Chainsaws, possession and vampires: it’s often been said that the 1970s was the golden age of horror. I, for my part, can remember sitting up late, watching the Hammer House of Horror TV series, pop-eyed with terror but desperate not to make a sound for fear of being packed off to bed. It was fortunate (or not) that this horror arcadia also coincided with the laissez-faire era of parenting, when you could get away with pretty much anything as long as you didn’t bother anyone. As a result, as a 10-year-old, I saw many Unsuitable Films: The Omen; The Shining; Blood on Satan’s Claw; Dark Night of the Scarecrow; The Amityville Horror.
Many plotlines seared their way into my subconscious with the intensity of George Foreman grill on a salmon steak. Even today, I sometimes wake up, sweaty and wild-eyed, from a dream of pitchforks, moving topiary animals and demonic pigs whose eyes glow red in the darkness outside my bedroom window.
But judging by the plethora of horror novels around at the moment – specifically those aimed at children – I deduce I’m not the only one. My son was recently reading Anthony Horowitz’s The Hitchhiker. Peering over his shoulder – I know, I know, but it looked good! – I felt a pang of recognition. The story centres on a family, returning from a holiday in torrential rain, who stop their car in order to pick up a hitchhiker. So far, so scary. The more I read, the more familiar it seemed. I was transported back to a particularly disturbing Hammer House of Horror episode in which a family pick up a hiker dressed in a yellow fisherman’s slicker. The new passenger – predictably – turns out to be a homicidal maniac who slaughters the inhabitants of the car with his unfeasibly long fingernails. I hate it when that happens.
This is not an accusation of plagiarism. Far from it. What happens next in Horowitz’s story is nothing like television series (there’s no spoiler here, but I can divulge there is a Hitchcockian twist). This is more an observation that the ubiquitous, highly memorable horror films that reached a zenith in the seventies, with their incredibly vivid imagery and sharp storylines, may act as a spur for today’s novelists.
Take the new Dark Reads series from Badger Learning. Aimed at reluctant readers, these books unashamedly draw their inspiration from retro horror movies and books. So Red Handed draws on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray; The Black Eyed Girl is Candyman and Dr Jekyll and Little Miss Hyde – c’mon, you know where I’m going with this. My personal favourite is The Wicker Man-inspired Straw Men. Not only is that one of my favourite films of all time, but also the author Ann Evans said her initial inspiration came from Crick Scarecrow Festival, which is held annually in a village near to me. I’ve always thought it was creepy.
Why are so many of these horror-inspired books aimed at young readers? I’m not sure, but I think it may be to do with the age of many of our current authors. Who can forget the tingle of watching a horror film as a child? Who can remember the jaw-dropping horror of lying awake in the dark, unable to sleep because of the storyline replaying over and over in your head? The abundance of children’s horror writing today may come from an inherent desire of authors to create the same spine-chilling thrill for an as-yet unjaded palate.
So while the 70s may well have been the golden age of horror, I think what we may be seeing here is the second (platinum?) era, in which the stories that inspired us the first time around are unfolded, remodelled and redesigned in readiness to terrify a fresh generation of readers.