Original poster art from 1984 release of Gremlins

Gremlins might be a Christmas classic, but it was first released in the United States in June 1984, making it 40 years old this month. As part of research for the AHRC-funded Youth and Horror network, a 40th anniversary screening and discussion of the film was held last month at Midlands Arts Centre as part of Flatpack Festival. The audience response showed that Gremlins hasn’t lost any of its power to delight and scare after four decades.

Gremlins is a horror-comedy film that tells the story of a quintessential American town becoming overrun by monsters – the titular gremlins – on Christmas Eve. The trouble begins when a father buys his son a mysterious new pet, called a mogwai. The cute, furry mogwai, named Gizmo, comes with three important rules: don’t get him wet, keep him out of bright light, and never feed him after midnight. But in the fairy tale tradition, these rules are quickly broken, resulting in Gizmo multiplying into evil gremlins who destroy the town.

'A child's nightmare brought to life'

Gremlins was presented as a family film, with plush toys of Gizmo being heavily promoted. This marketing elided the film’s dark, satirical tone and moments of violence, including gremlins being blown up in the microwave and attempting to kill humans with chainsaws. Another memorable scene involves a character recounting the death of her father in detail, who died suddenly while climbing down the chimney in a Santa costume in an attempt to surprise her on Christmas Day. The scene climaxes with the bombshell, ‘And that’s how I found out there was no Santa Claus.’

As a result of moments like these, the film’s US release was met with backlash as parents who had taken their children to see the film – which was rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America – were taken aback by what was perceived to be content unsuitable for young children. This film, along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, triggered the invention of a more restrictive new age rating, PG-13. This makes Gremlins an important milestone in film history and especially the history of horror for children and young people.

Here in the UK, the British Board of Film Classification felt that Gremlins was too strong for the contentious PG rating which it received in the US. The 12 rating did not yet exist in the UK, so Gremlins was rated 15, barring British children from legally viewing it. The BBFC’s reports showed that the board was most concerned about the film’s location of horror in a realistic setting and its attack on the values of Christmas, with one report calling the film ‘a child’s nightmare brought to life’. In 2012, the film was re-classified 12A.

Youth and Horror research network's screening of Gremlins in a Birmingham cinema last month.

A boundary-pushing horror film to this day

With this context, a 40th anniversary screening of Gremlins seemed the ideal way to provoke discussion and aid understanding about the relationship between children and the horror genre. This is the primary aim of the Youth and Horror research network, run as a collaboration between myself and Dr Kate Egan at Northumbria University. Together with one of our project partners Into Film, the UK’s leading film education charity, Dr Egan and I introduced the film and its British classification history to the audience and chaired a Q&A afterwards. The audience was made up of people of all ages, from as young as five to adults who remembered seeing the film in 1984.

In an informal poll, most people in the audience disagreed with the BBFC’s original classification and said that it should have been a PG to allow for children under 15 to see the film back in 1984. However, most people agreed that the current rating of 12A is more appropriate. Concern was expressed from at least one parent about the film’s reveal to child viewers that Santa does not exist.

After 40 years, this disruption of the childhood fantasy of Father Christmas still appears to be Gremlins’ most contentious and shocking aspect – far more than exploding gremlins – and it remains a boundary-pushing horror film to this day. The Youth and Horror Research Network will continue to explore and inform public and scholarly understandings of the relationship between children and the horror genre.