The third season of the Netflix phenomenon “Stranger Things” dropped a week ago today, and according to data released by the streaming service this week, 40.7 million member accounts have watched at least part of it.
What does that mean? That’s the quickest turnaround for a Netflix original series to achieve such a large audience, making the series — set in the 1980s around a group of friends fighting a supernatural menace — a legitimate pop culture phenomenon.
To be fair, it pretty much already was. Created by twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, the show expertly combines the nostalgia of a bygone era with a coming-of-age narrative that appeals to viewers of all ages. Without going into too many details, think of it as the drama of the film “Stand By Me” combined with the kids-vs.-monsters appeal of J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8.” The third season mines deeper into the ’80s zeitgeist, with nods to the heyday of shopping malls and Jazzercise and music and so much more.
It’s a genuine water-cooler show, and the Knoxville daily newspaper even featured a splashy story last week detailing a Reddit user’s theory that “Stranger Things” has a number of East Tennessee ties, even though it’s set in Indiana. While it’s a fun ball of yarn to unravel, the story failed to capture, as Paul Harvey used to say, “the rest of the story.”
If there are East Tennessee ties to “Stranger Things,” it might very well be because the Duffer brothers spent some time here as kids — in Blount County, even, where their aunt and uncle, Carol and Bob Ergenbright, still live.
You might know Carol from her work as the supervisor of the Blount County Adult Education Program. Although she retired a couple of years ago, she was active for a long time as one of the organizers of the Adult Spelling Bee and was a tireless advocate for those who wanted to complete their secondary educations. Their children, Rob and Kirsten Ergenbright Craft, attended Maryville High School; Rob and his family live in Corryton, and he works as the manager of Elliott’s Boots in Alcoa. Kirsten and her family live in Lexington, Kentucky.
Their cousins, the Duffer brothers, were raised in Durham, North Carolina. Their mother, Ann Christensen, is Carol’s sister (she kept her maiden name). Ann and her husband, Alan Duffer, used to bring the boys to Maryville regularly, Carol told me this week.
“They would come here to visit and go to the Smokies, to the Lost Sea and do all the touristy things,” she said. “They started making movies when they were very young — in grade school, and for Christmas, they would usually get movie-making equipment in addition to some of the usual kid toys. They had friends that lived in their subdivision, and they were constantly writing stories with them and filming them.”
The Duffers took inspiration, Carol believes, from their father, a cinephile who exposed his boys to all genres of film. Her own son, Carol added with a laugh, takes credit for introducing the Duffers to horror, however, when he sent them a copy of the B-movie “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.”
In 2003, the boys spent several days with the Ergenbrights when they competed in the Valleyfest Independent Film Festival in Knoxville, where they won the award for Best Young Filmmaker(s) for a documentary titled “… and everything nice.”
“It was based on a musical they did in their high school, and it focused on their drama teacher, who was a very interesting character,” Carol said. “They followed her through the audition process, all the way up to the production, and they still correspond with her and keep her in the loop as to what they’re doing. I just remember thinking that a lot of teachers needed to see it, because it really demonstrated the impact they have on their students.”
After high school, the Duffer brothers moved to California, studied filmmaking at Chapman University’s Dodge College of Media and Arts and began making inroads into Hollywood. Short films led to a Warner Bros. option on a post-apocalyptic thriller, “Hidden,” and working with “Sixth Sense” director M. Night Shyamalan on the Fox series “Wayward Pines.” Around the same time, they began pitching their idea for “Stranger Things.” The first season was released in July 2016, and the response was immediate and enthusiastic.
“It was so exciting, and we were so excited for them,” Carol said. “Ann and Alan had supported the boys all along and believed in them so much, so it was great to see their dreams come true. And it was so unexpected — I don’t’ think anybody expected it to take off like it did.”
Carol and Bob haven’t made their way through Season 3 yet, but even though she’s not a horror fan, she enjoys “Stranger Things” — mostly, she added, because she sees her nephews in the four young protagonists who anchor the series.
“I think Matt and Ross sort of based the characters on themselves and their friends,” she said. “The characters are so real — they come alive, and it’s a story about friendship and believing in yourself. There’s a lot in there.”
Carol was visiting Durham last week, she added, when the Knoxville paper’s story about the series’ possible East Tennessee connections was published. Her sister sent the article to Matt and Ross, but there’s no confirmation, yet, on whether they had East Tennessee in mind when crafting some of the elements for “Stranger Things.”
“I know they have a lot of references to Durham — the names of roads and even some of the characters, but it was really amazing, the (East Tennessee) coincidences,” she said. “I didn’t even think about that possibility before, but of course, if you think about Oak Ridge, I can see it.”
It’s been a couple of Christmases since she saw her nephews, but Rob and Kirsten keep in regular contact. In fact, they visited the set during filming for Season 3 and got to tour “Starcourt Mall,” the season’s biggest backdrop. Kirsten and her husband, Matt, and children — Reed and Raleigh — were in California this week and dined with the Duffer brothers as recently as Sunday.
Did they spill the beans on what, if anything, might await fans in Season 4? Time will tell, but one thing seems almost certain: Even though an official renewal has yet to be announced, the overwhelming consensus is that the show’s popularity almost guarantees it. Whether or not any additional East Tennessee ties might be revealed, however, remains to be seen.