I just listened to The 80its November 6 episode on 80s Horror movies (“Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid”). Although their interview with parapsychologist Brandon Massullo was very interesting, as a huge movie fan, I found myself thinking about the first half of the episode, when Will and Ray offer a year-by-year countdown of their picks for best movies of the decade.
A few times during their picks, Will says he’s not sure if Ray will count a specific movie as horror. For a decade that gave us movies as diverse as Gremlins, Nightmare on Elm Street, Evil Dead, Friday the 13th, The Shining, and Killer Klowns from Outer Space, what exactly defines a horror movie is a good question, and one without an easy answer.
I’m almost tempted to call the 1980s the rise of Stephen King, since he has more than two dozen writing credits during the decade. On the other hand, I’m not sure that there’s been a decade since where he hasn’t. Sure, he was popular in the 80s, but he’s been a constant in horror since the last 1970s, so you almost have to factor him out.
That still leaves a lot of variety, but there’s a definite trend toward what screenwriting guru Blake Snyder calls the “Monster in the House” (MitH) genre. Although two of the best examples (Halloween and Alien) are from the late 1970s, and the “rules” are riffed on afterward in both Screamand Cabin in the Woods, the 1980s really helped codify the genre. Without dozens of movies in the 1980s that fit the pattern, after all, the rules in Scream would be meaningless.
The Monster in the House movie has two very obvious key elements: a monster and a house. Multiple times during the podcast, Ray references the importance of the monster, when he talks about how it’s not just enough for the antagonist to kill people. They have to do it with in a specific, even iconic way. The vibe of the monster is integral. The house doesn’t need to literally be a house, but is some sort of contained environment. In many 1980s movies, it’s a neighborhood or town, or even just a collection of targets. If the Monster is defined by how he hunts, the House defines WHO the monster hunts.
Blake Snyder notes that there’s a third key element for a MitH movie, and I think that’s the one that often spells the difference between greatness and something best left on a battered VHS tape: a sin must be committed. It may be as simple as ignorance, but someone (often the protagonist or someone close to them) commits some sort of offense that “summons” the monster or otherwise opens the protagonist and their circle up to attack. In a teen movie, the sin is often lust/sex (which makes sense, because the teens are living their lives, and that flies in the face of the Monster, who can’t live a normal life), but another popular one is greed, whether is a corporation sending a salvage crew out to look for valuables or a Lovecraftian protagonist exploring “secrets man was not meant to know.”
A good horror movie will also set up the rules fairly early, and breaking those rules may be sin enough. If Billy didn’t get Gizmo wet or feed the other gremlins after midnight, after all, there wouldn’t be a movie.
I could go on for pages and pages, and apply the formula to specific movies, or delve into additional details (like how many movies have a “half-man” who has survived some sort of encounter with the Monster and remains as a cautionary tale), but I figure I’ll end with something a little more personal: the 1980s movie that scared me the most. I was twelve years old when I saw Poltergeist and went into such an intense state of panic that I had to step out of the theater. I had seen Jaws in the theater when I was five, and dozens of horror movies since, but what got to me with this one was how personal it was. As a kid, I spent a ton of time sitting in front of the TV, and Hooper and Spielberg turned that safe haven into a singular source of horror better than anyone before or since. Well played, gentlemen.
Now, if you’re up for the challenge, head back to Will and Ray’s 80s Horror episode, listen to their list of movie picks, and think about how many fit the MitH model.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
George has been writing for decades, but for the past 15 years or so has focused on screenwriting, consuming screenwriting books like candy, taking numerous classes, studying with screenwriting experts like Chris Soth, and writing a bunch of his own stuff. For a few years, he was head writer for a Firefly "virtual series" that produced 29 episode-length scripts, easily lapping the original series (which only lasted 15!). • George has seen thousands of movies in his life (many of them during the 1980s). At one point, Netflix told him there were no movies left to rate. • As for TV... before it was called "binge-watching," some of his friends called it "pulling a George."