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An Alternate History of Horror XVI: Behind the Sofa

By Ryan Fleming

This is not a good sofa to hide behind.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Since age restrictions were introduced to media content in an effort to protect impressionable parents from awkward conversations with their open-minded children, the trend for the horror genre has been to view it as the purview of adults only. Too scary or too intense or too violent are amongst the stereotypes that put much horror content into restricted age categories. Despite the knee-jerk reaction, there have been many examples of horror content aimed directly at a younger audience.

There are reasons that some content might be better seen by a mature audience, but its genre is not one of them. Horror content is challenged however, even if it no scarier than a fairground ghost train, no more intense than a rollercoaster, or no more violent than any action movie. These knee-jerk reactions have caused appeals, pushback, and derision. Success at getting the Powers That Be was often dependent on who was doing the asking.

A spooky Thomas Ghost Train.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Tobe Hooper intentionally limited the amount of onscreen gore from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) in the hopes of securing a PG rating. We do not know if the Classification and Rating Administration laughed him out of the room at the suggestion, but we do know he failed. Hooper later found himself embroiled in a similar dispute over Poltergeist (1982), but on that occasion had the backing of Hollywood wunderkind Steven Spielberg, and they were able to appeal the original R rating down to a PG.

Both Hooper and Spielberg had spent their formative years at a time when horror content had become readily available to younger audiences without them having to pay money to an adult or even be accompanied by their parents. It was via the chattering cyclops, television, that many American children were able to experience horror content, and sometimes the first works they encountered would be the same ones encountered by their parents a generation prior.

In October 1957, a package of 52 classic horror films from the 1930s and 1940s produced by Universal Studios were released for television syndication under the marketing title of Shock! The package included such significant titles as Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Wolf Man (1941).

In the days before on-demand streaming and home video, this was the main method by which older films were available to a home audience. The only other way to see films after their initial run was a revival in cinemas. Universal had done this with their classic monsters in the past. It was a revival of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1938 that inspired a new wave of horror films beginning with Son of Frankenstein (1939), after several years of none being made at all. The Shock Theater package aired in many markets across the United States, in most instances introduced by a horror host.

Across five key television markets, the airings boosted viewership anywhere from 40 to over 1000 percent. Many of these new viewers were of younger age, and the unexpected success of the package led to dozens of people and organisations wanting to cash in on the new craze. From February 1958, publisher James Warren and editor Forrest J Ackerman began publishing Famous Monsters of Filmland, which ran until 1983 and influenced dozens of young fans including Stephen King who attested to its influence on his and others careers in his 2000 book On Writing. Aurora Plastics Corporation licensed the Universal monster stable for a line of model kits that proved to be their most popular offerings, starting with the Frankenstein monster in 1961.

The monsters became such a part of pop culture that they even received their own prime time sitcom, in a way, via The Munsters (1964-66). The Munsters aired on CBS where it battled in the ratings with the similarly macabre The Addams Family (1964-66) on ABC. It paired a Frankenstein monster father with a vampire wife, her vampire father, their werewolf son, and fairly normal niece.

The Munsters. An everyday American family.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The classic stable of cinematic monsters from Universal Studios were already a major part of pop culture by the mid-1960s. In the long run, the Shock Theater package probably helped the longevity of the Universal films compared with their contemporaries. Before that decade was out, younger fans of horror would get their first character targeted directly at their age ground.

In a roundabout way, its creation was thanks to parents’ groups protesting violence in US Saturday morning cartoons, which in turn inspired the creation of The Archie Show (1968-1969) from Filmation. Wishing to duplicate its success, CBS executive Fred Silverman contacted Hanna-Barbera to create a similiar programme about a teenage rock group who solved mysteries in between gigs.

The band concept was eventually abandoned, but the mystery solving aspect remained, and the group would solve supernatural mysteries involving ghosts and monsters accompanied by their cowardly Great Dane, originally called Too Much but eventually renamed Scooby-Doo. With the part Archie Comics played in killing off horror comics in the 1950s, it is appropriate that they, along with the radio series I Love a Mystery (1939-44) and television sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-63), inspired the creation of the biggest gateway drug to horror content of the late 20th Century.

The original iteration, Scooby-Doo, Where are You! (1969-70), would only run for two seasons, but it would inspire dozens of spin-offs, revivals, tie-ins, adaptations, and clones from its original success to half a century later. Amongst the shows produced by Hanna-Barbera themselves that duplicated the Scooby-Doo formula of teenage mystery solvers and their mascot were Jossie and the Pussycats (1970-72, mascot:cat), The Funky Phantom (1971-72, mascot: ghost from the American War of Independence), Speed Buggy (1973, mascot: talking dune buggy), Jabberjaw (1976, mascot: a talking great white shark), Goober and the Ghost Chasers (1973, mascot: a ghost dog), and Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels (1977-80, mascot: a caveman superhero).

Not a rock band, just the most popular Great Dane ever.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

None ever reached the heights of popularity enjoyed by Scooby-Doo, which remained popular in the television reruns globally until the end of the century. Not counting the original, there have been a further 15 television series starring the cowardly Great Dane named for Frank Sinatra’s scatting at the end of Strangers in the Night. There has been an equal number of television films and specials, and more than twice as many direct-to-video films, as well as a handful of live-action films.

These veer back and forth in how much they lean into horror or horror-adjacent trappings versus a more comedic adventure for younger audiences. The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo (1985) saw a character voiced by Vincent Price task Scooby and his entourage with tracking down the real ghosts of the title. Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island (1998) revitalised the franchise and put the original cast of characters against very real monsters designed to frighten. The Scooby-Doo Project (1999) aired in segments during a marathon of various programme iterations parodying The Blair Witch Project (1999).

Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated (2010-13) put the same original cast into plots inspired by the works of HP Lovecraft and popular horror films. On the flip side, Scooby’s All-Star Laff-A-Lympics (1977-78) had the character lead one of three teams of various Hanna-Barbera characters in Olympic-style competitions. A Pup Named Scooby-Doo (1988-91) focused on the main characters as young children. Scooby-Doo” WrestleMania Mystery and its sequel saw the gang paired with WWE personalities.

Celebrity guests had been a part of the franchise since The New Scooby-Doo Movies (1972-73), but even these would put its celebrity guests, real or fictional, against seemingly supernatural monstrous entities.

Without the Shock! package of Universal films or parents’ groups and Archie Comics inadvertently inspiring the creation of Scooby-Doo, horror works might be thought of even more as a mature audience exclusive genre. At least in North America, separate to those examples from that continent, there are examples of work designed to fright aimed at audiences of a young age. Despite an edict from its creator that the series feature no “bug-eyed monsters” from before it even entered production.

Doctor Who was created in 1963 to fill a gap in the BBC schedule on Saturday evenings between the sports programme Grandstand and the pop music showcase Juke Box Jury. The ideal programme would appeal to children that were already accustomed to the timeslot, the teenage audience of the following programme, and the adult audience of the preceding one. The notion of characters capable of travelling in time and space led to the idea of an educational series where historical set stories would teach about history and future set ones do the same for science.

With that in mind, series co-creator Sydney Newman wanted to steer away from the clichéd alien monsters seen in 1950s American films. For the second serial, the first with a science fiction rather than historical setting, producer Verity Lambert followed that edict, to its literal extent. The titular monsters of Terry Nation’s The Daleks were designed as mechanical monstrosities by designed Raymond Cusick. Cusick was actually the replacement designer for the serial after its original designer, a young Ridley Scott, had a scheduling conflict. The Daleks as designed by Scott would have still had to meet with Nation’s description and Lambert’s approval, but they could have been very different to the genocidal pepper pots Cusick designed historically.

Nation’s creations enjoyed almost as much popularity as Doctor Who itself, perhaps even more. They appeared without the title character in the stage production The Curse of the Daleks (1965), and with a version of him in the theatrical films Dr Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 AD (1966). Both films were based on an original series that had sent British children scurrying behind the sofa and starred Hammer horror stalwart Peter Cushing as Doctor Who.

How would films work in DalekVision?

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Hammer would loom large over Doctor Who in the 1970s under the tenure of producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes from 1975 to 1977. The horror influence can be seen in serials like Planet of Evil (1975), touching upon Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; Pyramids of Mars (1975) from the Mummy films of both Universal and Hammer; The Brain of Morbius (1976) by the various adaptations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818); and The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977) by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu.

The new Gothic era of the programme inspired complaints from Mary Whitehouse and her National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, and eventually Hinchcliffe was moved from Doctor Who to another, adult targeted, series. His replacement, Graham Williams, was specifically instructed to go in the opposite direction from the Hinchcliffe era to a lighter, more camp approach. Despite this, Williams’ era still saw such Gothic, horror-inspired serials as Horror of Fang Rock (1977) and State of Decay (1980).

Neither Doctor Who nor the BBC had a monopoly on horror television content aimed at younger audiences on UK television during the 1970s. The BBC’s commercial competitor, ITV, would not have a flag bearer with the success of Doctor Who, but they would have plenty of their own offerings to send children scurrying behind the sofa. Shadows (1975-78), from Thames Television, was an anthology series akin to Mystery and Imagination (1966-70) and Dead of Night (1972) but featuring ghost and horror stories aimed at a specifically young audience. It was successful enough to warrant a BAFTA nomination in both 1976 and 1977. The plots would feature elements of the fantasy genre as well as horror, but most would lean towards the latter, featuring ghosts, witches, and even possession. Fantasy would loom large over another ITV horror production, akin to the folk horror subgenre that was popular in the UK during the 1970s: Children of the Stones (1977) from Harlech Television. Its quality was so highly regarded and impact so profound that it was even referred to as “the scariest programme ever made for children” in a 2012 documentary for BBC Radio Four. It even made it across the Atlantic in the early 1980s when it was aired as an episode of the early Nickelodeon series The Third Eye in the 1980s. Harlech would also produce The Clifton House Mystery (1978), which focused on a ghost dating from the 1831 Bristol Riots; whilst Television South would produce The Haunting of Cassie Palmer (1982) and The Witches and the Grinnygog (1983), both of which would also feature on Nickelodeon’s The Third Eye.

The emergence of Nickelodeon and other cable television networks aimed directly at children precipitated a global exchange of programmes aimed at younger audiences, including horror fiction. One example was the Australian series Round the Twist (1990-2001) involving the supernatural adventures of the Twist children at their lighthouse home in fictional Port Neranda. In its home country, it aired on ABC; in the UK both on the BBC and Nickelodeon; Fox in the United States; CBC in Canada; Network 2 in Ireland; and ZDF in Germany.

The Canadian series Are You Afraid of the Dark? (1992-2000) had a similar international distribution. This was aired on both YTV and Family Channel in Canada, and Nickelodeon in the US and UK. It was another anthology programme aimed as a younger audience that was popular enough to be revived in the late 2010s. It also received praise for the diversity of its characters and stories, being nominated for an NAACP Image Award in 1996.

Within the US, Eerie, Indiana (1991-93) was a children’s answer to Twin Peaks (1990-91) that aired on NBC with horror director Joe Dante as creative consultant. It too found renewed success in distribution to other channels, including Fox Kids where it was popular enough to warrant a brief spin-off in 1998, and on the Disney Channel. Before the 1990s ended, Disney would get its own horror themed programme in the shape of So Weird (1999-2001). Like Eerie, Indiana, it was a youthful on a popular adult series, in this case The X-Files (1993-2002). These programmes provided an opportunity to many young actors who would go on to become famous, but also helped to create a new generation of horror fans in the same way Shock Theater had a generation prior.

The 1990s were a high watermark for horror content aimed at younger audiences. On television via the number of shows newly produced or still being in frequent rotation despite being produced decades prior like Scooby-Doo. Even The Simpsons would have their annual Treehouse of Horror Halloween specials consisting of three spooky tales. Television was not the only medium via which younger audiences could enjoy horror works. The high watermark decade also saw the popularity of horror literature aimed at a young adult audience boom. As with every boom period, it did not emerge purely from a vacuum and had its own antecedents.

Horror literature aimed at young adults was not new by the 1990s. Lois Duncan, a pioneer of genre fiction aimed at young adults, published several horror of thriller works in the 1970s. They included I Know What You Did Last Summer (1973), adapted to a film in 1997; Summer of Fear (1976), adapted as a television film by Wes Craven in 1978; and Killing Mr Griffin (1978), also adapted as a television film in 1997. Examples would only continue from other authors in subsequent decades.

In the United States, Alvin Schwartz wrote Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (1981), a collection of horror short stories aimed at children. Subsequent volumes, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones, were published in 1984 and 1991, respectively. The tales drew from pre-existing folklore and urban legends for their content, with much of their popularity being credited to the original illustrations from Stephen Gammell. The three volumes have been cited by the American Library Association as the most challenged series of books in each decade from the 1990s to the 2010s. Gammell’s work in particular came under criticism for being too disturbing for children; so much so that the 2011 re-release of the books featured new artwork from Brett Helquist. The new artwork was designed to be more child-friendly, and naturally met with so much criticism that when they were again re-issued in 2017, the original Gammell artwork had been restored.

Across the Atlantic, Gillian Cross began The Demon Headmaster series with the 1982 book of the same name. A continuing series of novels focused on the titular character and his attempts to take over the world via hypnosis, naturally starting with a UK high school. The books were popular enough to spawn a multi-series adaptation by the BBC from 1996 that spawned a sequel in 2019. Three books were published in the series during the 1990s at the same time as another young adult horror series was taking off in popularity.

Sixty-two books were published in the Goosebumps series between 1992 and 1997. They trod the line of many genres from comedy to fantasy to thriller to mystery but the bread-and-butter of the series was in horror. Characterised by author RL Stine, who also penned the earlier Fear Street books from 1989, as “scary books that are also funny”. Between the original series and its various spin-offs, more than 200 books have been published under the Goosebumps umbrella. At times the books have sold more than 4 million copies each month, for a total of over 400 million copies in dozens of languages by late 2022. They are the second best-selling book series in history, just behind Harry Potter. Just 200 million sales separate the two series, and scholastic are still creating new Goosebumps spin-offs with books still being released in 2023. Stine has cited the Tales from the Crypt comic books of EC Comics as a direct inspiration, likely filling a gap in the market that had been there since Archie and DC had conspired to have their more successful competition’s best-selling titles proscribed. Goosebumps were not without their own controversy, like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, they frequently appeared on the American Library Association’s list of the most frequently challenged books. The popularity of Goosebumps inspired two television adaptations (the first during the same heyday as Are You Afraid of the Dark?), two feature films, a video game, a comic book series, and a ton of merchandise. It also inspired a host of imitators.

Some of the books from the second best-selling book series ever.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Shivers was a direct competitor to Goosebumps; everything from their content to their covers was designed to ape the successful series. It had 36 books published between 1996 and 1998. There was also Bone Chillers, which had 23 books published from 1994 to 1998 and even a short-lived television adaptation in 1996. Are You Afraid of the Dark? Launched a book spin-off series that lasted from 23 releases from 1995 to 1998. Deadtime Stories had 13 books released from 1996 to 1997, but also had a short-lived adaptation on Nickelodeon from 2012-2013. Graveyard School set all of its 28 books within the titular establishment, published from 1994 to 1998. Spinetinglers ran from 1995 to 1998 with 30 books, like many of the series having multiple authors collaborate under a single penname formed of two initials and a surname (MT Coffin).

Spooksville was another series set in a single location, this time a remote US town, for 24 books between 1995 and 1998. Shadowzone was a short series, by the standards of these titles, of 13 books published between 1993 and 1995. Even the Star Wars series, enjoying its late-1990s boom of spin-offs, jumped on the Goosebumps bandwagon with Star Wars: Galaxy of Fear, a series of 12 science fiction horror books aimed at young adults published from 1997 to 1998.

That Goosebumps is the only one of these to survive beyond 1998 tells of the oversaturation of the marketplace created during the era. Or it may suggest the way the marketplace was changing given the first book in the only series more successful than Goosebumps was published in 1997 in the UK and 1998 in the USA.

If one was a young fan of horror literature in the 1990s, one enjoyed an embarrassment of riches. A series like Goosebumps enjoyed such a penetration into mainstream popular culture that more young adults were consuming horror literature aimed directly at them than ever before or since. Perhaps in a world where the Harry Potter series did not emerge, their popularity may have continued into the new century, or maybe the market was already oversaturated to unsustainable levels.

Horror as a genre is one that offers just as rich a body of works for children and young adults as it does for adults. They can be found in animation, live action, film, television, short stories, novels, and a myriad of tie-ins. These have served at times to create legions of new horror fans in a way that works targeted at adults, who may have already made up their mind on what they like, cannot.

Younger people are individuals with ther own tastes and ability to process works of fiction just like adults, yet works aimed at them in the horror genre are more frequently targeted, regardless of content, than other genres. It may be an overreaction from hand-wringing busybodies as to what children may or may not be able to process. It might reflect how little they think of horror works in general, or perhaps that they themselves are unable to handle anything scary or spooky.

The 1990s are often cited as a lost decade of horror given the reduction in films from the prior decade. This is an oversimplification focused on major films, and even then ignore many new innovative titles that were released following a staleness emerging in the 1980s. It also ignores other mediums, such as the television and literary works discussed here, or the newly emerged genre of horror video games that will be the subject of the next article in the series.

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Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP.

There is also SLP’s own Horror anthology, Travellers in an Antique Land (edited Katherine Foy).


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