The Limits of Nostalgia
1980’s nostalgia has been brewing for over a decade, but it wasn’t until Stranger Things was released in 2016 that a version of it came along that I recognized. I was never much into The Breakfast Club or Kajagoogoo. My 80’s was the stuff of nightmares, Gremlins and Nightmare on Elm Street, of suburban fantasies like ET and Firestarter. My 80’s took place in small, Midwestern industrial towns just beginning to show their Rust Belt future. Stranger Things seemed to synthesize all of those things into a single, definable genre: Stephen King by way of Steven Spielberg, an 80’s nostalgia I can wrap my head around.
The 1980’s were not a great decade. As much as we’ve mythologized it now, it was a deeply troubled time. America was still reeling from the depression of the 70’s, and in a bid for stability elected a government that spoke sweet nothings in our ear, while increasing instability across the globe, incarcerating millions, and managing to turn both AIDS and Crack into full-blown epidemics. At the ground level, America’s cities were almost universally suffering, and the decades-long White Flight panic had entered what appeared to be its terminal stage.
America in the 80’s was a mean place to be, and the cultural artifacts of the time reflect that. There were two strains: campy, industrialized veneration for the 50’s or some idealized future like New Wave or Pretty in Pink that desperately sought to escape reality; the other was darker, diving headlong into the unease and neglect that permeated through the country like a fog. On TV it might have been “morning in America,” but on the streets of America’s industrial hinterlands the sun was very clearly setting.
There’s a reason Stranger Things leans so heavily on the two Steve’s of the 80’s, they were the two artists that did the heaviest pop cultural lifting on the gritty side of the tracks. To the degree that Spielberg’s 80’s movies dealt with America at all, he seemed to be singularly obsessed with wiping away the veneer of White Suburban utopia and showing it for what it was…a mask that hid something much more frightening. Starting with ET, Spielberg’s 80’s films showed White America arguing with itself, with its government and its history, forced to justify its existence with increasingly violent logic. ET (the only film Spielberg directed in the 80’s that takes place in contemporary America) shows an American government that is oppressive, secretive, and hostile to diversity. By the mid-80’s he’d moved onto producing, helping birth a series of disturbing films (Poltergeist, The Twilight Zone, and Gremlins) all of which involve white characters forced to contend with a reality that is very different from the one they thought they knew. Gremlins in particular shows the violence inherent in White suburbia; the Gremlins are pure anarchy, a threat to the comfortable order of Kingston Falls, and so they must be eradicated. The speed with which a nice, white small town boy becomes a violent killer is one of the keenest strains of horror in the film. At a time when suburban growth and American prosperity across the globe was in part fueled by the mass incarceration and drug addiction of America’s inner cities and black populations, Gremlins offers a cutting critique of how America deals with the “other.”
If Spielberg was partially tied to the yoke of having to produce box office hits, Stephen King was under no such authority. He was free to plumb the depths of America’s depravity, and he took to the job at an unprecedented pace. King’s 80’s output should be considered one of the most commercially successful and culturally prolific periods in the history of art. From 1980 to 1989 he released:
Roadwork (Richard Bachman)
The Running Man (Richard Bachman)
Cycle of the Werewolf
The Talisman (with Peter Straub)
The Eyes of the Dragon
The Drawing of the Three
The Dark Half
Combine these with the 15 films based on his works during this decade, and it’s arguable that no other single artist influenced the look and feel of the 1980’s than Stephen King. And what a world he painted. In almost all of these works, small town America is shown for what it is, the perfect setting for macabre horror, supernatural or otherwise. In fact, so much of the horror of these stories is drawn from the very real trauma at the heart of them. Stories like Pet Semetary, Firestarter, and It wouldn’t be half as scary without their human traumas, and the child deaths in Pet Semetary and It are arguably some of the most heart wrenching in all of literature.
Some of these books don’t even require the supernatural; Cujo, Misery, and the four novellas in Different Seasons all focus on the horrors of real life: prison, death, friendships and belonging, and coming to grips with your own failings and mortality. That nearly all these stories take place in suburban America, or in crumbling rural towns, points to the uneasiness at the heart of the American experiment in the 1980’s.
While the television might have been showing glossy dance pop and neon retro propaganda, the work of Steven Spielberg and Stephen King were showing the America that existed at the edges, underneath the veneer. They showed how thin the veil between prosperity and poverty, love and rage, life and death had become. They gave an outlet to the unease of the Cold War, the AIDS epidemic, and the war on drugs, and created an indelible alternative image of the “Me Decade,” one that better represented the truth on the streets of America.
For most of this country the 1980’s was not a great time, and our nostalgia should reflect that. With resurgent interest in the work of Steven Spielberg and Stephen King, as indicated by new shows like Stranger Things, it’s clear America is finally willing to accept the neon pastel of the 80’s might have faded a bit, might be a little grimier, might have a little rust showing through.