Like so many other Netflix viewers, I was blown away by Stranger Things. If you haven’t had the pleasure yet, the series takes place in 1983 and is a direct homage to the early films of John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg, with perhaps a little Joe Dante and George Romero thrown in for good measure.
In true Spielbergian fashion, the first episode introduces us to four boys playing Dungeons & Dragons late into the evening. The scene is clearly reminiscent of the first few minutes of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), not just for the RPG reference nor the suburban setting, but because of how the mundane is suddenly interrupted by the extraordinary. In the case of Stranger Things, the interruption is not caused by a potato-shaped alien botanist, but a bloodthirsty monster released from an alternate dimension by meddling government types. (Yeah, E.T. had those too if you’ll remember…)
Stranger Things isn’t the first to attempt this kind of throwback. J.J. Abram’s Super 8 (2009) covered similar themes with similar characters, but Stranger Things does it better thanks to its excellent writing, outstanding performances and the sheer creepiness of its execution. Abrams' work, by comparison, got bogged down by his typically over-the-top special effects and world-destroying violence.
But what I realized as I tore my way through the mere eight episodes of Stranger Things is that the creepiest aspect of the show had nothing to do with monsters and everything to do with the disappearance of one of the young role-players named Will (Noah Schnapp).
If you lived through the 1980s, you might recall it was the Era of the Missing Child. And I don’t mean that more children went missing during those ten years, but rather that Americans became suddenly, frantically aware of the issue thanks to the use of mass media.
If you have to put an iconic face to the problem of missing children during the 1980s, it must be that of Etan Patz. The six-year-old vanished while walking to a school bus stop in May 1979. His father was a professional photographer and made many portraits of Etan available to authorities and the media. For years afterwards, tow-headed Etan grinned back at you from the pages of the newspaper, the nightly news, thousands of MISSING CHILD posters… Etan’s face was also the the first to appear on the back of a milk carton, bringing the issue of missing children literally into the family kitchen.
Two years later, Adam Walsh vanished while playing video games in a Sears store. His head was found floating in a canal weeks later and this grievous crime launched his father, John Walsh, on a lifelong crusade to protect children and bring criminals to justice. Walsh’s television show, America’s Most Wanted, ran a whopping 24 years (1988-2012) and was lauded by law enforcement and American presidents alike as an essential public service.
If there was one 1980s child abduction case that impacted me the greatest, it was the 1989 abduction of Jacob Wetterling. The 11-year-old was riding home on his bike from the local video store when a man in a mask appeared and held he, his younger brother and a friend at gunpoint. The man told the other boys to run away and not look back. Jacob was never seen again. I was in my senior year in college when the Wetterling case broke and, coincidentally, was managing a video rental store. I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Jacob and the innumerable kids his age who wandered in and out of my store at all hours of the day and night. Were they at risk, I wondered? Most of them lived just around the corner, but in the Era of the Missing Child it didn’t seem to matter. Apparently you could vanish without a trace doing even the most innocuous things — going to school, playing video games, renting a movie. I remember watching the news night after night, hoping that Jacob would be safely recovered. To this day, his fate remains unknown.
As I watched Stranger Things, I realized that the scenes that affected me the most were those with Winona Ryder and Charlie Heaton (who played Will’s mother and brother, respectively) dealing with their grief of not knowing the boy’s fate. I don’t know if Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer intended Will’s disappearance to be so reflective of other boys like him during the same era. I guess it doesn’t really matter, because it struck a chord no matter what the intent. I can only imagine the anguish that the Wetterlings, the Walshs, the Patzes and other families of missing children still deal with daily. If Stranger Things did one thing for me personally, it was reminding me that monsters needn't come from alternate dimensions. We have plenty of them living among us…
Related Information: The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children