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Horror In The ’90s: A Decade Of Reflection & Change

The horror genre has existed in cinema for over a century—in other words, horror films have been around about as long as motion pictures themselves. From the earliest horror short films directed by Georges Méliès in the 1890s to the faceted, robust production industry that propels the genre today, horror movies have always served us by enabling us to project our forbidden desires and secret fears while formalistically stretching cultural boundaries. Our Horror Through the Decades series examines definitive qualities of the horror genre in each decade from the 1940s through the 2010s. 

This week, Andrew Grevas reflects on new societal influences that transformed the genre.


The 1990s saw yet another cultural shift happening. The excess of the 1980s was firmly rejected and in its place, a sense of gritty realism took center stage. “Big hair metal” was replaced by grunge, lighthearted and fun rap music replaced by street poets and gangsters. Serial killers and riots captured the attention of the world as advancements in cable television and the internet made the world a smaller place than it ever had been before. As the world became smaller, its many problems became magnified, leading to an overcast feeling sweeping the decade, a hangover from the over the top decade prior. Much like its real-life counterpart, horror in the 1990s would feel this hangover. The genre would spend the decade closing the door on some of its past while continuing to mirror society in some respects and laying the groundwork for the future of the genre.

The Death Of The Franchise

No, horror film franchises didn’t completely die off in the 1990s, but the ones who had entered the cultural zeitgeist prior to this decade did. In 1991, New Line Cinema promised to end the Nightmare on Elm Street series with the sixth installment, Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. The film is widely regarded as one of the worst, if not the worst in the series, mainly due to the complete devaluing of the character of Freddy Kruger. Once feared and horrific, a genuine horror icon, Kruger was now an almost vaudevillian parody of himself, loved by kids instead of terrifying them. For longtime fans of the series, this film was frustrating because much more original script ideas had been pitched. It has long been rumored that Peter Jackson himself had written a script where teens no longer feared Freddy and would take sleeping pills to enter his realm, an idea that bears resemblance in theme to 1994’s Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.

Fortunately for fans of Kruger, Wes Craven came back for one more film in the series, giving Freddy Kruger a proper burial in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Craven, like many genre fans, was not in favor of how the previous decade had turned what was once scary into pop icons and wanted to bring Freddy Kruger back to being a myth, an entity to be feared instead of a commercial spokesman. Craven’s dive into meta storytelling here would foreshadow his next film, Scream, where he would once again push the genre forward, instead of relying on what had made money at the box office before.

Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) waits to fully come into the real world

Another popular franchise, Friday the 13th, was undergoing major changes. After a disappointing box office return from Jason Takes Manhattan,  Paramount parted ways with the franchise, allowing New Line Cinema to acquire it (minus the title Friday the 13th), leading to speculation that we would finally get a showdown between horror icons Jason Voorhees and Freddy Kruger. The studio delayed the meeting of the icons, and in its place, we got Jason Goes To Hell, a film designed to set up the eventual face-off.

Jason Goes To Hell, much like Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, set out to be ambitious after sequels that either devalued the series or did little to advance them. Unlike New Nightmare, Adam Markus’ film was met with resistance, with critics claiming that the film strayed too far from the original premise. In a lot of ways, this situation is symbolic of the changing of the decades. In the ’80s, slashers were a dime a dozen. They were typically profitable, but by the end of the decade, they weren’t pushing things creatively the way they had before the slasher craze started. Jason Goes To Hell, much like the ’90s as a whole, tried to usher in change, not relying on what had worked before and attempting to up the ante creatively. Sometimes this is met favorably, and sometimes it’s not. It is worth noting that Jason Goes To Hell’s reputation has improved over the years, with more people beginning to appreciate the risks the film took.

There were two additional Halloween films in the ’90s, and they could not have been more different. 1995’s Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers was tasked with picking up the pieces after a poorly received sequel. Writer Daniel Farrands was hired and set out to not only connect all of the previous films but also create a narrative that the franchise could build upon. His ideas were ambitious and very much in the vein of Jason Goes To Hell and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare in terms of breaking from formula and trying to do more. Farrands was ultimately handicapped by apprehension on a studio level, with his script being re-written numerous times and his vision being lost in the chaos. The film’s reputation is now largely shaped by its behind the scenes issues rather than what we actually saw onscreen, which is a shame. The film in its original script form had a chance to truly be a creative high point for the series, instead of being known for studio politics and an uneven narrative.

Michael Myers' look/mask in Halloween 6.

The Halloween franchise opted to cash in on nostalgia three years later with Halloween: H20, which ignored everything except the first two films and attempted to give the series a fresh start. Opinions vary on this film. While some loved the return of Jamie Lee Curtis and the feud the franchise was built upon, others resented the fact that the emotional investment they had in the series had been abused, with one film washing away much of what they had known to be true. While several slasher franchise films had attempted to innovate in the ’90s, building upon the cannon in these stories and taking them to new places at the same time, Halloween: H20 asked us to forget chapters in these stories that weren’t as favorable and to give the franchise a do-over. Despite the hard feelings of some, mainstream audiences responded and commercial success won. Enter the age of remakes and reboots. Halloween: H20 was the birth of that movement.

New Spins On Old Stories

The world has always been interested in serial killers. It is a fascination that exploded in the ’90s however, with cable television providing us more coverage of these killers, including court cases we could watch on television and endless documentaries on murderers that filled primitive cable channels on late nights and weekends. The horror genre has always been fascinated with these types as well, obviously. The ’90s gave us two films that rode the line between horror and thriller, The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en, that captured the interest and attention of genre fans and more mainstream fans alike.

The Silence of the Lambs premiered in February of 1991 and went on to become one of the year’s highest-grossing films, as well as cleaning up at the Academy Awards. Much of the film’s appeal centers around Hannibal Lecter, a serial killer who guides a young FBI agent in her quest to capture another serial killer. This dynamic, one killer providing insight into another with someone else in between, is reflective of society’s fascination with documentaries and shows where the average person learns about these infamous killers. We, the at-home viewer, are all Clarice Starling in the sense that we want to know what made these people behave the way they did. We want to see the warning signs, how to identify the killer that lived next door. We want to get close to the danger, close enough to touch it, but still have the sense of security that Agent Starling had during her conversations with Lecter.

hannibal lecter in mask

Se7en has been described by the film’s director as a “meditation on evil.” By the time the film premiered in 1995, people all over the world were glued to their televisions, watching cases like O.J. Simpson and the Menendez Brothers unfold before our eyes, as well as acts of mass murder in cases such as the Oklahoma City Bombing. Se7en again allowed audiences to vicariously pursue evil, much the same as we watched play out before our eyes in reality. The film’s dark tone and gritty nature were reflective of how the world felt at the time. The ’90s were a decade rooted in realism and the world was often disturbing. A film like this—that was this well made—was inevitably going to catch the public’s attention.

American surrealist, David Lynch, was also caught up in society’s fascination with serial killers, resulting in 1997’s Lost Highway. The film is described as “neo-horror,” and Lynch himself has gone on record saying that at the time he was like many others, caught up with the O.J. Simpson trial. The film, although open to interpretation, looks at a man who has committed an act of evil so great (murdering his wife) that his mind can’t wrap itself around it. In a sense, that’s what horror from all decades and eras has done, examine the nature of evil, and what would possess people to commit such heinous acts. This examination felt a little different under the microscope of the advancements in technology and a world that continued to feel smaller, resulting in more introspection.

Ghostface holding a bloody knife preparing to attack.
The iconic Ghostface

Serial killers weren’t the only older type of story to find new life in the ’90s. Despite watching the death of the iconic horror franchises play out before us, a new type of slasher was born. Smarter, more sexy and hip, Scream paid homage to the genre’s past, all while acknowledging it’s flaws. Suspense took greater importance over violence, much like the original Halloween film. Tropes long discussed by fans became part of the plot, making the audience feel a part of, almost as if this was a situation that could possibly happen to them. Scream didn’t feel the need to populate the film with people solely designed to be a body count or for nudity purposes, staples of the past that the genre had outgrown. Scream wasn’t revolutionary in its plot but was in terms of what it did for the genre. Horror fans are smart, appreciate nostalgia, and don’t need over the top gore or a quota of naked teenagers to feel fulfilled. Wes Craven had begun this introspective look at the genre in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and here in his next film, Scream, he and writer Kevin Williamson gave the genre a cold hard look and asked themselves how they could move things forward. For horror fans of a certain age, Scream will always be identified with the genre acknowledging its past and embracing its future.

The Genre Evolves

The decade ended with an eye towards its future. 1999 saw a genuine phenomenon in The Blair Witch Project, which not only brought the “found footage” sub-genre to the forefront, it also re-imagined the way a horror film could be marketed and perceived. While the story itself was simple, the film and the team behind it created a seed of doubt with audiences through an early incarnation of viral marketing. Genre fans weren’t the only people who lined up in droves to see this film. This film was crossed over into the mainstream, capitalizing on the public’s growing interest in reality programming and showing the true power of internet marketing.

Another core component of the genre’s evolution in the latter half of the decade was the rise in popularity in Japanese horror. While horror had always had a global presence, it had previously been more European based, with Italian horror particularly standing out. The ’90s saw a shift happen. While Japanese horror wasn’t anything new, its influence in the world grew in the ’90s. Films such as Audition, Ringu, Ju-On, and more were becoming the things of internet legend for Americans in the 1990s. We would read about them online and then the quest would begin to find these films, in the days before streaming services ruled the world. The mystique that surrounded the Japanese horror movement created this desire for truly scary and disturbing horror, something that many fans felt the genre had moved away from, in favor of a more commercial style. The impact of Japanese horror would be felt much more the following decade, but the seeds of evolution were planted here in the tail end of the ’90s.

Perhaps the most notable part of the genre’s evolution was in tone. The world didn’t feel as safe or as upbeat in the ’90s as it had in the ’80s. Pop culture was no longer projecting a party-like atmosphere throughout life. The decade prior, which was full of bright lights, campy looks and humor and an over the top outlook on everything was gone. In the first half of the ’90s, the horror genre was trying to catch up with the rest of the world. In the latter half of the decade, horror had fully caught up. Cheesy humor was replaced by self-mocking. Horror villains became villains again, instead of Pepsi spokespeople. Society was becoming more reality focused rather than fantasy focused and that became evident in horror as well. What will the ’90s be remembered for in the legacy of horror? A decade of transition? A decade of introspective thinking with a focus on reality? A commentary on the changes in society, which in this particular decade had an uneven and often dark feel? In my opinion, its all of these things and all things considered, that’s not a bad legacy at all.

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