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.

Spit Take: The Story of Big League Chew

Amazon
Amazon

Rob Nelson watched the kid’s ritual with curiosity. It was the mid-1970s, and he and the kid were in Civic Stadium in Portland, Oregon, both working in the service of the Portland Mavericks, a rogue baseball team operating outside the purview of Major League Baseball. Nelson was a fledging player who sometimes got on the field but mostly stuck to selling tickets and coaching youth baseball camps. The kid, Todd Field, was the batboy. And what Field was doing fascinated Nelson.

Field, who couldn’t have been older than 11 or 12, took a Redman chewing tobacco pouch from his pocket, scooped out of a bunch of gunk, and stuffed it between his cheeks and gumline. Then he’d let the black goo dribble down his chin or hock it in the dirt.

Chewing tobacco was a common sight among the athletes, but Nelson hadn’t seen many kids take up the habit so early. He approached Field and asked if he was dipping, the common parlance for stuffing tobacco in one’s cheek pockets.

Field hocked another glob of brown discharge at the ground. He showed Nelson the tobacco tin, which was full of black licorice. Fields had minced it up so that he could replicate the muddy color of the real thing.

The exchange planted a seed in Nelson's brain. As a kid, he had done something vaguely similar, stuffing his mouth with bubblegum to resemble his idol, Chicago White Sox second baseman Nellie Fox. What if, he wondered, kids could emulate their heroes without the health consequences or parental scorn that accompanied real tobacco?

The package for Big League Chew shredded bubble gum is pictured
Amazon

Not long after, Nelson found himself in the team’s dugout with Jim Bouton, a onetime New York Yankee who had been ostracized for writing a tell-all memoir, Ball Four. Nelson shared his idea for a novelty faux-tobacco product with Bouton, but with something of a twist: Instead of licorice, he would use shredded bubblegum. He might, he said, call it Maverick Chew, or All-Star Chew.

Bouton was intrigued. As the two watched the Mavericks players jog around the field and dip real tobacco (neither man had ever taken up the habit) they agreed it would be an idea worth pursuing. Nelson would develop the product and Bouton would try to get it distributed. Bouton would also be the sole investor, sinking $10,000 into Nelson’s idea.

The Mavericks disbanded in 1977, but the partnership between Nelson and Bouton endured. Nelson, who worked for a pitching machine company, visited Bouton after the pitcher signed with the Atlanta Braves in 1978, and the two conspired further on Nelson’s shredded gum idea. Nelson purchased an at-home gum-making kit that he saw an ad for in the pages of People magazine and got to work producing a batch of the stuff in the kitchen of Field’s parents. Hoping to mimic the tar-like color of Field’s concoction, Nelson used brown food coloring, maple extract, and root beer extract in the gum. The result was predictably terrible.

Despite a lack of a viable prototype gum, Bouton did his part by pitching the idea to several baseball-affiliated companies. (The former Yankee put his own likeness on the mock-up pouch.) Topps and Fleer, which produced bubblegum cards, politely rejected him. He eventually ended up at Amurol, a subsidiary of the Wrigley Company, one of the largest chewing gum conglomerates in the world. In a coincidence, Amurol engineer Ron Ream had been working on a shredded-gum project for several years. Rather than brush Bouton off, the company embraced the idea of a gum that would be sold in a pouch and was a play on kid-friendly chewing tobacco. They even liked the name Nelson had settled on: Big League Chew.

Ream had successfully developed a formula that solved the problem of the tiny ribbons of gum, using enough glycerin to make sure it wouldn’t stick together and become a useless clump in the package. Amurol, however, didn’t take to Nelson’s other big idea, which was to make the gum brown. While the chewing tobacco homage was obvious, they didn’t want to completely replicate the experience. The gum would remain pink.

In 1980, Amurol conducted a sample rollout at a 7-Eleven store in Naperville, Illinois. When executives came back from lunch, the 2.1-ounce pouches had sold out.

That first year, Big League Chew rang up $18 million in sales, capturing 8 percent of the bubblegum market. Amurol’s other products all together hadn’t totaled more than $8 million. (Nelson and Bouton received a percentage of sales.)

Nelson’s hunch had been correct: Kids loved the facsimile chew, which sold for between 59 and 79 cents a pack. Candy distributors in Orlando reported selling 25,000 pouches a week. Copycat products like Chaw came and went. Little Leaguers and amateur ballplayers could take out as much gum as they wanted and stuff the rest in their pockets. But the association with tobacco, which wasn’t meant to be taken literally, upset some parents. They feared Big League Chew could become a "gateway" gum—bubblegum one day, tobacco and oral cancer the next.

Nelson and Amurol took the criticism in stride. Nelson was often quoted as saying he personally detested chewing tobacco and considered this a solution to, not the cause of, a tobacco habit. A California bill that would have banned the gum, candy cigarettes, and other products meant to resemble tobacco died in the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee in 1992. Kids continued to dribble grape, strawberry, and other fruit-flavored gum on their shirts. Amurol experimented with gum branded with Popeye’s likeness, colored green and meant to resemble spinach. It did not enjoy the same success.

Nelson bought out Bouton’s interest in Big League Chew in 2000 and has remained with the brand ever since, including a move from Wrigley—which was sold to Mars Inc. in 2008 for $23 billion—to Ford Gum in 2010. Sales have hovered around $10 to $13 million annually and there have been no confirmed reports of children being indoctrinated into a chewing tobacco habit as a result.

In February 2019, the package depicted its first female player. In the past, it has featured a variety of artwork and the likenesses of several retired players. In 2013, two active players—Matt Kemp of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cole Hamels from the Philadelphia Phillies (now with the Chicago Cubs)—were pictured. But despite its name, Big League Chew has never had any formal affiliation with Major League Baseball. The MLB has instead maintained relationships with Bazooka and Double Bubble.

The lack of any official MLB endorsement hasn’t hurt. At last count, more than 800 million pouches of Big League Chew have been sold.

Traumatic Episodes: A History of the ABC Afterschool Special

BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon
BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon

My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel. The Toothpaste Millionaire. Me and Dad’s New Wife. She Drinks a Little. Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom. High School Narc. Don’t Touch. From 1972 to 1996, no topic was too taboo for the ABC Afterschool Special, an anthology series that aired every other Wednesday at 4 p.m. Each of the standalone, hour-long installments highlighted issues facing teens and young adults, from underage drinking to the stress of living in a foster home. For the millions of viewers tuning in, it might have been their first exposure to a difficult topic—or the first indication that they weren’t alone in their struggle.

The Afterschool Special originated in the early 1970s, when programming executives at ABC had an epiphany: While there was a lot of content for families and adults during primetime, soap operas for adults in the daytime, and cartoons for children on Saturday mornings, there was relatively little content directed specifically at teenagers and pre-teens. The network saw an opportunity to fill that gap by airing topical specials midweek, when parents watching General Hospital might leave the television on and stick around to watch some TV with their adolescent children.

Initially, the network solicited a mix of fanciful stories and serious, issue-based melodramas. In the animated Incredible, Indelible, Magical Physical Mystery Trip, two kids were shrunk down to the size of a cell to travel through their uncle’s body. In Follow the Northern Star, a boy ushers a friend through the Underground Railroad to escape slavery.

 

Not long after the series debuted in the fall of 1972, ABC executives—including Brandon Stoddard, who was initially in charge of the show and was later responsible for getting the landmark 1977 miniseries Roots and David Lynch's quirky Twin Peaks onto the air—realized that the more puerile stories may have been working against them.

According to Martin Tahse, a producer on dozens of these specials, it was rare for older teens to watch programming intended for younger children. Pre-teens, on the other hand, would watch content meant for an older audience. By season three, the specials were largely made up of topical content. In The Skating Rink, a teen skater overcomes shyness borne out of stuttering. In The Bridge of Adam Rush, a teen copes with a cross-country move after his mother remarries.

The ABC Afterschool Special was an immediate hit, drawing an average of 9.4 million viewers between 1972 and 1974. Many episodes were based on young adult novels, like Rookie of the Year, which stars Jodie Foster as a girl struggling to find acceptance on a boys’ Little League team, or Sara’s Summer of the Swans, about a young woman searching for her missing, mentally challenged brother.

The series also sourced material from magazine articles, short stories, and other venues. For 1983’s The Wave, which originally aired on ABC in primetime in 1981, the story of a high school teacher who describes fascism and Hitler’s rise to power by successfully convincing his students to subscribe to a dictatorial rule, was based on the real experiences of Palo Alto teacher Ron Jones.

The effect of the topical episodes could be potent. For a 1985 special titled One Too Many, which starred Val Kilmer as an underage drinker and Michelle Pfeiffer as his girlfriend, one viewer wrote in to the Los Angeles Times to explain how the show had impacted her:

After watching the ABC Afterschool Special titled One Too Many, a story of drinking and driving, I realized I have taken too many chances with my life. I always think I can handle myself and my car after I’ve had something to drink. Nothing has happened to me … yet. I’d like to thank ABC for showing a program that could possibly save the lives of my friends and me. I’ve realized that drinking and driving is not worth the price of life.

 

As Tahse explained to interviewer Kier-La Janisse, the specials resonated with kids because they rarely indulged in what could be considered a fairy tale ending. “It had to be real,” he said. “If kids watched any of my three specials dealing with alcoholic parents, they were never given a fairy tale ending. I saw to that, because I came from an alcoholic father and knew all the tricks and I wanted the kids who watched—many dealing with the same problem or having friends who had alcoholic parents—to know how it really is.”

The shows also picked up their share of awards. One installment, the self-explanatory Andrea’s Story: A Hitchhiking Tragedy, won five Daytime Emmys in 1984, a third of all the Daytime Emmys ABC won that year. A Special Gift, a 1979 show about a basketball player who takes up ballet, won a Peabody Award.

By the mid-1980s, the specials attempted to strike more of a balance between morality plays and lighthearted fare. The 1984-1985 season consisted of seven episodes, including three comedies and one musical. In The Almost Royal Family, Sarah Jessica Parker stars as a teen whose family buys a home outside the jurisdiction of Canada and the U.S. In Mom’s on Strike, an overworked mother decides to suspend her duties until her family can appreciate her contributions.

Gradually, the specials began leaning back toward hot-button topics. Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions took over producing the series in 1991. That season, Winfrey introduced the episodes, including two panel discussions about relationships and race relations. Though the series did revert back to fictional narratives, it gradually lost its footing in the wake of shows that had a more adolescent bent. A “Very Special Episode” of Beverly Hills, 90210 or Family Matters was essentially a stealth afterschool special. The series was canceled in 1996.

That the show endured for nearly a quarter of a century is a testament to the craftsmanship of producers like Tahse and the support of ABC, who rarely shied away from difficult topics. Still, Tahse—who died in 2014—believed that the series' broad appeal went beyond that.

“The only rule of storytelling that ABC required we follow was … the kid always had to figure out what to do and do it,” he said. “No finger-waving by parents, no lectures by parents. It was a kid who was in a situation and found, through his or her own efforts, a solution.”

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