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Horror Through the Decades: 1980s – Present

October 21st, 2016 by Jordan Plaut

More decades, more horror!

We’re continuing the horror with Part 2 of our deep dive into the genre of terrifying content. Read on for some iconic highlights from the 1980’s to the 2000s. To read Part 1 click here. 

The 1980s marked a rapid advance in technological improvements within the horror genre. The out-of-this-world monsters, and bloody or gory mayhem they caused, that had been imagined in decades prior could finally be created to look more real than ever before. These films were targeted at teens and young adults, who used the graphic violence and scares as a test of maturity – you could be cool by being able to handle the shock and awe that came to define ‘80s horror.

Heathers (1988)

Heathers is the story of a popular high school clique with a new member, Veronica (Winona Ryder), who disapproves of the group’s cruel behavior. When she and social outsider J.D. (Christian Slater) become an item, they decide to confront the clique’s leader and accidentally kill her in the process. Though they make it appear to be a suicide, Veronica quickly realizes that J.D. is targeting students he doesn’t like – and inadvertently making suicide the latest fad.

The film became a cult favorite after a lack of initial commercial success, and it’s easy to see why. The young cast is fantastic and famous, the dialogue is snappy and scathing, and the subject matter is unapologetically dark. But, most of all, the film is a brilliant critique of cultural norms that still hold true such as slavery to the latest trends, the perceived normalcy of ignoring the facts, and sacrificing principles and emotional sanity to simply fit in.


Child’s Play (1988)

The first of another successful horror franchise, Child’s Play introduced the world to evil doll Chucky. In this entry, Charles Lee Ray is just a run-of-the-mill feckless human murderer. As Chucky, however, he’s sassy, devious, and fearless (not to mention deceptively bright-eyed and freckled) – and no longer bound by the laws of humanity.

At its core, Child’s Play is a fairly straightforward slasher film with a quirky twist. Like other serial killer titles, there’s still a panicked hunt for a crazed murderer who must be stopped before he takes out our main characters. But the conceit of a doll serial killer allowed the film and its sequels to play with the genre and let audiences in on the fun. In a sense, Chucky needed to be relatively unique as a character to carve out his own niche in the crowded horror landscape of the period.



Despite the improvements in technology, all that ‘80s grotesqueness eventually had a desensitizing and even comic effect. Sequels and reused plots became the norm, and visual thrills lost their flavor. That led horror filmmakers in the ‘90s to go back to the core of what scares people, and what could be scarier than the real-life horror of people hurting and manipulating their fellow man? 

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Anthony Hopkins as jailed psychopath Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Jodie Foster as green FBI agent Clarice Starling, and Ted Levine as the astonishing Buffalo Bill – what’s not to love? Disturbingly eerie yet somehow stylish, The Silence of the Lambs earned two Oscars on the backs of Hopkins and Foster, the film’s delectably unusual lead pairing.

A psychological thriller as much as a horror title, Silence brought a unique story to life in an unpredictable and terrifying manner. The film is as good a representation as any of the period’s need for intelligent, realistic horror. The character of Dr. Lecter is smart, insightful, knowing, and equally if not more frightening than the killer Agent Starling is trying to find. Locked up or not, he will get under your skin with a simple, “Thank you, Clarice.”


The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The premise was simple enough. Three amateur filmmakers head to a small town to document a serial killer legend native to the area before going into the forest nearby to look for clues that can explain the rumors. What the audience sees is recovered recordings from their experience, which utilizes sound and the power of suggestion to entertain and terrify. And the whole thing only cost $60,000 to produce!

The majority of moviegoers who saw this film in theaters knew it wasn’t a documentary, but the fact that you couldn’t tell very easily speaks volumes about its conception and ultimate place in the horror genre. Many “found footage” films have been made since, but all owe their creation to the groundbreaking and wildly successful work of this horror masterpiece that brought the genre into the new millennium.



It was not long before the standards of ‘90s began to hit a bit close to reality. Events like O.J. Simpson’s public trial brought fears usually reserved for entertainment to the forefront of everyday life, and the genre had been reflecting the paranoias of true crime in society. As we came to the turn of the 21st century, horror began to shift back to the surreal and supernatural while maintaining undercurrents of social commentary that the public continued to seek out.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)


Though inspired by Joss Whedon’s 1992 film, Buffy is the TV exception on this list because it straddles the horror line between the ‘90s and ‘00s. The series follows high schooler Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), the latest in a line of women chosen to be Slayers of all things dark and vampiric, and her group of friends and allies known as the Scooby Gang.

The series came to depict high school as a horror movie of sorts, in which the supernatural elements acted as metaphors for the trials and tribulations of adolescence. In essence, Buffy was the perfect balm for the next generation looking to horror as allegory, capturing a widespread audience yearning for thrills and insights into the teenage psyche.


American Psycho (2000)

Adapted from a 1991 novel, American Psycho relies heavily on the genius acting of its star, Christian Bale whose character Patrick Bateman is the quintessence of a late-’80s yuppie. Bateman is a New York investment banking executive who happens to have a psychopathic alter ego bubbling just beneath the surface, yearning to be let loose on the world. He just might get his wish (along with a reservation at the highly exclusive “Dorsia”).

Though Bateman’s world is clearly recognizable, it gradually appears to be less grounded in reality because we’re seeing it from his perspective. Even as he loses his grip, in sometimes comic ways, the world around him still chugs along with people buying into the elitist culture. Audiences were therefore forced to see the absurdity in what had become an accepted norm.

Cloverfield (2008)

A group of New Yorkers are enjoying a going-away party when a massive creature descends on the city. Using a handheld camera, the friends record their fight for survival that the audience is seeing as “found footage” from the U.S. Defense Department.

Cloverfield basically picks up where Blair Witch left off and then blows it all up to “city-wide destruction” proportions. Thanks, J.J. Abrams!


Read about the horror genre from the 1950s-1970s here.