Skip to main content

The 14 best Stranger Things references: how many did you spot?!

Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven screaming and causing explosions in Stranger Things
Stranger Things is known for its many pop culture references. (Image credit: Netflix)

From its first trailer Stranger Things teased audiences with fleeting glimpses of a science-fiction story promising a nostalgic trip to the 1980s and 1990s. 

No one could have imagined just how jam-packed with nods, winks, and references the series would be. The work of Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and John Carpenter, to name a few, serves as a pop-cultural buffet with nods to their work sprinkled throughout the series by the show's creators, The Duffer Brothers.

We're now three seasons in and with Stranger Things season 4 arriving on Netflix, now is as good a time as any to learn all about the best Stranger Things pop culture references so far.

So here are 14 of the best Stranger Things references throughout the first three seasons.

ET (1982)

Stranger Things' Eleven dressed in a pink dress and wig disguise

Eleven was disguised in a pink dress and wig to help her blend in, which was a reference to Steven Spielberg's E.T. (Image credit: Netflix)

Hawkins' leafy, suburban location and its clutch of teens seeking adventure under cover of darkness? One of the show's biggest homages steals from Steven Spielberg's E.T. Aside from the visual links, the emotional connection between Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is styled after Elliott and E.T.'s relationship. 

Similarly, the lead group's friendship is born out of mystery as the gang hides Eleven from their parents. The show seals the deal by dressing Eleven up in a dress and wig much like E.T. 

Alien (1979)

Stranger Things season one villain The Demogorgon

The Demogorgon seems to be heavily influenced by the Xenomorphs in Alien. (Image credit: Netflix)

The murky atmosphere of the Upside Down where dust clouds the air is modeled after the aesthetic from Alien. In particular, the scenes where the Nostromo crew venture onto the desolate planet.

The show's season one baddie, the demogorgon, owes its entire lifecycle to the xenomorph. While we first meet it as a towering beast, we learn it is vomited from a human host where it emerges and grows until it is full-size. It traps its human victims in goo and forces a baby demogorgon proboscis down their throats, like the xenomorph's facehugger, impregnating them with an embryo. 

Extra mentions: A state trooper is named after Alien screenwriter, Dan O'Bannon.

Aliens (1986)

Hawkins Lab employee with flamethrower

The Hawkins Lab employees are very similar to the marines in Aliens. (Image credit: Netflix)

Season two finds the Hawkins Lab employees wielding flamethrowers as a way to destroy creatures from the Upside Down threatening to enter our world. Their behavior, as well as how these sequences are filmed, echoes the marines of James Cameron's Aliens, who stalk the xenomorphs in confined quarters. 

Extra mentions: One Hawkins employee utters Hicks' now-iconic line: "Stay frosty."

Carrie (1976)

Eleven using her telekinetic abilities

Eleven's telekinetic abilities are similar to Stephen King's Carrie and Firestarter(Image credit: Netflix)

Eleven's response to Mike and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) fighting in the junkyard is directly influenced by Carrie. Stephen King's story of a teenage girl outcast from society is copied in the way Eleven responds to her environment. Like Carrie, she too struggles to control her powers as evidenced by the way she sends Lucas flying across the junkyard: much like Carrie sends a young boy careening from his bicycle. 

Extra mentions: Carrie's hand shooting up from her grave and clutches Sue Snell's arm is replicated at the end of season one as Nancy (Natalia Dyer)'s hand bursts free of the Upside Down.

Firestarter (1984)

Eleven's telekinetic powers also closely resemble the ones witnessed in the 1984 movie Firestarter. Drew Barrymore's Charlie McGee acquires the ability to start fires with her mind following a government experiment, much like Eleven can move objects with hers. Both experience nosebleeds whenever they use their abilities.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Eleven in the sensory deprivation tank

Eleven in the sensory deprivation tank has some similarities to horror classic Nightmare on Elm Street. (Image credit: Netflix)

In order to face the monstrous Demogorgon, Eleven goes into a sensory deprivation tank to access the Upside Down but needs a trusty friend to retrieve her if she's in trouble. The Duffers based season one on this terrifying premise influenced by Wes Craven's original Freddy flick. The teens are stalked by an entity able to appear at any time, and, as Joyce experiences, it's able to push through matter much like Freddy does to Nancy Thompson during bath time. 

We also know that Freddy Kreuger star Robert Englund stars in season 4, so that's another reference to the Wes Craven classic! 

Stand By Me (1986)

Stranger Things Dustin and Steve

Stranger Things Dustin and Steve on the train tracks, paying homage to Stand by Me. (Image credit: Netflix)

During the casting process, the Duffers asked the young cast to read lines from Rob Reiner's Stand By Me. For fans of the film and the Stephen King novella, it's no surprise: Stranger Things shares both a bittersweet nostalgic tone and overarching theme: a coming-of-age story of teens on the precipice of adulthood encountering extraordinary circumstances. 

A couple of visual references sneak in too, in season one, episode 5 and season two, episode six, where the kids walk along train tracks.

Poltergeist (1982)

Joyce Byers in front of the iconic letters and lights used to communicate with her son

Joyce communicates with Will via lights and letters while he's trapped in the Upside Down. (Image credit: Netflix)

The Duffers took homage from the Tobe Hooper-directed movie about a family affected by a supernatural being in their home. Using a simple home sprung device, Joyce (Winona Ryder) is able to communicate with her son Will (Noah Schapp) after he disappears into the Upside Down through the walls using string lights. Similarly, the family in Poltergeist can hear Carol Ann, who is in another dimension, through the walls and talk to her through the television set. 

Extra mentions: In a flashback, Joyce buys Will tickets for the movie.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Stranger Things season 2

The Stranger Things season 2 poster mirrored an iconic Close Encounters of the Third Kind moment. (Image credit: Netflix)

Joyce's experiences as she copes with her missing son mirror those of Richard Dreyfuss' character in Close Encounters. He sculpts mashed potatoes to resemble Devil's Tower and piles dirt in his house, she pulls together Christmas lights and a makeshift ouija board to contact Will. The biggest nod arrives in season two as Will opens the front door onto an apocalyptic hellscape, a direct homage to the same visual in Spielberg's classic.

This iconic moment was used on the poster for season 2 (pictured above).

Scanners (1981)

Stranger Things Eleven crushing a Coke can

The government agents in Stranger Things meet a grisly end thanks to Eleven. (Image credit: Netflix)

While Eleven's powers sneak influence from King, the Duffers sought the work of body horror maestro David Cronenberg for inspiration on how she might weaponize them. In season one, episode seven, Eleven melts the minds of government agents in homage to Scanners.

Altered States (1980)

Eleven in the sensory deprivation tank

Eleven's immersion in this chamber is very similar to Altered States. (Image credit: Netflix)

When it's time to hunt the Demogorgon, Eleven enters a sensory deprivation tank to better access the Upside Down. Nodes attached to her head, she's immersed into a chamber with a spinlock: a direct visual reference to Ken Russell's Altered States where William Hurt's character undergoes a similar experience.

They Live (1988)

Steve starts a fight with Jonathan

Steve and Jonathan's alley fight has big They Live vibes! (Image credit: Netflix)

Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Steve (Joe Keery) duke it out down an alleyway toward the end of season one, in a skirmish over slut-shaming graffiti about Nancy. The pair go at it the same way Roddy Piper and Keith David do in John Carpenter's They Live, albeit, not for quite as long. 

The Thing (1982)

Stranger Things season 3 villain, the Mind Flayer

The Mind Flayer is reminiscent of horror classic The Thing. (Image credit: Netflix)

John Carpenter's creature in The Thing desires every being it encounters. Season 3's Mind Flayer functions much the same by wanting to assimilate every citizen of Hawkins into its giant corporeal mush. It also shies away from fire, as evidenced in season two when it's attacked by flamethrowers. 

Extra mentions: Lucas references the movie in season three's final mall battle, Mike has a poster for the film up in his basement, and the kids' teacher is shown watching the movie at home. 

Predator (1988)

Eleven and the Demogorgon

The Demogorgon shares creepy traits with the Predator. (Image credit: Netflix)

The Demogorgon shares physical traits with the Predator. The way it walks, the way its mouth opens into four quadrants, and the eerie, bone-chilling click it makes before it attacks its prey. 

Extra mentions: The Duffers crammed in a slew of Predator character names into the show. Jim Hopper features, Dutch Schaeffer becomes Rick Schaeffer, and the town of Hawkins is also a member of the unit.

Stranger Things season 4 begins on Netflix on Friday, May 27 with the second volume arriving on Friday, July 1.

Gem Seddon is a Seattle-based freelance entertainment writer with bylines at Vulture, Digital Spy, TechRadar, GamesRadar+, Total Film, and Certified Forgotten. Librarian by day, scribbler by night, Gem loves 90-minute movies, time travel romance, single-camera comedy shows, Stephen King, all things queer, all things horror, and queer horror. Alien and Scream are tied as her all-time favorite movie. She won't stop raving about Better Things.

With contributions from