On the Monday after Netflix dropped the final episodes of(or Independence Day, whatever you want to call it), I followed my iPhone’s advice and drove two hours northeast of Charlotte, North Carolina, to the city of Durham. I wanted to see in person what I’d recently seen on my TikTok “For You” page – the approximate spot where main character Will Byers disappeared all the way back a highly doable distance away from me.
I guess this is where I should introduce myself. Hi, I’m Meara, I’m 23, and I’ve seen all of. The third season of the show is my favorite. I have spent more than a little bit of money on Stranger Things merch. I am, very predictably, a Steve Harrington fan.
You may already be familiar with– the twins who created Stranger Things and write, direct and executive produce episodes of the show. They grew up in Durham, just a few podcast-listens away from the Stranger Things lover you’re reading right now.
The Duffers have sprinkled references to real Durham locations across all four seasons of the show. While the fictional town of Hawkins isn’t filmed in North Carolina – it’s actually filmed in the bordering state of Georgia – real bodies of water, streets and other places in Durham have been name-dropped as landmarks in the madeup town.
When I realized I could check out these spots in person, I rounded up my iPhone camera and my passion for Stranger Things and hit the road. My visit to Durham would eventually include a slice of a pineapple-topped pizza (Argyle-approved!) and some very friendly pizza employees. But before then, I had to stop at the notorious Will-napping spot, Kerley and Cornwallis.
The tour begins
So, to be clear, the intersection of Kerley and West Cornwallis roads in Durham isn’t the place we actually see on the show. But the Duffer brothers use the name of that very real intersection.
Here’s when it happens: In the very first episode of Stranger Things, young pals Mike, Lucas and Dustin explain to police chief Hopper that before Will disappeared, he’d been traveling on a street they call “Mirkwood,” located “where Cornwallis and Kerley meet.” (If you’re having trouble picturing a road at an intersection of two roads, check out this neat fan-made map of Hawkins). The audience sees Will vanish not far from that location, in the Byers’ shed.
The Will Byers encounter happened under prime spooky conditions at night, but my visit took place in the late afternoon. The green street signs and flow of traffic didn’t seem usual, but the huge trees that flanked the area could definitely have been hiding a demogorgon or two. I felt a tinge of embarrassment when I lifted my phone to snap a selfie, but figured nearby residents are probably used to seeing fans loitering on that corner. The things we do for Stranger Things.
@molexik#strangerthings references in #northcarolina, part one! #strangerthings4#ncfilm#nccheck#durham#netflix♬ Stranger Things – Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein
Identical twins Matt and Ross Duffer, 38, grew up close to that intersection in Durham. Their ’90s childhood included bikes, train-track expeditions and the fantasy card game Magic: The Gathering, according to an interview they did with the Los Angeles Times. (Although they were born in the ’80s, when Stranger Things famously takes place, the Duffers are admittedly more ’90s kids). They made their first movie in the third grade with a gifted video camera, and have been tackling projects as a duo ever since.
The brothers have acknowledged the Durham references. In an interview with the Raleigh News and Observer in 2017, Matt Duffer said that in addition to name-dropping “landmarks and street names” on the show, they’ve made deeper-cut nods to an adult neighbor and a close childhood friend. Speaking about the Durham Easter eggs to local news station ABC 11, Matt said that “as much as Stranger Things is an ode to the films of our childhood that we grew up loving, it’s also an ode to our childhood. So that’s why we like to do those little shout-outs, because really, more than anything, it’s just about us and our friends.”
Matt also told the News and Observer that Hawkins is a blend of a few things, including Georgia and Durham. (“Fictional towns in Stephen King books” and “suspense scenes in 1980s horror movies” are also in the DNA of Hawkins, he said.)
I reached out to the Duffer brothers for this story but didn’t hear back right away.
More on the tour
After my casual tour kicked off at the intersection, I plotted my course to a nearby neighborhood, Lochn’ora. The destination shows up in season 2 of the show, when Dustin, Lucas, Mike and Will are trick-or-treating in their Ghostbusters costumes. We see a neighborhood sign, and the font looks exactly like it does on a decorative sign that marks the real neighborhood. (“The series seemed to get the font right on our sign,” the president of the Lochn’ora Home Owners Association told the News and Observer in 2017)
I crafted my Durham sightseeing list by reading roundups published by local news sites and watching a series of TikToks created by a user named Matt. (He went to many of the locations himself, if you’re itching for a video tour). Several locations I visited, including Lochn’ora, are less than 10 minutes away from the Byers intersection.
I made a quick stop at Bullock’s, a Durham barbeque restaurant that’s been in its current location since 1970. Bullock’s gets a call-out in season 3, along with “Lake Jordan” — a flip-flop of “Jordan Lake,” which is located south of Durham (and a bit outside of where I wanted to drive that afternoon).
The “Eno River,” which flows through Durham, pops up on the show as a Hawkins landmark in season 2. Bob Newby mentions it when he realizes a grouping of drawings made by Will is actually a map of Hawkins. And perhaps the ultimate hometown nod comes in season 4, when Murray works some computer magic so that “Durham, North Carolina” is Joyce’s calling location when she reaches out to a mysterious letter author named Enzo.
@molexik#strangerthings references in #northcarolina , part 4. #jordanlake#nccheck#durham#netflix#strangerthings4♬ Stranger Things – Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein
After the two-hour drive to Durham and subsequent Easter egg hunt around town, I had worked up an appetite. Luckily, I had a place in mind.
Enzo’s – a snazzy Italian restaurant in seasons 3 and 4 of the show – is also the name of a casual pizza joint in Durham. In the third season, Joyce stands Hopper up on a date at Enzo’s, a romantic venue with mood lighting and violinists (we see him get drunk on wine and take some sad bites out of a breadstick). In the season 3 finale, Joyce asks him for a redo. But they don’t get the chance when he seemingly evaporates in an explosion later that episode.
Enter season 4, when Enzo’s is mentioned all over the place – in the season 4 finale, Hopper (alive!) admits he’d been dreaming of the restaurant’s breadsticks and lasagna while stuck in a Russian prison camp and reminds Joyce they have a date to attend to.
The real Enzo’s is much more low-key than the one we see on the show, outfitted with booths, a soda fountain and a sprawling pizza menu. It opened in 2008, when the Duffers would have been about 24, so it’s unclear if they were still in town then to snag a slice. But it’s just a few minutes’ drive from the Byers intersection, and it’s the only establishment that goes by that name in Durham, according to the general manager. That’s clearly spent enough for some Stranger Things fans.
At Enzo’s, Alex Salinas, a 17-year-old high school student, took my order for a 12-inch barbecue chicken pizza topped with chicken, bacon, onions, ranch and pineapple and handed me a plastic soda cup. (I can actually agree with season 4 pizza delivery guy Argyle – pineapple is a game changer). When I spoke to Salinas on July 4, he’d been working at the restaurant for less than a week, and said customers had mentioned Stranger Things on about five different occasions. There’s even been talk of making a Stranger Things-themed pizza to cater to fans, he says.
Salinas told me he checked out Stranger Things for the first time recently, and wound up watching all four seasons in the span of a month. He, of course, had already seen the finale, and says he got a little emotional when Eddie paid the ultimate price – death by demobats – for the sake of the group.
“The way he passed, it actually made me cry,” Salinas said. “It’s a really good show.”
@molexik #strangerthings references in #northcarolina , part 8! #strangerthings4#netflix#nccheck#durham#film#tv♬ Stranger Things – Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein
The themed pizza idea is indeed being tossed around at Enzo’s, the store’s general manager Steve Howard says, although they’d need to take into account restaurant locations in other cities. He says he can’t confirm for sure if the Duffer brothers are talking about their Enzo’s – he hasn’t heard from the Duffers, after all – but they’re enjoying the positive influence the callouts have had on their business.
Howard hasn’t seen Stranger Things, but he wants to. His three adult kids all love it, he says. “As soon as I can quit working 70 hours a week, I’ll probably sit down and veg out one day and watch it all,” Howard said. “Or at least start with one season.”