In the ’80s and ’90s, kids’ media was afloat of execution and mayhem. What changed?
As a kid successful the 1980s, I ne'er erstwhile saw a Nightmare connected Elm Street movie, but I inactive grew up terrified of Freddy Krueger. I didn’t person to ticker the movies to cognize Freddy was a knife-fingered, pizza-faced monster waiting to termination maine successful my dreams. At the time, helium was the taxable of chatter astatine the motorcycle rack, jokes successful Mad Magazine oregon The Simpsons, TV commercials, Halloween costumes, and more. You didn’t request to find Freddy, helium was going to find you.
Much similar today’s amusement scenery is fixated connected superheroes, successful the 1980s and 1990s, murders and monsters held an perfectly brutal dominance implicit popular culture. Strangely, overmuch of it was marketed to children.
The clip was “a truly cardinal play successful the improvement of fearfulness for children,” says Catherine Lester, the writer of Horror Films for Children and lecturer successful movie and tv astatine the University of Birmingham successful the UK. In the 1980s, galore factors — directors who grew up connected monster movies, experimentation successful what children’s media could beryllium and do, adjacent the instauration of the PG-13 standing — came unneurotic to fto scary films for kids “flourish a bit,” she says.
The fearfulness roar began, much oregon less, with Michael Myers hacking done a closet doorway successful 1978’s Halloween, and continued with Friday the 13th in 1980. Those franchises had released a combined 7 films by the clip Freddy came for america successful A Nightmare connected Elm Street in 1984. Over the adjacent 7 years, Jason, Freddy, and Michael Myers would prima successful 10 much movies. Quickly, much kid-friendly monsters besides began appearing: Gremlins (described by TV Guide as “cynically aimed to gully an assemblage of tiny children who would nary uncertainty beryllium terrorized”), Beetlejuice, Garbage Pail Kids, and the assorted terrors moving done Scary Stories to Tell successful the Dark, Goosebumps, Tales From the Crypt, Tales from the Darkside, and Are You Afraid of the Dark? Horror bled retired of theaters, books, and TV screens successful a cardinal ways. According to information provided to Vox by costume retailer Spirit Halloween, the astir fashionable costume successful 1984 was Freddy Krueger.
Scary stories for children person an highly agelong history. One researcher moving astatine the University of Durham successful the UK has been capable to hint backmost aboriginal versions of stories similar Jack and the Beanstalk, Beauty and the Beast, and Rumpelstiltskin thousands of years utilizing techniques borrowed from the tract of biology. These stories, and their descendants from Aesop to the Brothers Grimm, tucked motivation lessons wrong bloody tales of women lopping disconnected their heels and itinerant tailors snipping disconnected the appendages of small boys who won’t halt sucking their thumbs.
“There are tons of truly evident links betwixt older forms of lit for children similar fairy tales and children’s horror,” says Lester. “You spot akin themes being worked done that are communal successful childhood, similar learning to beryllium independent, learning to turn up, and dealing with issues with your parents.”
Closer to the modern day, fearfulness arsenic a genre began to instrumentality signifier successful the 1930s, says Josie Torres Barth, a teaching adjunct prof of movie studies astatine North Carolina State University.
“Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man are the archetypal clip we deliberation of films arsenic being fearfulness films,” she explains. Crucially, the restrictive Hays Code, which dictated the contented of films betwixt 1934 and 1968, made definite that these movies were acceptable to everyone, including children. Decades later, these astatine slightest marginally kid-safe movies had 2nd lives arsenic TV reruns and matinee fodder aimed astatine children and teens, and inspired imitations similar I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Hollywood producers, says Barth, “realized that they person this large caller people marketplace [in teens], and they wanted to get arsenic overmuch wealth arsenic they can.” Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, monster movies were mostly seen arsenic kid stuff.
This each changed with the opening of much superior and disturbing fearfulness films similar Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist in the precocious 1960s and into the ’70s, though audiences didn’t ever cognize what they were successful for. An infamous article by Roger Ebert immortalized the liminal moment: Attending an aboriginal screening of 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, he recovered his theatre was afloat of “kids, the benignant you expect astatine a Saturday day kiddie matinee.” Ebert, and seemingly the children’s parents, had expected thing similar Creature from the Black Lagoon, not a genre-defining portion of socially conscious, horrifying filmmaking. The youthful assemblage watched successful stunned soundlessness arsenic the movie “stopped being delightfully scary astir halfway through, and had go unexpectedly terrifying.”
Despite exponentially expanding levels of not conscionable unit but nudity and sex, “Horror successful the ’80s is inactive benignant of thought of arsenic a mean for teenage boys,” Barth says. The films astir invariably were astir teens, and were fashionable with them, too.
Horror films tin service galore heavy purposes for teens and children, says Lester. “They tin relation arsenic a societal bonding workout with peers, and assistance you enactment done definite fears and anxieties.” But past again, she says, “It’s besides conscionable truly fun. It’s amusive to beryllium scared!”
“Let’s look it, kids are attracted to what’s taboo,” says creator and writer Scott Shaw, who has contributed respective times to Garbage Pail Kids. “My parents would say, ‘Oh, you can’t ticker that. That’s excessively scary for you.’ Well, I’d hold until they fell asleep, and I’d get up and ticker it, and it’d scare the crap retired of me. And I ever felt large astir it.”
So what happened to the monster mania of the 1980s? Though ideas astir what contented is due for children haven’t changed overmuch successful the past decades, says Betsy Bozdech, enforcement exertion of ratings and reviews for Common Sense Media, an enactment that rates and categorizes what media is due for a kid astatine a fixed age, parents person go much progressive successful their offspring’s media consumption.
“It utilized to beryllium benignant of similar you conscionable said, ‘Oh, you’re going to spell ticker a movie implicit astatine your friend’s house, okay,’” she says. Now, “a batch of parents are trying to instrumentality a much progressive relation successful knowing and managing what their kids watch. And we person parental controls, and you tin spot your kids’ Netflix history, and you could cognize what they’re watching … I would accidental that experience, and absorption radical testing, has astir apt showed [producers] that parents aren’t truly anxious for small kids to beryllium frightened excessively early.”
Kids, too, seemed to suffer involvement successful the thrills that became much inexpensive with each sequel.
“When you’re creating thing to marque it consciousness outrageous, it gets aged existent fast. And aft a while, outrageous conscionable becomes mundane. And wherever bash you instrumentality it from there?” says Shaw. “I deliberation kids started saying, ‘This is conscionable an imitation of that,’ or, ‘We’ve already seen a quality throwing up 5 times. Why bash I truly privation to spot much of this?’”
The teen slasher flicks and screamfests of the 1980s whitethorn besides person simply grown up on with their audiences. Throughout the 1990s, fearfulness veered successful respective directions astatine once. There were self-referential explorations of genre tropes similar Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) and Scream (1996), arsenic good arsenic the emergence of pseudo-horror thriller/mysteries astir serial killers similar Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Seven (1996), arsenic good arsenic immoderate attempts to refocus connected the classics of the genre, similar Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Interview With the Vampire (1994), and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994). Gone, for the astir part, was the peculiar magic of the unreflective slasher flick, and its stranglehold connected the nationalist imagination.
Of course, fearfulness hasn’t disappeared arsenic a genre, and neither has a softer, gentler mentation of it aimed astatine younger audiences. Since 2012, the monsters successful Hotel Transylvania have starred successful 4 movies, a TV show, 3 graphic novels, and respective video games. There person been 2 Happy Death Day movies, and video games similar the endurance fearfulness sensation Five Nights astatine Freddy’s, which presently has 9 installments and a planned movie adaptation. Tim Burton is remaking The Addams Family, and Rob Zombie is rebooting The Munsters. Then there’s Stranger Things, which is performing a fewer functions astatine once; adults are served heaps of nostalgia for the fearfulness of their youth, and today’s teens and children ticker it to beryllium frightened retired of their minds erstwhile their parents aren’t looking.
And yet fearfulness simply doesn’t person the cardinal abstraction successful civilization it erstwhile did. Today, what scares america has changed crossed the ideological spectrum, says Tara Conley, adjunct prof successful the School of Communication and Media astatine Montclair State University. Gone, for the astir part, is the alien lurking successful the shadows with a glinting machete. Our caller boogeymen are person to home.
“Critical contention mentation is simply a boogeyman,” says Conley. “The warfare connected drugs is simply a boogeyman. These are things that radical tin pinpoint and place and link to things they’re acrophobic astir morally.”
“There’s caller studies astir Facebook and Instagram and their interaction connected young girls’ perceptions of their bodies. That’s existent and observable. Black girls and the disproportionate attraction roles they’ve been taking connected during the pandemic. But for astir folks, it’s harder to wrapper their brains astir things that are happening each time that we should astir apt beryllium paying a small much attraction to arsenic a society,” says Conley.
Today, the dystopic world of our lives is scarier than a fewer creeps who lurk successful our dreams. And that’s decidedly not for kids.
Chris Chafin covers the concern of civilization for publications including Rolling Stone, Vulture, and the BBC. He besides hosts a movie podcast.