Halloween was always my favourite time of year growing up. It wasn't the candy or the costumes that I loved, but the excuse to watch horror marathons with my family. Back in the pre-Netflix 80s and 90s, you either had to test your luck at Blockbuster's horror section, or tune into TV stations for your dose of Are You Afraid of the Dark? reruns and movies like The Witches, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and (if you were lucky) Poltergeist. It used to be you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting something that starred kids dealing with the supernatural.
Despite being raised on "family horror," the genre seems to all but have disappeared since the beginning of the new millennium. A quick google search of "Kids movies 2000s" yields results of mostly animated films with animals acting like humans, while searching the same for the 1980s brings a list of live action films with heavy genre influences. So what happened? Are the kind of movies and TV shows that so many of us grew up on really dead? Are younger generations left without new nightmares to grow up on? To figure out what killed family-friendly horror movies and TV, I dug into the history and called up some horror movie creators.
It's important to note family horror is defined by its appeal to both children and adults, not just one or the other. This is what differentiates it from classic horror—namely, a lack of overtly sexual content and less gory violence. As such, the filmmakers rely on other tactics, like the tendency to mix in sight gags and dad jokes—an essential part of the family appeal. "If you're going to watch a movie with your kids, being willing to break tension with laughter is really important," Michael Dougherty, director of Trick 'r Treat and Krampus, told VICE. "This isn't to say you have to shy away from scares though. You need enough so that you force families to huddle closer together."
Steven Spielberg and Joe Dante were the masters of this delicate balance and the godfathers of the genre with movies like Gremlins, The Burbs, and Jurassic Park. Brad Miska, co-owner of Bloody-Disgusting and producer of V/H/S, recalls how Spielberg and Dante "had [their] fingers on the pulse of suburbia. Those neighbourhoods were a big thing in America at the time and consisted of the main moviegoers." Exploring the suburban family in a narrative offered a perfect way for filmmakers and studios to appeal to their demographic. "The kids like genre stuff, adults like the family drama, and mixing those together was a perfect family experience," Miska said.
This "perfect" concoction took over the blockbuster scene of the 80s with movies like E.T., Ghostbusters, and The Goonies. It was a proven style that birthed a slew of Spielberg ripoffs, that often went direct to video, like the disaster that is Xtro, The Willies, and The Stuff, all of which miss the mark of the genre despite attempts to capitalize on its success. Although the market became inundated with family friendly genre films, there was still a demand for it continuing into the 90s.
The popularity of horror anthology TV from the 80s gave birth to kid friendly versions of the same format in the 90s, and we were gifted with shows like Goosebumps, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, and the weird Canadian one with the maggot and the cockroach that nobody remembers, Freaky Stories. It was a booming time for kids exploring haunted houses and possessed ventriloquist dummies, spanning across mediums with book series and video games. As the last decade of the century neared its end, however, Spielberg and Dante "grew up" as artists and largely stopped directing films in the genre, turning toward more adult oriented stories like Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan.
Live action movies starring kids left genre influence behind, and with advances in technology computer-animation was taking off thanks to Pixar's Toy Story and A Bug's Life. This came with the realization that live action was expensive to make compared to animation, which still had family appeal. "It's just more expensive to work with children," Rick Drew, screenwriter on the Goosebumps TV series, told VICE, "because they can only work limited hours, and horror is mostly shot at night, so that costs even more." Spielberg, who had a history of working in animation, embraced the shift. He launched the Dreamworks Animation branch of his production company, which went on to make Antz and Shrek around the turn of the century. This marked an important turn in the industry.
When the 2000s hit, the family horror genre seemed to have died altogether. There have been a handful of computer-animated films that fit the mold like Coraline, Paranorman, and Monster House in the past decade. But as far as live action goes there have only been a few successes, including Dougherty's Krampus, R.L. Stine's Haunting Hour, and the 2015 Goosebumps film, the latter two both based on pre-existing properties from the same writer who had already proven his popularity among children. Even Joe Dante's last family horror effort, The Hole, only saw a very limited theatrical release.
Video games also reached new heights of popularity in the 90s, resulting in growing concerns of exposing children to violence and gore at a young age. The same fears likely led to a decline in parents wanting to expose their kids to movies that would scare the shit out of them. Dougherty sees it differently: "Exposing kids to scary stories helps them deal with fear. It's like a fear vaccine. There's the chemical rush that runs through your body when you're scared, and horror movies are good practice in learning how to deal with this feeling."
Dougherty also explained that scary stories for children are ingrained in our culture, "It goes back to fairy tales, which were written for kids to teach them about the world using fantastical elements and boogeymen, like witches and the big bad wolf." And if you've read anything by The Brothers Grimm, you know these stories were incredibly morbid and dark, despite what Disney modernizations would have you believe. "These classic stories that we still find value in today set the table for kids in terms of learning from scary situations," Dougherty said.
"Kids challenge themselves in safe ways," adds Drew. "Like with amusement park rides, it allows them to experience the rush, and that's what you hear all the time in playgrounds, it's that mix of laughs and screams. And as long as they feel safe in the end, that's the fun of it all."
You're probably thinking, "What about Stranger Things?" It's certainly inspired by exactly the type of movies in question, but is it of the same ilk? Stranger Things and films like this year's Midnight Special are made for and by people like me who grew up loving Spielberg and Dante. It has all the strokes of family horror, however, Miska explains, "Maybe my generation of adults in their 30s might watch it with their kids, but it's mostly the nostalgia factor and mostly an adult audience. I don't think it's an organic version of what was popular in the 80s."
Regardless of whether it fits directly into the same genre category, it is likely that the massive success Stranger Things will open the door for more kid-versus-monster TV battles, and hopefully for the entire family. This shouldn't come as a surprise though, says Dougherty. "Film is cyclical, especially horror, in roughly 30 year cycles. Everyone thinks there's a hard rule for what works and what doesn't, then a film comes and breaks that rule, then everyone wants to make that. The same thing happened with superhero films, it was a dead genre for a while, and now look at it."
The biggest question is: do kids still want to get freaked out by glowing dog eyes and talking diner cockroaches? Maybe today's kids are simply too cool for this shit. Personally, I would find it hard to believe that there aren't kids out there who need horror in their life, whether to help them cope with anxiety, or just for a good Halloween scare.
As Dougherty puts it, "Kids are starving for it. I think we all are."
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