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04 Oct

Chapter on Television in 1980s' Horror

Written by Michael Fuchs
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The Monster is in the TV! The Television as an Entryway into the American Home

The number of American homes owning televisions skyrocketed between 1948 and 1954. As a result, film viewed the new medium as an emerging competition. Tellingly, as early as 1953, the horror/sf satire The Twonky reflected on the power of television, as its characters faced a mind-controlling television set. When, in the 1980s, the end of the network era revolutionized television, films took an even closer look at their sister medium.

Accordingly, my proposed contribution to this volume on 1980s horror cinema will center on the depiction of television in horror movies, two films in particular, Poltergeist (1982), a big-budget production (relatively speaking), and TerrorVision (1986), a low-budget movie. In my proposed contribution, I will argue that the movies mine various cultural fears characteristic of the 1980s and reveal different specters haunting American culture: For example, Poltergeist taps into White guilt over Native American displacement, while TerrorVision draws on anxieties concerning outside (read: communist) enemies.

More importantly, I would argue, both movies are decidedly set in the middle of the (suburban) American home. By the 1980s, a specific object had taken over the spotlight there: the TV set. Television, both films suggest, is evil, and both movies warn against overvaluing the "omnidirectional sludge pump" (as The Simpsons' Sideshow Bob once referred to the magic box). Yet, as I will argue, beneath this rather superficial understanding of the films lurks a more sweeping critique of American culture in the 1980s: As both movies demonstrate, television drew Americans away from real-world issues—political, social, and economic. This televisual diversion allowed the Reagan administration to govern the way they did.