Last year during the month of October, we took a break from covering automation to celebrate the spooky season. In our “Decade of Horror” series we ended up covering horror films in the 1980s and what was being represented. This year picks back up the “Decade of Horror” series with the 1990s.
The 1980s marked a decade of excess in horror with the liberal use of gore, prosthetic body horror, and enough fake blood to fill a reservoir. The 1990s marked a sort of downturn away from the fantasy visual frenzy prominent in the 80s. The visual horror of watching someone getting cut in half or Cronenberging into a deformed fly monster, no longer hit the American audience the same way it once had. Instead, we saw the genre shift towards a more cerebral, self-aware, and nuanced horror. A lot of horror films that came out around this time steered themselves in a more grounded direction.
Culture of the 90s
Like during the 70s and 80s, horror in the 90s served as a reflection of the culture surrounding it. By enlarge the 90s has been remembered as a generally peaceful time. The US finally had time to cool down from the Cold War and the Gulf War by comparison was relatively short. Unlike the 80s that started off with two recessions, the 90s saw not only continual economic stability but steady growth as well. Job creation grew while inflation lowered. By the end of the decade the nation would see a surplus in the national budget. However, that’s not to say that the 90s didn’t have its own issues of fear of and uncertainty that permated throughout our culture. In essence, while the war abroad subsided back home a new culture war had just begun.
By the 1990s violence began to creep more into the mainstream culture. Violent video games became more prominent. Rap music found its way into the suburban homes of American youths. Finally, the nation would be gripped by the atrocities of homegrown terrorism.
Video game consoles which were introduced in the 70s had greatly advanced in the 90s. No longer were the characters illustrated in crude 8-bit pixels, but now could be seen in much better detail. As a result viscerally violent videogames found their way onto shelves and into American households. Mortal Kombat, Duke Nukem 3D, and Doom were just a few titles quickly targeted by parent groups. They denounced the abundant violence portrayed in thes games and even pushed for national restrictions on them.
While Hip Hop came about in the 80’s, the genre throughout that time had a more upbeat and party-centric focus. By the 90’s however, the genre shifted towards a more socially conscious tone. Not only did artists cover topics about poverty and racial discrimination, but also drugs and gangs as these were part of the reality that many of them grew up in. As the prominence of rap grew so did the backlash against it. The music made its way out of the inner city to the youth in the suburbs and rural parts of America. Many parents not fully aware of the genre or how to contextualize the lyrics, became outraged accusing the genre of promoting violence.
Terror at Home
During the 90s the US experienced a period of peace that wasn’t experienced before (nor would be again) on the global stage. However, the homefront proved a very different story. Both the siege on Waco, TX and the Oklahoma City bombing revealed our government’s vulnerabilities to the public sewing doubt. The brutal beating of Rodney King had people across America, questioning the ethics of police regarding how they deal with marginalized people. 1999’s Columbine shooting revealed that anywhere in America could be a target.
Fear and Faith
During the 90s the US saw economic stability that was vastly different than what it experienced in the 80s. Interests rates were low, job creation was on the rise, and the economy was going up in general. Despite all this however, the very real fear of what could happen once we moved into the “New Millenium”. This also coincided with religious conservatives and their fear of an ever-changing society.
The Y2K Bug
The Y2K bug was a theory that all of the US’s automated digital systems were set to only recognize a two-digit year and once 99 was over it would simply break the system. The general fear was that this would have an impact on the nation’s entire infrastructure. Everything from banking, energy infrastructure, to making simple airline reservations would be shut down the moment 12 AM Jan 1st 2000 happened. This caused a lot of panic and people to behave eratically.
The Satanic Panic
Of course it wouldn’t be a decade of horror if the Satanic Panic didn’t come up at some point. As the secular world was terrified of a societal collapse, the religious sector braced themselves for the end times. There were predicitons of 2000 marking Armageddon and the return of Christ to take the chosen to Heaven. Cultural shifts happening the in the US further solidified these viewpoints throughout the decade. The progression of things like rock music and New Age religions was enough to set a panic of apocalyptic proportions.
The Serial Killer Reborn
The new killers on the block weren’t just these ominous killing machines that murdered with no recourse or motivation. These horror villains were more nuanced and complicated. They could be both charming and monstrous. Additionally, these killers were not tied to the supernatural. Rather they stay somewhat grounded in reality. During this era, two iconic characters embodying this new age of killers make their debut.
The film, Silence of the Lambs (1991), showed the world a very different kind of psychopath. While the antagonist, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, is a lunatic and psychopath, he exists as an antithesis to your typical frenzied killer. Lecter displays a mix of charm and intelligence that allows him to get close to his victims before revealing his cold-hearted brutality. Yes, he’s a cannibal, but he’s also a cannibal with a lot of complexity and depth.
The iconic killer of the Scream(1996) franchise, Ghostface may seem like the archetypal supernatural slasher showcased in the 80s, however, they exist to deconstruct the genre. Scream as a film makes much satire of its own genre and is quick to point out the flaws of past horror movies. What makes Ghostface stand out from the likes of Freddy, Jason, and Chucky, is that Ghostface isn’t one person. Rather they are a character that inspires people to take on the mantle. While they’re seemingly mystical at a glance, the usual big reveal of Ghostface is that they generally are a person or persons donning the mask and creating elaborate schemes that involve a lot of murder.
Lastly, as opposed to the “spirit of a psycho”, the reasons people take on the mantle of Ghostface have always been at the center very human. Pending on who the person is the motivations tend to be very human ones. Greed, Fame, and Jealousy are just a few examples of motivating factors driving the killers to do what they do.
The Supernatural in the 90s
While we mentioned the shift away from the supernatural element in serial killers, horror does not exist without supernatural elements. However, unlike the supernatural films of the 80’s the 90’s took to the time to really challenge supernatural conventions. Most of the horror films in the 80s portrayed the supernatural at face value. In contrast, a lot of 90’s supernatural horror films created a sense of uncertainty in belief. They made the audience question the validity of what the protagonists experienced. Furthermore, this decade showcases directors trying to blur the lines between reality and the supernatural.
Year of the Witch
When bringing up the supernatural, it would be an injustice to not include 1999 The Blair Witch Project. While the “found footage” genre is no stranger to horror (see Cannibal Holocaust), The Blair Witch Project is often credited with its popularity throughout the 2000s. The film follows a group of documentary filmmakers as they travel deep into the woods of Maryland looking to explore the myth of the Blair Witch. The group documents their journey into the woods and the sinister events that unfold as they search for the truth.
Film style aside, The Blair Witch Project, is defined by the 90s in that the perspective is presented to us through a secular PoV. The filmmakers in the movie are trying to seek the truth of what happened and if the Blair Witch is in fact true or just a myth.
“Asta La Vista, Baby!”
You may not associate “The Governator” with horror films but in 1999, Arnie caught the attention of moviegoers with his performance in End of Days. The movie follows Jericho (Schwarzenegger), a hard-nosed ex-detective coping with the loss of his family in the most New York ex-cop way possible….alcohol. Circumstance has him crossing paths with Christine York (Robin Tunney), a young woman who is being very much hunted by both Satanists and the Vatican for the heretical crime of being the alleged mother of the Anti-Christ.
While the movie itself bombed critically, it played off of a very real fear in the American psyche. In the context of faith like with Omen and the Exorcists previously covered, the film played on what remained of the Satanic Panic. It kept with the eternal struggle of God vs Satan, good vs. evil. For Christian fundamentalists across the world, 1999 signified the final year before Satan returned and Armageddon would happen.
On a secular level, 1999 brought up the fear of the unknown heading into the new millennium. The fear of the Y2K bug and economic collapse had many bunkering down in their homes and pulling money from the banks. While not otherworldly, the fear of the end of times was just as widely felt.
In the context of media, the 1990s saw a multitude of audience shifts. While 80s pop was an explosion of partying and experimentation of electronic sounds mixed with R&B, the 90s shifted towards more commercial sounds covering serious and personal topics. The 90s saw the rise (and fall) of grunge music. Rap/Hip Hop found its way into the ears of teens living in suburbia. MTV brought the unscripted reality TV format to the mainstream. The genre of horror was no different.
In many ways, the shift in horror reflected a shift in the American psyche. In contrast to the economic and political turbulence of the 80s. The 90s gave Americans a moment of peace. However, buried under that peace were feelings of doubt, uncertainty, and of course, fear.
Updated on October 31, 2023 by Ken Cheng