A Decade of Horror: The 1980s

Death to Disco

In our last article, we explored the 1970s and highlighted how films of that era pushed the envelope of horror.  By the end of the 70s, as the Vietnam War came to an end, another war sprung up at home.  This war found its way into the living rooms of Americans across the country. By the 1980s it would significantly affect the film industry as a whole.  As a result, the horror industry would also feel the effects of this as well.

The 1980s was a unique time marked by being a cultural starting point for a lot of things that remain culturally relevant today.  The 80s introduced us to Hip-Hop, portable music devices, and mobile phones.  This decade birthed some of the most iconic movies that remain in our collective psyche today.  This especially is true when regarding horror.  Freddy, Jason, and Leatherface are a few examples of timeless horror characters that emerged from this period.

The Betamax

Released by Sony in 1975, the Betamax was the first commercially available cassette tape. It allowed families to be able to record their favorite programs off their televisions for a later time. By plugging their television into a special device known as a VCR, a family could insert the cassette into the VCR’s slot and then hit record on whatever program they wanted.  Not only that but the format of Beta as well as the VCR allowed for features like “fast forwarding” if there were parts that someone wanted to skip. As well as “rewind” in the event, a scene needed rewatching.  The Betamax system exploded all over the market and was a big hit among consumers.  However, this would be a very short-lived success.

Enter the 80’s

A comparison of the Betamax to the VHS.

The Format Wars

Two years after the release of Betamax, JVC released its own cassette player with its own format known as VHS and the video format wars began!  Despite the Betamax’s higher quality resolution (with some versions of it on par with DVD quality).  Sony completely failed to read what consumers wanted.  While the Betamax was indeed the superior format, it was its $2200 price tag (compared to the VHS’s $1000) that really did it in. Not only that, but a Betamax cassette was able to hold up to one hour of recording. This contrasted with the VHS which could hold up to 4 hours.  The average consumer valued getting more for less. Additionally, outside of professional industries, nobody really cared about resolution. By 1986, the format wars had officially ended with VHS being victorious.

Video Kills the Industry

The advent of home video technology and the format wars exploded an entire industry. By the 80s the “direct to video” market had completely taken off.  The VCR gave smaller studios access to millions of homes across the country. They no longer had to market their ideas to big-wig Hollywood execs in order to catch their break. .  Traditionally, movie studios really considered the sensibilities of the audience.  While there were horror films that played on the big screen, getting an entire movie to the silver screen was quite an undertaking. It was an expensive process that forced executives to really think about the sensitivities of a broader audience.  During the 1970s a lot of the more extreme films were played in private theaters often referred to as “grindhouses”.  However, with the VCR, studios could simply film what they want, produce a few thousand copies, and release them. Under this business model, horror absolutely thrived. 

The Rise of Horror Film Studios

The lessening of constraints brought on by the need for a wide enough audience created the opportunity for niche studios to start up.  While larger companies like Dimension and Warner Bros were leaning into horror movies. Studios like Full Moon and Troma dedicated themselves to producing movies designed to shock and horrify the audience.  These films leaned heavily into blending terrifying visuals with unnerving sound effects, and absurd plots.

Notable Films of the Era

Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

Italian director, Rugero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust has gone down in history as one of the most controversial films in the horror genre.  No horror list would be complete without it.  In the movie, an anthropologist goes into the rainforest to rescue a disappeared film crew.  However, what he recovers is the final footage they filmed and its contents are absolutely gruesome.
Cannibal Holocaust is probably one of the earliest examples of the “found footage” format of filmography that would go on to inspire other horror films like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. This style was so new and unknown at the time that after the film was released, Deodato was arrested and charged with murder.  It wasn’t until after he was able to prove that the entire cast was indeed alive that they were dropped.

The biggest and most problematic controversy of the film was the lengths that the director went through to push the boundaries of horror.  While no cast member was harmed during filming. It portrayed multiple scenes of animal cruelty that were later discovered to be absolutely real.  This garnered not only major criticism from animal rights groups but also the disdain of governments as well.  This unethical choice ultimately caused the film to be banned from 50 countries including the United States. 

Shock value aside, Cannibal Holocaust, has been lauded as a critique of colonialism and the western world encroaching on indigenous lands.  It flipped the script on western ideas of savagery, raising questions about the perception of western societies regarding our own civility.

Videodrome (1983)

David Cronenberg’s, Videodrome, is considered a masterpiece in not just horror but cinemas as well. The film’s message of warning against mass media and being too obsessed with media technology is one that is still relevant today.  It uses extreme portrayals of violence and horrific imagery to convey the question: “What is acceptable in society in regard to our entertainment and human suffering?”  

The Satanic Panic

During the 1980s, a moral panic that would become known as the Satanic Panic, spread across the US causing senseless alarm and confusion.  Mass misconception that Satanic cults performed ritual sacrifices on children, perforated the American psyche through media outlets of all kinds.  The news outlets were covering hysterical allegations of child abuse and sacrifices throughout the nation. The book, Michelle Remembers, hits shelves exacerbating the already growing wildfire of hysteria gripping the country.  Against the backdrop of all this, horror films continued to purvey supernatural and satanic themes that would continue to shock and scare audiences nationwide.  While not directly contributing to the spread of misinformation, this genre did capitalize off this fear and in the same step sewed more lingering fears throughout society.

Poltergeist (1982)

The supernatural horror, Poltergeist, features an evil spirit or entity latching onto a child to haunt an entire family.  Along with the idea of otherworldly beings coming to abduct children, Poltergeist also played into another trope that was often got included in many horror movies of the era.  The trope of the “mystic Native American” or “cursed Native American” was often used by scriptwriters to explain an evil supernatural force.  This would be problematic by today’s standards, but for the time it was a plot device that played into the fears of Christians in the US.  The idea is that there’s another culture that’s the catalyst for supernatural happenings.

Pumpkinhead (1988)

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While at its surface, Pumpkinhead, is your run-of-the-mill monster movie. It not only plays into the fear of “our children are in danger” and of the supernatural that was circulating in the US. It also reconnects with another fear that horror movies often reflect. This fear comes from the unfamiliarity with rural America. Far off on the fringes of society, these locations often are depicted with strong ties to spiritualism and folklore. The titular character is a creature summoned by magic from deep within Appalachia, which is a location that does have a rich history of local mythology. Like this film which portrays the use of revenge, rural magic in films often is depicted to be a malevolent force that the protagonists must overcome.

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