I grew up in the 70s and 80s. Fantasy existed in book form, but in other media it was pretty scarce, especially in a UK where only three TV channels existed. For a child looking for images to fit his imaginings of monsters and adventure, it was to the creepy and the kooky that it was easiest to turn.
In an era when fantasy was thin on the ground, horror and horror adjacent imagery was available, and helped to fire my imagination down darkened, inevitably velvet draped corridors. My favourite Top Trumps deck was not one of the many they had of cars (though I did love those), but their horror decks, dripping with gore and unafraid to be blood spattered in a way I’m sure today’s parents would be (ironically) quite horrified by. See the gruesome pics here! I have uncertain memories of an incompleted horror sticker album, (lushly painted with the stickers filling in the illustrations) like those produced by Panini for football, (in 1981 the craze swept my school, by 1982 nobody could be bothered anymore) but a brief internet search has revealed nothing to jog my memory banks.
Perhaps it is the yearly advent of Hallowe’en, but ‘frightening’ masks and costumes were readily available, and as children were permitted to indulge in it, images of horror were tolerated, allowing ghosts, skeletons, ghouls, the odd devil or demon, and of course vampires entry into everyday life. Zombies too, but I never really got into zombies. As a kid we had horror-lite in the form of Scooby doo and his gang (don’t talk to me about Scrappy), with all kinds of monsters to be debunked, but always the thrill of “What if it’s real this time?” and the occasional episode where something else possibly unexplained was seen by Scooby and Shaggy and slid away unapprehended as the grown-ups of the group laughed off the sandwich obsessed duo’s tale.
Of course Dr. Who scared the pants off me, with its wobbly sets and rubber monsters that drove me behind the sofa time and time again. Really, it was not just a cliché. I did hide behind the sofa. Dr Who could be a bit of everything: sci fi, fantastical, historical, contemporary, but the best episodes were the ones that scared me silly.
As I grew into a teen, and He-Man and Thundercats cartoons were still about the most fantasyesque offerings on TV, I stayed up later, and discovered the bodice-ripping glory of Hammer horror movies.
I still love watching these movies. I haven’t done so for a few years, so I think a binge watch may be in order, from the original 50s classics to the 60s retreads where you could play spot the reused sets and even shots from film to film, to the dog eared 70s, which, though the studio was struggling, still produced some flashes of past glories. Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter was a late classic, much beloved by me and my role playing mates, and not just for Caroline Munro!
What I found so great about the hammer movies was the atmosphere, especially in the early classics: Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein, The Mummy. The set design was so gothic, so opulent and over the top, that it created its own sense of place and time – you could not mistake a Hammer movie for anything else. Moreover the early movies especially took the time to linger on those details, and create a sense of something coming to upset that richly realised world. That combination of anticipation and suspense made a lasting impression on me. Yes, the movies got samey, and the impact muddled – I later tended to watch and rewatch them during my college years and after when they were running from 12-4 am and I’d got home from a night at the dancing and didn’t quite feel like sleeping yet. (Or, more often, when I was broke and couldn’t afford to go out, so stayed in and found what I could to watch on the now expanded four, yes four TV channels!!) Those movies became familiar companions, each with its own charm of Transylvanias filled with English folk sometimes bothering to do accents, most of the time giving it a miss.
So it was in horror that monsters lived, and magic was real, if often not on the side of the angels. A fantasy Top Trumps deck did finally appear, after I’d stopped playing them. Horror was a way into other world and realities, lush and atmospheric, thrilling to the mysteries of the unknown. Yes, they all too soon became campy retreads (which had their own fun charm), but some of the old magic still gleamed through at times! (Most often in the first act.) Horror became a channel for my desire for the fantastical, and perhaps some of it transferred the other way too, with my taste in fantasy having lingering elements of the touches of horror I so adored growing up.
Nowadays we live in a golden age of fantasy, with the insane cultural dominance of Game of Thrones that followed on from the massive impact of Harry Potter, which came on the heels of The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. Each wave has felt bigger than the one that came before, and now multiple TV shows have elements of, or are outright fantasy. It is hard to imagine now that once upon a time the closest we got to seeing the fantastical on TV (outside of cartoons) was by watching horror.