And It Was Fantastic.
Nostalgia has been a strong element of television this summer throwing things back to the 1980s style horror of Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, E.T., and Poltergeist with the Netflix’s series Stranger Things and Freeform’s Dead of Summer.
Dead of Summer takes its cues from John Carpenter’s Friday the 13th with the show taking place at a summer camp (Camp Stillwater instead of Camp Crystal Lake) that is being haunted by something sinister. Stranger Things feels more like the brainchild of Steven Spielberg as it keeps it’s focus as much on the kids as the teenagers. Both shows have distinct ties to the 1980s horror classics, but focus on different aspects of those genres.
Dead of Summer has a camp full of kids, but you rarely see them in favor of the show keeping the focus on the counselors and the effect the lake is having on them. Stranger Things tells the majority of its story through the eyes of the three young boys trying to understand what happened to their friend and do so in the company of a young, oddly powerful girl they meet while looking for him.
Both Dead of Summer and Stranger Things do a fantastic job when it comes to the casting, the costumes, and the sets to make each show feel like they could have come out straight of the ’80s, but do so while still bringing fresh feeling stories to the small screen. As Jacob Oller wisely pointed out in his review of Stranger Things, the show is adept at – “Combing many nostalgic ideas into something new and effective.”
A big part of these worlds is the music with each show staying true to the ‘80s synth horror sound. The reason the music works so well is because it never tries to “reinvent” this sound – it instead pays true homage to it.
Dead of Summer is a bit more campy in both look, storyline, and the music with counselors of Stillwater opting for the neon look of the late ’80s while the kids in Stranger Things keep things a bit more subdued sticking to corduroy, ballet slipper necklaces, and high waisted jeans.
Dead of Summer’s composer, Joseph Trapanese, reflects this feeling in his music with a campy, almost over the top theme. Trapanese is a great fit for the show having composed the score for sci-fi thrillers Oblivion and Tron: Legacy and brings that sound here through skilled electronica. As the more “mainstream” show that is a part of Freeform’s lineup aimed at today’s teens, Dead of Summer does rely on a fairly straightforward dramatic score, but when the action (and the scares) ramp up, Trapanese adeptly adds unmistakable electronica that turns the score into pure ’80s horror – one that sounds almost like Carpenter himself composed it.
The theme for Stranger Things hits a bit deeper feeling like the beginning of Stephen King’s The Shining with its bold and unapologetic sound. This is music that will set you on edge and get under your skin while Dead of Summer aims to entertain through a more slasher film premise than one about an unknown “other side.”
Surprisingly, this darker score from Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein ends up working as a beacon of levity when things get really intense. In Stranger Things, it is when things are too quiet that you know something bad is right around the corner. But when the music floods in – you feel an odd sense of relief. Dixon and Stein lean hard into the synth sound of ’80s horror with just the right amount of melody (featured perfectly in the show’s opening theme) to draw you in before it hits a dissonant electronic chord that sends shivers up your spine.
Both shows seamlessly weave in placed music from the ’80s making these songs as much a part of the show as the ever present scores. Stranger Things opts for Toto’s “Africa” during a love scene while Dead of Summer opts for The Cure’s “Lullaby” as the go-to song on the mixtape one of the counselors begins curating for a crush. The fact that neither show goes with iconic “love songs” associated with the decade (see: Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes”) further supports Matthew Monagle’s assessment of Stranger Things noting in his piece on the show that it “demonstrated an uncanny knack for knowing the difference between being inspired by and married to another story.”
These placements give the show additional texture, but these choices also help make each show feel like a they could have naturally come out two decades ago instead of something recently made. These subtle choices to pay h0mage to the past (without stepping on its toes) is what helped make these shows feel like something old and new all wrapped into one.
Exciting and moving music doesn’t have to be “new” – it just needs to hit a chord with audience’s and help them feel something whether that be fear, curiosity, love, or sadness. Both Dead of Summer and Stranger Things were able to do this with the added benefit of this ’80s horror sound filling mainstream screens and giving the a younger generation the chance to “discover” this throwback music for the first time.