The League of Tana Tea Drinkers was on the precipice of another disastrous awards endeavor when Groovy Age of Horror’s host with the most, Curt Purcell put forth the idea of a Tea Drinkers roundtable discussion exploring the cognitive dissonance you’d expect to find in cutesy versions of horror memorabilia. Color me fascinated.
There’s a fun sort of irony to be found in tipping horror on its ear and twisting the monstrous into something decidedly not horrifying. Are you a horror fan? Look around your room. How many Leatherface bobbleheads, plush Cthulhus, Count Chocula/Frankenberry/Boo Berry icons do you have within arm’s reach? More than few, I’d wager. You probably even have a box of Fruit Brute that you bought off ebay. I’m no different. As a matter of fact, I live for this crap. When my daughter would watch Sesame Street, I’d make my case why The Count was the coolest muppet on Sesame Street. As a parent of a three year old and a long-running commitment to the horror genre, I find myself trying to pass the torch with every opportunity. At night before bed, we read some of Neil Gaiman’s The Wolves in the Walls and The Dangerous Alphabet, illustrated by Gris Grimly. We also weave in Boris and Bella, a story about monsters getting along, also illustrated by Grimly. There’s also a spoof of Goodnight Moon called Goodnight Goon that gets a fair bit of rotation and a pop-up book whose title escapes me at the moment, having to do with a kid frightened by the voice of his sister threatening to eat a cookie in spite of the actual monsters and ghosts that live in his house. Take a trip to the library sometime. There’s no shortage of cutesy kids books with a decidedly morbid tilt and I gotta tell ya, most of them are awesome!
Ive long maintained that the horror genre in its many forms is an amorphous reflection of society’s collective anxieties. The various monsters in horror stand in as a proxy for whatever happens to be scaring the shit out of society and what’s great about that is that most of them are versatile about representing those fears. There’s no fun in sustained fear, though, is there? Many of us come to horror because the jolt that we get from fear is a rush. It’ s a momentary thrill, a sinister joy that comes from laughing at something we probably shouldn’t laugh at, but when you keep those nasty horror vibes going for too long, the fun goes away, swept away by waves of actual despair. Where’s the fun in being bummed out all the time because of the inevitable doom that tends to travel with horror? What we need is a release valve and these cute, Saturday morning cartoon versions of our horror icons tend to act as that valve. Take the threat away and leave in its place a stuffed version of a Lovecraftian fiend and what you’re left with is an adorable reminder of that genre you love in a completely non-threatening package that you can snuggle up to.
A keen eye will notice, however, that this occasion in horror fandom is not something that has necessarily been around forever, nor does it tend to stick around. Bear with me.
Whether parent advocacy groups want to accept it or not, horror has always been a kid’s genre. Those titans of horror, the Universal Monsters, have been around for as long as we’ve had talking pictures and they dominated the box office in the 30’s but it wasn’t until the golden age of the movie matinee, the prototype of the Saturday morning cartoon, that this notion of children embracing horror began to take hold. For the price of one admission back in the day, you could occupy your morning/afternoon in a movie theater, thrilling to truncated b-pictures like Son of Frankenstein, The Creeper and Dracula’s Daughter, woven together with fabric from a variety of serialized adventures such as Flash Gordon and Radar Men From The Moon. This was a tradition that didn’t find a marketing niche until the 50’s at the height of the adolescent pulp wave with comic books at the height of their popularity and a ton of post-war cash surging through the economy, finding a new generation of consumer in the baby boomers. It was here that you started to see horror and sci-fi memorabilia popping up. Kids gravitated toward grotesqueries such as Mars Attacks trading cards and Ed Roth’s Rat Fink models. This trend continued into the 60’s and through the early 70’s with the arrival of Aurora monster model kits, The Munsters, The Addams Family, monster fright masks, model props, etc. Now consider that this phenomenon was a distinctly American subset of pop-culture. You didn’t find this sort of trend overseas. Consider for a moment what the landscape of the American zeitgeist looked like at the time. Men came back from the Pacific and Europe shadows of their former selves, shocked by the atrocities of war, thrust back into regular life, regular jobs and regular families with a pat on the back from the government. They brought the trauma home with them. The Korean War came hot on the heels of World War 2. The Civil Rights movement followed. Rock and roll freaked parents out everywhere. The Bay of Pigs. The Cuban Missile Crisis. The fuckin’ Beatles. VIETNAM. From the 40’s to the 70’s, The United States was in a bad way in spite of what Leave It To Beaver and The Donna Reed Show would have had you believe. Children, not completely aware of what the turmoil was and what it meant to the country as a whole, pick up on that sort of thing. Menacing vibes affect their lives as well and the only way that they can cope with that sort of anxiety is through an abstract lens such as horror. Kids are scared. How do they process it? They go to the movies, examine the fear from the comfort of a cushy theater seat, hold it at arm’s length and ultimatlely, they embrace it. What else do kids like? Toys.
Booya! A marketing empire is born. While you snap together, sand the edges and paint your Aurora Frankenstein after feasting on your second bowl of Count Chocula, you’re working through your various fears, controlling them by proxy and ultimately taking the menace down a notch. Kiddie horror fandom through cute toys operates on the same wavelengths as art therapy. Believe it or not, parents, this sort of shit is healthy for your children.
Back to my original point that this sort of trend wasn’t always around and even went away for some time. The 80’s and 90’s saw a shift in what was sold to kids. Horror merchandise took a backseat to war-related merchandise in the 80’s. My generation grew up on violent battle scenes perpetrated by fully posable 6″ G.I. Joes or complicated transforming robots battling it out to some vague end. A fairly accurate reflection of living in the Reagan Revolution if I’ve ever seen one. By the time the remnants of the Reagan/Bush White House had been swept away in the liberal 90’s and the Clinton era, everyone had had it with fear and violence and the decade marked a low point for the horror genre as a whole. Horror toys were a true rarity, never mind a decent horror movie. But here we are again, a society on the verge of collapse and that cottage industry of horror merch is back with a fucking vengeance! Aurora models are even back with their monster kits but the advent of the Internet adds a whole new dimension in the form of Etsy horror crafters and the admission of the female gender into horror fandom. Apart from the usual suspects of plush monsters, action figures, clothing and so on, there’s no end to the options you have if you feel like decorating your hair with a miniature severed zombie hand and if you’re a little girl with a ghoulish bent, Monster High is probably more your speed. Yeah. Fuck Barbie. Fuck Bratz. It’s a whole line of fashion dolls representing the undead, the cryptozoological and the paranormal.
Now take another look around America. You’ll notice that things seem to be falling apart again. Now take a look at the rest of the world. Globalization aside, shit’s not going well in any nation and that formerly American tradition of horror toy marketing has taken hold in markets where there was no such thing ten years ago. Why might adults like me be so attracted to these morbid pieces of youth culture? Can you think of anything more comforting to a horror fan in times of serious turmoil?
Have I made myself clear?
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