Exit the ghouls

Rebecca Boyle
Monday, 24 October 2022

When was the last time you saw a horror movie? Are you a turn off the lights and scream fan of all things ghastly? Or do merely the posters for the latest horror flicks give you the shivers? Either way, it’s up to you to decide if you want to risk your nerves with some ghoulish entertainment. 

For 20 years, Australian audiences didn’t have that choice. The only horror they had to contend with was … censorship. Spooky!

Won't somebody think of the children?

The Commonwealth Film Censorship Board was established in 1917. Its remit – to view, register and censor all films imported from overseas. 

The Board operated under Customs regulations.  Films could be refused registration for a number of reasons, including blasphemy, obscenity and their likelihood to ‘incite [audiences] to crime’. The last, catch-all reason for banning a film, was if it ‘depict[ed] any matter the exhibition of which is undesirable in the public interest’. Determining whether a film could be banned for any of these reasons was up to the personal judgement of the members of the Board. 

Films permitted to screen in Australia could receive one of 3 classifications: G (General), A (Not Suitable for Children) or SOA (Suitable for Adults Only). These ratings were advisory only, and not legally enforceable by cinemas, like MA and R ratings now. Children could see Adults Only movies. However, cinemas were required to include ‘adults only’ on their advertising. If they didn’t, it could earn both the cinema and distributor a reprimand.

One file in the National Archives collection shows that several theatres were flouting the advertising rules for Frankenstein in 1932. In one case, the Tivoli Theatre in Brisbane not only omitted ‘adults only’ from their ads, it also offered children half price tickets. 

Horror films like Frankenstein were a particular problem for the Censorship Board. They were popular, but they were also a frequent subject of complaints by Parents & Citizens Associations and church groups. 

This was noted by Chief Censor Walter Cresswell O’Reilly in 1935:

One form of complaint has … been somewhat prominent. It related to the “horror” type of film … It has been observed that pictures of this kind draw big crowds.

But the big crowds didn’t last forever.

The hammer comes down

If there was a time to strike against horror movies, it was 1948. The genre was in a slump. The great Universal monsters were a subject of parody. In 1947, not a single horror film was released in Australia. 

Retrospectively, banning horror movies in 1948 might have been an easy win for the at-the-time Chief Censor, J. O. Alexander. It would appease pro-censorship groups who were concerned about the influence of films on young minds, and since no horror movies were being released anyway, who would complain? His decision came down on the 22nd of April, 1948. Justified as being ‘undesirable in the public interest’, horror movies were banned.

In his statement, Alexander declared:

This type of film has no cultural or entertainment value and its appeal extends only to a very limited section of the community, a section whose mental outlook should not be fed with films of this nature. In addition, such films are a source of potential danger to women in a delicate state of health.

An article in trade magazine Film Weekly, ‘Exit the Ghouls’, was complimentary of the ban. However, it was not as convinced horror films were actually dangerous to the public: ‘It is, of course, doubtful whether any of these quaint characters ever had a deleterious effect on the young, but they certainly did not do any good.’

Zombies, vampires and slashers, oh my!

Of course, the horror ban didn't last forever. Outside Australia's censorship bubble, the genre resurged with new stars, directors, and takes on classic monsters. By the 1960s, some horror movies even started to slip through to Australian audiences, like Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho in 1960 and Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror in 1964. The Age's film critic Colin Bennett slyly noted '…now that "reputable" artists like Hitchcock are returning to the genre with commercially important films, he [the censor] is easing up on the ban.'

Societal attitudes to censorship as a whole were also changing. 1968 High Court case Crowe v Graham redefined the way censorship restrictions were interpreted. The same year, the horror ban was lifted after 20 years.

Today, Aussie horror fans can now enjoy a good (or bad!) horror movie whenever they want. Like Frankenstein, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, you can’t keep horror movies down.