Iconic horror movies from the Reagan years…and what they meant

I want to share some horror movies from the 80s — because they’re awesome! But also because they demonstrate what life was like for “Generation X” in the 1980s and provide truly important clues about our society then and now.

During this decade, neo-conservative legislative policies, consumerism, deregulation, the changing role of women and families and the innovation of cable television all had tremendous impact on the lives of Americans, including kids and teens (now known as “Generation X”). You see these themes recur in horror movies. These themes were perhaps just as scary to Generation X as the vampires, werewolves and ghosts in the movies, if not more so.

I submit that these 80s polices, economic changes and social changes are the foundation of some of the most serious social and economic problems that we experience to this day. I grew up in the 1970s and I can tell you — things were different before Reagan came into office. For example, twice as many people take antidepressants now as did in the 1980s. Problems that seemed to worsen from the 1980s on include mental illness, the obesity epidemic, social justice challenges, poverty, drug addiction, global warming, homelessness, economic disparity and the virtual obliteration of small town economies, the blue collar work force and U.S. farming communities.

I’d like to share some background on the 80s and then briefly talk about five iconic 80s horror films: An Amercan Werewolf in London, Poltergeist, Fright Night, The Lost Boys and They Live.

The Reagan years. President Reagan was in office between 1981 and 1989. His administration ushered in new conservative policies and legislation, including tax cuts, arms spending increases, banking deregulation, elimination of obstacles to trade with China, federal aid cuts and the infamous “War on Drugs.” Many people were directly and adversely affected by these changes. Cultural and values changes advocating conformity and approving the accumulation of wealth were also associated with the Reagan years.

U.S./China trade relations. When the Reagan administration instituted policies in 1981 to increase trade with China, several things happened. Manufacturing jobs began to fade in the U.S. as corporations moved their operations from the U.S. to overseas. In Los Angeles County, 75,000 manufacturing jobs were lost between 1978 and 1982. Farming was impacted. Many people lost their jobs.

Thanks for cutting my Pell Grants, dude..NOT.

Reaganomics causes incomes to sink for some and rise for others. The U.S. transformed from a manufacturing economy to a service economy in a very short time. This led to unemployment, especially among blue collar workers. Falling wages were also a problem. Seventy-five percent of new jobs created in this service economy paid minimum wage, which in 1985 was $3.35/hour. Fewer poor Americans climbed up into the middle class in the 1980s and more middle class Americans fell into lower class.

At the same time, the “Yuppie” population of upwardly mobile, career-oriented, affluent young professionals grew. The percentage of wealthy Americans grew from 8% to 13%. This generated a market for upscale housing (sometimes displacing others from neighborhoods) and status merchandise.

The gap between the privileged and the poor widened. Wealthy country club members, “preppies,” and “Yuppies” were perceived as elitist and insensitive to the plight of the homeless and poor communities, and were the targets of derision or retribution in some 80s horror movies.

Almost exactly my uniform when I worked at Arby’s in the 1980s

The Rise of Walmart. Between 1980 and 2004, trade between China and the U.S. increased 4520%. The influx of cheap goods from China led to the development of discount chain stores, such as Walmart. Walmart put its stores in rural communities and suburbs, where people were relocating. Small retail operations and downtown department store chains could not compete with their buying power and low prices. Walmart expanded from 7 states in 1981 to 27 states in 1988, becoming the most profitable retailer in the U.S.

Deregulation. President Reagan’s administration reduced taxes and deregulated the banking and business industries. He also deregulated utilities and the phone company and removed some environmental protections. This ushered in an era of new business profitability and consumerism. In the 80s, credit became much more available to the average person in the form of credit cards. We used to joke that even children or dogs could get approved for credit cards (and that actually happened, in some cases).

Credit Card Burdens, Shopping Malls and Food Courts. Families has already started leaving cities and flocked to the suburbs in the 60s and 70s. What went up, along with those new homes?

New shopping malls to use their credit cards. Shopping at malls became a past-time more than a necessity. The mall food court was born — offering high calorie snacks and quick, fast food meals so people did not have to eat at home. This trend contributed to both credit card debt and eventually, an increase in obesity.

A visible way to conform was to wear status clothing with visible logos. In the 80s, Calvin Klein made a fortune on designer jeans and men’s underwear with his name on it. Designer jeans were about $50 or about $160 in today’s money. That was more than three times the cost of Lee jeans or Levis. I worked for a dry cleaners in 1983. Yuppie customers used to bring in their expensive designer jeans to be dry cleaned and pressed, instead of washing the jeans themselves.  Other pricey 80s premium brand clothing going on those credit cards included Guess jeans, preppy LaCoste “alligator” polo shirts, Members Only jackets and Ray Bans sunglasses.

But conformity had a price. By 1989, the average credit card debt for an American family was $2,700, while the median income of families was $30K.

“Nothing comes between me and my Calvins.” Ew, Brooke. Ew.

The evolution of Generation X. The youth of the 80s made up the smallest population of youth before and after the decade. Why were there fewer children in Gen X? Well, birth control had become more available to teens and women. A safer, low hormone birth control pill was introduced in the 1980s. Birth control use increased form 13 million users in 1967 to as high as 80 million users in 1984. People just weren’t having as many kids.

A bunch of wild and crazy gals not having kids anytime soon.

Latchkey kids. Not only were there fewer tweens and teens, there were fewer two-parent households. Divorce rates jumped in the 1970s. Moms went back into the workforce (now paying lower wages) and child care for school age children was not widely available. In the mid 1980s, there were also several nationally prominent court cases involving child care centers and child abuse, some even involving children in Satanic rituals.

So, many parents, particularly single parents, chose to let their children stay home alone. The phrase “latchkey kid” was created in the 1980s to describe children who came home after school, locked the door, and looked after themselves until their mom or parents came home.

Latchkey kids appear in many 80s horror films, including The Gate, The Lost Boys, Fright Night and other

Gen X Survivors. According to indicators presented in the Duke University Child and Youth Wellbeing Index, things really were rougher for children and teens in the 1980s. The number of single parent households rose sharply, median incomes fell, and those families moved more frequently, disrupting social relationships.

Kids and teens without a parent at home were more frequently victims of violent crimes in the 80s and drank and used drugs to a greater degree than Millennial teens.

Early sexualization of girls in the media was a problem. In 1980s movies, it was much more common for teen girl actresses to appear in movies wearing revealing lingerie or exposing their breasts than in previous or subsequent decades.

Safety was a constant concern. When kids drank milk, they saw pictures of children who had been abducted, also known as “milk carton kids.”

As a result of this isolation from adult supervision, Generation X kids and teens became more independent, tough-minded and risk-taking than previous and subsequent generations. However, they were also more vulnerable to emotional neglect (The Breakfast Club 1985). They also experienced bullying and early sexual experiences (Valley Girl 1983, Pretty in Pink 1986), all of which are featured in 1980s horror movies, to some extent.

I got your Gen X right here.

Alienation and cynicism. Imagine the charmed Millenial childhood experience. Now imagine a childhood completely opposite of that and you have the Gen X childhood. Parents focused on their jobs or careers and didn’t spend a lot of time with their kids. Many Gen X kids felt disconnected from their families and bonded with other disaffected pre-teens or teens, sometimes to their detriment, a theme that surfaces again and again in 80s movies. Another aspect of this emotional hardness and cynicism you see in 80s horror movies is dark humor blended with violent or horror scenes (American Werewolf in London (1981), Ghostbusters (1984), Beetlejuice (1988) and Gremlins (1984). 

Television, cable TV and technology. Television looms large in several 80s horror films as a subversive or even evil influence, reflecting the unease people had with its persuasiveness and its commercialism. Directors were frank about their negative views about television. Themes emerging in the 1980s also had a cynical take about technology and its role in replacing authentic human interaction and jobs (Blade Runner 1982) .  You see these anti-technology and anti-television references in 1980s horror films such as Poltergeist (1982), Halloween III (1982), Videodrome (1983), Gremlins (1984), Nightmare on Elm Street, III (1987) and They Live (1988), as well as in shorts featuring the body-less “Max Headroom” of MTV fame.

The infamously cynical Max Headroom

As mentioned, President Reagan used his charisma on television to his advantage and many people distrusted him, after suffering the impacts of his policies. Commercials on cable television promoted consumerism, which was causing economic problems.

And people were watching television a LOT more. The widespread adoption of cable TV (1981), the 24-hour televised news cycle (1980) and home shopping channels (1982) attracted viewers…but disgusted others. Whereas people before had maybe four channels to watch on television until about 11 p.m., cable TV allowed people to watch TV for much longer periodx — with more commercials tempting people to buy products, as well as the addictive home shopping channels and infomericials that filled up less expensive time slots.

Before the 80s, after 11 p.m., adults usually turned off the lights and went to sleep (kids had been long asleep). It was considered kind of a big deal for an adult to stay up to watch the entire Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (which ended at 11:30 p.m.). When people did, they mentioned how it affected them at work next day and how tired they were.

Kids used to be targeted with toy and cereal commercials during Saturday morning cartoon programming but now, children’s programming was on daily and in the evening. So kids were subjected to a lot more commercial messages.

An 80s cable box

The influence of cable TV contributed to people’s increased spending and credit card debt. The adult obesity rate started increasing in the 1980s as people moved less, slept less and ate more in front of the TV.

Homelessness. Generation X had it share of anxieties about social and world problems they observed, sometimes with a sympathetic eye and sometimes with a callous one. Many of these themes surface in horror movies, such as the massive increase in homelessness. Generation X saw the surge in the homeless population and their society’s failure to address it.

The homeless problem began to worsen in the 70s, when the de-institutionalization of mental hospitals decreased housed patients from 1 million to less than 100,000.

With cuts in aid programs under the Reagan administration, there were not adequate supports to help the people with mental disabilities adjust to life on their own. This included a sub-population of traumatized and drug-addicted Vietnam veterans.

There was also severe lack of affordable housing. Gentrification was an issue in some cities and virtually no new public housing was erected in the 1980s. (Photo: Richard Sandler)

Drugs and incarceration. Crack cocaine was another social issue. In response to the crack cocaine crisis, the Reagan administration instituted new policies under “Just Say No.” These policies included longer sentences for drug possession, which had previously been directed to rehabilitiation in institutions or outpatient care. Generation X teens (and sometimes their parents) rebelled against these new policies by flagrantly using marijuana and alcohol – which you see in many horror films in the 1980s.

Nuclear arms race. Another anxiety for Generation X was nuclear arms proliferation and nuclear accidents. 1980s pre-teens and teens wondered if they had a future. Three Mile Island happened in 1979 and the Chernobyl disaster happened in 1986. I believe fears about a nuclear disaster while feeling powerless to effect change were factors that contributed to the development of cynicism and fatalism in Gen X youth, which was depicted in many 80s dystopian films and horror movies.

Anti-heroes. Many horror movie villains became unlikely heroes for some tough-minded Generation X pre-teens and teens. Freddy Krueger (Nightmare on Elm Street franchise), Michael Myers (Halloween), Jason (Friday 13th franchise), Alien, Chucky (Child’s Play franchise) had kind-of fans. Cruel but powerful and popular anti-heroes became objects of fascination and were featured on Halloween costumes and in toys (Gremlins plush toys, toy Freddy Kreuger glove), even for young children. Even on Christmas ornaments!

Presenting: 1980s in Horror!

So, here are some top-rated 80s movies for you to consider watching this Halloween. I bet you’ve already seen “Ghost Busters” so I didn’t include that one. I tried to include ones that had those classic, 1980s themes. Please be advised that these movies carry “R” ratings and some of these clips are graphic. Really, not for the kiddos!

An American Werewolf in London (1981) (Horror/comedy, werewolves)

This movie was released the same year Reagan was elected President. It featured some typical 80s themes, including sex, dark comedy and social problems, such as homelessness.

The special effects were considered groundbreaking. According to Wikipedia, Michael Jackson was so impressed by this movie that he hired the director and special effects guy, Rick Baker, to produce his famous “Thriller” video in 1982. The special effects were considered groundbreaking. The sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris, was not nearly as good as this movie.

This clip contains depictions of gore.

Poltergeist (1982) (Horror, supernatural) When I saw this in 1982, I was struck by how realistic the family interactions appeared to be. I think it made it scarier because they were so believable in their acting. I just watched in again on Netflix and I enjoyed it even more.

Steven Spielberg wrote and produced the movie. The director is credited as Tobe Hopper, who directed and co-wrote Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). People say he did direct parts of the movie but Steven Spielberg also directed many of the scenes.

Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams were outstanding in their roles as the parents. Unlike some other 80s movies featuring single-parent families, Poltergeist depicted a typical, nuclear family who lived in the suburbs. And also smoked weed, occasionally!

As mentioned, in the U.S. there was a large exodus of families to new housing in the suburbs in the 1970s and 1980s. This movie family lives in one of those new communities.

A note of explanation: in the opening scene of Poltergeist, you hear the “Star Spangled Banner” playing from the television. If you are not old enough to remember this, before cable, most television stations stopped broadcasting at about 11 p.m. The last thing shown on many TV stations, before it went to static and white noise, was the “Star Spangled Banner,” sometimes broadcast to the image of a waving flag. If you fell asleep in front of the TV, since 11 p.m. was super late in those days, sometimes you would wake up to that static (like what you see between cable stations today) that is what is shown in the movie. Of course now, television stations operate 24/7.

In this movie, you’ll notice that the TV is presented as a channel (literally) for evil. That was not accidental. There are subtle jabs at consumerism and the power of television all through Poltergeist.

This movie contains some scary scenes, realistic special effects with with gore, some profanity and scenes where the characters are smoking pot and using alcohol.

Fright Night (1985, vampire movie). Writer Tom Holland made his directorial debut with this movie, which he also wrote. He also directed Psycho II, Child’s Play and The Temp. He won the Saturn Award for writing and directing this movie; it also won the award for Best Horror Film. It really is good.

The special effects are amazing! Many 80s themes surface in the movie, including the single mom family (working nights, leaving dinner in the stove), teen-protagonist-against-the-world hero and teen sexual experiences.

You will remember Chris Sarandon from The Princess Bride; in this movie, he plays another bad guy. A really, really bad guy! You’ll also recognize Roddy MacDowall.

Here’s a clip that shows another 80s theme: bullying. Conformity was like a law. It was a crime to be different, practically. It’s interesting how they worked this typical 1980s teen’s vulnerability and desperation for acceptance into this vampire scene.

The Lost Boys (1987) (Horror, vampires) Joel Schumacher (St. Elmo’s Fire) directed this film that won the 1987 Saturn Award for Best Horror Film and as far as 80s themes go, this one has it all. Unlike earlier 80s movies with New Wave soundtracks, The Lost Boys  has a more “hair metal,” rocker vibe.

This movie is a high-production film with big-name stars. Dianne Wiest, who plays the mom, had just won an academy award, and Joel Schumacher had previously directed the popular St. Elmo’s Fire. Kiefer Sutherland stars, along with the Two Coreys, as they were known (Corey Feldman and Corey Haim) and Alex Winter (Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure). The Two Coreys had previously appeared in other famous 80s horror films including Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter and Gremlins (both 1984) and Stephen King’s Silver Bullet (1985)

1980s themes include alienated teen protagonists from the very first frame and song: “When You’re Strange.” Other 80s themes: lonely, single mom, divorce, hands-off parenting, teen risk-taking, rebellion against conformity, drinking and smoking.

There were many “lost boys” in Generation X, among them, sadly, the Two Coreys themselves.

FYI: this clip is pretty gory, so be forewarned.

They Live (1988) (science fiction, aliens) Director John Carpenter has directed many great science fiction and horror films, including Halloween (1978) and The Thing (1983). This movie doesn’t scare you so much as make you think about its messages of consumerism, conformity and exploitation. The 80s theme of the “evil television” definitely comes into play in this movie!

‘The picture’s premise is that the ‘Reagan Revolution‘ is run by aliens from another galaxy. Free enterprisers from outer space have taken over the world, and are exploiting Earth as if it’s a third world planet. As soon as they exhaust all our resources, they’ll move on to another world. I began watching TV again. I quickly realized that everything we see is designed to sell us something. It’s all about wanting us to buy something. The only thing they want to do is take our money.” — John Carpenter

Well, it doesn’t get any  more 80s than that!  On a side note, I was surprised to see Roddy Piper in this movie. I knew he was a wrestler but I didn’t know he was an actor.  There are a few memorable quotes as well as a sublimely ridiculous, protracted fight scene that has to be seen to be believed! California was hit especially hard by the economy and unemployment; the homeless village is a reflection of that.

About Mary Fletcher Jones

Mary Fletcher Jones is a mom, teacher, and blogger. Her blogs include Autumn in Virginia, Cool Yule Blog and You Can't Make This Stuff Up, among others. She is also the creator of "Living Well With Autism," an online resource for caregivers of children, teens, and adults with autism and related special needs.
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1 Response to Iconic horror movies from the Reagan years…and what they meant

  1. Pingback: Classic Movie Day! Free-to-watch online horror movie classics | Autumn in Virginia

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