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The unsupervised kids of 'Stranger Things' would be a nightmare for today's parents

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These days, only kids in movies are free to explore

Courtesy Netflix

Editor's Note: This post was originally published in July 2016 and has been updated in advance of the Season 2 premiere of Stranger Things, on Friday, October 27.

The Netflix series Stranger Things is perfectly engineered to attract viewers of a certain age with a love letter to 1980s pop culture. But beyond Trapper Keepers and boomboxes, the show has tapped into a very specific type of nostalgia—leaving viewers reminiscing about a time when kids roamed their neighborhoods on bikes, by themselves, for better or for worse.

Stranger Things takes place in the town of Hawkins, Indiana in the winter of 1983, with period-perfect soundtrack and wardrobe choices that place some of us squarely back in the wood-paneled basements of our youths.

If Stranger Things feels even more eerily familiar, that’s because the show’s aesthetic is meant to evoke great ‘80s thrillers like Stand by Me, The Goonies, and E.T., in some cases, providing shot-by-shot references. As in those classic films, the kids are left at home by themselves to get spooked, then make their (sometimes gruesome) discoveries deep in the nearby woods, without an adult in sight.

It’s the bike moments of Stranger Things that really resonate. The kids ride their banana-seat and BMX bikes to school, to each others houses—even at night!—and without a single helmet. Bikes also represent a type of freedom compared to car-bound adults that works to the kids’ advantage. One of the best scenes shows the kids evading the bad guys by navigating a network of cut-throughs that slice through the culs-de-sac.

Those who grew up in the suburban US probably have similar memories. But this was in fact the real-life experience for those who grew up in Hawkins, Indiana, in 1983—or rather, the Hebron Hills neighborhood of Atlanta, where the subdivision scenes in Stranger Things were filmed.

Even the cut-throughs the characters use are actually there, says Valerie Watson, an urban designer who works for LADOT’s Active Transportation Division, whose childhood home was featured in one of the chase scenes. She rode her bike everywhere, including the creepy forest nearby where old trucks and burnt-down cabins were draped in kudzu.

The Hebron Hills neighborhood outside Atlanta, where Stranger Things was filmed
Google Maps

Watson absolutely believes that being allowed to navigate her neighborhood on her own led her to become an active adult bicyclist and also influenced her decision to choose a career in street design. But she’s worried this might not be the case for today’s kids.

"I think our generation might have been at the turning point where society shifted on this," she says. "I remember getting the talk about what to do if a stranger approached you—’don't talk to them and ride away!’— and to move over to the side when cars were coming. Parental direction was more about ‘be polite and smart’ back then instead of ‘be afraid of everything’ like today."

And yet, statistically, kids in the US have never been safer.

This is a uniquely American problem, of course. Children in other countries are still allowed to roam unsupervised, which has inspired what’s been called the "free-range kids" movement here in the US, championed by parents who believe kids should be allowed to ride transit and walk to local parks by themselves.

The free-range kids movement even believes parental-induced paranoia might be deterring kids from biking. A recent article theorized that forcing kids to wear helmets and ride on sidewalks is scaring kids away from bikes, when in fact, American kids are far more likely to suffer brain injuries in car crashes. (Interestingly, as prop manager Lynda Reiss told Wired, the ‘80s-era bikes in Stranger Things were the hardest thing to find, thanks to the idea that older bikes are unsafe—so they ended up building replicas.)

Riding two on a bike with no helmets is something only fictional characters get to do
Courtesy Netflix

My own suburban upbringing mirrors the setting of Stranger Things almost exactly. I, too, was allowed to wander freely—hoisting flimsy rope swings high into trees, building structurally unsound bike ramps, and wading a little too deep in the pond—as long as I came home before dark. The woods that backed up to our house served as both the innocent landscape of adventure and the horror film backdrop of my nightmares. It was often dangerous and sometimes scary. But mostly, it was awesome.

Then I look at my own daughter, whose hand I grip with white knuckles as we make our way along the incredibly busy street on our corner. The speed at which cars travel through this intersection is somehow far more frightening than anything I encountered in those woods.

I wonder at what age I’ll let her cross the street alone. Or if I’ll ever let her ride her bike to a friend’s house. I worry that the idea of letting kids explore their cities on their own is something she’ll only be able to see on TV.