Horror has been a genre built on mythic storytelling from the beginning. The bricks of myth are archetypes and tropes that speak to our humanity on its deepest levels. This should not and does not mean that creativity and originality are not factors, quite the contrary. It does mean that we can instantly connect with certain characters and situations because they carry a recognizable element. From the early days of horror films, archetypes like the mad scientist, man-made monster, vampire (incubus and succubus), and the familiar have given us multitudes of memorable characters: Dr. Caligari, Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll. Frankenstein’s monster, The Golem, Dracula, Renfield, Fritz, and Igor. All these names conjure images in our minds that spark an instant connection.
By the late 1960s, audiences were ready for something new. Horror changed dramatically after Psycho (1960) and again after Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). By 1974, with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, new archetypes began to emerge, the greatest by far being the “scream queen” or “final girl.” Emerging around this same time was another brand of outsider that is almost as prevalent, though not nearly so celebrated — the monster kid. This character is usually a young boy who is obsessed with horror and monsters. He is a particular brand of outsider that is slightly annoying to friends and family, often the target of bullying from peers, and almost never has a hope of being the romantic lead. He is the alter-ego of the filmmakers and creators who grew up in the 1950s with E.C. Comics, the Red Scare, Giant Bug and William Castle movies, and Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.
It would be impossible to cover every single character that fits this description, just as it would be to name every final girl, but I’d like to discuss some of the greatest and some of my favorites. Rather than exploring them in strict chronological order, we will look at three variations on this archetype: the kid, the tween, and the teenager.
There had been proto-versions of this character long before the ’70s, but as with so many archetypes, the modern version crystalizes in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). Tommy Doyle (Brian Andrews) offers the key to almost every other version of the monster kid to come with three characteristics: he is incredibly observant, nobody believes him, and most importantly — he’s right. The reason he is right is because he spends his time reading and watching horror. He is able to recognize the monster in the real world because he already knows it from the fiction he consumes. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) scoffs at his collection of comic books (Laser Man, Tarantula Man, et al) and the films he and Lindsay Wallace (Kyle Richards) watch on TV like The Thing from Another World (1951). When he insists that he has seen the boogeyman, Laurie yells at him for making up stories and scaring Lindsay. If only they had listened to Tommy, it would have saved them a lot of trouble.
A few years later, Tobe Hooper introduced another young monster kid in The Funhouse (1981). Joey Harper (Shawn Carson) torments his sister with his horror obsession, starting with a reenactment of the Psycho shower scene at the beginning of the film. The next year, Stephen King’s son Joe (Hill) played a horror-comic obsessed kid who ultimately takes revenge on his own father using his horror knowledge in the frame story to Creepshow (1982). But the greatest version of the archetype was still to come. In the great horror year of 1984, we were introduced to the ultimate monster kid: Tommy Jarvis.
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter is a key film in several ways, but Tommy Jarvis, played by Corey Feldman, is one of the most important elements it has to offer. The film does have a final girl, Tommy’s sister, Trish, but she is not the one who ultimately dispatches Jason; it is the odd and observant outsider Tommy. His obsession with make-up, gadgets, and horror gives him all the tools he needs not only to survive but to triumph. If Tommy Doyle is the template, Tommy Jarvis is the ultimate incarnation of the monster kid. The only thing that could really top that was a whole group of them.
The Monster Squad may not have been a hit in theaters back in 1987, but it quickly became a cult favorite on video and cable. Because of self-identified monster kid Fred Dekker’s love letter to the classic monsters, an entire generation of horror kids saw themselves up on the screen. When I first saw the movie and heard them talking about Frankenstein being the name of the doctor, not the monster, saw the “Stephen King Rules” t-shirt, and understood the reference to 1955’s This Island Earth, I knew I had found my movie and my people. I felt like I was the only one who knew anything about this stuff, but The Monster Squad proved there were others out there who wondered about the truly important things like the best methods to kill a vampire or if “wolfman’s got nards.”
Recently, a new variation on The Monster Squad was introduced in the 2020 film Vampires Vs. The Bronx. Though the entire central trio of Miguel, Bobby, and Luis all qualify as monster kids, Luis is the one who most fits the archetype. He is the one who really knows his stuff and teaches the others how to fight and defeat the vampires that have invaded their neighborhood. He also introduces them to Blade. About halfway into the film, a fourth member joins their group — the rare monster kid girl, Rita. “We’re Haitian, man! My grandma’s been preparing me for this like my entire life!”
The ages of twelve to fifteen, or so, are tough for everybody. In the early ’80s, we began to see monster kids go through this awkward stage. As with the kids, there is a proto version of this character in Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin) from Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot (1979). This character is very much an extension of Stephen King, who wrote the novel, and Tobe Hooper, the director, both monster-obsessed kids who grew into monster-obsessed adults. Mark is the first to recognize the reality of vampires in his little town but is also the most equipped to deal with the problem. At one point in the film, he gets the question that every horror fan dreads: why do you like this stuff? The question is almost never friendly or truly inquisitive. Fans of dramas, comedies, modern comic book movies, and science fiction films are not asked to defend their love for those, but a love of horror must always be defended. That is a key element of the archetype as well. They are often made to defend their obsession, but when the real dangers begin, they are the only ones ready to handle the situation. In the real world, this has shown itself to be true as well. A recent study showed that horror fans were handling the COVID-19 crisis much better than the average person. The monster kids prevail again.
The greatest version of the early teen monster kid is without a doubt the Frog brothers from Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys (1987). By the time we meet Edgar and Allan Frog (Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander), they are already aware of their town’s vampire problem — they just haven’t had the opportunity to put their knowledge into practice — until Sam (Corey Haim) comes to them for help when his brother has fallen in with a group of bloodsuckers, that is. Once again, Corey Feldman fills the role of the monster kid in a memorable way. It should be mentioned that he also played versions of the monster kid in The Goonies (1985) and The ‘Burbs (1989), making him by far the actor most identified with the archetype.
Another interesting version of the character is Michael Brower (Edward Furlong), horror video game enthusiast and founder of his school’s horror club in Brainscan (1994). Now, instead of Famous Monsters of Filmland, Michael reads Fangoria and is obsessed with movies like the fictional slasher Death, Death, Death, Part 2 over Frankenstein and Dracula. Despite the differences, Michael is a monster kid to the core and a fun early nineties update on the character.
It had to happen. Eventually, the monster kid had to grow up. It started happening to some extent with Zach Galligan’s character Billy in 1984’s Gremlins (and his young friend, Pete, again Corey Feldman), but the first true instance of the teenage monster kid is Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) in Fright Night (1985). The famous line from Stephen Geoffreys as Evil Ed, “you’re so cool, Brewster” sums up the plight of the teenage monster kid — outsider, weirdo, and decidedly uncool. But his obsession with old Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) movies makes him the ideal hero when a vampire, Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon) moves into the house next door. The teenage years introduce another minefield to the mix: sex. The fact that his girlfriend, Amy (Amanda Bearse), is seduced by Jerry ups the ante in every way. Fright Night remains not just one of the truly great vampire movies, but one of the greatest monster kid movies as well.
In 1996, everything changed. Wes Craven had already completely rearranged the landscape of horror twice with The Last House on the Left (1971) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and now he was about to do it an unprecedented third time with Scream. Writer Kevin Williamson was well-versed in horror tropes and archetypes; variations on those themes are found everywhere in Scream, including the monster kid. Here he appears in the form of Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy). Once again, he is the lovable outsider, who also happens to be at least mildly annoying to the group of friends he has somehow managed to infiltrate. In fact, it seems to me that his more annoying habits are a defense mechanism, an attempt to prove his worthiness in belonging to this group. When originally released, Randy instantly became a beloved character and his death in Scream 2 was acutely felt by horror fans.
Recently, some have fired back at Randy, comparing him to the worst traits of film-Twitter and gatekeeping movie snobbery. Some of this is certainly fair. He is capable of extraordinary cruelty, joking about their slaughtered classmate’s liver being left in the mailbox, for example. He lords his knowledge over others, pausing a viewing of Halloween during a watch party to explain a set of rules that nobody asked for — and turn out to be largely incorrect. In fact, the character is openly lampooned in Scream 4 with next-generation film geeks Charlie (Rory Culkin) and Robbie (Erik Knudsen). Still, I can’t help but love Randy. He is the extension of Tommy Doyle, Tommy Jarvis, and Sean (Andre Gower) from The Monster Squad. He is not a bad guy; he just tries too hard to fit in sometimes. Besides, though he is clearly in love with her, his respect for Sydney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and her boundaries should be commended and his growth as a human between the first and second films should not be overlooked. Randy could have grown into a dark version of the archetype like Eric Binford (Dennis Christopher) in Fade to Black (1980), or even Billy and Stu from the first film, but he doesn’t. However imperfectly, he seeks to improve himself and works to continue to do so.
In 2011, something new happened to the monster kid in Scream 4. A total redefinition of the archetype — Kirby Reed. Played by the glamorous young star Hayden Panettiere, Kirby was not the marginalized outcast, but suddenly now the coolest, most popular girl in school. Horror had moved to the mainstream and Kirby was the personification of that fact. At a small gathering in the final act of the film, Charlie comments on her horror collection that contains classics beyond the usual mainstream franchises like Suspiria (1977) and Don’t Look Now (1973). In one of the movie’s most iconic scenes, she beats Ghostface’s famous quiz game by naming every horror remake she can think of. Though she dies in the film, many horror fans have continued to hold out hope that Kirby will somehow return for the fifth installment of the series.
Though the monster kid continues to grow and change, he (and now she) will likely return in many forms to come. The character is a form of wish fulfillment, true, but is also an important form of representation. Horror has always been a genre of the outsider, where the disenfranchised and the outsider can see themselves as the hero of a story. It is key that the archetypes continue to evolve to be more inclusive. It is only in the past few years that we have seen people of color in these roles and that should only increase, as should varying representations of age, gender, sexuality, nationality, and religious faith. Archetypes are wonderful tools in that they are malleable while still being recognizable. The more people see themselves on screen the better. It gives us insight into how fascinating and diverse this wild world of ours is. Roger Ebert famously called movies “empathy machines,” one of the truly great descriptions of this medium we love. In the world of horror, we need all the monsters, maniacs, and, above all, heroes we can get.