What I Did on My Summer Vacation: R.L. Stine’s Beach Party and Beach House 

After a long school year full of homework, tests, and the daily stresses of navigating the high school hierarchy (not to mention the ghosts, possessed undead cheerleaders, or pranks that went fatally wrong), the guys and girls of ‘90s teen horror could definitely use a nice, relaxing vacation. Whether it’s a family trip or an adventure with their friends, the sand and sun of the beach promises a chance to relax, recharge, and not have to worry about getting murdered for at least five minutes. But in the R.L. Stine novels Beach Party (1990) and Beach House (1992), the beach has plenty of horrors that range well beyond grabbing the wrong sunscreen or getting caught in a wicked undertow.

Stine’s Beach Party is a tale of two coasts, as Los Angeles-based Karen reunites with her friend Ann-Marie, whose family moved to New York City. Both places are depicted as exciting and slightly exotic, a departure from the small town Anywhere USA vibe of a lot of the novels in the ‘90s teen horror tradition. Karen and Ann-Marie haven’t seen one another in a couple of years, so some of the tension in Beach Party comes from them getting to know each other again, including Karen’s recollection that a lot of the conflict between herself and Ann-Marie before her friend moved was caused by Ann-Marie’s jealousy about all of Karen’s boyfriends. This almost immediately becomes an issue again when Karen starts ditching Ann-Marie to hang out with two guys while she tries to decide which one she likes better. But while Karen and Ann-Marie may occasionally argue and Karen does wonder later on if a girl named Renee might be out to get her, it’s the guys in Beach Party that are the real concern.

First, there’s Vince: in one of the opening chapters of Beach Party, Karen and Ann-Marie are walking alone on the beach at night when they are surrounded by a group of five boys, who begin to close in on and threaten the girls, telling them that there’s “a beach party … In fact, you’re the party” (15, emphasis added). They objectify and harass Karen and Ann-Marie and there’s a clear (if unspoken) threat of sexual assault, as the girls find themselves with no escape route. That’s when Jerry shows up, another mysterious and attractive guy who rescues Karen and Ann-Marie from this horrifying situation as he gets the guys to go away, starts flirting with Karen, and then takes Karen and Ann-Marie to a local pizza place where he’s meeting up with his girlfriend (which is just as awkward as it sounds). But Jerry’s a nice, clean-cut guy with good manners, which Stine frames in stark contrast with Vince’s tough exterior and “bad boy” appeal, as Karen finds herself attracted to and torn between both boys. To complicate matters further, there’s Karen’s ex-boyfriend Clay, who she thinks is stalking her and who forces an intense street-corner confrontation, from which Vince proves to be her unlikely rescuer. (The rescue consists of him tossing her on the back of his motorcycle, driving dangerously fast, and not stopping when she asks him to, so there may be a fine line there between rescue and abduction–but in the moment she sees him as her heroic knight in black leather armor.)

The fact that Karen is constantly in need of rescue and happily falls for any guy who does the rescuing (even if she previously had to be rescued from him or will need to be rescued from him at some future point) is intensely problematic. She doesn’t seem to have any agency of her own, finding herself repeatedly powerless in her interactions and confrontations with these young men, with nowhere to go and no one she can turn to for help other than another potentially dangerous young man, leaving her constantly choosing between the lesser of two evils, as she actively tries to find a guy who might make her feel unsafe or intensely uncomfortable, but probably won’t actually hurt her.

There are similar gender dynamics at play in Beach House, where a group of teens all end up on family vacations in the same seaside summer community. In Beach House, Ashley finds herself in a similar situation to Karen’s, with her interest divided between multiple guys. First there’s her boyfriend Ross, who is a generally nice guy but also insanely jealous, getting angry and possessive whenever Ashley even talks to another guy. The guy Ross is the most jealous of is glamorous, wealthy Brad, who lives in a mansion near the beach year-round and quickly becomes friendly with Ashley. Then there’s Denny, another guy Ashley and her friends know from school, a big jock whose idea of a great joke is to sneak up on Ashley, pick her up, and toss her in the ocean. While Denny seems like a largely harmless goofball, he also follows Ashley home at night “leering at her” as he insistently and confidently tells her that “I know you’re hot for me” (74). Echoing Karen’s experience on the beach with Vince and his friends, Ashley realizes that she’s alone with Denny and that he could really hurt her. She manages to get away from him but she is unsettled as she continues walking home alone, reflecting that Denny “seems to have so much pent-up anger. He pretends to be playful, to be goofing, kidding around. But just below the surface, he’s really kind of mean” (75). But like Vince in Beach Party, Ross and Denny’s behavior is depicted as justified or at least excusable, when Denny saves Ashley from Ross when he won’t take no for an answer after she breaks up with him and later, when Ross just happens to be in the right place at the right time to rescue Ashley because he followed her on her date with Brad. “Good old Ross” (208), Ashley thinks to herself, incredibly relieved that her stalker-y ex-boyfriend was there to save her from being murdered by another creepy dude. (Incidentally, the same thing happens in Stine’s 1991 Point Horror novel The Snowman. Rain or shine, snow or sand, be grateful for your stalkers, I guess. You never know when they might save your life. Or kill you. But that’s just a risk you have to take.) Karen and Ross get back together, riding off into the metaphorical sunset to live happily ever after, where presumably none of Ross’s problematic behaviors will reemerge.

Beach House follows a parallel narrative structure, which alternates sections between “Summer of 1956” and “This Summer,” where there’s a similarly problematic guy named Buddy, which provides an interesting (if depressing) perspective on the gender dynamics in the mid to late-20th century. Buddy at least has the benefit of a compelling backstory, as the opening chapter sees him bullied and teased by four other teens, who steal his shorts while he’s swimming and leave him naked in the water, laughing as they pack up and head off while he yells for them to help him. While Maria initially defends Buddy and tries to get his shorts back from the other kids, in the end, she ends up laughing right along with them and forgetting Buddy altogether as she and her friends head home for the day. It’s a bit of a villain origin story, but it still seems like an overreaction when he lures Maria into the water to go swimming with him, takes her far past where she’s comfortable swimming, and then repeatedly stabs her, hoping her blood will draw the sharks to her, “dark triangles [that] swam closer, deadly shadows against the white fog wall” (35). He swims away and leaves her to her fate, repeatedly calling her “[s]hark food” and laughing with a “high-pitched, crazy giggle” (36). While this is certainly one of the most inventive and sensationalized attempted murder sequences in the ‘90s teen horror tradition, the punishment doesn’t really seem to fit the pants-swiping crime.

In both Beach Party and Beach House, no one is really quite who they seem to be, which adds an extra layer to negotiating the horrors and avoiding being murdered. Jerry is the “nice guy” in Beach Party but there’s more than meets the eye. Jerry’s girlfriend Renee and several other characters warn Karen to “stay away from Jerry” (72), and Karen gets threats spray-painted on her apartment hallway wall, a bed full of dead jellyfish, and acid in her sunscreen. But Jerry’s nice, dreamy, and a good kisser, so Karen keeps seeing him anyway. But Jerry’s not really Jerry all of the time … Furthering the tradition of ‘90s teen horror dealing problematically with multiple personality disorder (and mental illness in general), Jerry is sometimes Todd, his brother who died by drowning when Jerry was unable to save him and who Jerry’s subconscious unearths and embodies to enact Jerry’s lingering guilt and self-destructive impulses. Much like Buddy in Beach House, Jerry gets Karen to go in the water with him and talks her into swimming out much farther than she’s comfortable or able to do well, particularly as she is still recovering from a bad burn from the acid someone put in her sunscreen. Karen has a moment of mingled trust and fear as she realizes that “[s]he had gone too far out … now she was in too much pain. Jerry would have to help her” (155). But this is when she meets Todd, who leaves her behind to drown. Karen survives by finding her snorkel that Jerry/Todd took from her and snorkeling back to shore, which is presumably less taxing because she doesn’t have to keep her head above water in order to breathe (though how this impacts her larger physical stamina and the mobility of her hurt shoulder go unaddressed). Interestingly, Karen learned how to snorkle from Renee before the other girl was murdered by Jerry, though Karen suspected Renee of threatening her (again, it was Jerry), which demonstrates the ways in which romantic rivalry and teen horror traditions drive young women away from each other, framing them in antagonistic competition or violence, rather than being able to help, support, or save one another. In the end, “[p]oor, crazy Jerry” (165) is taken into custody and Karen is literally swept off her feet by Vince.

In Beach House, Stine takes a different approach to complex identities, revealing that Buddy and Brad are actually the same person, able to move between 1956 and the present day through an inexplicable time portal in the walk-in closet of the eponymous abandoned beach house. The beach house serves as Buddy/Brad’s home base and is an abiding mystery for locals and tourists alike, as it is never occupied. The house is partially furnished but has never been lived in. Buddy tells his new friends in 1956 that he and his mom are staying in the house but when the police go to talk with him after Maria’s disappearance, they find that the house is empty. Still vacant in the present day, the beach house has become a place for teenagers to go and make out, much to the detriment of Ashley’s friends Kip and Lucy, who sneak into the house, presumably stumble through the magic closet, and are never seen again. Brad’s housekeeper Mary is also not quite who she seems to be, revealing in the climactic showdown that she is actually Maria, who survived the shark attack Buddy orchestrated and found her way through the time portal to the present, though it took her a bit longer and she is now middle-aged, bent on destroying Buddy/Brad and closing the door for good.

Stine doesn’t provide much context or explanation for the magic time portal closet and this sci-fi twist complicates the straightforward horror of Beach House. Where did it come from? Was it intentionally created when the house was being built and if so, by whom? In the nearly four decades between 1956 and the present day of Stine’s novel, why hasn’t anyone noticed or done anything about what has to be a startling number of inexplicable disappearances? Is there some odd, communal “that house is bad news but we’re cool with sacrificing a few tourists every now and then to keep the peace” kind of deal with the year-round residents? With the desirability and high cost of beachfront property, why hasn’t anyone either bought the house to renovate or torn it down to build something new and profitable? Even if Buddy/Brad owns the house and is able to prevent it being sold, surely there have to be some public safety concerns that could open the door for municipal intervention, right? Are Kip and Lucy making a new life in the ‘50s or are they dead? With the beach house destroyed and the time portal closed, will time paradoxes now abound? All fascinating questions, but ones for which Stine’s readers will never know the answers.

The threats in Beach Party and Beach House combine the inexplicable with the everyday. While it’s incredibly unlikely that Stine’s teen readers will stumble across a time portal or become romantically involved with someone who has a murderous split personality, many of the other dangers Karen and Ashley encounter in these books feel all too real. They both struggle to navigate romantic relationships, as they work to figure out which guys they can trust (or in some cases, which ones are the least potentially dangerous option). They are not safe walking on the beaches (or really anywhere else) alone and the threat of attack, assault, or harassment are never far away. They find themselves repeatedly relying on one guy to rescue them from another, when really neither choice is good or the one she would be likely to make if she’d had a wider range from which to choose or more empowering personal agency. Guys who seem threatening or engage in problematic stalking behavior are often the ones who save the day, making both of these girls doubt the reliability of their own perceptions and judgment, which more often than not lands them right back in a potentially dangerous situation. With the omnipresent threat of harassment, assault, and murder by shark attack or drowning, a girl’s best hope seems to be to trust no one, always check her sunscreen, make sure she’s a strong swimmer, and against all odds, just try not to die.

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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