My elder sibling and I grew up with a single mom who, despite her mental health concerns, worked her ass off to provide for us. So she didn’t have much time, energy, or money to spend on activities. Hell, a lot of parents of Gen X kids weren’t very involved in their kids’ lives. In many ways, I am grateful for this freedom because we grew up to be artists. For now, we’ll put all the trauma in a little box and slide it under the sofa.
On Friday afternoons, the three of us developed a routine. After Mom got home from work, we’d pick up something from Little Caesar’s or Pizza Hut and go to an electronics store nearby, which was at the time, the only place in Union County, North Carolina where you could rent films. She let us rent anything we wanted (within reason; I recall a resounding “No!” to both Scarface and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). My sibling and I would fill our arms and meet in the middle to make our final selections. We mostly agreed on what we’d watch unless I put a musical in the pile. I apologize to my entire family for my Annie and Grease phases (Though Mrs. Hannigan is positively Dickensian and played by Carol Burnette no less).
The following films are ones we kids watched dozens of times while laying on pillows piled on the floor, pizza boxes at our side, and Mom in her room resting. These scary films will be rattling around in my subconscious until the end of my days. I bet I’m not the only Gen Xer who feels this way. If you’ve never witnessed their glory, I suggest you remedy that as soon as possible, preferably when the leaves begin to wither and the veil of summer happiness frays. The decay is the thing.
1. Beetlejuice – Tim Burton (1988)
The film begins with a cute childless couple played by Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin who are pumped about their staycation, but alas, they die in the first five minutes in a car accident on an old covered bridge and wind up having to share their home with a living family who start making changes to their home right away. I love stories that turn typical tropes on their ears; the living harassing the dead? Sold. And I already loved Michael Keaton since Mr. Mom when he played a recently laid-off dad who cared enough to work through his issues while tending to his family. But that’s a different article about fathers who show up.
A dad, his new wife, played by Catherine O’Hara (no mention of the mother, but based on the plot, one can assume she’s also dead), and the young Lydia Deetz played by goth icon Winona Ryder move into the home of the poor, dead couple and it’s a clash of living New York pretension meets dead LL Bean comfort. It goes so poorly the frustrated ghosts, who claim the Handbook for the Recently Deceased, reads like “stereo instructions”, hire Beetlejuice, a malicious spirit.
I immediately identified with Lydia, who wore all black and presented as depressed and artistic, camera always in hand. It’s a strange thing to see yourself in a character like her when you’re 11-years-old, but I was already showing symptoms, had trouble making friends, and I thought if only she could be my friend. My favorite quote in Beetlejuice is uttered by Lydia. When Barbara and Adam ask why she can see them, she responds, “Well, I read through that Handbook for the Recently Deceased. It says, ‘Live people ignore the strange and unusual’. I myself am strange and unusual.”
2. The Lost Boys – Joel Schumacher (1987)
The trailer begins with a scene at an amusement park complete with an oily man playing the saxophone. It saddens me that we only see this guy in one scene. Please tell me there’s fan fiction about this magnificent creature.
Amid Echo & the Bunnymen’s spectacular cover of “When You’re Strange” by the Doors, we see two teenagers in the crowd and we’re introduced to comic shop workers, Edgar and Alan Frog (ring the goth bell, it’s a reference to the original head vampire).
In the clichéd voiceover from only the best horror films, a man says, “Michael and Sam have just moved to Santa Carla, California. They’re about to discover its secret.” Spoiler alert: the secret is… vampires! And not just your average vampire. These are big-haired, motorcycle riding, leather-wearing, may as well have been in Guns N’ Roses-type vampires. I could lie to you and tell you all these cute androgynous boys had nothing to do with my love for this film, but what fun would that be? The Lost Boys came out right about the time I hit puberty.
Aside from the eye candy, however, are some well-established and well-articulated tropes of gothic storytelling. Strangers come to town. A grandfather is super into taxidermy. We don’t get much of his backstory but I like to think Grandpa collects animal corpses the vampires leave behind. He doesn’t seem like a hunter—at least not to the enormous scale of specimens he has laying around his studio.
Of course, there are the vampires themselves, which at least in part, represent longstanding cultural worries about “the other”. And finally, there’s the incredible earthquake-ridden setting. As a kid, I wanted to live in the collapsed hotel even if it hadn’t been filled with hot vampires. I saw it as a haven.
I bought the soundtrack and danced around my room where I’d taken all my mom’s candlesticks and where, eventually, she let me hang frilly black curtains we found at the craft store. Some of the best quotes come from the Poe—I mean Frog brothers—but because sometimes simple, direct dialogue is best. My favorite from this film? “Kill your brother. You’ll feel better.”
3. Edward Scissorhands – Tim Burton (1990)
I know this is another Burton film, but I want you to understand how groundbreaking work like his seemed to me while growing up in the bible belt. I was hooked and this one, my friends, is a Promethean gothic romance. As I watched it again recently, I found the parallels between Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein fairly obvious, but remember, I had not yet read these stories when I first saw this film. I was 13-years-old.
By that age, I already discovered Ray Bradbury, the Bunnicula (vampire bunnies!) children’s novels series, Stephen King, and some Poe. I was raised on reruns of television shows like Bewitched, The Addams Family, The Munsters, The Twilight Zone, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. So, when an inventor (Vincent Price, whose role in Edward Scissorhands is reason enough to love this film) creates something human-like but dies before his creation is finished, I couldn’t resist.
Poor Edward, the “creation” is alone in the run-down castle atop the hill of an alternate reality 1980s suburbia, which seems to be set in a mid-century bubble but with videotapes indicating the era-appropriate tech. Is this a psychological commentary on screenwriter Caroline Thompson’s childhood? After all, she also wrote The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride and deserves more credit than she receives. Perhaps.
The filmmakers wrap Johnny Depp in leather, “scar” him up, and affix him with large scissors for hands. I fell hard for Edward, as did Kim, played by an inexplicably blond Winona Ryder. I loved how the nurturing mom (Dianne Wiest, all hail the queen), took in this outcast without a thought. But of course, when the novelty wears off, the town turns on Edward.
If this were Jane Eyre, Edward would be the “madwoman in the attic”. If you’ve never read the fabulous book of literary criticism of the same name written by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, I highly recommend it. Essentially, Edward Scissorhands is a commentary about how dominant cultures mistreat “outcasts” and “others”. It looks into ethics and nature versus nurture, much like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein does. We see the crumbling house trope in the castle of course, but Gothicism also loves to gaze on a “freak” in judgment leaving the reader to ask the ever-present question—who is the real monster?
Maybe these films are where I learned my own patterns of doomed affection for maladjusted yet tender-hearted and unavailable folks. Hmm. Let’s put that in the box under the sofa as well. But Edward makes snow for her all their remaining days! Sometimes she still dances in it! This is all totally healthy behavior. Seriously though; it is in these films that I nurtured what was already a great tenderness for outcasts because I can relate to them.
4. The Dark Crystal – Jim Henson and Frank Oz (1982)
With a tagline like, “When evil screams throughout the world, when all three suns converge, when all that’s fair and fine seems lost… a hero will emerge!” one can guess that The Dark Crystal isn’t your usual scary animation film for kids. In interviews, Henson spoke often about how he wanted to return to a darker form of storytelling in the vein of the Brothers Grimm. His frequent collaborator, Frank Oz, told The San Francisco Chronicle, “He thought it was fine to scare children…he didn’t think it was healthy for children to always feel safe.” If you didn’t see The Dark Crystal when it debuted in 1982, it might lose a little something to the ages, but the five-year-old inside me holds it clutched to her aging heart.
It’s essentially a hero’s journey and like all tales of this nature, our young protagonist, Jen, an elf-like creature called a Gelfling, has been chosen as the one to restore order to the universe. To do this, he must leave the peaceful Mystics who’ve raised him and travel to Aughra, a great sorceress, who tells him he must return the shard that he’s carrying to the dark crystal. But the dark crystal is housed in the castle where the evil Skeksis rule with malice, greed, and great cruelty.
Within the first five minutes of the film, we see death for both sides, but the image that had me screaming in horror and digging my nails into my elder sibling’s arm is the literal rotting of the Skeksi emperor’s corpse. The damned dead thing crumbles grotesquely. Then there is a duel for power. The Skeksi use the dark crystal’s power to drain a peaceful species’ life essence, which they consume as a sort of fountain of youth serum. Their victims, of course, wilt and die. That was a lot for a five-year-old. And yet, the masterful puppetry, the setting inspired by Brian Froud’s drawings, and the storytelling had me hooked. (The filming took years, and each animatronic puppet required at least four people to perform.) I’m not saying I had the soundtrack for The Dark Crystal on vinyl or a film poster on my wall in college, but I’m not saying I didn’t.
As a human with a quote from “The Rainbow Connection” – an Oscar-nominated song from the original 1976 Muppet Movie – tattooed on her wrist, it was tough to settle on just one of Henson’s stories. I could just as easily have put any of his work here. But the decay, horror, class consciousness, and ultimate hope of The Dark Crystal is a work of genius.
5. The NeverEnding Story – Wolfgang Petersen (1984)
If you were a kid when this film came out and you weren’t completely traumatized by the sinking-in-muck death of the beloved horse, I question your emotional well-being. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The plot of The NeverEnding Story is seemingly every kid’s dream: a troubled young boy becomes a part of the enchanted book he’s reading to escape an unsatisfying home life. Since I was just six years old when this film came out, I wished and wished hard that this could really happen to me, too. And though I knew better before long, at that moment I, too, was a child of great faith and magical thinking. I asked questions about the difference between storytelling and books like Bastion’s of the Bible, which did not go over well with the adult figures in my life.
As I became a preteen, pesky mental health symptoms began revealing themselves, and I watched The NeverEnding Story again, and again. I fell a little bit in love with Atreyu, who is summoned to find a cure for the dying child empress of Fantasia. If I had been able to conjure Falkor, the luck dragon, (basically a giant flying golden retriever) I’d have left North Carolina in my rearview without a thought.
As these stories often are, The NeverEnding Story is about losing that magic of child-like imagination. The villain, called “the Nothing”, manifests as a black wolf. I could not help but see that creature as a metaphor for looming mental illness. I would later learn that depression has been called “the black dog” as far back as classical mythology and medieval folklore.
At high school, I was one of the only people I knew on antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication. I fainted at school. I had horrid panic attacks complete with chest pains that led to hospital visits. I didn’t learn to drive. I cried and hid in bathroom stalls hoping for a way out, a way to exorcise the “nothing” within. Aside from all the good and proper things like therapy, medication, and exercise, the most important thing to keeping the “nothing” in its cage is storytelling.
Maybe, like Atreyu, I’m a conjurer after all.