The psychos down the street: Slaying the suburban slasher flicks of my youth

As a kid, I avoided scary films at all costs. But writing a book about '80s teen movies meant I had to face my fear

Published October 16, 2016 12:00AM (EDT)

"Nightmare on Elm Street"  (New Line Cinema)
"Nightmare on Elm Street" (New Line Cinema)

When I was 10 years old, my best friend screened "Creepshow," George Romero and Stephen King’s 1982 satirical horror anthology, as the centerpiece of his sleepover birthday. At 10 minutes before lights down, I faked choking on a slice of pizza and called my parents to drive me home.

Neither my best friend nor other guests called me a chicken or anything, because they’d already worn out that name several sleepovers ago. Everybody knew I didn’t do horror movies, not even funny ones. Not then, not since. The only difference is that, as a kid, I felt like I needed a clumsy ruse — choking, fake nausea, an early hockey game — to make my escape. Now I just Bartleby it away with, “I would prefer not to.”

Horror movies and I are not friends. I get no thrill out of scaring myself on purpose, so I don’t look for movies that frighten me any more than I buy clothes designed to itch. And since I reached this conclusion after a childhood of seeing pieces of about a dozen horror movies but finishing exactly none, that makes me the same kind of narrow mind who says “I like all music except rap and country” and has spent time with neither rap nor country. Except country music fans don’t force you to listen to Brad Paisley on the stereo just so they can call you a wimp for not liking it.

Horror movies were having a huge splattery moment when I was growing up in the 1980s. In bloody parallel to "The Breakfast Club" and the kids at Ridgemont High were the box office gushers of "Halloween," "Friday the 13th" and "Nightmare on Elm Street." In 1981 Variety estimated that the genre accounted for half of the 50 most profitable movies in America that year. “Run away from Jason” replaced “tag” on the playground, with “it” pretending to wear a hockey mask and “tag” you with a machete. Every kid I knew who could scowl dressed up as Freddy Krueger for Halloween. Horror, alongside action blockbusters and teen movies, became the found fortunes of Regan-era Hollywood, genres producing far more money than previously dreamed.

Which was great if you liked that sort of thing and double trouble if you didn’t. If the movies of John Hughes and Amy Heckerling felt like mentorships by older siblings with great record collections, and "Lethal Weapon" felt like going over a steep hill on a roller coaster, horror movies felt like a threat from a bully. Could you watch "Fright Night" or "My Bloody Valentine" and not hide behind the sofa like a little wuss? I could not. Sneering at me for it didn’t feel any different than throwing my book bag in the mud.

Unlike a real bully, though, a horror movie couldn’t pick on you without an accomplice to sit you down in front of it. In that way, horror seems the primary genre that serves as a kind of gang initiation for even the coddled suburban young men I grew up with. Maybe snuff films like the contemporaneous "Faces of Death" (horror meets early reality TV, basically) or some rated-R, three-shots-of-nudity-fare like "Porky’s" — a staple of the last decade that movie ratings had any power, meaning the last decade before a kid could see whatever they wanted online — were also used as proof of your preteen toughness. But I only got teased (at first) for running away from horror screenings (I think “Mamma’s Boy Piss Pants” was the insult that stuck around longest), then wore it out by doing it so often no one cared.

Those same well-kept neighborhoods and quiet backyards of my childhood were also the battlegrounds of the ’80s horror movie, a radical pivot in the genre’s history. The decade’s opening years were bracketed by the kidnappings of Etan Patz (which inspired the Missing Kids on a Milk Carton program) and Adam Walsh (which inspired his father John Walsh to later create the TV show "America’s Most Wanted"). Combined with the conservative turn in crime and punishment law brought on by the Reagan administration, horror appeared to turn from the supernatural curses of the decade before ("The Exorcist," "The Omen") to a homegrown product of our own sins. Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger are psychotic loons but also human beings who come not from afar but from down the street. The possibility that one of them could be lurking just beyond the sliding back door of a sleepover birthday seems too darkly delicious to pass up, a fictional killer standing in for a warning your parents and society gave you about “stranger danger,” real-life evil lurking in the dark.

“There are two kinds of horror stories,” Halloween director John Carpenter, who reached the peak of his powers during this time, said in a 2009 interview.

One is all about where evil is, the location of it…It’s beyond the woods, the other tribe…the external evil, the other.  The other kind..It’s in our own human hearts. …Its harder to say I have seen the enemy…and we are the enemy.

I haven’t watched many horror movies since the involuntary screenings of childhood, and don’t feel like I’ve missed out. I think any teasing I got for not liking them was mean, but fundamentally just kids being kids. Especially since, for the first and only time of my childhood, my cowardly dodge actually worked. It ended up boring the bullies rather than encouraging them. I was just fine with token invitations to "Poltergeist" and "Child’s Play" when everyone knew I’d just lie and then run away in the first half-hour. And while I’ve never reconciled whether you can blame culture for the bad behavior of its audience (see Leni Riefenstahl, assassins carrying volumes of “The Catcher in the Rye,” Juggalos), I don’t think John Carpenter conceived of, directed, co-wrote and composed the score for "Halloween" (now part of the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry alongside "The Wizard of Oz") for it to be used as the cinematic equivalent of a noogie.

Last year when I was finishing writing my most recent book, “Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to 80s Teen Movies,” I arrived at the 10-year-old sleepover one last time: I didn’t see how, given the theme of my book, I could leave out an '80s genre that fed off the flesh of the decade’s teenagers. Freddy, Jason and Michael Myers were as much the story of the '80s teen movie as Jeff Spicoli, Ferris Bueller and Baby Houseman were.

I ended up watching "Friday the 13th" parts 1-4, "Halloween" 1-5 and "Nightmare on Elm Street" 1-6 on successive Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons with all of the lights on and the window shades open. I was in my own living room that I had paid for, and I still frequently got up to refill my coffee mug when I knew the killer would strike. Sometimes I’d half pay attention and read email or watch YouTube clips of pro wrestling. Sometimes I’d turn off the sound. I didn’t care. The movies don’t scare me so much as remind me of it not being OK to be scared. Neither reason made me want to go back.

Even though the horror movie chapter got cut in the last round of edits, many of these movies — along with the horror genre itself — I now respect and wade into as an interested observer instead of a fan. I think "Halloween" is a film of great gothic elegance and all-American banality, as if John Cheever and Angela Carter had decided to team up on a short story. "Nightmare on Elm Street" is as much a slick little jab at misplaced adult priorities as it is a blood bucket of kids getting hacked to pieces. Even clearance-shelf "Friday the 13th" explodes with raw energy, a two-minute punk song next to the chamber piece that is "Halloween" or the protest anthem of "Nightmare." I’m sure you could pay versions of these compliments to "Saw" or "Paranormal Activity," too, but I wouldn’t know.

I come to horror movies now pretty much like I did with sports — more interested in the category than its specifics. It’s old hat now to declare the impact of both, or to slam their easy dismissal by snobs and adherents to the term “sportsball,” praise their natural gift for narrative or even point out that horror movies, more than any other genre, tell us our culture’s priorities by showing what we are afraid of. But while I’m a big believer in confronting fear in the name of self-improvement, I stop at courting it in the name of entertainment or pretending like it never existed. I don’t like being scared on purpose, so I don’t do it. I don’t like what it reminds me of from long ago, even though I came up with a silly but effective solution.

Some fears are not waiting in the dark to be vanquished by us turning on the light. Some are there to remind us of the most honest definition of courage: To be scared is also to know and be firm with your limits, and to stride, rather than run, away.

By Kevin Smokler

Kevin Smokler is the author of "Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to '80s Teen Movies." He's a writer and documentary filmmaker based in San Francisco. He's currently working on a book of conversations with women filmmakers.

MORE FROM Kevin Smokler

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Editor's Picks Film Friday The 13th Halloween Horror John Carpenter Movies Nightmare On Elm Street