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We tend to think on the 90s with a nostalgic fondness – everything seemed just a little bit simpler back then. It was a period of economic growth, technological developments came fast but still had that reliable analog flair, and pop culture was finding its footing with a dependable younger market.
Looking back, some of the 1990s film offerings have become a bit of a sore spot among horror fans when stacked against heavy-hitters like The Silence of the Lambs and Seven. But author Alexandra West has come out with a reminder of all the ways that the 1990s teen horror cycle was a strong and important development for the genre.
As a co-host on the brilliant The Faculty of Horror podcast, writer for several publications (including her first book, Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity), and lecturer on film and theatre in schools across Ontario, Quebec, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, Alexandra West knows her shit.
Her newest book, The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle: Final Girls and a New Hollywood Formula, delves into a dissection of the height of 1990s horror genre offerings – including Scream, The Craft, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Fear, The Faculty, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Idle Hands, Final Destination, and many more.
With an academic’s eye and a horror lover’s heart, West discusses how the 1990s teen horror cycle was both a product of and a reaction to its time.
In a post-Regan era, youth in America were stomping down the conservative-driven push towards an “American Dream” that no longer applied or appealed to them. The Cold War had come to a close and kids across the country “Smelled Like Teen Spirit” while the Riot Grrrl movement spread as quickly as the LA Riots. As West says, “America no longer had a looming destructive force, but only Americans themselves”.
The formulaic slashers of the 70s and 80s were petering out – gold standards like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees just didn’t carry the same weight. Studios realized that female moviegoers were accountable for half – if not more – of their audience. If horror was going to continue to be a marketable genre, it had to adapt to articulate the anxieties, fears, and values of its audience through the new Final Girl.
West explains, “These female characters were no longer just smart, kind, levelheaded or lucky, as they had been in previous horror film incarnations of Final Girls; they were navigating their own complex moralities in a society that no longer knew what to value itself”.
Wes Craven’s Scream, for example, found a perfect New Final Girl in Sidney Prescott. While the “rules” of Scream (and, then, the horror genre as a whole) state that premarital sex is basically a death sentence, Sidney’s journey is one of female empowerment – it’s far more progressive and sex positive. As West says, “In the 1990s a Final Girl could have consensual sex but also destroy those who do her wrong”.
The teens of 90s horror were held accountable for the sins of their parents and communities – they were facing villains with a deeply personal vendetta. Gone were the days of a hulking stranger; the real danger was the anonymous bona fide murderer in their own neighborhood.
West outlines how intertextuality shaped the new rules of horror and how a rising audience base with a disposable income redirected the way that films were marketed.
A movie was more than entertainment – it was a consumable product that could sell its music, fashion, and lifestyle along with its home video release.
These hot new trends in terror were made accessible to those outside the genre by prominently featuring popular, familiar faces as seen on TV (I mean, just look at the poster designs).
But beneath the mainstream, shiny surface of the 1990s teen horror cycle, the films themselves were tackling attitudes towards sexuality, popularity, social acceptance, and the often ignored weight of survival. Franchises explored the consequences of violence and the lasting impact of those traumatic events.
West lovingly works through thematically linked films to fairly present their lasting values and honest shortcomings (for example, racial tokenism and how Scary Movie fought against those tropes by framing intertextuality as comedic parody).
She taps in to the studio’s involvement in each film in a way that helps to explain how these films came to be while offering some insight on the state of the industry today.
The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle: Final Girls and a New Hollywood Formula shakes out the puzzle pieces of 1990s teen-focused horror and artfully arranges them to form a cohesive picture – one that looks dramatically different from what’s just shown on the box.
If you’ve ever celebrated films like Scream while lamenting relentless horror franchises, if you have any opinions about Final Girls, or if you simply find yourself wanting something more out of those 90s nostalgic movie nights, you need to read this book.