I was born in 1987. My parents then were a little bit younger than I am now. That’s a humbling thing for me to think about. While I’m still sometimes accidentally using dish detergent as shampoo, my parents were in charge of making sure another tiny, reckless human being didn’t end up dead. I once tripped and crash landed chin-first onto a stale Dorito, a rare junk-food related injury that actually required four stitches (that’s really, impossibly true). My parents weren’t alone in dealing with the stresses of their own newfound adulthood and the responsibilities that came along with it. In 1987, the Baby Boomer generation was either moving into the Married, with Children phase of their lives; or they were getting steadily skipping past that part, settling uncomfortably into the throes of a mid-life crisis.
To be fair, there was more than marriage and mortgage payments that contributed to Americans’ anxiety thirty years ago. We were at the tail end of The Cold War, a 50-year conflict that created the portrait of the Spy Next Door, cultivating a deep-seated paranoia in the American psyche that served as a destructive weapon in and of itself. That distrust crept closer and closer to home, particularly through the AIDS epidemic which was treated with indifference before being portrayed as a misunderstood, fatal menace that can strike like a thief in the night. Sex, in a drastic 180-degree turn from the free-love ideals of the decade prior, was scary. Politically, America was experiencing an ecstatic conservative hey-day, with Ronald Reagan acting as our national moral compass that pointed further and further and right. This is the part where I should point out that if you don’t understand the intersection of politics, pop-culture, and horror, it’s important to note that President Reagan was almost murdered by a man who was trying to impress Jodie Foster. I repeat. To impress Jodie Foster.
So it should come as no surprise that the Boomers—the largest generation in American history—were creating and consuming art that spoke to their collective fears. While horror movies of the 1970s and 80s focused primarily on openly and generically scary themes and characters, think The Exorcist (Demons!), Jaws (Sharks!), Halloween (Masked Man with a knife!), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Masked Man with a Chainsaw!), the late 80’s marked a major uptick in films that reflected the Baby Boomer’s new reality—a terrifying, different kind of evil, hidden in plain sight: middle-aged anxiety. In the suburban horror films of this era, there were no masks, no chainsaws, no nightmares on Elm Street. No one needed a bigger boat. These were movies where the drama came more organically, where Hollywood personified our fears about society, parenting, relationships, and morality with Single White Females.
What do we get if we take a mid-life crisis, familial upheaval, espionage paranoia, repressed sexual fears, and Reagan-era conservatism and throw all of those things in a blender? We get Michael Douglas. We get Fatal Attraction.
The doomed affair of Michael Douglas and Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction is a sensible starting point for this era of “secret suburban horror”, insomuch as a movie that involves rabbit homicide and the loudest teapot in the history of cinema can be considered sensible. The “evil” in Fatal Attraction was neither hidden nor ever going to be ignored, Dan. There was no surprise, no secret to be uncovered there. Let me put it like this. If you are married and go to a bar and claim that you are in fact not married and that lie leads you into having a one night stand with an individual you just recently met and that individual feels totally comfortable having said one night stand occur inside of a MANUALLY OPERATED elevator cart and shortly afterwards you rudely and dismissively tell that particular one night stand to exit your life forever, do not be surprised when your family’s pet rabbit ends up as the main ingredient in some bizarre, twisted version of Iron Chef: Scorned Lover. You get what you get and you don’t get upset. Fatal Attraction is not about the hidden evil of Glenn Close. Fatal Attraction is about the open stupidity of Michael Douglas. Douglas was being punished for being a bad person. Fatal Attraction was an urban legend for suburban America and its theme was clear: Thou shalt not commit adultery, lest thou want to perhaps get murdered by a woman with a blond jheri curl. The next few years brought a handful of films that piggybacked the themes of Fatal Attraction, most notably Dangerous Liaisons (18th century French Fatal Attraction) and Sleeping with the Enemy (Gone Girl One), but it wasn’t until 1992 that the formula for making the everyday routines of life in the suburbs scary was perfected, when our movie heroes were no longer punished for being stupid or unfaithful or overtly sexual; in 1992 they were being punished just for being.
The first big box-office hit of 1992, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, was released on January 10 as the number one movie in America and stayed in that spot for four weeks (coincidentally consistent with our theme here; the movie it passed as number one was Hook, about a boy named Peter Pan who finds himself lost in adulthood). The action that sets the plot in motion is the sexual assault of the protagonist, Claire, by her obstetrician Dr. Mott. After Claire is encouraged by her husband to tell the authorities about the assault, she reports the abuse to her state medical board. Dr. Mott kills himself, his pregnant wife (Mrs. Mott – creative) has a stress-induced miscarriage, and then quickly vows to exact revenge on Claire, whom she blames for her suffering.
Now, had this movie been made in say, 1982, maybe Mrs. Mott would have just thrown on a creepy mask, stood outside Claire’s window in a thunderstorm, and called it a day. Not in 1992. Mrs. Mott instead disguises herself as a kind, caring, stay-at-home nanny named Peyton Flanders and is hired by Claire to watch her two young children. Mott-Flanders turns out to be an even worse nanny hire than Mrs. Doubtfire. Mrs. Mott-Flanders sets out to destroy Claire’s marriage, murder her best friend, emotionally harm her family (gas lighting, dog whistling), physically harm her family (breastmilk, shovel), generally just kind of ruin Claire’s house, and then outright tries to kill Claire inside of a fancy greenhouse. Leather Face, she is not. In the end, Claire finally defeats the murderous nanny by throwing her out of a window and thus impaling her on a white picket fence in a gruesome (and heavy-handed) symbol of suburban distress.
Of course, Cradle was just one of several movies released in 1992 with the goal of scaring Americans into never letting anyone, especially outwardly good natured people, through the doors of their recently purchased 3-2 home. Poison Ivy, released in May, exploits the fears of parents instead of lovers, highlighting what horrors may come when your teenage daughter socializes. A young girl named Sylvie Cooper makes a friend, a beautiful, charming girl named Ivy. Sylvie introduces Ivy to her parents, Darrel and Georgie, who eventually take a liking to Ivy’s beauty and her charm and allow her to basically move into their home. Ivy repays them for their generosity by seducing Darrel, murdering Georgie (pushing her out of a window, the most popular movie death of 1992), stealing Georgie’s identity and her car, and later attempting to murder Sylvie multiple times. Georgie’s daughter made a friend who happened to be a psychopath, but she didn’t lose her life until her marriage fell out from underneath her.
In June of 1992, after ruining both childbirth and friendship, Hollywood soldiered on with their assault on suburban comfort and marital discord with Unlawful Entry, the story of Michael and Karen Carr, a couple living in an upscale neighborhood who fall victim to an assault by a masked intruder. The Carr’s do what we, as viewers, always beg victims to do in these movies: they called the Police. Unfortunately for them, because this was right in the middle of 1992, calling the cops turned out to be a big mistake. What the Carr’s wanted was help. What they got was Ray Liotta. It’s never good to get Ray Liotta. When’s the last time Ray Liotta showed up in a movie and you thought, “Ok, great. Ray’s here. The proceedings from here on out should go pretty smoothly.” Liotta plays Officer Pete Davis, who rewards the Carr’s faith in the police by immediately developing a dangerous, deranged obsession with Karen, stalking the couple, sabotaging Michael’s business, framing Michael on cocaine charges, murdering Karen’s friend, and sexually assaulting Karen. It’s a miracle that he managed not to push anyone out of a window.
As time passed and new generations of filmmakers began purging their deepest fears through the big screen, the evolution of monsters continued, once again revealing that we’re all part of the same fearful hive mind. The mid to late 90’s subverted the classic predecessors of the 1980’s and turned horror Meta. Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and Halloween H20 were all sort of these retro-ironic-slasher comedy/horror/thrillers that intended to scare us, but not without occasionally pausing to wink back at us reassuringly. A flurry of ironic-murder movies is one of the most overtly 90s things I can think of. It was very grunge. It was Wes Craven’s Nevermind. The years that followed 9/11 marked the era of so-called “Torture Porn” movies like Saw and Hostel, films that capitalized on our desensitized and distorted view of violence, satisfied our altogether gross bloodthirstiness that followed the attack, and not-discreetly played into the countries xenophobic fears. There was a stretch of time between 2004-2008 that if you got yourself a ticket to an R-rated movie, there was a real good chance that you were about to see a family of Americans get mutilated by foreigners or clowns or foreign clowns. More recently, as technological advancements continue to blur the line between “the internet” and “real, actual life”, making our world simultaneously bigger than we ever imagined and also claustrophobically personal, we’ve been hit with a wave of “found footage” horror movies; sometimes technology is just there to conveniently capture the mayhem (all 475 of the Paranormal Activity movies, VHS, REC) and sometimes the technology is actually killing us (One Missed Call, Cell, Unfriended).
Thirty years after the marital morality play of Fatal Attraction, twenty-five years after a killer nanny was impaled on a white picket fence, and just two-years after a group of teens were killed off by, um, Facebook, we’ve arrived right here. What are we afraid of in 2017? Which one of our anxieties is going to manifest itself as a masked intruder with a hook for a hand or a seedy, damp torture dungeon? It’s not unfair to look to Washington. Right now, we have a country divided on whether or not our newly elected President is a monster, or if maybe we’ve just been told he’s a monster. There is a very real, palpable tension simmering and sometimes exploding between the country’s coasts. Half of us are terrified, the other half delight in watching us try to leap into bed before the mythical boogeyman snatches us away. What we’re staring down now is the unknown. Should we be afraid? Are we paranoid? Is there a monster in the closet, or are the shadows playing tricks on us again? I’m guessing that over the next four years, Hollywood scares will be all about things that go bump in the night. We could be seeing an increase in monster movies- abominable snowmen, zombies, blobs, zombie snowmen, body snatchers, and aliens. Whether or not the monster is real remains to be seen, but I don’t doubt we’ll see him, in one form or another, on the silver screen real soon.