The idea of “high school horror” conjures so many tropes: cliques and bullies that turn school into hell, as in Stephen King’s Carrie and The Merciless by Danielle Vega; unnaturally transforming adolescent bodies as in Ginger Snaps (2000) or Wilder Girls by Rory Power; and terrifying sexual experiences as seen in It Follows (2015) and Charles Burns’s graphic novel Black Hole. These stories are familiar, fun, and achingly relatable. That said, there’s often another horror often lurking under these stories that’s chronically overlooked and perhaps even more evergreen than raging hormones and monstrous sexual awakenings: the loss and grieving of high school friendships.
Horror has always held space for grief (and research has even shown that it can help you process your own grief). On-screen, grief storytelling is central to final girls like Scream’s Sidney Prescott, whose mother was killed before the events of the first movie in the series, and not-so-final girls like Midsommar’s Dani Ardor, who spends the film concurrently processing the loss of her family and the disintegration of her relationship with her boyfriend. Noticeably, grief in horror is usually reserved for romantic partners or family members, not the person that you passed notes to in Spanish class, not the person that you braided friendship bracelets for in the summertime.
I remember being a teenager. My friendships then were the most complex and intimate bonds in my life for years… and almost none of them survived past high school.
It’s scary to think that the seemingly unbreakable friendships forged in the fires of adolescence might actually be brittle. There’s a certain vulnerability to realizing that sometimes these friendships were born and maintained out of proximity alone.
Do I have you feeling wistful? The good news is that there are a number of horror novels, especially young adult horror novels, that capture the gutshot of this type of loss. Personally, I feel that the horror novel has a special perspective on lost friendship that isn’t captured by non-horror stories. Horror stories present extreme situations that can match just how big teenaged feelings can feel in real life, and the way to get through these extreme situations isn’t by resorting to platitudes or by replacing the lost friendship with a new romance. By exploring grief in worlds where vanquishable monsters exist, we are set up to see that grief as something likewise survivable, even defeatable.
Stories of lost friendships don’t even have to come with heaviness. Undead Girl Gang by Lily Anderson takes a lighter approach to confronting friendships that aren’t as perfect and shiny as they appear. When high-schooler and amateur witch Mila Flores loses her best (and only) friend Riley to an alleged suicide, she turns to magic to dispel her grief. And dispel it she does, by raising Riley, along with two other murdered classmates, from the dead. Now with a rotting friend in tow, Mila says that her plan is to seek justice for her death, but that’s only part of the truth. The other part is that Mila isn’t ready to live life without her BFF or to start trusting new people. Undead Girl Gang is a story about ending a friendship that I think would naturally crumble after graduation if death hadn’t gotten in the way first.
If it is heaviness that you’re after, you might want to try Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo. It’s not quite a high school horror; Summer Sons has a college setting, but in many ways it feels like a delayed coming-of-age narrative that could easily have taken place a few years sooner. Like Mila in Undead Girl Gang, Andrew loses his best friend Eddie to a mysterious death-ruled-suicide, but not before losing him first when Eddie leaves Andrew behind to start grad school early. Mired in grief, Andrew is left to piece together secrets and lies about the person that he thought he knew completely. Andrew depended on Eddie’s lead in life, and he’s viscerally afraid of following any path that wasn’t first forged by his friend, which leaves him spiralling as he tries to figure himself out.
An interesting aspect of Summer Sons is how new friendships form around Andrew as he tries to solve Eddie’s death, not so much to fill the friendship void left by Eddie, but as bonds formed from shared mourning. Something similar happens in Rules for Vanishing by Kate Alice Marshall that subverts the idea that all high school friendships are fragile and prone to failure.
In Rules for Vanishing, highschooler Sara assumes that her friendships have all but evaporated in the year since her sister, Becca, went missing. Sara is sure that her sister’s disappearance is linked to a local ghost story (just as she’s sure that it’s this belief that has pushed her friends away). As it turns out, when Sara has a chance to pursue her ghosts, her friends don’t need too much convincing to risk their own lives at her side. As it turns out, friendships can die from neglect, even if that neglect is an understandable outcome of grief, but sometimes they can be revived with a little effort and healing.
All of these books see new or renewed friendships forged from horror. I pick up these stories as an adult because I like to feel nostalgic for the friendships that I’ve had and let fade, and to do a solid to my younger self who craved the kinds of friends that would definitely show up to the woods at night to face off against angry ghosts. The kinds of friends that could only exist in a world where ghosts did, too.
Are childhood and high school friendships always doomed to die to make way for romantic and familial relationships? Not at all! I’m sure there are people out there sharing adult friendships with the same people they made pinkie promises to in grade school. But just as many people feel that little pinch in their hearts when they remember high school friends that were once so intimately important who were either let go or who just sort of drifted away over time. I, for one, look forward to seeing more YA horror that makes room for this type of loss and grief and makes it monstrous.
Nina Nessith (she/her) is a science communicator and writer based in Sudbury, Ontario. She is the co-author of The Science of Orphan Black (ECW Press, 2017). Her writing can be found across the web, usually digging deeply into the intersection between horror and science. You can find her on Twitter or via her website.