Stranger Things is a love letter to pop culture, written and created by pop culture lovers Matt and Ross Duffer. The series frequently borrows from and is inspired by classic films – and Stranger Things season 4 is no different. The season pays homage to horror icons like Doug Bradley’s Pinhead and Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, and even takes some inspiration from haunted house horrors like The Amityville Horror and The Changeling.
If you’ve finished Volume 1 and 2 and are looking for something to fill the Hawkins-shaped void in your heart, we’ve compiled a watchlist full of creepy goodness to keep you busy. Some of the films on this list have a pretty direct influence on Stranger Things season 4, and others are simply scary flicks that we think are a must-watch after finishing this season. Scroll on down to see our spooky selection – and be warned, there are spoilers for Stranger Things ahead as we discuss how these movies influenced the Netflix series.
There’s a riff on Brian De Palma’s Carrie in episode 2, one that was acknowledged by author Stephen King himself. (opens in new tab) Much like Eleven, Carrie (Sissy Spacek) is a shy teenage girl with psychic and telekinetic abilities who doesn’t quite fit in with everyone else. Eleven’s high school bullies are cruel and inhumane, not unlike Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen) and co.
The roller rink scene combines two scenes from Carrie: one where Chris and the girls corner Carrie in the girls’ locker room and pelt her with tampons and pads while she cowers on the floor, and the infamous prom scene in which Carrie is doused in pig blood on stage – another move orchestrated by Chris. Carrie retaliates by using her telekinetic powers to set the auditorium on fire and send her bullies to their deaths. When Angela and co. throw a milkshake at Eleven and push her to the floor, El – who doesn’t have her special powers – bashes Angela in the head with a roller skate.
The Gate (1987)
The Gate, directed by Tibor Takacs, follows a twelve-year-old named Glen (Stephen Dorff) who lives in a house that, at first, appears to be haunted… but it’s actually a gateway to a demonic other-realm. Sound familiar?
Glen and his best friend Terry (Louis Tripp) accidentally open the gate, and everyone who inhabits the house becomes plagued with horrifying supernatural happenings that result in death, destruction, and demons disguised as their own parents. If you liked the Creel House’s connection to the Upside Down, you might like The Gate’s direct connection to hell.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
Of course Freddy Kreuger is on this list: he’s played by Robert Englund, who plays Vecna-plagued, falsely accused serial killer Victor Creel. But that’s not the only connection.
Vecna preys on teenagers who are actively hurting or wracked with guilt after surviving a traumatic event and forces them to undergo some kind of twisted reenactment prior to taking their lives – not unlike our man Freddy. Both villains have twisted, fleshy faces and are seemingly immortal – but Freddy gets you the second you fall asleep.
While every installment of West Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street franchise more or less follows the same premise (i.e. Freddy Kreuger hunting teenagers in their dreams), Dream Warriors (directed by Chuck Russell) focuses a whole lot more on the trauma that plagues each victim – and even takes place in the psychiatric hospital where they’re trying to heal. We also learn a bit more about Freddy’s origin story which, spoiler alert, isn’t as cool as Vecna’s.
The Ring (2002) / Ringu (1998)
Whether you know The Ring by its ominous ‘You’re gonna die in seven days’ phone calls or as the ‘movie with the creepy girl who comes out of the TV’ – it’s definitely worth a watch.
After viewing a ‘cursed’ videotape, each victim is killed approximately seven days later by an unseen force. Each body is left with what some viewers have dubbed as the ‘death face,’ in which the victim’s jaw is broken and their face is violently contorted – not unlike what Vecna does to the kids.
While Gore Verbinski’s 2002 remake might be more popular with Western viewers, the original Japanese film by Hideo Nakata is a little more complex and delves into the concept of murder via psychic abilities and ESP – and the little girl at the center of it all. We definitely recommend a double feature.
A little girl with special powers being hunted down by the government…sound familiar? While we can’t necessarily verify that the Duffer brothers took inspiration from Charlie McGee (Drew Barrymore) in order to craft Eleven’s storyline, we don’t think it’s entirely out of the realm of possibility. Especially considering that one of the promotional posters for season one (opens in new tab) was a clear riff on the film’s poster, putting Eleven in a similar pose with her hair blowing in the wind. While Eleven’s powers are more telekinetic, Charlie has pyrokinesis: the ability to control heat and fire.
A secret government agency known as the Department of Scientific Intelligence or “The Shop” (which did actually exist in the United States for some time) takes Charlie from her family and experiments on her with the goal to weaponize her powers. She and her father Andy (David Keith) live life on the run, but are eventually captured by a member of The Shop who wants Charlie killed. Sounds a little bit like season four… or maybe a lot a bit.
Alien 3 (1992)
When Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) crash-lands onto an all-male maximum-security prison planet, she accidentally unleashes a facehugger who promptly gives birth to a terrifying alien – who ends up hunting down the prisoners one by one.
David Harbour even confirmed (opens in new tab) the David Fincher film’s influence on season 4, which makes perfect sense given that Hopper is being held at a maximum-security prison that happens to be housing a live Demogorgon. Much like Ripley, it’s Hopper who ends up leading the charge against the creature while the other inmates back away – or get instantly slaughtered.
The Amityville Horror (1979)
In 1975, George (James Brolin) and Kathy Lutz (Margot Kidder) buy a new home in Amityville, New York, and are excited to start a brand new chapter… until they become plagued with violent supernatural occurrences. Much like the Creel House is another entrance to the Upside Down, the Amityville house is referred to as a “passage to hell.” It starts off with missing items and unexplainable locked doors and quickly escalates to blood oozing down the walls to a pig with glowing red eyes – who is their young daughter Amy’s (Natasha Ryan) ‘imaginary’ friend.
Even scarier, the film is based on the real-life story of the Lutz family, who bought the house at a ‘bargain price’ just one year after Ronald DeFeo Jr. shot and killed six members of his family upstairs.
Don’t Look Under the Bed (1999)
This one might seem like the true outlier on the list, but stick with us. Don’t Look Under the Bed is a made-for-TV fantasy horror flick that premiered on the Disney Channel in 1999 under the Disney Channel Original Movie banner. When strange things start happening in the small down of Middleberg – such as dogs appearing on peoples’ roofs and packets of gelatin being poured into the school swimming pool, all signs seem to point to high school freshman Frances McCausland (Erin Chambers), though she’s really not sure why. When an imaginary friend named Larry (Eric “T” Hodges II) shows up, evident by the fact that only children can see him, he informs Frances that she’s being framed by the Boogeyman.
Larry and Frances end up journeying into a dream-like version of the Upside Down, which exists under Frances’ bed. And, uh, the Boogeyman is terrifying. If his jagged teeth and abnormally long and pointed fingers weren’t enough, he has a fish scale-like extra skin that suddenly puffs up – like that of a Demogorgon – when he’s trying to terrify Frances. This one might give you nightmares, but it’s definitely worth the watch.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The Silence of the Lambs stars Jodie Foster as an FBI agent named Clarice Starling who, while hunting down gruesome murderer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) seeks out the advice of former psychiatrist turned cannibalistic serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins).
Though Victor Kreel isn’t a killer like Dr. Hannibal Lecter, there are definitely some parallels: namely between Robin and Nancy’s visit with Kreel and Clarice Starling’s visit with Lecter. Even though Lecter and Victor are sentenced to spend a life behind bars, their life experience is needed in order to capture a serial killer and solve a murder mystery. Both Lecter and Victor are held in institutions for the criminally insane, and are kept under tight watch in a cell at the end of a dark corridor. Nancy and Robin are taunted by the other inmates as they head toward Victor’s cell, which is undoubtedly an homage to Jonathan Demme’s Academy Award-winning psychological thriller.
Ross Duffer said it himself (opens in new tab): “Pinhead really freaked us out when we were younger. We really want to imbue Vecna with some Pinhead vibes.” And imbue they did.
Hellraiser, directed by Clive Barker and based on Barker’s book The Hellbound Heart, follows a morally corrupt man who buys a mystical puzzle box and ends up opening a direct portal into a sadomasochistic type of hell. Much like Vecna, Pinhead (Doug Bradley) – named for, you guessed it, the extremely sharp needles that protrude from his face and head – was once human, too. The Cenobites were born as earthly beings, but later transformed into grotesque demonic creatures due to their blind devotion to sadomasochism – and Pinhead, being the most depraved of them all, is their leader.
And it isn’t just their creepy low-octave voices that make them similar: Both Vecna and Pinhead speak to their victims in eerily calm, collected tones before causing their victims pain. That’s part of what makes them so terrifying: they aren’t in a rush. They don’t mind explaining. Plus, they show up when summoned.
The Changeling (1980)
It’s another horror flick about a haunted house, yes, but it isn’t just the stained glass windows and square Victorian turrets that made us think the Duffer brothers might’ve given The Changeling a rewatch before writing season 4.
When widowed composer John Russell (George C. Scott) decides to buy a historic mansion from an agent named Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere), the paranormal happenings start. However, unlike some of the other films we’ve listed, it isn’t demons this time. Instead, it’s the ghost of a sickly six-year-old boy who was drowned in the house by his father.
When Victor Creel recounts his encounter with Vecna via flashback in episode 4, he enters the attic and finds a rather ominous, rusted wheelchair. We also learn in episode 7 that it was Vecna’s favorite place in the house as a boy – the room where he set up candles and focused on channeling his psychic abilities in order to torture his family. In The Changeling, John quickly realizes that the paranormal presence is coming from the attic. It’s here that Claire discovers the sickly boy’s cobweb-covered antique wheelchair – triggering a terrifying chain of events.
Summer of ’84 (2018)
When the trailer for Summer of ’84 first debuted, the Stranger Things comparisons were almost immediate. It’s set in the 80s, follows a group of teenage boys who set out to uncover the mystery of multiple missing teenage boys, and yes they ride through their neighborhood on bikes.
While the film, directed by Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell, might’ve been inspired by the recent boom in pop culture nostalgia brought about by the popularity of Stranger Things, it’s a realistic, true-crime kind of horror that borrows more from Stand By Me. There isn’t a Demogorgon at the center of these terrifying happenings – everything is painfully human.
The Black Phone (2022)
Late 70s nostalgia, bullies, psychic abilities, supernatural happenings, missing kids, and a terrifying villain who watches while you sleep? Yeah, this flick has something for everyone. Based on the novel by Joe Hill, The Black Phone follows Finney (Mason Thames), a teenager who gets abducted by a sadistic child murderer (Ethan Hawke) and uses a disconnected phone in his cell to communicate with his captor’s previous victims. The film was directed and co-written by Scott Derrickson, helmer of Sinister, another Ethan Hawke-led horror that is frequently considered to be one of the scariest movies of all time.
For more, check out our list of Stranger Things season 4, Volume 2 Easter eggs for cool details and references you might have missed, or go through our round-up of 15 TV shows to watch after you finish Stranger Things season 4.