“Stranger Things” was hailed for its cozy 1980s vibes when it hit Netflix in 2016. The show seemed nostalgic for Steven Spielberg fare: science fiction and fantastic movies like “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “The Goonies,” which rely on younger protagonists and offer minor chills.

Apart from one beloved teen victim, Barb, the first season’s death toll was low, and scares were less grisly. Even Season 3, which celebrated the quintessential action hero (heavily referencing “Rambo” and “Terminator”), had less bloodshed.

Cut to Season 4, all of which is streaming now on Netflix, and viewers will see a significant tonal shift for the nostalgic, allusion-heavy hit show. These ‘80s references have gotten bleak.

Breakout star Joseph Quinn, who plays new character Eddie Munson, leader of the Hell Fire Club, acknowledged the change in a recent Netflix press junket. “The consequences are more extreme; the horror is more frightening. It’s gorier,” he told The Seattle Times. “It’s more adult in every aspect, I feel. There isn’t one bit of it that isn’t darker than previous seasons.”

The fourth season feels less like science fiction and more like horror. In addition to 1980s slasher films, Stephen King’s “IT” comes to mind, as the book and later movie adaptations feature twisted, vengeful bullies almost as horrifying as the monster that hunts Derry’s children.


Season 4 of “Stranger Things” has many bullies. There are the sinister kids who telekinetic Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) endures in California, and the gun-toting jocks the other protagonists face in Hawkins, Indiana. Child test subjects from a twisted lab prove monstrous. And — yes, spoiler alert — a young boy terrorizes his family and adds to the Upside Down’s vacuous dimness in unimaginable ways.

“In each season the characters are older, and the horror needs to grow with them,” said Wickham Clayton, author of “SEE! HEAR! CUT! KILL!: Experiencing Friday the 13th.”

Vecna, the fourth season’s big bad, recalls slasher villain Freddy Krueger from 1984’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street.”

“Vecna is a creature that haunts teenagers, tapping into their guilt and fears, sending them into trances that culminate in his killing them in those trance states,” Clayton said. “The plot point of characters’ deaths, even down to the detail of them being lifted up to the ceiling, then a character named Eddie, a community outsider, being presumed the murderer and tracked down, comes straight from the first half of ‘Nightmare,’ through the characters of Tina and Rod.”

Even the sounds, lighting and set designs of the trance sequences are comparable to those in the “Nightmare” franchise, and the show features a cameo from Robert Englund, who played Freddy in the series. Pop culture buff Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) even name-drops the film for good measure.

“Stranger Things,” which dressed its stars up as the Ghostbusters in Season 2 and this year catapulted Kate Bush’s 1985 hit “Running Up That Hill” atop the charts, wears its pop culture obsession on its sleeves. This season features a natural progression in genre and tone as the show’s teen heroes grow.


“It is also important and perhaps inevitable that this reference to ‘Nightmare’ is being made,” Clayton said. “In the early ‘80s, when the slasher genre was in its prime, these movies mostly stayed rooted to a form of reality, with killers being human but difficult to kill.

“But in 1984, while the first wave of the slasher was dying off, ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ became a massive success, outright fusing the slasher with the supernatural and giving the genre a new lease on life.”

Quinn said the latest season of “Stranger Things” is a “big soup of references,” mixing science fiction, fantasy and horror with the show’s trademark heart. “The season leans much more into genre horror, while also referencing the Spielberg greats as well,” he said.

And while the adolescent heartland horror in rural, faraway Hawkins may seem distant, the themes the show explores are universal.

“When you think about the horror genre in general — so much of horror is about who we are as people, us humans biologically, socially and more,” said Jacob McMurray, director of curatorial collections and exhibits at Seattle’s Museum of Popular Culture.

Why do humans care about monsters?

“It’s because they tell us about the deeper things about ourselves. There is definitely a combo of Spielbergian innocence, teen adventure with the awesomeness of John Carpenter and David Lynch in the show,” McMurray added, saying the series reminds him of the museum’s exhibits, like “Scared to Death: The Thrill of Horror Film.”


Freddy Krueger’s original glove and “Nightmare” concept drawings and story boards are on display at MoPOP, as are items from Carpenter’s “The Thing,” like the charred body of one of the characters midtransformation.

‘Black Panther’ costume designer Ruth E. Carter shares stories behind her works at Seattle’s MoPOP exhibit

The “Halloween” franchise is referenced often in the new season, too, as Eddie dons a Michael Myers mask originally worn by Max (Sadie Sink) in Season 2. The origin story of Vecna (originally Henry Creel, he framed his father for their family’s murder) is another parallel.

“The story Eddie’s uncle tells of [Henry’s father] Victor Creel is very similar to the way Dr. Loomis describes Michael Myers in those films,” Clayton said. “Mr. Munson calls Victor ‘pure evil,’ gives a dark backstory about how Creel murdered his own family and reveals he is in a nearby mental institution.”

And, seemingly beaten, Vecna disappears in classic slasher villain fashion.

The fourth season of “Stranger Things” is the darkest yet, from horror film allusions to torture scenes and the terrible ways Vecna kills, including a gruesome death in the season’s first episode. It’s all a departure from the show’s typical, more-lighthearted approach to the everyday horrors of Hawkins.

Viewers are left to ponder what may lie ahead. This shift may foreshadow Season 5, the show’s final chapter. If every season gets progressively darker, what ‘80s source material might be darker than slashers? Will the show riff on “Hellraiser” next? Fans will have to wait to find out.

“Stranger Things”

Season 4 (and all previous seasons) of “Stranger Things” is streaming now on Netflix.