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.”
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.”
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.)
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.
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.