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Horror comics: The nasties of the 1950s

John Springhall finds 1950s echoes in the current controversy about children and horror videos.

'Moral panic' occurs when the official or press reaction to a deviant social or cultural phenomenon is 'out of all proportion' to the actual threat offered, implying a periodic tendency- towards the identification and scapegoating of agencies whose effects are regarded by hegemonic groups as indicative of imminent social breakdown. '"Unparalleled evil and barbaric killers" says judge – but did horrific video nasty trigger James's murder?' queried a tabloid headline, rekindling the 'video nasty' debate the day after the conviction of two eleven-year-old boys for the murder in February 1993 of two-year-old James Bulger in Bootle, Merseyside. 'Moral panic' surfaced again in April this year, engendered by the rantings of the tabloid press and by Home Secretary Michael Howard's climbdown in the face of cross-party Commons' support for Liberal Democrat David Alton's illiberal amendment to the Government's Criminal Justice Bill, an attempt to ban films for home viewing on video that could cause 'psychological harm' to children.

Alton's proposal and the surrounding press clamour had a precedent nearly forty years ago with the passage through Parliament of the now-forgotten Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act. In the early l950s lurid American 'crime' and 'horror comics' reached Britain as ballast in ships crossing the Atlantic: unsold copies were also imported from Canada and Australia. Few penetrated much further than the environs of the great ports of Liverpool, Manchester, Belfast and London. Seeking out elusive copies from London's East End street markets, one anti-comic-book campaigner confessed that 'I put on an off- white accent and an old coat before I won the vendor's confidence'. Using blocks made from imported American matrices, ensuing British versions of Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror were printed in London and Leicester to be sold in small back-street newsagents.

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