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The age of monsters

In the ’80s and ’90s, kids’ media was full of murder and mayhem. What changed?

Illustration of a small child sitting on a small bed with a large tentacled monster hovering over. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Part of the Horror Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

As a kid in the 1980s, I never once saw a Nightmare on Elm Street movie, but I still grew up terrified of Freddy Krueger. I didn’t have to watch the movies to know Freddy was a knife-fingered, pizza-faced monster waiting to kill me in my dreams. At the time, he was the subject of chatter at the bike rack, jokes in Mad Magazine or The Simpsons, TV commercials, Halloween costumes, and more. You didn’t need to find Freddy, he was going to find you.

Much like today’s entertainment landscape is fixated on superheroes, in the 1980s and 1990s, murders and monsters held an absolutely brutal dominance over pop culture. Strangely, much of it was marketed to children.

The time was “a really key period in the development of horror for children,” says Catherine Lester, the author of Horror Films for Children and lecturer in film and television at the University of Birmingham in the UK. In the 1980s, many factors — directors who grew up on monster movies, experimentation in what children’s media could be and do, even the creation of the PG-13 rating — came together to let scary films for kids “flourish a bit,” she says.

The horror boom began, more or less, with Michael Myers hacking through a closet door in 1978’s Halloween, and continued with Friday the 13th in 1980. Those franchises had released a combined seven films by the time Freddy came for us in A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984. Over the next seven years, Jason, Freddy, and Michael Myers would star in 10 more movies. Quickly, more kid-friendly monsters also began appearing: Gremlins (described by TV Guide as “cynically aimed to draw an audience of small children who would no doubt be terrorized”), Beetlejuice, Garbage Pail Kids, and the assorted terrors running through Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Goosebumps, Tales From the Crypt, Tales from the Darkside, and Are You Afraid of the Dark? Horror bled out of theaters, books, and TV screens in a million ways. According to data provided to Vox by costume retailer Spirit Halloween, the most popular costume in 1984 was Freddy Krueger.

Scary stories for children have an extremely long history. One researcher working at the University of Durham in the UK has been able to trace back early versions of stories like Jack and the Beanstalk, Beauty and the Beast, and Rumpelstiltskin thousands of years using techniques borrowed from the field of biology. These stories, and their descendants from Aesop to the Brothers Grimm, tucked moral lessons inside bloody tales of women lopping off their heels and itinerant tailors snipping off the appendages of little boys who won’t stop sucking their thumbs.

“There are lots of really obvious links between older forms of literature for children like fairy tales and children’s horror,” says Lester. “You see similar themes being worked through that are common in childhood, like learning to be independent, learning to grow up, and dealing with issues with your parents.”

Closer to the modern day, horror as a genre began to take shape in the 1930s, says Josie Torres Barth, a teaching assistant professor of film studies at North Carolina State University.

Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man are the first time we think of films as being horror films,” she explains. Crucially, the restrictive Hays Code, which dictated the content of films between 1934 and 1968, made sure that these movies were acceptable to everyone, including children. Decades later, these at least marginally kid-safe movies had second lives as TV reruns and matinee fodder aimed at children and teens, and inspired imitations like I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Hollywood producers, says Barth, “realized that they have this great new target market [in teens], and they wanted to get as much money as they can.” Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, monster movies were largely seen as kid stuff.

This all changed with the beginning of more serious and disturbing horror films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist in the late 1960s and into the ’70s, though audiences didn’t always know what they were in for. An infamous article by Roger Ebert immortalized the liminal moment: Attending an early screening of 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, he found his theater was full of “kids, the kind you expect at a Saturday afternoon kiddie matinee.” Ebert, and apparently the children’s parents, had expected something like Creature from the Black Lagoon, not a genre-defining piece of socially conscious, horrifying filmmaking. The youthful audience watched in stunned silence as the movie “stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying.”

Despite exponentially increasing levels of not just violence but nudity and sex, “Horror in the ’80s is still kind of thought of as a medium for teenage boys,” Barth says. The films almost invariably were about teens, and were popular with them, too.

Horror films can serve many deep purposes for teens and children, says Lester. “They can function as a social bonding exercise with peers, and help you work through certain fears and anxieties.” But then again, she says, “It’s also just really fun. It’s fun to be scared!”

“Let’s face it, kids are attracted to what’s taboo,” says artist and writer Scott Shaw, who has contributed several times to Garbage Pail Kids. “My parents would say, ‘Oh, you can’t watch that. That’s too scary for you.’ Well, I’d wait until they fell asleep, and I’d get up and watch it, and it’d scare the shit out of me. And I always felt great about it.”

So what happened to the monster mania of the 1980s? Though ideas about what content is appropriate for children haven’t changed much in the past decades, says Betsy Bozdech, executive editor of ratings and reviews for Common Sense Media, an organization that rates and categorizes what media is appropriate for a child at a given age, parents have become more involved in their offspring’s media consumption.

“It used to be kind of like you just said, ‘Oh, you’re going to go watch a movie over at your friend’s house, okay,’” she says. Now, “a lot of parents are trying to take a more active role in knowing and managing what their kids watch. And we have parental controls, and you can see your kids’ Netflix history, and you could know what they’re watching … I would say that experience, and focus group testing, has probably showed [producers] that parents aren’t really eager for little kids to be scared too early.”

Kids, too, seemed to lose interest in the thrills that became more cheap with each sequel.

“When you’re creating something to make it feel outrageous, it gets old real fast. And after a while, outrageous just becomes mundane. And where do you take it from there?” says Shaw. “I think kids started saying, ‘This is just an imitation of that,’ or, ‘We’ve already seen a character throwing up five times. Why do I really want to see more of this?’”

The teen slasher flicks and screamfests of the 1980s may also have simply grown up along with their audiences. Throughout the 1990s, horror veered in several directions at once. There were self-referential explorations of genre tropes like Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) and Scream (1996), as well as the rise of pseudo-horror thriller/mysteries about serial killers like Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Seven (1996), as well as some attempts to refocus on the classics of the genre, like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Interview With the Vampire (1994), and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994). Gone, for the most part, was the particular magic of the unreflective slasher flick, and its stranglehold on the public imagination.

Of course, horror hasn’t disappeared as a genre, and neither has a softer, gentler version of it aimed at younger audiences. Since 2012, the monsters in Hotel Transylvania have starred in four movies, a TV show, three graphic novels, and several video games. There have been two Happy Death Day movies, and video games like the survival horror sensation Five Nights at Freddy’s, which currently has nine installments and a planned film adaptation. Tim Burton is remaking The Addams Family, and Rob Zombie is rebooting The Munsters. Then there’s Stranger Things, which is performing a few functions at once; adults are served heaps of nostalgia for the horror of their youth, and today’s teens and children watch it to be scared out of their minds when their parents aren’t looking.

And yet horror simply doesn’t have the central space in culture it once did. Today, what scares us has changed across the ideological spectrum, says Tara Conley, assistant professor in the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Gone, for the most part, is the stranger lurking in the shadows with a glinting machete. Our new boogeymen are closer to home.

“Critical race theory is a boogeyman,” says Conley. “The war on drugs is a boogeyman. These are things that people can pinpoint and identify and connect to things they’re concerned about morally.”

“There’s recent studies around Facebook and Instagram and their impact on young girls’ perceptions of their bodies. That’s real and observable. Black girls and the disproportionate care roles they’ve been taking on during the pandemic. But for most folks, it’s harder to wrap their brains around things that are happening every day that we should probably be paying a little more attention to as a society,” says Conley.

Today, the dystopic reality of our lives is scarier than a few creeps who lurk in our dreams. And that’s definitely not for kids.

Chris Chafin covers the business of culture for publications including Rolling Stone, Vulture, and the BBC. He also hosts a movie podcast.

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