Years of Hope and Darkness

*Originally published as an introduction for Retro Horror-Anubis Press, 2020

The Eighties were an amazing decade to be alive in. And they were a terrifying decade to live through, as well.

I started the Eighties as a Kindergartener and finished them as an adolescent, and I can attest that there’s a reason the word awesome became such a common catchphrase during this time- because it was the only word to adequately describe so many seemingly bigger-than-life events that took place over those ten years. Awesome is, after all, a neutral phrase: it can describe both splendor and horror; it applies just as well to a carpetbombing as it does to the execution of a perfect 360. And that’s the kind of watchword these years required. The decade had dawned with Americans held hostage in a foreign land, but a handsome and energetic new President had (to all outward appearances) swept into office and made sure they were brought home safe. John Lennon, co-founder of the most successful musical group of the century, was slain in the first year of the Eighties, but Paul McCartney was soldiering on- and was even doing duets with Michael Jackson. Neil Diamond was singing about E.T., and Prince was the star of his very own film, so it couldn’t be that bleak, right? That’s what people told themselves. But just like any fable worth its salt, there was a darkness lurking just beneath the surface of it all.

The Race to Space had all-but ended, and the Cold War was heating up like it hadn’t in years. The ever-present threat of mutually assured annihilation by nuclear weapons was inescapable… it infiltrated into news, literature, and of course, film. Even as a new surge of patriotism swept through the U.S., we lived under the constant fear that our species was always one button away from extinction.

So we diverted ourselves. The Eighties beheld one of the most incredible outputs of beloved art and entertainment of any decade in the Twentieth Century. And it’s little surprise that output mirrored the duality of hope and terror that permeated daily life: for every E.T., there was a John Carpenter’s The Thing. One could groove to Phil Collins or Sheena E, or else tread on the dark side with Mötley Crüe, Slayer or Public Enemy. Kids my age grew up obsessed with Star Wars and The Muppets, while simultaneously being fascinated with Ninja. In fact almost every one of my friends (including me) had a small arsenal of throwing stars secreted away where their parents couldn’t find them- just in case things got bad… because it was the Eighties and even as kids, we knew that was always a possibility.

Let’s not forget that Stephen King positively OWNED the Eighties. His (occasionally cocaine-fueled) output during these years was nothing short of inhuman. It honestly seemed like there was a new King novel out on the bookstands every seventeen days. Critical works like Firestarter, Cujo, Pet Sematary, It and Misery established his dominance as the voice of literary horror for the decade- a decade that saw the rise of many other great horror writers like Clive Barker, Dean Koontz and more.

In cinemas, Horror unarguably had its greatest decade since the heydays of the 1930s classic monster flicks. To list all the iconic horror films and franchises that the Eighties birthed into the world would stretch this introduction beyond the point of reason: suffice to say the decade saw a new genesis of monsters and villains so indelible that many of these films have, for forty years now, been in a near-perennial state of remakes. But to my mind, there are two works of horror which best epitomize this fractured decade: one is a feature film series, the other a piece of fiction that would later become both a film and a series as well. Neither is my absolute favorite example of its creator’s oeuvre, but both capture the feel of the era as well as any: Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise capitalized on previous works like Peter Benchley’s Jaws and the Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg film Poltergeist, in bringing horror right home to the focal point of 1980s culture: the suburbs. Murderer Freddy Krueger escapes the law but meets his fate at the hands of PTA mob violence, and is burned alive. He returns years later, however, to haunt the mob’s (now teenage) children’s dreams: killing them off one by one as they slumber. His attacks come in the surreal and abstract mindscape of the dream world- his manifestations are infinite. For his sleep-deprived prey, the barriers between reality and fantasy soon become impossible to distinguish. Nowhere is safe. In a decade that told us you can have anything you dream, these films warned us that while that might be true, it was your dreams themselves that would kill you in the end.

The other titular work is admittedly a bit of a cheat, as the novel version of The Dead Zone by Stephen King was published in August of 1979: a few months before the Eighties began. But I (and I’m sure many people) read it in the latter decade, and the 1983 film version (directed by David Cronenberg) was released in 1983.

In both novel and film, everyman Johnny Smith is injured in a car accident, waking up years later to an agonizing rehabilitation, as well as a new ability to see the future. He attempts to use this power for good, but soon finds himself dreaming of a President who, in a fit of paranoia and madness, intentionally ignites a nuclear holocaust. Confronted with that very man in the form of handsome and dynamic Presidential candidate Greg Stillson, Smith decides he must assassinate the man before this terrible fate comes to pass- even at the cost of his own life. While King’s narrative continues to prove eerily prescient in its concept, its focus on atomic war as the ultimate boogeyman establishes its place as a touchstone piece of Eighties horror. Written during one Administration, the story would find its popularity during another, and anyone reading or watching couldn’t help make the logical jump between the Stillson character and our own affable Commander-in-Chief, wondering what darkness might lurk behind his winning smile. Of course we would eventually find out that this man had been quietly allowing Americans to die from a deadly new virus, simply because he didn’t approve of their lifestyle. Meanwhile he was happily selling weapons to murderers abroad, sitting in the Oval Office even as his own mind began to slowly betray him.

It would have been fitting if the Eighties had gone out with a rousing montage: rising in a crescendo to the screeching guitar of Eddie Van Halen, or perhaps to the cacophonous sounds of roaring kerosene explosions as the decade jumped a cavernous gulch in its nitro-powered muscle car- last of the V-8s… but the reality is the decade just kind of petered out into the Nineties. The Berlin Wall fell and Communist Russia crumbled, so we all felt safer- for a time. A growing awareness of our role as the only remaining Superpower both humbled us and made us more arrogant. The admiration of Gordon Gecko-inspired vulture capitalism was (for some at least) replaced by a growing sense of responsibility for the care of our own fragile planet. Tastes in music and film and literature evolved, though the old mainstays of the 80s continued to enjoy regular resurgences of popularity, and in truth many of the books and movies and bands I grew up with are still my favorites today. Time is a funny thing, and can, over the years, relegate even the most shocking or frightening experience to the innocuous realm of

comfort food. We look back now and smile at the seeming quaintness of period landmarks like New Coke and stonewashed jeans; Cyndi Lauper and Pac Man; Rambo and My Little Pony- and yet all these things are still with us, or like a horror movie villain, have since been resurrected into the 21st Century (except for the stonewashed jeans, thankfully). The Eighties cast a very long shadow both in my own life, and in American culture as well. Some events from that era forever changed our world for the better, while others haunt us to this day. Hope and darkness are two polar opposites forever intertwined, like the double helix of our own genes: forever changing, improving, then devolving again, then rising up once more. If Mary Ann Evans was right, and History does in fact repeat itself, then I suppose there’s hope.

After all, we made it through this goddamn decade once. We can do it again.

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