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.

A Quick History of Hidden Camera TV Commercials

Consumer Time Capsule, YouTube
Consumer Time Capsule, YouTube

At restaurants like Tavern on the Green in New York and Arnaud’s in New Orleans, diners sitting down for formal meals are seen complimenting the waiter on their coffee. Just a few moments later, they’re informed it wasn’t the “gourmet” brew typically served, but a cup of Folgers Instant coffee that had been “secretly switched.” The surprised patrons then heap praise on their duplicitous waitstaff.

This scene and others like it played out hundreds of times in television commercials throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. Variations date as far back as the 1950s, and some commercials—like Chevrolet's now-infamous 2017 spot that depicted amazed onlookers marveling at the car company's numerous J.D. Power and Associates Awards—still air with regularity. Instead of using actors, the spots purport to highlight the reaction of genuine consumers to products, often with the use of hidden cameras positioned outside the unsuspecting customers' field of vision.

 

Despite skepticism, the people in these ads are often members of the general public offering their unrehearsed response to beverages, laundry detergents, and automobiles. That doesn’t mean, however, that there’s not a little bit of premeditation going on.

The idea of recording spontaneous reactions for advertising purposes dates back to the 1950s, when Procter & Gamble arranged for housewives to compare the whiteness of laundry washed in their Cheer detergent against the comparatively dingier load that resulted after a soak in the competition. The camera wasn’t “hidden” and the spokesman made no secret of his intentions—he was holding a microphone—but the women were approached in a laundromat and not a casting office. Those who appeared in such spots would receive a $108 fee, along with residuals that could add up to thousands if the commercial aired repeatedly.

This approach was refined by Bob Schwartz, a former director of the prank series Candid Camera. In 1969, Schwartz formed Eyeview Films and worked with ad agencies to capture spontaneous reactions to products. An early spot for the floor cleaner Spic and Span was a hit, and other companies and agencies followed the template. For a 1982 spot, Schwartz set up his crew in a supermarket and invited customers to try Oven Fry, a new frozen chicken product from General Mills. The most expressive reactions (“mmm-mmm!”) were invited to consent to be in the commercial.

In more controlled settings, it’s necessary for advertisers to make sure the pool of potential testimonials is suited for the product. Before filming spots like the Folgers tasting, a team of market research employees typically recruited people by inviting them to take part in polls on the street. They’re asked about coffee preferences—the better to establish whether they even like the beverage—and were then invited to a nearby restaurant for a free meal. Out of two dozen couples selected for a Folgers spot in San Francisco in 1980, two or three were selected for the commercial.

 

The Folgers spots aired for years and were memorable for how surprised people appeared to be that they had just consumed granulated crystals instead of fresh-brewed coffee. But that doesn’t mean viewers necessarily believed their reactions. A 1982 consumer survey found that consumers often found their endorsements too stiff, meaning they were prompted, or too natural, which hinted that they might be actors. Though ad agencies went to great lengths to assure authenticity, their praise made audiences dubious.

Why would non-actors shower products with compliments? It takes a bit of psychology on the part of the ad agencies. For Chevrolet's 2017 spot that was ridiculed for people overreacting to the mere sight of a car, one of the participants—who asked to remain anonymous due to a non-disclosure agreement—told The A.V. Club that the upbeat environment and surreal exposure to a new car after agreeing to take part in a market research survey left his group feeling like it would be rude to say anything negative.

“We never retook a take, but you felt really bad about saying something negative about Chevy because there were 50 cameras on you, and it was just this one [host],” he said. “He did this magic trick of making it seem like you were hurting his feelings if you said anything bad about Chevy. You didn’t want to see this guy stop smiling. It was really bizarre.”

Candid? Sure. As candid as if they were among friends and not a squad of marketing executives? That's a different story.

The Great Bart Simpson T-Shirt School Ban of 1990

Courtesy of The Captain's Vintage

At Lutz Elementary School in Fremont, Ohio, principal William Krumnow took to the public address system to deliver an important message. It was April 1990, late in the school year, but Krumnow’s announcement couldn’t wait. Over the intercom, he declared there would be a ban on T-shirts featuring Bart Simpson, the rebellious breakout star of The Simpsons.

Specifically, Krumnow was concerned with a shirt that featured Bart aiming a slingshot with the word underachiever emblazoned in quotes above him. “And proud of it, man!” Bart said. This, Krumnow felt, was an unnecessary bit of subversion in a place of learning.

"To be proud of being an incompetent is a contraction of what we stand for," Krumnow told Deseret News in May of that year. "We strive for excellence and to instill good values in kids … the show teaches the wrong things to students."

Krumnow was not alone. School district administrators in Florida, California, Michigan, Illinois, and Washington, D.C. were cracking down on the surge in Bart shirts, fearing his status as a miscreant would be the wrong kind of role model for kids to emulate.

 

The apparel ban was a result of the success of The Simpsons, which had premiered months earlier on December 17, 1989 and featured a dysfunctional nuclear family consisting of Homer and Marge Simpson and their children, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. It was an immediate hit for the fledging Fox network and led to a number of merchandising deals.

Bart Simpson of 'The Simpsons' television series is pictured on a T-shirt
Amazon

While the entire cast of the show was marketable, it was 10-year-old Bart who became the licensing phenomenon. An estimated 15 million Bart shirts were sold in 1990 alone, and there was no mystery as to why the character appealed to kids: He loved skateboarding. He hated school. He was a mirror image of millions of students across America. But unlike many of those students, Bart refused to censor himself, wielding a sharp tongue to match his spiky hair.

“Eat my shorts,” read one of the shirts. “I’m Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?” asked another.

While some of the shirts, which were priced from $11 to $14, weren’t as inflammatory—Bart urging “Don’t have a cow, man” was the top-seller—the more incendiary designs were what upset school officials. The language was inconsistent with what school districts considered to be appropriate attire, and several dug deep to justify prohibiting students from wearing them. They cited concerns that other students might find the words objectionable or offensive and believed Bart's rogue attitude was incompatible with a respectful environment.

At Memorial Junior High School in Lansing, Michigan, principal James Shrader got on the intercom to inform students the shirts would not be allowed. At Burnham Elementary in Burnham, Illinois, district superintendent—or, as Ralph Wiggum might say, district Super Nintendo—Al Vega was pleased no students had even attempted to wear the shirts.

“Hopefully it’s because parents feel the same way I do,” Vega said. “Why would parents allow kids to wear those to school? I, as a parent, am not going to let my kid wear that to school.”

 

Not all parents were on board with the ban. Orange, California's Jeannette Manning told People she was considering buying a shirt for her son “on principle.” Another mother, Maira Romero, couldn't understand why her 11-year-old son Alex was being reprimanded for wearing the shirt. "I’d much rather have him wearing a Bart Simpson [shirt] than one of those rock and roll T-shirts with the skull and crossbones on it,” Romero said.

Cartoonist and creator of "The Simpsons" stands 1992, with a cardboard cutout of Bart Simpson
'The Simpsons' creator Matt Groening stands next to a cardboard cutout of Bart Simpson in 1992.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Child development experts weren’t so sure, either. Some pointed out that when something is labeled off-limits, it becomes more attractive to teens who are prone to rebellion. Ignoring it and dismissing it as a fad was a better option, some said. At Wells High School in Chicago, principal David Peterson dismissed the idea the shirts had any kind of negative influence.

“It’s like a kid saying, ‘I hate school,’” he said. “Am I going to suspend him for that? I don’t think so.”

Students caught wearing the Bart shirts faced a variety of repercussions. At Brookwood Junior High in Glenwood, Illinois, teachers ordered students wearing the shirts to call their parents and have them bring a change of clothing. Other schools forced kids to turn the shirts inside-out. Some had teachers cover the offending words with tape. The controversy grew so widespread that by the summer of 1990, retail chain JCPenney decided to take the “underachiever” shirts off shelves in kid’s sizes. What some had dubbed the Bartlash had reached new heights.

 

Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, thought the shirt prohibition was silly. “I have no comment,” he said when asked about the backlash. “My folks taught me to respect elementary school principals, even the ones who have nothing better to do than tell kids what to wear.” But Groening couldn’t resist pointing out that the word “underachiever” appeared on the shirt in quotes, indicating that it was his (fictional) school officials who had given him that label. Bart was simply playing the hand he had been dealt.

Bart Simpson of 'The Simpsons' television series is pictured on a T-shirt
Amazon

“He didn’t call himself an underachiever,” Groening said. “He does not aspire to be an underachiever. If you’ll recall, this last season, Bart did save France.” (In “The Crepes of Wrath,” which aired in April 1990, Bart is sent to France as a foreign exchange student and exposes his two winemaking hosts who spike their product with antifreeze. He learns French in the process.)

While The Simpsons has gone on to broadcast another 30 seasons of television (and counting), observers who considered the shirts to be fads were correct. The furor quickly died down and kids found new iconography to wear. By June 1991, Simpsons shirts had been discarded in exchange for the cast of Fox’s other hit series, the sketch comedy In Living Color. (Homey the Clown was a bestseller.)

Today, you can find vintage Bart shirts on eBay or online clothing shops like The Captain's Vintage, which offers a classic Bart "Who the hell are you?" shirt in white for $89.99.

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