Think of the biggest horror fan you know, whether it's a friend, family member, or even yourself. Chances are, there's a horror film or TV show from their childhood so impactful it sent them on a lifelong horror-loving path. Maybe The Exorcist injected the love into their horror heart of hearts. Perhaps they're a millennial captivated by campy '90s slashers like Scream or I Know What You Did Last Summer. But what about kids these days? What's rousing the young genre souls of Gen Z and the youth thereafter? What if, instead of films, video games have taken the lead when it comes to horror titles ushering in the next generation?
I grew up in a bit of a sweet spot around a family that embraced horror of all mediums. I vividly remember being plopped down in front of a big box TV with my siblings as my parents turned on Halloween while we sorted the candy we'd collected from trick-or-treating. While I consider that to be a seminal horror memory, I also recall watching my mom play The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask on our jungle green, translucent Nintendo 64, being enamored by the horror elements of the game, and feeling the compulsion to pick up the controller to explore more of it myself. My gateway horror journey was very multi-medium.
But what exactly is gateway horror anyway? "I would define gateway horror as a sub-genre of horror designed to allow the viewer to experience the genre at an entry-level," says Rainier Croft, owner of the social media account, Horror4Kids. With over 100k followers across Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, Horror4Kids highlights horror media spanning decades geared towards younger audiences. From vintage spooky adverts featuring Donald Pleasance to clips from recent animated hits like Gravity Falls. "I'm careful not to use words like 'softer' or 'toned down' [when describing gateway horror] because I feel like those terms do a disservice to some of the amazing G, PG, and PG-13 horror titles that we grew up on," says Croft.
While one person's definition of what constitutes gateway horror may differ from the next, the fact is that there's a sizable amount of horror fans and enthusiasts that credit their genre love to the media they resonated with from an early age. "Gateway horror is so needed," says Croft. "Some of the biggest names in horror often credit gateway horror as what piqued an interest in the careers that they have now. I humbly believe that a part of Horror4Kids' success can be attributed to gateway horror and the nostalgia attached to what made them fall in love with the genre."
So how has gateway horror changed in recent years? Kids are no longer limited to consuming the regimented scheduling of cable television shows and films, nor do they have to ask a stranger at a theater to buy them a ticket so they can sneak into a movie without a parent or guardian. Personal devices and the Internet have completely altered the paradigm and have expanded the frontier of accessible gateway horror to include more media, like video games. It's as easy to download the Netflix app on your phone now as it is to download the Dead By Daylight game.
The playing field has changed. Twenty years ago, young horror fans would likely only throw out names like Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees as their genre inspiration. Kids nowadays may name-drop characters like Five Nights at Freddy's Freddy Fazbear or horror survival game Poppy Playtime's Huggy Wuggy. If you stumble into a Target sometime soon, look in the kids' section, and you'll likely notice a whole lot of Five Nights at Freddy's merch. "I'll say that kids today are embracing horror more than kids ten to twenty years ago," says Croft. "But that's because of how much more there is and how much more accessible it is. [With video games], you can play with friends, and you don't even have to be in the same country as them. Being able to play these games online is a great way to build friendships and community with other horror lovers."
In the same way that older horror fans look back at seeing their first horror movie at a drive-in, in a theater, or on a big box TV with their family and regard it as formative to their genre love, younger fans may be creating those memories right now by playing through their first Resident Evil, or the new Ghostbusters game with friends on their Nintendo Switch. As video games become more cinematic, even to the point of essentially acting as interactive horror movies (see Supermassive Games' The Quarry and its Movie Night mode), gateway horror is sure to become even more complex and nuanced.
Whether or not you expect one medium will surpass the other in terms of which is more effective at rallying the next generation is a matter of personal opinion. Croft aligns himself more with the film/television camp. "There's just more of it, and it's easier to access right now. Kids feel the ripple effects of the hype whenever there's a blockbuster reboot of a horror franchise. IT really achieved this, kids gravitated towards Pennywise. Michael Myers is a close second with the Halloween reboot."
While I'm inclined to agree with Croft, I often find myself with one foot in both camps. I see how the innovation of video games appeals to younger folks; with the onset of social media, I'd argue we're headed toward being able to control our narratives. Video games satisfy that craving by letting you pick up the controller, and it's even more alluring in the context of horror when the stakes are so high, along with the level of personal investment.
Regardless, it seems when it comes to horror, the kids are alright. The amount of horror media being produced across one medium, let alone multiple mediums, is anything but sparse. Horror is more abundant and more embraced, and the genre is flourishing as a result. Whether it's films, television, or video games, we're moving in a direction that will surely cultivate an inspired next generation of horror enthusiasts and industry leaders. Croft shares the optimism. "If in ten to fifteen years some filmmaker, actor, or other creative says, 'When I was a kid, I'd follow Horror4Kids, and it led me to where I am now', I will be the happiest person on this planet."