Why Was ’90s Horror So Scary?

There was something about the horror genre in the ’90s — in movies, TV, and even books — that made it recognizably different from what came before and after it. David Foster Wallace, writing in his 1997 collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, was aware of it even then. He marked that difference as metafiction. Writing of it in relation to television, Wallace said, “We spend enough time watching, pretty soon we start ourselves watching.”

A metafiction works by presuming a certain literacy of its audience; references aren’t effective if no one knows what you’re referencing. This move from mere witness to active participant is exciting for the audience. Seinfeld and its brilliant show-inside-a-show conceit, for example, took what was once a fairly avant-garde, as-seen-in-literature concept and brought it to the masses through the democratizing glow of the American screen.

Metafictions exist across genres. The theory isn’t tethered to any specific style or class of cultural manifestation. In the ’90s, though, the world of horror and suspense entertainment became so suffused with metafictional works as to warrant a retrospective analysis. Paradigmatic examples like Scream understandably dominate the field, but copycat productions and works inspired by the series flourished widely.

In hindsight, the gore of the last ten years — the troughs of blood that poured from screens and at times seemed to spill out into the very theaters in which we trembled — was an all too foreseeable reaction to the terrorist attacks that marked the start of the century. Our real-life tragedies were so savage that Hollywood offered catharsis in the form of mangled limbs and trunks. We consumed those bodies readily, a collective cannibalism that valued effect over plot.

As far as television shows go, fear is a difficult emotion to inspire. Scary movies are a thing; scary TV, not so much. It’s harder to build and maintain suspense episodically. This is just one of the infinite reasons why the Nickelodeon anthology series Are You Afraid of the Dark? was remarkable. The show’s premise was disarmingly simple: a group of kids who fashioned themselves as “The Midnight Society” gathered in the woods around a fire and in each episode took turns scaring each other with a story. A leather pouch was passed around — inside it, the “midnight dust,” from whence the storyteller would take a handful, throw it into the fire, and proclaim, “Submitted for the approval of The Midnight Society, I call this story…” The fire would spark, plumes of white smoke obscuring their faces, as you left the woods and entered the story.

It was fairly formulaic fare. The stories dealt with the paranormal and their endings were, for the most part, happy. The fiction within the fiction, though, the way the camera would pan from face to face around the fire, the flames casting shadow and, alternatively, light, included the viewer implicitly as a member of the group. There was a spot for you around the fire. And because you understood the formula, and knew to some extent what to expect, you could begin to fill in where you thought the stories would go, what the characters should and shouldn’t do.

In calling attention to themselves, self-reflexive metafictions also call attention to us as readers or viewers. We move the object of our gaze from the other to ourselves so that when that other is being stalked (a particularly popular manifestation of ’90s horror) we feel it ourselves as well. There is an unconscious engagement with the text or the visual that makes the fear that much more surprising and, consequently, scarier.

The Give Yourself Goosebumps series, a spinoff of the original Goosebumps, thrust the action directly at the reader by requiring their participation in the development of the text. Following the Choose Your Own Adventure model, the end of certain pages presented the reader with a set of choices; if you chose incorrectly the book would break the fourth wall and demand that you go back and reconsider your decision. It was, essentially, a game. Death being a possible outcome always ups the stakes considerably.

It was in film, though, that metafictions were exploited for their true potential to inspire fear. The most beautifully conceived of these was Wes Craven’s Scream series. The reactions at a recent screening I attended in an auditorium full of people who were too young to watch it when the movie was first released were proof that something was up. In a metafiction like Scream, viewers are more likely to identify with and project themselves onto the plot, the characters become vessels through which the viewer experiences the movie. What makes Scream terrifying is not just that there is someone inside Neve Campbell’s home trying to kill her; rather, it’s Neve Campbell’s awareness of the possibility of someone being inside her home and the reciprocal reminder that someone could also be lurking on the other side of our patio windows.

Typically, in horror films, the victims are passive recipients of their fates. That’s not to say that they stand around while they’re haunted and hacked up. But very rarely are we presented with characters who fight the chase by questioning the motivations of their pursuers, as if they could outrun destiny by untangling the plot they’re webbed within. Our real-world clocks enter synchronicity with the film’s hourglass as we struggle to piece the puzzle together ourselves.

The characters, in acknowledging the conventions of horror films within the film itself, replicate and project the audience’s own anxieties that what they’re witnessing in the theater could happen to them. The lack of reliance on the supernatural and the fact that all the murders were committed by real people to real people made the terror of Scream a distinctly palpable one. You couldn’t leave the theater with the same assurance that as scary as the film was, the chances that something dwelled beneath your bed were slim. When the killer could be the person sitting next to you at the theater, your best friend or your significant other, the film lost the soothing balm of fiction. It was ourselves we were watching.

In order to accept a horror film as entertainment there’s an implicit agreement between film and audience that the characters whose story we are watching unfold are less smart or less savvy than the audience. That if the characters had only seen as many movies as us they would retain the cyclical movement of their diaphragms. A film, like Scream then, that gives breath to characters who are as literate as its viewers confronts this expectation explicitly. We fear the film because we fear the fragility of our own humanity as we see it matched on the screen. If they had seen the same movies we saw but couldn’t outrun the mask, what’s to say we could?

Are You Afraid of The Dark?, the Give Yourself Goosebumps series, and the Scream franchise dissolved the comforting distance that fictions construct. They moved the locus of fear closer to the consumer by continuously requiring action on our parts. Whether by asking us to finish the tale ourselves or testing our literacy of the genre, the audience wasn’t allowed to just sit back and enjoy the show. We look back at the ’90s as a time of carefree nostalgia, but we also forget that it was the decade that taught us never to say, “I’ll be right back,” and through the devices of metafiction, entertained us by suggesting we weren’t as safe as we all felt.