There’s No Place Like Shadyside: College Horror in R.L. Stine’s College Weekend and Fear Hall 

The teens of R.L. Stine’s Shadyside just have to make it to graduation, right? Most of the horrors revolve around Shadyside High and the dramas of its social scene, and like most teenagers, those in Shadyside dream about where they’ll go, what they’ll do, and who they’ll become when they venture away from Shadyside and Fear Street. But it’s not so simple. 

Stine’s College Weekend (1995) and his duo of Fear Hall books (Fear Hall: The Beginning and Fear Hall: The Conclusion, both published in 1997) shift the action to college campuses, where the books’ respective heroines discover further terrors that they must face almost entirely alone. They can’t retreat to the familiarity of their own homes or the safety of their families, instead stuck in a strange and impersonal place, in life-threatening situations, and entirely unsure of who they can trust. For teen readers who—much like the protagonists of the teen horror novels themselves—were looking forward to adulthood and independence in a few short years, Stine suggests that they might be better off staying right where they are. Parental overprotectiveness and small-town horror don’t seem so bad compared to the danger that waits in the wider world for young people on their own for the first time. 

Stine’s College Weekend is arguably one of his most terrifying Fear Street books. While many of the books in the series feature supernatural threats—ghosts, possession, inexplicable phenomenon—in College Weekend, the horrors are all human. Shadyside High student Tina Rivers is going to Patterson College to spend the weekend with her boyfriend. Stine shies away from any suggestion that Tina and her boyfriend Josh might be planning to have sex, as Tina dreams wistfully of kissing Josh and having his arm around her, but not much more than that. Tina’s parents have insisted on a “chaperone” of sorts (her wild-child cousin Holly, which doesn’t seem like a foolproof plan), and the underage girls will be staying in the boys’ dorm room, which the boys themselves have chivalrously vacated to stay in Josh’s roommate Chris’s photography studio. There’s no suggestion that Tina and Josh already have an established sexual relationship or that this might be a particularly meaningful, first-time weekend for them, and when cousin Holly doesn’t come back to the dorm room their first night on campus, the go-to explanation is that she’s probably hanging out with the drama students, not hooking up. There’s some kissing, but by and large, these two girls are astonishingly disinterested in sex. It’s adorable and ridiculous. 

While Stine’s aversion to any suggestion that these teens might want to have sex with one another (or even—gasp!—already be “doing it”) was likely designed to placate teen readers’ parents and keep the book sales rolling in, even kissing proves pretty dangerous in and of itself. In College Weekend, Tina’s boyfriend isn’t there when he arrives: she’s been told he’s on a geological collection/camping trip and had planned to be back by the time she got there, but there’s been car trouble … and problems getting the part needed to fix the car … and he’s probably late because it’s so foggy. (Spoiler alert: dude’s dead). In Josh’s continued absence, his roommate Chris is all too happy to keep Tina company as he takes her to a party (where he dances with and kisses her), shows her around campus, and takes her to the Spring Fling carnival. 

As Tina and Chris ride the Ferris wheel, Chris kisses her. While she initially leans away from him, she then gives in and returns the kiss: “she didn’t want to, but she couldn’t help herself” (78). When Tina changes her mind and decides she wants to stop kissing Chris, he won’t take no for an answer. She turns away from him, clearly and “firmly” telling him to stop (80). Instead of respecting her clearly communicated rejection, Chris forces himself on her, calls her a “tease” (81), and when she still refuses to kiss him, begins to dangerously rock the Ferris wheel car back and forth, terrifying Tina and telling her that he’ll only stop if she kisses him again. This interaction is horrifying and full of troubling implications about consent: Chris assumes because he kissed her once that he has the right to do so again; even though she’s resistant, his persistence pays off; and he sees her refusal as justification to force her, call her names, and traumatize her. This reinforces the virgin/whore dichotomy of women’s romantic behavior and suggests that any male-female interaction could potentially turn dangerous and exploitative, a horrifying representation of relationships for the young women who were the bulk of Stine’s readers. While this could be read as an intended cautionary tale about predatory men and keeping oneself safe, any redeeming justification flies out the window with Tina’s reflection that “If I hadn’t kissed him in the first place, none of this would have happened” (85). Chris blames her for what happened, she blames herself, and she’s terrified of what her boyfriend Josh will do if he ever finds out. 

Chris’s inability to take no for an answer and his Ferris wheel stunt aren’t the only red flags about him either: from the moment he picks Tina and Holly up at the train station, he is actively working to isolate and prey upon Tina. She wants to be a model and he tells her that his uncle is a famous fashion photographer, manipulating her and taking advantage of her with his promise that he’ll show her photographs to his uncle. He’s disappointed and angry that Holly is with Tina, and that Tina hasn’t come alone. He has clearly done his research and knows details like Tina’s favorite food and her favorite band, particularly leveraging this information when he can use it to prove that he’s a better match for her than Josh is. He lies to her about Josh, sowing seeds of doubt about whether her boyfriend has been entirely honest with her since being away at college. She’s unfamiliar with the area and has no car or other means of transportation, entirely reliant on Chris to take her where she needs to go and he drives up and down random streets in circuitous routes to intentionally disorient her. 

Readers also learn that Chris murdered his previous girlfriend Judy (through a combination confession/hallucination in which he believes Tina is Judy) and that he murdered Josh and is keeping the other boy’s body in a cupboard in his photography studio darkroom. Oddly, Josh’s corpse is discovered and then almost immediately dismissed. Tina wonders if his last thoughts were of her and later, uses Josh to set a trap for Chris, telling him that Josh is moving and still alive (despite the fact that Josh no longer has a face and has been decomposing in the darkroom for several days). While there’s some general “poor Josh” (146) grieving, as a character who has been talked about but never seen alive within the action of the novel, Stine doesn’t spend much time on the implications of Josh’s death, including who he actually was as a person, what his experience of being kidnapped and murdered must have been like, or the impact this will have on his family and friends. 

Just like Tina blames herself for Chris’s attack on the Ferris wheel, she similarly blames herself for almost being murdered, chiding herself that she should have seen this coming. While this could read as a cautionary tale to trust one’s intuition, the resolution and end result are far from empowering. Tina and Holly are traumatized and ready to return to Shadyside and stay there, in a toxic variation of the “there’s no place like home” theme of The Wizard of Oz, except that in this case if you stray to far from home and family, you might get kidnapped, raped, and murdered. When Shadyside is the “safe” alternative, something is definitely wrong. 

Interestingly, the only person who doesn’t slut-shame or victim-blame Tina throughout the novel is a college student named Carla, who talks to Tina about her own relationship, telling her that “college isn’t like high school. Steve and I see other people. Almost everyone does” (46). Similarly, Tina is fully supportive of her cousin Holly flirting with as many college guys as she can. This is a notable exception to trends and representations of women passing judgment on each other and tearing one another down. Tina is a bit judge-y when she thinks she sees Carla making out on a street corner with a guy who’s not Steve, but for the most part, Tina, Holly, and Carla are open with and supportive of one another. They don’t spend a lot of time talking about what they’re doing with whom, but they also don’t judge or shame one another for these romantic (though still not overtly sexual) interests. But the trouble is that they’re all shown to be wrong: Holly gets kidnapped, Tina is nearly murdered, and when Carla comes to the rescue, she is only successful because she and Steve make such a great team. After the cattiness and sabotage of so many of Stine’s other Fear Street novels and in the larger ‘90s teen horror trend, having this supportive connection between young women presented only to have it snatched away feels particularly cruel. 

While the extreme nature of Chris’s behavior is an anomaly, the outside world—and particularly the men who populate it—is shown to be a real and constant threat. Tina is nearly mugged by an aggressive man at the train station, she is grabbed and harassed by several young men at the party Chris takes her to, and she briefly thinks that her cousin Holly has been kidnapped by a motorcycle gang. There’s no place like Shadyside, indeed. However, while many of the dangers presented in Stine’s novels and others in the ‘90s teen horror tradition are outlandish or at the very least, pretty easily avoidable (i.e. don’t conduct a seance in a cemetery at midnight on the night of a full moon), this one is all too real and a potential horror that women, trans, and nonbinary people face in their everyday lives. The threat here is a realistic one that cannot be isolated within the pages of a book, but rather a stark reminder that the world is an unsafe place for far too many people and that this violence will often remain unaddressed. This is a poignant and horrifying warning for Stine’s readers, both then and now, that ghosts, ghouls, and goblins aside, we are not safe and can really never expect to be. 

Stine’s duo of Fear Hall books is more sensationalized, particularly in its ridiculous and inaccurate representations of multiple personality disorder and dissociation. Hope Mathis, the protagonist of the Fear Hall books, finds herself in the middle of a series of grisly murders. Hope believes that these murders are being committed by her jealous boyfriend Darryl, who is driven into a rage when he sees Hope out with other men, though it’s actually her roommates who go out on these dates while wearing Hope’s clothes (and the reader is left to assume that Darryl can’t tell the difference because he’s either near-sighted, blinded by rage, or an idiot). Stine’s big reveal is that very few of these people actually exist, with roommates Angel, Eden, and Jasmine and boyfriend Darryl all being distinct facets of Hope’s own personality. In Stine’s oversimplified compartmentalization, Angel is an expression of Hope’s repressed sexuality, Eden has the supportive maternal relationship that Hope was always denied by her own abusive mother, Jasmine is the responsible one who can navigate her way through the world without making many waves, and Darryl reflects Hope’s own capacity for rage and violence. This is a sensationalized, deeply flawed, and damaging representation of mental illness, obviously, though the relationships that Hope imagines and experiences give readers a sense of Stine’s version of what college life might be like (particularly in Fear Hall: The Beginning, as the readers don’t know that the other characters don’t objectively exist until that book’s final pages). 

First of all, college is scary. Fear Hall: The Beginning opens with Hope’s description of her residence hall—the eponymous Fear Hall—and the fact that “a lot of unlucky and weird things have happened in my dorm … like girls seeing ghosts. And strange creatures floating through the halls. And kids disappearing and never being seen again” (4). Hope mentions the legend of the Fear family in Shadyside (which is approximately fifty miles from the college), saying the family “is supposed to be unlucky, or evil, or something” (4). While this sounds like a typical campus legend, passed from student to student with few specific details, Hope is actually from Shadyside and certainly knows more than she’s letting on as she introduces herself and invites the reader into her world. The campus bookstore also apparently sells “I SURVIVED FEAR HALL” shirts (4), which seems like a really bad PR move when students are going missing and being murdered on your campus. Campus safety is lackadaisical at best: there’s a guard for Fear Hall but he’s an old man who’s almost always asleep, and the young women of Fear Hall actually have to demand a meeting with the dean and campus safety representatives to address their security concerns following the initial murder, with the adults portrayed as uncaring and ineffectual at protecting the young adults in their care. While teen readers and Fear Street protagonists alike certainly chafed under the constant surveillance and micromanaging of their high school lives, Stine here presents college life as a kind of fatalistic free-for-all, where whatever dangers these young adults face, they face them on their own. 

This sense of having nowhere to turn is further amplified when Hope is revealed as the murderer and has to flee. Her mother is abusive and she can’t go back home, so she finds herself basically squatting in an abandoned, derelict sorority house, a dark charade of both domesticity and sisterhood. In her time at the house, Hope ends up losing both, as prospective buyers come through the house talking about how they’ll make it their own and as she gradually faces the realization that her friends don’t exist. (She also dyes her hair and continues wandering around town fairly openly, including hanging out for coffee dates with a cute boy, which further calls into question the skill level of the local police force, particularly as the murders mount, with one young man stabbed after going on a date with Hope/Angel and two young women who lived in the hall across from Hope gruesomely murdered, one suffering chemical burns from chlorine dumped in a locker room jacuzzi and the other killed in a dry cleaning steam press). 

This sense of isolation is also echoed in College Weekend: not only do Tina and Hope have no one to turn to when they’re in trouble and far from home, Josh has apparently been dead for at least a few days and no one has noticed, missed him, or notified his family of his disappearance. In Stine’s universe, when you go to college, you’re entirely on your own, your support system is distanced and ineffectual, and literally no one will notice if you disappear or get murdered. 

Another resonant similarity between College Weekend and the Fear Hall books is in the representation of masculinity. Hope’s “dream guy” Darryl is the worst. As Hope tells the reader early in the first book, Darryl “has a terrible temper. Sometimes he really scares me. One second he’ll be perfectly in control. The next second he’ll be in a screaming rage. A total lunatic … [But] He can also be very understanding. Very kind” (9). This description and Hope and Darryl’s interactions throughout both books bear all the hallmarks of a controlling and abusive relationship as he follows her, threatens her, and manipulates her into covering for him, with her own low sense of self-worth as a result of her mother’s abuse making her complicit in his domination. He murders two young men he saw Hope with and two of the girls who live across the hall from Hope. Of course, it’s really Hope herself who is committing these murders but in some ways, the fact that this is the man her subconscious has created as the kind of partner she deserves is even more damaging and disturbing. She went on a couple of dates with a nice boy in high school, but in a John Hughes-esque twist, it turned out he only went out with her as part of a bet, so she killed him (presumably her first murder). Darryl is uncomplicated and someone Hope sees as being able to protect her from her mother’s abuse, setting up a pattern of violence and dependency within their relationship. While Stine’s multiple personality disorder narrative is outlandish and not one most teen readers would see themselves reflected in, this abusive relationship pattern is all too common, reinforced by Hope’s repeated explanation that Darryl is jealous and violent because he cares about her so much, and she’s lucky to have him. 

Taken together, Stine’s duo of Fear Hall books and College Weekend present a bleak and dangerous world for his teen readers. Shadyside has its own horrors, but apparently what happens everywhere else is even worse. Hope, Tina, and Holly have the opportunity to take their first steps into independent young adult life and in each case, this proves disastrous. The world is full of predatory men and these young women are not up to the challenge of protecting themselves or making their own choices. What they are instead offered is a persistent state of arrested development in which they can either return to their homes, families, and familiar hometown horrors (College Weekend) or face certain death (Fear Hall). Neither of these are positive, affirming, or empowering options. Maybe haunting Shadyside High School isn’t so bad after all. 

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.

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