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Friday, August 21, 2020

Kindertrauma Generation: The ‘Family Friendly’ Horrors of the 1980s

The ’80s were a wild time to be a kid. I am not as personally nostalgic about the period as some, but even I have to admit it was a great time for horror. One of the more surprising trends of the decade was serious horror films made for and marketed to children and families. Most responsible for this unique movement and its eventual demise, at least in this peculiar form, are Disney, Jim Henson, and perhaps above all, Steven Spielberg. Disney may not have been the most successful purveyor of “kindertrauma horror” in the ’80s, but it was the first.

Disney had been struggling to find its path since the passing of founder Walt Disney in late 1966 and, frankly, continued to struggle with its identity until the studio’s renaissance in the early nineties. However, during this time, they were open to a great deal of experimentation. Disney movies had often included elements of horror, even from the earliest animated features. The evil queen disguised as a hag with a poisoned apple in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence from Fantasia (1940), and the boys on Pleasure Island being transformed into donkeys for their sins in Pinocchio (also 1940) come immediately to mind. But, with the exception of the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” half-feature of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949), the studio had never really attempted an all-out horror film aimed at children, and certainly not a live-action one.

That all changed with 1980’s The Watcher in the Woods.

‘The Watcher in the Woods’

The film was so poorly received upon its release that it was pulled from theaters and re-edited with a newly-shot ending and re-released a few months later to little improvement in that reception. It is certainly not a terrible film, I found myself quite drawn in by it upon a recent viewing, but it is very much in a style similar to classic Victorian mansion ghost films of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s like The Uninvited (1944), The Innocents (1961), and The Haunting (1963). All of these are great films, but not what audiences of the time were craving in their horror.

Starting in the late ’60s, horror mostly moved out of far-flung Gothic locations into more familiar, everyday settings. The moment the ghosts moved out of crumbling old manors and into the suburbs to haunt the Freelings, an average, middle class family, is the flashpoint that started the “family horror” boom blazing.

Best Horror Films


Poltergeist (1982) is an undeniably frightening film, especially to children. It features one child abducted by ghosts, another being eaten by a tree and later attacked by a living clown doll, and a scene with a man peeling off his own face (if that’s not horror, what is?), and all with a PG rating. As an adult, I still find this film incredibly effective, though for different reasons. As a child, it was absolutely terrifying, but permissible due to its moderate rating and the Spielberg pedigree that was attached to the film. Though it was released the weekend before E.T.—The Extra Terrestrial, I saw Poltergeist as many of my generation did—on home video after we and our parents had been charmed and lulled into trusting passivity by Spielberg’s sweet alien movie. As producer and co-writer, Spielberg’s hand is clearly seen in the film, but it carries the distinct marks of its director as well. As a child, I had no idea who Tobe Hooper was, nor did I care, but today, I see the touch he brought to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and The Funhouse (1981) all over Poltergeist, especially in the corpse-ridden anarchy of its finale. Poltergeist lured us in under the guise of a wholesome family drama but delivered all-out horror. And audiences were sold! From that point on, the floodgates of a largely untapped horror market burst open.

In 1983, Disney attempted another horror film, this time from a bestselling novel by a legendary author, who also wrote the screenplay, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. The film was released to decidedly mixed reviews and disappointing box-office, making back less than half its budget. However badly it was received at the time, the film is an effective dark fantasy that still holds up for the most part and is overdue for reappraisal. And despite two box-office failures, Disney would return to the horror well again before the decade was out.

‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’

In my opinion, a strong argument can be made that 1984 is the greatest year for filmed horror, at least in the modern era, if not of all time. It is the year of big budget horror blockbusters, cult gems, and everything in between. Under the “family friendly” banner, two films were released, not just in that year, but on the same day: June 8, 1984. Of the two, Ghostbusters is more comedy than horror, but the Lovecraftian underpinnings of the film cannot be denied. The film went through many iterations during its development, but what resulted is a pitch perfect balance of horror and comedy with some truly frightening scenes offset with impeccable comic timing. Rarely does lightning get captured in a bottle so sublimely.

Gremlins (like Poltergeist, produced by Spielberg), on the other hand, is more horror than comedy, but also manages to blend the two on a razor’s edge, as director Joe Dante has proven himself so adept at time and again. It is a darker, meaner film than Ghostbusters, but still fun and delightful. Gremlins also had a larger influence on kindertrauma horror in the ’80s going forward than Ghostbusters for two reasons in particular. First, it led to several more creature features aimed at kids like Critters, Troll, and the return of Tobe Hooper to family horror with Invaders from Mars (all 1986), and second, it is one of the films that most directly led to the PG-13 rating. As we shall soon see, that rating led to the demise of this form of horror in a very real way.


Horror often snuck its way to the PG rating under the guise of the fantasy genre. Some of the most frightening movie-going experiences of my childhood included The NeverEnding Story (1984), the Jim Henson films The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986), and Disney’s The Black Cauldron (1985). Even Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985) and the 1988 George Lucas/Ron Howard effort Willow (the scene in which Bavmorda turns our heroes into pigs, for example) contained a great deal of horror. But of this category, perhaps the film most often cited for its traumatic effects is Disney’s Return to Oz.

In the early 80’s, before home video became ubiquitous, the annual television presentation of the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz was a major event enjoyed by families across the country. News of a sequel to the beloved children’s film being produced by Disney sent waves of excitement through children and parents alike. But, from the attempted electro-shock therapy on Dorothy, to the head switching witch the Nome King and his living stone minions, and of course the Wheelers, what we saw on giant screens in 1985 was nightmare fuel for a generation. Once again, Disney failed to capture box-office success with either this film or their next, rather frightening, animated feature, The Black Cauldron. The studio would not attempt another film that even dabbled in the horror genre until 1993 with Hocus Pocus and The Nightmare Before Christmas, both of which are cut from a very different cloth than the horror efforts of the ’80s.

‘Return to Oz’

In these years, even non-genre films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and The Goonies (1985), both again with Spielberg’s involvement, were filled with intense horror elements including blood drinking, torture, people eaten by animals, and child endangerment including kidnapping and slavery; and few can forget the dinner scene in Temple of Doom. Particularly because of Gremlins and the Indiana Jones movies (Raiders certainly has its share of horror as well), a call for a new rating between PG and R arose. It came to fruition in 1985 with the PG-13 rating, which many still refer to as “the Spielberg rating.” At first, few knew what to make of this mysterious new label. It was perceived that these movies were too intense for kids, but too kid-oriented for adults and older teenagers. Films like Cat’s Eye (1985), the Poltergeist sequels (1986 and 88), The Monster Squad (1987) and Lady in White (1988) all suffered at the box-office due to this hazy limbo. There had always been inconsistency in the ratings system, even before the introduction of PG-13, but cases where some films inexplicably received the PG-13 while others of comparable content received a PG changed the nature of family targeted horror.

By 1990, filmmakers and audiences had more or less figured out how to maneuver the new rating. Though many, perhaps unfairly, blamed Spielberg for it, he was also most effective in showing how it could best be used. His film The Color Purple (1985) was the first PG-13 film to be nominated for Best Picture and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) was a massive success, even with the rating attached. PG-13 was perfectly suited for violent, but only moderately bloody films like superhero movies and science-fiction adventures or romantic comedies with moderate, but not explicit sexual content and the like. Horror films aimed at kids became much lighter in nature, focused more on comedy with supernatural but less frightening or perilous elements. Soon, such classics as The Nightmare Before Christmas and Hocus Pocus would be the standard bearers of a new brand of family horror. However, 1990 did bring one last film more in the old mold with Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches, based on Road Dahl’s novel and once again involving Jim Henson Studios to create its frightening titular characters.

Since then, horror elements have occasionally found their way into big family blockbusters like the Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter franchises, and we occasionally get a film like Corpse Bride (2005) or Coraline (2009), but we’ve never seen a trend quite like the kindertrauma horror of the 1980s. These were the gateway into the genre for a generation that is making some of the most frightening and acclaimed horror films of today. Ultimately, these films taught us to love the genre. To say we were traumatized by them is of course exaggeration. What they did in reality was show us that, even when the world is a very scary place, children have the power to face and overcome their fears and frightening obstacles.

Maybe that’s a lesson we should not be so afraid to teach.

‘The Monster Squad’


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