Thursday, October 25, 2012

Horror Movies Are Made To Be Snuck Into

Horror movies have changed a lot since I was a kid. Or at least, the way they're marketed and sold to their target audience has. When I was young, the perfect rating for a horror movie was 'R'; kids knew that any horror movie that had a 'PG' (or later, 'PG-13') had skimped out on the real scares. We all knew somewhere that didn't check IDs, or someone older who would buy us a ticket, and if that failed, we could always find some independent video store that would rent without looking too closely at who was renting. (I was ten years old when I watched 'Return of the Living Dead' for the first time. I rewatched it as a grown-up, and commented to a friend that I was surprised at how vividly I remembered the film. He looked at the screen, where a naked punk played by Linnea Quigley was being eaten alive by a horde of ghouls. I looked back at him and said, "Yeeeahh...we, um...we weren't very well supervised.") We were always able to get access to the 'R'-rated movies, and movie studios knew it. They amped up the scares as hard as they could, even releasing some movies unrated when the MPAA squawked. 'Evil Dead 2' and 'Dawn of the Dead', two of the most iconic horror movies ever, were unrated.

But all that changed because, in the immortal words of Helen Lovejoy, "Won't someone please think of the children?!" Independent movie theaters and video stores were driven out of business by the big chains, who proved to be more susceptible to pressure from parents' groups. Those groups forced theaters and video stores (notably Blockbuster, who began their upswing slowly but inexorably in the late 80s and early 90s) to start enforcing the 17-and-up part of the 'R' rating...which drove profitability for 'R' movies way down. The producers responded by slowly, but inexorably weakening their product to qualify for the teen-friendly 'PG-13'...but therein lies a little twist.

Because this is also the point at which first home laserdiscs, then DVDs really started to take off. The era, if you will, of the 'Director's Cut'. More specifically for horror movies, the 'Unrated Director's Cut'. Because you can make it hard on kids to go into a theater, or to rent a horror flick for the night...but once you're selling these things, then anyone can get them. Even when Wal-Mart started enforcing the ratings and refusing to sell unrated films to kids under 17, it was about as meaningful a restriction as putting a chain-link fence up to stop a river. The theatrical product became nothing more than a loss leader, a suggestion of the truly scary stuff that was to come on DVD.

And, to some extent, that's as it should be. Because when I was a thirteen-year-old, I was the perfect audience for a horror movie ostensibly aimed at seventeen-year-olds. That age between thirteen and seventeen is an age where you're starting to edge out into the deeper waters of adulthood, and you don't always get to choose where and when you start dealing with things that are intended for children. Your body is changing (sort of like in 'The Fly'), you're starting to think about sex and it's a little bit scary (like in 'Shivers'), and you're having to deal with a whole new world that you're not ready for.

Just about every really good horror movie out there is, in some allegorical way, about this mystical, alchemical transformation from childhood to adulthood...and on an emotional level, it makes sense that you should have to access it through a means forbidden to you by adults. Because adults forbid these things to children because they're only intended for grown-ups. They only let the "safe" things be seen by children, and part of growing up is learning that sometimes the unsafe things fall into your lap whether you want them to or not. The forbidden knowledge is the knowledge you need, usually before adults are willing to accept you need it. If you don't have to sneak into the movie, it's not telling you about the things you really need to know.

Does this mean I'm going to let my daughter watch and/or read whatever she wants to? No. (Especially not now--she's not even seven yet.) But I'm aware that part of the ritual of growing up is me telling her, "You don't want to watch that movie. It's too scary for kids..." And the other part of the ritual is that she'll watch it when I'm not around. Because as sad as it makes me, she's going to stop being a kid before I'm ready for her to stop being a kid.


Chris said...

"she's going to stop being a kid before I'm ready for her to stop being a kid"

I'm right at the beginning of that. My daughter turns 12 in a couple of weeks, and the past year or so has seen her shed one piece of her childhood after another. Cherish the next few years, because nothing drives a spike through your heart like the words "Dad, that's stupid" when spoken about something she used to LOVE (especially something shared with you).

And it's funny you mention horror movies, because she's been getting more and more into them the further she gets from the stuff that is now "stupid".

Matthew Johnson said...

The other problem about R-rated horror movies is that if you sneak into them, the ticket is recorded as a sale for another movie -- so there's little financial incentive.

Michael Penkas said...

Part of the allure of the horror movie is the promise of taboo. Children and adults are going to see these films in the hope of witnessing something that is outside their comfort zone. And it seems as if the limits of an R rating are moving further out every year. Look at Friday the 13th Part 2 (that squeaked in with an R rating in 1981), then compare it to any of the Saw or Hostel films. Filmmakers have had to amp up the content to reach increasingly jaded viewers; but young viewers haven't had time to get jaded before getting thrown into the deep end of horror.

When I was a kid, I watched all the old Universal horror films on Saturday afternoon Creature Features. I watched the slasher and zombie films in my teens and it wasn't until I was in my twenties that the "torture porn" films started getting made. I'm not sure what I would have even made of a film like Saw if I'd first seen it at the age of eight.

John Seavey said...

@Matthew Johnson: Not always. Back in the 70s and 80s, theaters didn't really face much pressure to check IDs; I got into a lot of R-rated movies before I was seventeen simply because theater owners wanted those profits and would look the other way at ticket-takers who sold indiscriminately. (Not to mention, even on those occasions where the ticket taker would check IDs, someone's older brother would buy five or six tickets and pass them out. It was the kind of thing you couldn't get away with now, but back in the 80s, people really only paid lip service to the notion of "17 and up".)

Anonymous said...

"But I'm aware that part of the ritual of growing up is me telling her, 'You don't want to watch that movie. It's too scary for kids...' And the other part of the ritual is that she'll watch it when I'm not around. Because as sad as it makes me, she's going to stop being a kid before I'm ready for her to stop being a kid."

Then let me explain to you, using this quote, the best way to understand the Millennials and the as-yet-unlabelled generation which is following them:

Thanks to both Helicopter Parents and Bulldozer Parents, many people now reach their early 20s without ever having had that opportunity to move out of childhood without their parents permission.

Their parents don't really care what the kid watches on television or on the computer, so there's none of the healthy, needed rebellion anymore.

But the parents make their children carry their cell phones with them everywhere, always on and always set for tracking by the parents, and tell them "if I ever telephone you on your cell phone anywhere any time, even in the middle of a tense moment in a movie or while a police officer is talking to you, and you do not immediately answer your phone, you are grounded for a month! Nothing, not even respect for your fellow filmgoers or for the police, gives you the excuse not to be instantly available whenever I feel like checking on you!"

I have met more than a few students whose parents would only pay for college if they filled out legal paperwork giving the parent permission to see their college papers and speak to their college professors without letting their children know when it happened. (One reason why America's decline into a surveillance state doesn't bother them -- they have never known privacy, so they have no idea why they should value it.)

Your attitude about your daughter is a wise attitude, a healthy attitude, an attitude which should help nurture your daughter into being a worthwhile human being -- but it is also an attitude that is inordinately rare among parents in the United States in their day and age.

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