The Bloody History of Fangoria, the Magazine That Changed the Way We View Horror Movies

Andrew C. Wood
Andrew C. Wood

During a gathering of Parliament in the 1980s, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher held up a copy of an American periodical. Declaring it “absolutely appalling,” Thatcher referenced England’s Obscene Publications Act of 1959 as cause for banning it.

It wasn’t Playboy, Penthouse, or any other pornographic material. Thatcher was waving around a copy of Fangoria.

From 1979 to 2015, the monthly magazine cast a spotlight on horror films, long considered the red light district of cinema. But Fangoria never turned its nose up at genre filmmaking: It treated both the industry and its fans with reverence, taking a measured and thorough approach to covering the directors, actors, makeup artists, and other behind-the-scenes artists who powered everything from the slasher explosion of the 1980s to the self-aware postmodern horror of the 2000s.

“Horror was exploding in all directions,” Michael Gingold, Fangoria’s former editor-in-chief, tells Mental Floss. “You had movies like [1981's] An American Werewolf in London, which won an Oscar for Best Make-Up, and [1982's] The Thing. It launched at the right time and became a force in covering horror.”

Why would Thatcher care? Like the movies it covered, Fangoria didn’t shy away from the grotesque, granting coverage to some of the grisliest special effects in the industry. If Good Housekeeping was known for its holiday dinner table spreads, Fangoria was instantly identifiable for the severed limbs, dangling eyeballs, and mucus-covered creatures that adorned its covers and interior spreads. For gorehounds who might not yet have been old enough to see an R-rated movie, Fangoria was the next best thing.

“It was the forbidden fruit aspect,” Gingold says. “You couldn’t get in to see the movie without a parent, but you could see the images.”

A 'Fangoria' cover featuring 'An American Werewolf in London'
Courtesy of Cinestate

When Fangoria launched in 1979, there was little indication it would go on to become the premier horror chronicle on newsstands. The magazine was conceived by Starlog publishers Kerry O’Quinn and Norman Jacobs. That publication, with its heavy emphasis on sci-fi properties like Star Trek, seemed a poor fit for the growing number of creature-feature titles arriving in cinemas and hitting the burgeoning home video market.

O’Quinn put Godzilla on the cover of the first issue, which was originally titled Fantastica before Jacobs recommended changing it to Fangoria. It didn’t sell well, though it had at least one fan in a then-adolescent Gingold. “Godzilla was what attracted me to it,” he says, “but that first issue also had something about Dawn of the Dead. This was the post-Halloween era, and Newsweek had even done an article on the horror boom. Slowly but surely, horror took over more and more of the magazine.”

By its seventh issue, Fangoria had found its focus and its audience—one underserved by traditional movie magazines. “No other magazine was covering horror like Fangoria,” Gingold says. Famous Monsters of Filmland—the first major horror magazine, which debuted in 1958—was more of an earnest look at the Universal-style monster icons, but it was largely written for a juvenile audience. Fangoria, Gingold says, “got into the nuts and bolts of filmmaking. It would cover Tom Savini movies.”

Savini, who rose to prominence with his work on Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th, was a horror makeup master. Along with other effects experts like Rob Bottin (The Fog, The Thing) and Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London, Thriller), Fangoria’s coverage made them celebrities. “Savini basically became a rock star of horror,” Gingold says. “They became as big a name as the actors or directors.”

While fans were curious to hear what Robert Englund had to say about the latest A Nightmare on Elm Street entry, they were equally fascinated with whether effects artist Robert Kurtzman would be returning to perfect Freddy Krueger’s deep-fried appearance.

The lurid visuals of Fangoria became the publication's hallmark—one that incited Thatcher and probably prompted a lot of concerned parents to take stacks of their kids' saved copies out to the recycling bin.

“We wanted the most gruesome image possible without being distasteful,” Tony Timpone, who became Fangoria's editor-in-chief in 1987, tells Mental Floss. “We loved putting slasher icons on the covers. Zombie movies always sold well. We were kind of the bad boy of newsstands.”

Magazine distributors would periodically junk Fangoria if controversy arose, like the time an actress’s nipple was visible in a photo. Timpone also caught flak when one of his writers quoted a scene from 1987’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, where Freddy drops a four-letter profanity. “Some kid in grammar school started screaming it and told his mother he learned it in Fangoria,” Timpone says. “We got thrown off newsstands that month.”

A 'Fangoria' cover featuring a Tom Savini creation
Courtesy of Cinestate

Because of its reach, Fangoria sometimes did more than just chronicle a film’s release; it could help change the fortunes of filmmakers whose work editors endorsed. While Gingold was still a reader—he joined the magazine full-time in 1990, fresh out of college, and later became managing editor—he recalls how the magazine’s heavy coverage of 1981’s The Evil Dead was crucial in helping spread the word about director Sam Raimi’s inventive gorefest about a sap (Bruce Campbell) trapped in a cabin with access to a dimension of evil. “Stephen King first endorsed it in Twilight Zone magazine, and then Fangoria saw it and loved it,” Gingold says. “That launched it into the consciousness of horror fans.”

As managing editor, Gingold once screened an amateur film by a then-unknown director named Guillermo del Toro. He wrote del Toro a brief note with some words of encouragement, a fact del Toro later said inspired him to continue his career. (Earlier this year, del Toro won two Oscars for his most recent film, The Shape of Water—one for Best Director, the other for Best Picture.)

Gingold also recalls seeing a draft of From Dusk Till Dawn, a vampire tale written by a then-largely-unknown filmmaker named Quentin Tarantino. “It was a dot-matrix printout.”

A 'Fangoria' cover featuring the film 'Ghost Story'
Courtesy of Cinestate

Perks aside, Gingold joined the magazine's staff at a time when the horror genre was beginning to struggle a bit. While Fangoria’s fortunes soared with Krueger—the magazine’s ad sales department claimed a circulation of 250,000 in the late 1980s—the slasher genre was fading, as Freddy, Jason Vorhees, and Michael Myers were slowing. “It was the post-slasher era, and horror had kind of a bad rep," Gingold says. "Sometimes a serious filmmaker would make a serious movie, like [1992’s Francis Ford Coppola-directed] Dracula, but it often wasn’t taken seriously.”

Fangoria was, of course, ready to carry the torch, but studios weren’t always amenable to cooperating. “Later in the 1990s there was this idea of, 'Well, let’s not give everything away,'” Gingold says. “I remember one time we couldn’t get Dimension to send us photos of Michael Myers, even though he’d been in several sequels already.”

Sometimes, studios wouldn’t even acknowledge that a film they were releasing was a horror film. “New Line didn’t consider Se7en a horror movie,” Gingold says. “They wouldn’t set up coverage.” In cases where studios didn’t care to address the fans they should’ve been catering to, editors would go through alternative contacts. In almost all cases, “actors and directors would be happy to talk to us.”

When the horror genre slowed down, the magazine found itself going off-brand. One cover featured 1991’s big-screen reimagining of The Addams Family; the following year, it was Batman Returns. It may have been the only time a Fangoria cover subject had a Happy Meal tie-in.

A 'Fangoria' cover featuring Michael Myers
Courtesy of Cinestate

While horror eventually experienced a massive resurgence thanks in part to the Scream franchise, a proliferation of found footage films like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, and a steady stream of reasonably budgeted thrillers like The Purge series that cost studios little and paid dividends, Fangoria grew mired in the transition of film coverage from print to the web. Gingold was let go in 2016, prompting an outpouring of support from industry names like del Toro. The year prior, Fangoria printed what would be the last issue of its original incarnation.

“It was actually able to hang in there for a long time because it was a niche publication,” Gingold says. “It lasted long after other movie magazines like Premiere had folded.”

Like the most durable horror villains, it’s also coming back from the dead. This month marks the resurrection of Fangoria as a quarterly print publication under the leadership of film company Cinestate, which bought the brand in early 2018 and plans to release films under the Fangoria banner—including the recent script acquisition After Birth, described as a female-driven take on the Frankenstein fable. Former Birth.Movies.Death. editor-at-large Phil Nobile Jr. was named editor-in-chief of Fangoria's new iteration. For Nobile, it’s an opportunity to perpetuate a brand that’s become synonymous with taking the horror genre seriously.

“Outsiders and people who just don’t get it did—and do—see the mag as a celebration of blood and guts, but for those who know what’s up, Fangoria was a celebration of hands-on filmmaking,” Nobile tells Mental Floss. “Hopefully we’ve retained that in the new iteration.”

Both Gingold and Timpone will be contributors. And what would the late Margaret Thatcher think? “She would still be appalled,” Timpone says.

Batmania: When Batman Ruled the Summer of 1989

JD Hancock, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
JD Hancock, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

“Flop” is how marketing research group Marketing Evaluation Inc. assessed the box office potential of the 1989 Warner Bros. film Batman. The big-budget production, directed by Tim Burton and co-starring Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, was expected to be one of the rare times a major Hollywood studio took a comic book adaptation seriously. But according to the marketing data, the character of Batman was not as popular as the Incredible Hulk, who was then appearing in a slate of made-for-television movies. And he was only a quarter as appealing as the California Raisins, the claymation stars of advertising.

That prediction was made in 1988. The film was released on June 23, 1989, and went on to gross $253.4 million, making it the fifth most successful motion picture up to that point.

While Marketing Evaluation may have miscalculated the movie’s potential, they did hedge their bet. By the time profits from the movie’s merchandising—hats, shirts, posters, toys, bed sheets, etc.—were tallied, the company said, Warner Bros. could be looking at a sizable haul.

When the cash registers stopped ringing, the studio had sold $500 million in tie-in products, which was double the gross of the film itself.

In 1989, people didn’t merely want to see Batman—they wanted to wear the shirts, eat the cereal, and contemplate, if only for a moment, putting down $499.95 for a black denim jacket studded with rhinestones.

Batmania was in full swing. Which made it even more unusual when the studio later claimed the film had failed to turn a profit.

 

The merchandising blitz of Star Wars in 1977 gave studios hope that ambitious science-fiction and adventure movies would forever be intertwined with elaborate licensing strategies. George Lucas's space opera had driven audiences into a frenzy, leading retailers to stock up on everything from R2-D2 coffee mugs to plastic lightsabers. It was expected that other “toyetic” properties would follow suit.

They didn’t. Aside from 1982’s E.T., there was no direct correlation between a film’s success and demand for ancillary product. In 1984 alone, Gremlins, Ghostbusters, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were smash hits. None of them motivated people to flock to stores and buy Gizmo plush animals or toy proton packs. (Ghostbusters toys eventually caught on, but only after an animated series helped nudge kids in their direction.)

Warner Bros. saw Batman differently. When the script was being developed, producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber were urging writers to make sure scenes were aligned with planned merchandising. They scribbled notes insisting that no onscreen harm come to the Batmobile: It should remain pristine so that kids would want to grab the toy version. As Batman, millionaire Bruce Wayne had a collection of vehicles and gadgets at his disposal—all props that could be replicated in plastic. Batman's comic book origins gave him a unique iconography that lent itself to flashy graphic apparel.

In March 1989, just three months before the film's release, Warner Bros. announced that it was merging with Time Inc. to create the mega-conglomerate Time-Warner, which would allow the film studio to capitalize on a deep bench of talent to help drive the “event” feel of the film.

Prince was signed to Warner's record label and agreed to compose an album of concept music that was tied to the characters; “Batdance" was among the songs and became a #1 hit. Their licensing arm, Licensing Corporation of America, contracted with 300 licensees to create more than 100 products, some of which were featured in an expansive brochure that resembled a bat-eared Neiman Marcus catalog. The sheer glut of product became a story, as evidenced by this Entertainment Tonight segment on the film's licensing push:

In addition to the rhinestone jacket, fans could opt for the Batman watch ($34.95), a baseball cap ($7.95), bicycle shorts ($26.95), a matching top ($24.95), a model Batwing ($29.95), action figures ($5.95), and a satin jacket modeled by Batman co-creator Bob Kane ($49.95).

The Batman logo became a way of communicating anticipation for the film. The virtually textless teaser poster, which had only the June 23 opening date printed on it, was snapped up and taped to walls. (Roughly 1200 of the posters sized for bus stops and subways were stolen, a crude but effective form of market research.) In barber shops, people began asking to have the logo sheared into the sides of their heads. The Batman symbol was omnipresent. If you had forgotten about the movie for even five minutes, someone would eventually walk by sporting a pair of Batman earrings to remind you.

At Golden Apple Comics in Los Angeles, 7000 packs of Batman trading cards flew out the door. Management hired additional staff and a security guard to handle the crowds. The store carried 36 different kinds of Batman T-shirts. Observers compared the hysteria to the hula hoop craze of the 1950s.

One retailer made a more contemporary comparison. “There’s no question Batman is the hottest thing this year,” Marie Strong, manager of It’s a Small World at a mall in La Crosse, Wisconsin, told the La Crosse Tribune. “[It’s] the hottest [thing] since Spuds McKenzie toward the end of last year.”

 

By the time Batman was in theaters and breaking records—it became the first film to make $100 million in just 10 days, alerting studios to the idea of short-term profits—the merchandising had become an avalanche. Stores that didn’t normally carry licensed goods, like Macy’s, set up displays.

Not everyone opted for officially-licensed apparel: U.S. marshals conducted raids across the country, seizing more than 40,000 counterfeit Batman shirts and other bogus items.

Collectively, Warner raked in $500 million from legitimate products. In 1991, the Los Angeles Times reported that the studio claimed only $2.9 million in profit had been realized from merchandising and that the movie itself was in a $35.8 million financial hole owing to excessive promotional and production costs. It was a tale typical of creative studio accounting, long a method for avoiding payouts to net profit participants. (Nicholson, whose contract stipulated a cut of all profits, earned $50 million.)

Whatever financial sleight-of-hand was implemented, Warner clearly counted on Batman to be a money-printing operation. Merchandising plans for the sequel, 1992’s Batman Returns, were even more strategic, including a tie-in agreement with McDonald’s for Happy Meals. In a meta moment, one deleted script passage even had Batman’s enemies attacking a toy store in Gotham full of Batman merchandise. The set was built but the scene never made it onscreen.

The studio was willing to give Burton more control over the film, which was decidedly darker and more sexualized than the original. Batman Returns was hardly a failure, but merchandising was no longer as hot as it was in the summer of 1989. Instead of selling out of shirts, stores ended up marking down excess inventory. McDonald’s, unhappy with the content of the film, enacted a policy of screening movies they planned to partner with before making any agreements. By the time Warner released 1995’s Batman Forever, the franchise was essentially a feature-length toy commercial.

It paid off. Licensing for the film topped $1 billion. Today, given the choice between a film with Oscar-level prestige or one with the potential to have its logo emblazoned on a rhinestone jacket that people would actually want to buy, studios would probably choose the latter. In that sense, the Batmania of 1989 endures.

Up in the Air: When 'Balloon Boy' Took Flight

John Moore, Getty Images
John Moore, Getty Images

It was like a Weekly World News cover come to life. On October 15, 2009, most of the major network and cable broadcasters interrupted their daytime programming to cover what appeared to be a silver flying saucer streaking through the air. Out of context, it was as though the world was getting its first sight of a genuine UFO.

Reading the scroll at the bottom, or listening to the somewhat frantic newscasters, provided an explanation: It was not alien craft but a homemade balloon that had inadvertently taken off from the backyard of a family home in Fort Collins, Colorado. That, of course, was not inherently newsworthy. What made this story must-see television was the fact that authorities believed a 6-year-old boy was somehow trapped inside.

As the helium-filled balloon careened through the air and toward Denver International Airport, millions of people watched and wondered if its passenger could survive the perilous trip. When the craft finally touched down after floating for some 60 miles, responders surrounded it, expecting the worst. The boy was nowhere to be seen. Had he already fallen out?

The brief saga that became known as the Balloon Boy incident was one of the biggest indictments of the burgeoning worlds of reality television and breathless 24/7 news coverage. It seemed to check off every box that observers associated with societal decline. There was the morbidity of a child speeding through the air without control; the unwavering gaze of news networks who cut away from reports on world affairs and even ignored their commercial breaks to obtain footage of an aircraft that measure around 20 feet wide and 5 feet high and resembled a bag of Jiffy Pop.

 

The boy in question was Falcon Heene, one of Richard and Mayumi Heene's three children. The couple had met in California and bonded over their mutual desire to get into the entertainment business. Richard dreamed of becoming a comedian; Mayumi played guitar. The couple married in 1997 and eventually relocated to Colorado; they got their first taste of Hollywood in 2008, when they made their first of two appearances on the reality series Wife Swap.

But Richard Heene wanted more. The avid tinkerer envisioned a show that followed his family around, while at the same time working on his new inventions—one of which was sitting in his backyard. It was essentially a Mylar balloon staked to the ground, which he would later describe as a very early prototype for a low-altitude commuter vehicle.

 sheriff's deputies seach a field for Falcon Heene before learning he had been found October 15, 2009 southeast of Ft. Collins, Colorado
Sheriff's deputies search a Colorado field for Falcon Heene before learning he had been found safe at home.
John Moore, Getty Images

It was this balloon, Bradford Heene told police in 2009, that his brother Falcon had climbed into just before it had taken flight. Earlier, Richard said, Falcon had been playing near the contraption and was scolded for potentially creating a dangerous situation. Now, Falcon was gone, the balloon was in the air, and Falcon's parents feared the worst. Mayumi called the authorities.

“My other son said that Falcon was at the bottom of the flying saucer,” Mayumi told the 911 dispatcher. “I can’t find him anywhere!”

As news cameras watched and the National Guard and U.S. Forest Service followed, the balloon reached an altitude of 7000 feet. Police made a painstaking search of the Heene household, looking for any sign of Falcon. After three passes, they determined it was possible he was inside the balloon.

Approximately one hour later, the balloon seemed to deflate. Authorities cleared the air space near Denver International Airport and greeted the craft as it landed, tethering it to the ground so no air current could hoist it back up and out of reach.

No one was inside the small cabin under the balloon, which left three possibilities: Falcon was hiding somewhere, he had run away ... or he had fallen out.

 

Not long after the craft had landed, a police officer at the Heene house decided to investigate an attic space above the garage. It had gone ignored because it didn’t seem possible Falcon could have reached the entrance on his own.

Yet there he was, hiding.

Elated, authorities explained to the media that they thought Falcon had untethered the balloon by accident and then hid because he knew his father would be upset with him.

Jim Alderden, the sheriff of Colorado's Larimer County, assured reporters that the Heenes had not done anything suspect. They demonstrated all the concern for their missing child that one would expect. Alderden stuck to that even after the Heenes were interviewed on CNN and Falcon appeared to slip up. When asked by Wolf Blitzer if he had heard his parents calling for him, the boy admitted that he had but was ignoring them “for a show.”

Though the Heenes seemed to scramble to cover up for their son's gaffe, Blitzer didn’t appear to register the comment at first. He came back around to it, though, insisting on clarification. Richard would later state that Falcon was referring to the news cameras who wanted to see where he had been hiding. That was the "show" he meant.

Alderden reiterated that he didn’t think the boy could remain still and quiet for five hours in an attic if he had been instructed to. But he admitted the CNN interview raised questions. After initially clearing the family of any wrongdoing, Alderden said he would sit down and speak to them again.

Within the week, Alderden was holding a press conference with an entirely different mood. He solemnly explained that the Heenes had perpetuated a hoax and speculated that they could be charged with up to three felonies, including conspiracy and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Outlets had already tracked down an associate of Richard’s who detailed his reality series idea, with one episode devoted to the balloon.

 

Richard and Mayumi voluntarily turned themselves into authorities. They each pled guilty: Richard for attempting to influence a public servant and Mayumi for making a false report. In addition to paying $36,016 in restitution, Richard wound up with a 90-day jail sentence, 60 days of which was served on supervised work release. Mayumi got 20 days. Though they pled guilty, Richard maintained that he and his family had not perpetuated any kind of a hoax. In a 2010 video posted to YouTube, Richard said he only pled guilty because authorities were threatening to deport his wife.

Mayumi, meanwhile, reportedly told police it had all been an act (though critics of the prosecution argued that Mayumi's imperfect English made that confession open to interpretation). Mayumi later stated she had no firm understanding of the word "hoax."

Richard Heene and his wife, Mayumi Heene (R) are flanked by members of the media after they both plead guilty to charges related to the alleged hoax of the couple claiming that their son, Falcon Heene was last month onboard a helium balloon, at the Larime
Richard and Mayumi Heene surrounded by the media after they both plead guilty to charges related to the "Balloon Boy Hoax" on November 13, 2009.
Matt McClain, Getty Images

In addition to the fine and jail sentences, the judge also mandated that the family not seek to profit from the incident for a period of four years, which meant any potential for Richard to grab a reality show opportunity would be put on hold until long after the public had lost interest in the "Balloon Boy."

The Heenes moved to Florida in 2010, and soon after their three boys formed a heavy metal band—reputed to be the world’s youngest—dubbed the Heene Boyz. They’ve self-released several albums, and in 2014 even released a song called "Balloon Boy No Hoax."

Richard also peddles some of his inventions, including a wall-mounted back scratcher that allows users to alleviate itching by rubbing up against it. It’s called the Bear Scratch.

While discussing the Heenes' misguided flight, one Cleveland outlet recalled that Falcon wasn't the first "Balloon Boy." In 1931, 4-year-old Bill Crawford's father strapped him to a seat attached to a helium-filled balloon and allowed the child to float up to 50 feet in the air, much to the amazement of onlookers. For willfully endangering his son, the elder Crawford was cheered by crowds desperate for any sort of amusement during the Great Depression.

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