The teens of ‘90s horror get into plenty of trouble at home, but this is nothing compared to what they find when they hit the road. There are several books in which roving groups of teens are sent off on their own, entrusted with a wealthy friend’s parents’ beach house or vacation home for a long weekend, with no adult supervision at all. In both Christopher Pike’s Slumber Party (1985) and Carol Ellis’s The Window (1992), teens head out on ski trips, excited to get away from home, have some fun, and hit the slopes.
In several of these novels, there is some subterfuge or coincidence at play that leaves the teens on their own—the teens lie and tell their parents that there will be adult supervision to get permission to go, or some other surprising development—but in many others, no such explanation is provided. Slumber Party and The Window follow the second pattern: it’s apparently no big deal for these kids to head out on their own for several days, inexperienced drivers on icy roads heading to an isolated location, with a big storm in the forecast. These teens are on their own and free to do whatever they please, living out the dreams of many of these novels’ teen readers. However, these dreams quickly turn into nightmares, with injuries, danger, and death, allowing adolescent readers to engage in the “what if” of unfettered freedom while simultaneously reinforcing the importance of adult supervision and parental protection.
In many ways, the pattern Pike establishes with Slumber Party, the first of the Point Horror novels, became the framework for much of the ‘90s teen horror that would follow, with themes of isolation, adolescent social drama, dark secrets that refuse to stay buried, and characters who aren’t exactly who they seem to be. When Lara, Dana, Rachael, and Mindy go to their friend Nell’s ski cabin for a long weekend, it’s a bittersweet reunion: the last time the five of them were all together was eight years ago, at a slumber party, where a terrible accident resulted in Nell being badly burned and her younger sister Nicole dying. This group of old friends is joined by new girl Celeste, who has come along with Lara (and is secretly Nicole, who didn’t die after all, though Lara and her friends don’t discover this until the novel’s final showdown).
The teens in Ellis’s The Window have less shared history. Jody, the protagonist of the novel, has actually never met any of the other kids before this weekend: some of them are friends with her friend Kate, who invited Jody along, but when Kate comes down with a bad case of the flu, Jody finds herself far from home with a group of perfect strangers. The other teens already have well-established relationships and social roles—Cindy is the sarcastic one, Billy’s the butt of frequent jokes, Sasha’s the planner, and so on—but they don’t have any dark collective history or shared trauma like the friends in Slumber Party. They are, however, united in their strong feelings about another girl, Leahna Calder, who exists at the periphery of their social circle, a contentious love interest who has spurned or rejected several of the boys, including Drew and Cal.
The houses in both Slumber Party and The Window are part of larger skiing communities, with a central lodge for food, fun, and making new friends. The settings of each individual house are quite different, however, which results in varied contexts for and experiences of horror. In Slumber Party, Nell’s house is miles away from the lodge and the ski lifts. When they head out to go skiing, the girls must either hike or cross-country ski to get there, which leaves them isolated and exposed to the elements as they travel between the two points: Dana mysteriously disappears from the path and Lara almost dies from exposure when she is injured and cannot get back to the house. In The Window, everything is much closer, with lines of cabins positioned side by side. The Window is a teen horror homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), as after spraining her ankle while skiing, Jody is basically stranded in the cabin, where she watches events unfold in the cabin next door, including Leahna’s murder. The close proximity of other people adds to Jody’s terror as unidentified people come into the house to lurk outside her bedroom door, listen in on her phone conversations, and in the end, attempt to murder her.
One common theme between Slumber Party and The Window—and a predominant concern throughout the ‘90s teen horror trend—is romantic competition and intrigue. In Slumber Party, both Lara and Rachael are interested in the same guy (Percy), while also being in fierce competition for homecoming queen, while Percy’s friend Cal is interested in Dana, though Mindy has her sights set on Cal. These romantic preoccupations remain central considerations throughout the novel, with the girls’ attention steadfastly fixed on potential boyfriends even as their own friends go missing or are injured, in an unsettling reflection of their true relationship priorities. This theme of romantic competition is underscored in Slumber Party by the overt comparison of the girls’ physical characteristics and perceived beauty. Lara has mentally conceded the homecoming queen title to Rachael already, reflecting that “Rachael would win, hands down: tall, blond, tan—she looked like a cover girl. What could a short, dark-haired nobody with fifties bangs and a nose at least—despite what her friends said—a size too large do against a Barbie doll?” The girls’ value and sense of self-worth are constantly tied back to and equated with their physical beauty and within this context, it is unsurprising that Nell and Nicole/Celeste see themselves as ugly, un-loveable, and essentially worthless after the fire that disfigures them both, which in Nell’s case drives her into a murderous, vengeful rage against the girls she holds responsible. Nell and Nicole’s parents even choose to let everyone believe that Nicole has died rather than having people see her in her disfigured state, with Nicole’s loss of beauty resulting in isolation and a public erasure of her very existence.
While Lara and Rachael compete to win Percy’s affections—Lara with her winning personality and Rachael with her overt sexuality, in a familiar virgin/whore dichotomy—the other girls’ love triangle with Cal is the more unsettling one. While Mindy had set her sights on Cal prior to the ski trip after meeting him at the mall, Cal is immediately interested in Dana. When Dana helps Cal unload some luggage, he attempts to sexually assault her and she has to fight him off, though when she tells her friends about this experience, Mindy responds with jealousy rather than support, devastated that Cal is “interested” in Dana. In trying to convince the boys to come to a party at the house, Lara tells Percy that Dana actually really likes Cal and is just playing hard to get (though she at least has the decency to feel a bit bad about exploiting one of her oldest friends so she can spend time with Percy, who she’s sure she has fallen in love with in the approximately twelve seconds they’ve spent together). At the party, Cal gets drunk and violent, laughs about having seen four men killed by napalm, gropes Nicole/Celeste, and is driven from the house by a furious Nell, though later when Lara is about to die from exposure on the trail, he just happens to find her her and takes her back to the house, where he was headed to apologize to the girls after sobering up. In the aftermath of the horror, when the girls are being released from the hospital, Dana and Cal come along to pick up their friends and are now apparently a romantic item, much to Mindy’s outrage. How Cal has transformed from an angry, aggressive guy who doesn’t respect women’s boundaries and can’t take no for an answer to “boyfriend material” is a mystery Pike leaves unsolved. Accidentally saving Dana’s life doesn’t seem like quite enough.
Romantic competition is central to The Window as well, with Leahna at the center of several overlapping Venn diagrams of relationships and infatuations. Leahna and Drew dated until she cast him aside, though he still seems to have some complicated feelings for her. Cindy likes Drew and, as a result, hates Leahna; Drew likes Jody, which makes things complicated between Jody and Cindy. Billy adores Sasha, who mercilessly berates and teases him, and as a result of this abusive behavior, he kind of hates her too. Cal is infatuated with Leahna, who torments and rejects him. Quiet, shy Ellen likes Cal and is just waiting for him to get over Leahna and notice her, while Cal’s twin sister Sasha murders Leahna to keep her from hurting Cal. In fact, the only reason Jody is even on the ski trip in the first place is because her friend Kate told her to go along and keep an eye on Cal, to report back on whether he’s spending time with any other girls. These teens are a partner-swapping, hormone addled mess. While there are plenty of romantically-fueled motives for Leahna’s murder—one of the girls killing her to get rid of the competition, one of the guys killing her in a fit of rage over being rejected—the fact that Sasha is the murderer and did so to protect her brother is both unexpected and creepy, in a Flowers in the Attic kind of way.
Sibling relationships are also a shared theme between Slumber Party and The Window. In Slumber Party, Nell plans to murder her former friends as retribution for the fire that disfigured her and (seemingly) killed Nicole. There is an undeniably strong bond between the sisters: when the two are on the same team when the girls play charades, their understanding of one another is uncanny and later, when Nicole/Celeste is defending her sister, she tells the other girls that when she was in too much pain to sleep, Nell would stay up all night and read to her. Nell intends to destroy her former friends to make them pay for what happened to her sister…except that what happened to Nicole was Nell’s fault more than anyone else’s. At the long-ago slumber party, Nell was the only one who didn’t want Nicole there, excluding her from the others girls’ games, and targeting her with the Ouija board’s responses. While Nell is consumed by revenge for her own perceived disfigurement, Lara and the other girls take care of Nicole/Celeste and get her to safety when the house catches on fire, with Lara at Nicole/Celeste’s side as she begins to recover once again. Lara has a particularly apt understanding of the complex nature of Nicole/Celeste’s identity as a girl who is officially dead and trying to fashion a new identity that’s not solely dependent on this childhood trauma, as Lara tells her friend “In my house, if you like, you can still be Celeste…I love you, Nicole. I love both of you.”
Sasha and Cal’s sibling relationship is central to the plot of The Window as well, with Sasha murdering Leahna in an attempt to protect Cal from the other girl’s manipulation and rejection. Similar to Nell and Nicole/Celeste’s nearly telepathic connection, Sasha tells Jody that she always knows what Cal is thinking, that they don’t have to speak to one another to communicate. Leahna poses a threat to the intensity of this connection, as Sasha rages that “He was thinking about her every minute…I’ve always known what he’s thinking, and I couldn’t make him stop.” Sasha insists that she doesn’t want to keep Cal away from all girls, just Leahna, because she’s a bad girl. (Sidenote: Exactly what it is that makes Leahna so bad isn’t ever clearly defined. She stole Ellen’s essay idea for a competition and of course, she has rejected a couple of the guys, but she is kind to Jody in all of their interactions and gets help when Jody is injured. Leahna is independent—having come skiing on her own rather than with a group of friends—beautiful, and an excellent skier, beating all the others in an impromptu skills competition. She could be horrible or they could all be jealous of her. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle and she’s just a regular girl, occasionally obnoxious, but likely no better or worse than her peers). Sasha kills Leahna to protect her brother and maintain the intensity of their bond with one another.
In Slumber Party and The Window, the teen horror protagonists face a range of dangers, including isolation, injury, the elements, and the absence of adult supervision. While the snow-covered slopes and the blizzards that breeze through in both novels cause plenty of problems, the biggest threat for these teens is one another. Slumber Party’s Nell has been hurt and (more importantly, to her mind) stripped of her beauty, so everyone she holds responsible must pay. The Window’s Sasha is panicked at the thought of losing the bond she has with her brother, willing to murder anyone who jeopardizes that relationship. In each case, the priorities of these young women define their worldviews and senses of self, driving them to madness and attempted murder. In both Slumber Party and The Window, these true motives are addressed as final act afterthoughts, taking a backseat to and serving as a temporary distraction from the romantic intrigues of their peers. If their friends had been less obsessed with the cute boys in their midst and paid attention to what was really important to Nell and Sasha, they might have seen their attempted murders coming.
Alissa Burger is an associate professor at Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Missouri. She writes about horror, queer representation in literature and popular culture, graphic novels, and Stephen King. She loves yoga, cats, and cheese.