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The 1980s: The Heyday of Scary Children's Movies

The 1980s was a great decade for children’s movies. From The Neverending Story to The Princess Bride, from Return to Oz to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, young audiences had all kinds of new cinematic stories to whet their appetites. Some movies, like ET and The Black Cauldron, went on to become classics (or "cult classics") and achieve great fame even if their initial box office performances were less than stellar.

However, the kids’ movies of the 1980s are famous–or infamous–for scaring kids, too. On YouTube especially, but also other forms of social media, you can find detailed discussions of which films and moments from this decade were the scariest and what effects they might have had on kids. As adults, millennials might look back at these movies and wonder, "What were we, and our parents, thinking?" But we still hail these films as classics, and mainstays of the children’s cinematic canon, so to speak.

Choose one, or perhaps two, of your favorite scary ’80s movies for kids. What made them memorable? What made some scarier, thus "better" or "worse," than others? Has cinema "softened" too much toward kids since the ’80s? If yes, what could it do to bring the edge back (do we need/want it)? Why do you think scary moments from kids’ movies stick in our minds, and what would it take to create such memorable moments now?

  • I remember the scariest 80s movie to me, as a kid, was Gremlins. It was hardcore and uncompromising, with some grotesque violence, threats of animal abuse, and most memorably the bomb-drop that there was no Santa Claus after a horrible story told by Phoebe Cates about her father's death. Gremlins was absolutely uncompromising in the realm of harsh reality. Since the eighties, mainstream cinema has doubled-down on the disturbing for adults and spares kids the slightest wink of real-world danger for the most part. The bit that seems especially odd to me is the total refusal now to kill the villain. I think children's movies are an incredible medium, or were, but there's no element of conflict anymore, which A, never gives kids that cool opportunity to see something frightening in a movie, and B, never gives kids the chance to form their own moral stances and see the clash between real good and evil. By lightening the conflict of children's cinema's stories, kids are left to believe that good and bad can always find common ground. By always letting the villain live, kids never feel that triumph anymore. Bring back the bad guy and whack him. – HankMelluish 3 days ago
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