Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few years, you will have noticed the return of the 80s in modern pop culture. We see it in Stranger things, IT, Star Wars, Carrie – the list goes on. This return has come in the form of remakes of iconic films, but this nostalgia for the 80s has become especially ingrained in the culture which dominates our everyday lives. Beyond film, we have seen more and more musicians use synthesizers and retro drum machine beats including M83, Rihanna, and Bruno mars. Even fashion isn’t safe from the nostalgia cycle. I don’t know if you have noticed, but denim has made quite a comeback, and even fanny packs are back in style!

But why is this happening? Well, this phenomena is occurring because of something called a cycle of nostalgia which, in essence, is the idea that every 30 years modern culture begins integrating aspects of the culture from 30 years ago. Similarly there also exists a 20, 40 and 50 year cycle which pertains to other aspects of culture, but in terms of  media, specifically film, the 30 year cycle is the most prevalent. The main reason for this is that it takes roughly 30 years for a critical mass of people who were consumers of this culture as children to become the creators of culture in adulthood. For this reason there are both an extensive amount of reboots from that time, and an extensive amount of hommages in media.

This trend can also be explained on the consumer side. After 30 years an entire market of people with disposable income and nostalgia for their childhoods now control the demand for media and art, creating a feedback loop leading to the creation of more and more work which revives this same zeitgeist. Yet this still leaves us with one burning question: what does this trend tell us about our culture, and our consumption of media and art?

Nostalgia has long been recognized as a normal phenomenon in pop culture, and it is rarely analyzed.  This might be because it seems pretty straight forward: people are nostalgic for their childhoods, and so their childhood influences creep into modern culture. However, when you look under the surface, the reasons for this nostalgia within individuals and our culture as a whole reveals a lot about the way we think, the way we remember, and the way our past impacts our future.

Though there is an endless list of notable films and series which are a product of nostalgia cycles, let’s look at two examples that reveal the duality of nostalgia: Stranger Things, and IT. By the duality of nostalgia I am referring to the two accepted types of nostalgia: restorative and reflective nostalgia, coined by Svetlana Boym.

Restorative nostalgia is a somewhat aggressive impulse where people are motivated to recapture and revitalize an imagined past. Stranger Things is a perfect example of exactly this. Interestingly enough, it was not just the creators of the show who decided which hommages would evoke the nostalgia among their viewers; a lot of the show’s influence was algorithmically determined through Netflix’s recommender system, producing the ultimate 80s throwback set to today’s standards. This means it lacks the sexist, racist undertones so often present in our favourite 80s flicks. In this way, Stranger Things perfectly encompasses how often nostalgia consists of the tendency to remember the past through the rose-coloured glasses of modern day.

On the other hand we have reflective nostalgia which is escapist in nature and characterized by a longing for the “good old days.” Unlike restorative nostalgia, media which fits into this type is far less likely to alter the memory of the past and repaint it as better than it truly was. For this reason, IT depicts this type of nostalgia perfectly. The original IT consisted of two storylines: that of the losers club in the 50s when they were children, and the losers club in the 80s when they are adults and have to face Pennywise (the antagonist) once again. The remake (a product of nostalgia cycles in itself) is split into two films, one focusing on the characters when they were children in the 80s, and one to come which will focus on the losers club as adults in current day, thereby fitting the current nostalgia cycle, and offering a fascinating reflection of that time.

Another clever change made to the storyline was the shift from gruesome murders to abduction. This made the movie more reflective of the time it is depicting, when paranoia and national fixation on child abduction was rife. The addition of unsympathetic authority figures also facilitated this change in tone. While the movie does have some nods towards 80s culture, it in no way paints a comforting picture of the time period the way Stranger Things does. Instead it deconstructs the past and provides a commentary on the dark underbelly of the mundane and the way we frame the past.

While nostalgia may be a fun way to remember the past, and provides a foolproof way to make a successful film, it is an important aspect of our culture and psyche which should be closely studied. When we as a society retreat into our past to escape the horrors of the present, it provides a reflection on our behaviour and actions today. After all, take a look at all the populist rhetoric which dominates the current political sphere such as “Make America Great Again.” This shows we should take such rhetoric, and the general portrayal of the 80s, with a grain of salt. However, it is soon the end of a decade which means soon we will be transitioning over to a return of the 90s. So get ready for scrunchies, Nirvana covers, and maybe even a Titanic remake!


Carolien Van Hoof is a second year EURAM student from Belgium. As a culture writer, she makes up for the lack of culture from her home country with her impressive procrastination skills, which has lead her to consume a lot of TV and literature, giving her plenty of material to write on.

Cover photo by Netflix via The Telegraph

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