A friend of mine tells a story about the impermanence of scary stories. The scariest movie she saw growing up was The Birds (1963), Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece about nature turning on people. One Halloween, her two teenage sons and a bunch of their friends were trying to decide on a scary movie to watch and she adamantly insisted they watch The Birds. She said it was one of the scariest movies ever.
They sat there quietly watching the movie, with virtually no reaction at all. “Well?” she said, after the film was over, “what did you think?”
“The CGI was terrible,” said one of the boys. The rest all agreed and said the movie wasn’t that frightening.
She was crestfallen. I went through a similar experience back in the 1990s. The flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz (1939) scared the pants off of me when I was a kid. When I was showing my kids the same movie in about 1996, I warned them: “Now, don’t get too freaked out, but there’s some flying monkeys in this scene and it’s super scary so …” The flying monkeys came and went and not a scream or closed eyes in sight. “That wasn’t scary at all,” said one of them. “Is there some scarier part coming up with them?” They all looked at me. There was a long pause.
“Well… uh...those were real monkeys!” I said desperately. “Who could fly! Right?! Imagine them coming after you!”
“There’s no such thing as flying monkeys,” another one said. “We have nothing to worry about.”
“Fine,” I said. “Be that way!” And stormed out. Demonstrating, once again, my maturity in these sorts of situations. Each generation since the dawn of scary movies has a film that they latch on to as the Halloween favorite for them, whether subsequent generations get what the fuss is about or not. Here they are:
The generation that was born between 1925 and 1945 grew up to fight in the Korean War and generally didn’t make a big fuss about everything. “Silent Gens” were born between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers and have the distinction of just about nobody talking about their generation. This film was released when they were in their teens to late 20s. The movie isn’t so much a frightening meditation on an alien invasion as it is an allegory about communism silently and secretly taking over our society. Those pod people? They are gradually—and with dead eyes and no emotion—taking over a small town. First, Santa Mira, California, then the rest of America! (You know how those communists are.) This movie is actually kind of fun now, but it was a real thriller when it came out.
Baby Boomers were born between 1946-1963. Which means some of these kids were a bit young when this came out, but this tale of birds massing and attacking humans resonated powerfully with a generation that was coming of age in the tumultuous 1960s. It became a late night TV favorite among college students in the 1960s. Here nature runs amok, just as our society seemed to be doing in just about every way in the late 1960s. This movie is so beloved by Baby Boomers. Perhaps the theme of a world falling apart with violent attacks from nature epitomized the mood of Baby Boomers in the years that followed. Political assassinations, riots, and convulsing social changes erupted almost as unpredictably as the bird attacks on the small town of Bodega Bay.
Just as older Gen Xers were entering their teens, this slasher movie came out and imprinted itself on a generation. It became a national phenomenon and spawned another 11 movies, including two still yet to be released. While most GenXers were too young to see the original when it came out, the enduring popularity of the original and its seemingly endless sequels is a testament to its firm place in the cultural heart of that generation. And it’s understandable. The tale of an alienated mutant murderer roaming the countryside, unkillable and unstoppable, can be compellingly frightening stuff. It resonated deeply with a generation that has struggled with a feeling of alienation and being ignored while growing up and coming into their own. After the John Carpenter-directed original in 1978, seven more sequels were released in the 1980s and 1990s, and three more in the 2000s. Which one is the best? Well, “best” being a relative term here (because all of these movies are appalling in their own way, to be honest), I would still go with the original. It’s tremendously scary. But for the record I also enjoyed Halloween: Resurrection (2002), which brought Jamie Lee Curtis back to the franchise.
It has the perfect combination for this generation: gore, terror, irony, and media savvy. The conceit of the first film is that there is a serial killer out there (Ghostface from the Edvard Munch painting “The Scream”), who is killing according to the conventions of slasher movies. And these conventions are much discussed in this self-realized movie. All this talking about the conventions of a horror movie was a clever move by screenwriter Kevin Williamson to divert the audience’s attention from the fact that a terrifying murder was about to happen…and it would happen exactly the way you’d expect it to in a horror movie. Wes Craven directed a cast that includes Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette, Jamie Kennedy, and Liev Schreiber. The charm of the original wore off quickly in the sequels for me, but the original is a gem of a horror movie.
The most diverse generation in our nation’s history readily latched on to this movie that delves into racism, political cynicism, and terror. Generation Z and its attributes are still being defined, but the generally accepted starting years for this generation is late 1990s/early 2000s. For me, 1997 seems like a good year to call for the start of this generation. So they are just coming into adulthood now. Jordan Peele's Get Out captures the profile of this generation quite well—comfortably diverse in racial makeup, young, and a bit nervous about venturing out into the big bad world. And understandably so—most of the Gen Zers are still in their teens. Get Out is brilliant; it’s a nearly peerless horror movie with a lineage that traces quite clearly back to Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Except in this version, the danger comes not from aliens turning folks into Pod People, but from white liberals. As I said, brilliant. The film is also incredibly funny. Lil Rey Howery as the best friend who is vainly proud of his job as a TSA agent is the kind of performance in a small role that makes a movie memorable. Get Out is also spectacular in its social commentary. It’s already one of the best American movies of the 21st century and a perfect match to a generation coming of age now in a much more diverse, vibrant, confusing, and sometimes frightening America.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.