortunate family members. But it’s still interesting to note the comparisons one can draw between Creel and Myers — both being regular people who one day “snapped,” their crimes going on to become local scary stories to creep out later generations)
Halloween is streaming on The Roku Channel.
3. Fast Times at Ridgemont High
It may seem comically out of place on a list composed predominantly of horror movies, but the ‘80s teen comedy Fast Times At Ridgemont High also serves as a main inspiration for the fourth season of Stranger Things.
Fast Times follows a group of high school students in sunny southern California, all of whom are dealing with their own particular crises, from over-authoritative teachers to their complex romantic relationships with one another.
Fast Times’ influence on Stranger Things can be most clearly seen with Jonathan and Argyle’s storyline in the early half of the season. Like Judge Reinhold’s character in Fast Times, Jonathan is at a crossroads in life, debating whether he wants to continue his relationship with Nancy or follow his own path.
Even more than that, though, is the inclusion of Argyle, the perpetually-stoned employee of a local pizza joint who falls into the archetypical mold of Sean Penn’s Spicoli character in Fast Times. In fact, that Argyle works at a place called Surfer Boy Pizza even seems like the Duffer brothers' tongue-in-cheek nod to Spicoli.
Fast Times At Ridgemont High is available to rent online.
Based on Stephen King’s best-selling debut novel of the same name, Carrie tells the tragic tale of Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), a misunderstood, withdrawn high school student bullied by her classmates and physically abused by her religious zealot mother (Piper Laurie). When she gains the supernatural abilities of telekinesis, however, Carrie turns the tables against her former tormentors.
Often considered one of the greatest horror movies ever made, without Carrie, there would be no Eleven. In addition to El and Carrie’s powers essentially being the same, both female characters are known for their shy demeanors and for saying very little.
While Carrie has had a bearing on Stranger Things throughout most of the series’ run so far, season four seems to more directly channel its inner Stephen King by showing El being relentlessly bullied by her fellow students in California.
Much like the eponymous Carrie too, the endless bullying causes El to snap back at her aggressors — although, unlike Carrie, she doesn’t rely on her powers to get revenge.
Carrie is streaming on Prime Video and Paramount+.
5. The Great Escape
A film name-dropped by David Harbour that inspired his character’s storyline in Season 4 is The Great Escape, a World War 2 epic that features dozens of Allied soldiers trying to escape from a heavily-fortified POW camp in Nazi Germany.
The debts Season 4 pays to The Great Escape can be seen in numerous instances throughout. Confined to a Kamchatkan prison camp in the barren Russian northeast, Hopper plots several escape attempts that ultimately meet with failure time and time again.
However, like Steve McQueen’s gung-ho protagonist in The Great Escape, Hopper is never deterred, immediately planning his next escape attempt moments after his previous one fails.
At one point in the season, his Russian ally, Yuri, even refers to him by the moniker “The Cooler King,” likening him to McQueen’s character in the film.
The Great Escape is streaming on YouTube, The Roku Channel, Pluto TV, and Tubi.
6. The Amityville Horror
Season 4 of Stranger Things makes clever use of the famous “haunted house” motif that can be spotted in dozens of well-known horror films and TV shows, ranging from Poltergeist to The Conjuring. In true Stranger Things fashion, rather than focusing on more modern haunted house films, the Duffer brothers instead looked to an early entry in the haunted house subgenre, using 1979’s The Amityville Horror as a point of reference.
Based on a “true story,” The Amityville Horror follows a small family who moves into a supposedly haunted mansion in Amityville, New York. Before long, the family begins to suspect a paranormal presence in the house is beginning to affect them as it had the house’s previous owners — all of whom were brutally murdered by the head patriarch of the family.
Debates continue to reign over the truthfulness behind the real-life story of The Amityville Horror house, but there’s no denying its influence on the horror genre as we know it today. In terms of its mark on Stranger Things, the story of the Lutz family closely resembles that of the Creel family.
Like The Amityville Horror’s Lutzes, the Creels moved into a seemingly idyllic home that slowly poisoned their minds, forcing them to see things that weren’t there. Early in the season, too, it’s established that the Creels’ patriarch, Victor, killed his family while under the house’s influence, much like the previous owners of The Amityville Horror mansion, Ronald DeFeo Jr.
The Amityville Horror is streaming on Starz.
7. Spies Like Us
The Duffers take inspiration wherever they can get it — whether from movies, video games, or D&D — so it shouldn’t be too surprising they packed elements of the ‘80s cult classic Spies Like Us into Stranger Things Season 4.
In the film, Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd star as two bumbling, low-level CIA agents used by their superiors to distract Soviet spies so that real, qualified agents could do their work in secrecy.
To put the film’s premise another way: Two average people who are completely out of their element travel to the Soviet Union on a borderline suicide mission. Sound familiar?
Though Stranger Things maintains a notably darker tone than the cartoonish wackiness of Spies Like Us, the film clearly had some bearing on Joyce and Murray’s adventure to the USSR to rescue Hopper. As with Spies Like Us’ principal agents, the hilariously underqualified duo get way in over their heads on their mission, barely managing to stay one step ahead of the Soviets the entire time.
Spies Like Us is available to rent online.
8. The Monster Squad
The Goonies has served as one of the biggest inspirations behind Stranger Things, especially in regards to the first two seasons when the main cast was younger. However, there’s another, similarly-veined movie that may have also influenced the show.
In 1987’s The Monster Squad, a group of young, horror-obsessed friends battle famous horror characters like Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Gill-man, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy to save their suburban community from destruction.
On paper, The Monster Squad is essentially a more horror-centric version of The Goonies, putting a more heavy emphasis on scares and thrills than the aforementioned movie.
With how deeply-rooted season four of Stranger Things is in horror, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see The Monster Squad on this list.
While it doesn’t have as strong a bearing as some other movies also mentioned here, it still makes for a fun watch for any Stranger Things fans out there. The young teens' quest to stop Dracula from destroying their town even seems incredibly similar to the younger main Stranger Things characters’ valiant attempts to thwart Vecna before he has a chance to decimate Hawkins.
The Monster Squad is streaming on Starz.
9. Poltergeist II: The Other Side
The main premise of the original Poltergeist is pretty much directly adapted into Stranger Things’ inaugural season. In both instances, Poltergeist and Stranger Things focus on a family trying to recover a missing child who’s been teleported into a horrifying mirror dimension.
While they succeed in both cases, the supernatural creatures attached to the children (in Poltergeist’s case, Carol Anne; in Stranger Things’ case, Will) continue to haunt them from beyond their otherworldly realms.
In many ways, Vecna owes a lot to the recurring antagonist of the Poltergeist series, Kane, who plagues Carol Anne throughout all three films in the trilogy. Like Kane, Vecna was once a twisted, psychopathic human being before becoming a powerful specter who uses his vast powers to prey on innocent people.
With their friends’ help, love, and support, Vecna and Kane are also both defeated by their respective series’ protagonists, who send the villains back to their parallel dimensions. However, it’s extremely doubtful the heroes have seen the last of Vecna, who will stop at nothing to achieve his end goals, much like Poltergeist’s ever persistent Kane.
Poltergeist II: The Other Side is available to rent online.
10. The Empire Strikes Back
Any time a series gets a darker treatment than its previous installments, the go-to description is saying the showrunners went for an Empire Strikes Back-style take on the series. The sequel to 1977’s original Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back takes a somewhat more mature approach to the trilogy, with the heroes barely managing to survive against the continuous onslaught of the villainous Imperial forces under Darth Vader.
Aside from the obvious nods Stranger Things pays to Star Wars — such as El vanishing for most of the season to hone her supernatural abilities a la Luke on Dagobah — Stranger Things’ fourth season also offers the grittiest entry in the series to date.
Like in The Empire Strikes Back, there’s no happy endings here, the characters failing to completely defeat their antagonistic counterparts and only temporarily slowing them down. However, like George Lucas’s series, the characters of Stranger Things never accept their dire situations, resolving to fight another day — or in this case, another season — sometime in the future.
The Empire Strikes Back is streaming on Disney+.
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