R.L. Stine’s Fear Street is the best-known of the ‘90s teen horror series, but it wasn’t the only one. Diane Hoh’s Nightmare Hall is a 29-book series chronicling the dark history and inexplicable goings-on at Salem University. Hoh’s series followed the kids of ‘90s teen horror beyond graduation as they ventured into the great wide world, where they usually discovered a whole new set of horrors. The cover design of the Nightmare Hall books featured a window cut-out in the cover, through which the bookstore browser could get a tantalizingly incomplete peek at the horrors that lay within, with a second, inner cover providing further visual clues—a dead body, a lurking monster—without giving away the novel’s mystery.
Many of the Nightmare Hall books’ main characters are first-semester freshmen, so whatever threatening or supernatural dangers they face are compounded by their uncertainties and fears about navigating an already big life transition and figuring out who they’re going to be now that they’ve left their high school selves behind. Salem University is pretty large, which makes it possible for each book to focus on a new story and set of characters, while playing on the legends and interconnections that draw them together. Aside from Nightmare Hall, college life wasn’t a frequent focus of ‘90s teen horror: Stine’s two-book Fear Hall miniseries and the Fear Street novel College Weekend are exceptions (which I have written about in previous column) and the big takeaway from those novels is that however scary and murder-y things are in your hometown, things can always get worse away from home. With Hoh’s Nightmare Hall, these campus horrors are terrifying but just another part of the college experience, as Hoh’s characters learn about problem solving and time management (balancing a heavy course load, a part time job, and monster-hunting or murder-solving on the side keeps a person really busy!), making new friends, and figuring out who they are and who they want to be. Three books that effectively synthesize real-world dangers and supernatural horrors are The Silent Scream (#1, 1993), Monster (#13, 1994), and The Vampire’s Kiss (#22, 1995).
The Silent Scream is the reader’s first introduction to Salem University, Nightingale Hall, and the surrounding college town. The series blurb featured on the back of each Nightmare Hall novel sets the tone: “High on a hillside overlooking Salem University, hidden in shadows and shrouded in silence, sits Nightingale Hall. Nightmare Hall, the students call it. Because that’s where the terror began.” While the series is named after this off-campus dorm, Nightingale Hall itself plays a relatively minor role in the books that follow, usually just mentioned in passing conversation as being a spooky place that someone doesn’t want to take a shortcut past at night or a well-known source of campus legends. Nightingale Hall is the central setting of The Silent Scream, however, laying the groundwork for the stories that follow. When Jess Vogt, the main character of The Silent Scream, gets off the bus and first lays eyes on the house that will be her home for the next nine months or so, her first impression is that “It was tall and narrow, three stories of brick so deep a red and so shaded by massive oaks it looked charcoal. Two of the dark green shutters flanking the tall, skinny windows were hanging crookedly and the wide, wooden porch sagged just enough to make the house look a little drunk” (7). Jess soon meets her new roommates: handsome Ian Banion, quiet and creative Milo Keith, ladies’ man Jon Shea, competitive swimmer Linda Carlyle, and intense, no-nonsense Cath Devon. They’re all freshman and while they’re all a bit put off by their first glimpse of Nightingale Hall, they collectively cross the threshold into the unknown, with Ian noting that at the very least, “you’ve got to admit this place looks more interesting than those boring stone dorms on campus” (8).
Nightingale Hall is shrouded in mystery and carries a wide range of associations: it’s an off-campus residence hall, which simultaneously situates it outside of the communal safety of the larger campus and affords a bit more freedom and independence, without resident assistants dropping by, campus safety making rounds, or dozens of hallmates coming in and out at all hours. It’s also the cheapest housing option at Salem University, adding a class component to the self-selection of students who opt to live there, who are usually on scholarship, on tight budgets, or paying their own way through college. Despite this “bargain basement” pricing, Nightingale Hall is surprisingly old-fashioned, with a live-in house mother, Mrs. Coates, who cooks, cleans, and takes care of the students. Finally, the house is cursed, haunted by the ghost of Giselle McKendrick, who is rumored to have hung herself in one of the bedrooms the previous June. Giselle shows up in the background of their photos and remains a lingering presence in Jess’s room—which was Giselle’s the previous year and where she died—which is always cold and where Jess is woken by screams no one else can hear.
Ghost aside, other problems pile up as well: Mrs. Coates takes a nasty fall down the stairs on move-in day and breaks her hip, rushed to the hospital and leaving the students to fend for themselves, with a bit of help from the house’s handyman, Trucker, who lives in an apartment above the garage (Nightmare-adjacent). One of Cath’s essays for class goes missing and she accuses Milo of stealing it, which causes a rift between the housemates and amps up Cath’s stress as she has to pull an all-nighter rewriting her paper in those dark days before ubiquitous personal computers and Google Docs (there’s one computer lab mentioned on campus, but lots of students write their papers by hand or on typewriters). Someone shreds Linda’s swimsuit right before a meet; the required suits are expensive and Linda was only able to afford one, which means she won’t be able to compete, and risks losing her scholarship. The housemates discover that Milo and Giselle were childhood friends and went to the same high school, a secret he kept from them.
As the housemates get to know one another, figuring out who they can trust and who they can’t, they also learn more about Giselle, whose urban legend is (of course) not the whole story. While Giselle’s death was presumed to be a suicide, Jess finds threatening letters to Giselle from an old boyfriend and begins to suspect the other girl was murdered. As they learn more about Giselle’s life pre-Nightmare Hall, a dark picture emerges: her mother was terminally ill, her father distant and grieving, and her brother away in the military, leaving Giselle largely isolated with her own grief and need, a void that this mystery man stepped in to fill, taking over and controlling her life. When Giselle went to college the year before, it was the chance for a new life and a fresh start, but the only way her boyfriend would let her go was if she promised to come back after one year and marry him, driven to a jealous rage when she fails to hold up her end of the deal. He writes her a series of threatening letters, including one in which he asks “Did you really think I’d just let you go? I can’t do that … You belong to me. Forever” (192, emphasis original), and when he doesn’t get the response he wants, he shows up at Nightingale Hall, kills Giselle, and makes it look like a suicide.
The Silent Scream blends the real-life horrors of relationship abuse, stalking, murder, and grief with the supernatural influence of Giselle’s ghost, who remains in Nightingale Hall, desperate for her murderer to be brought to justice and for her loved ones to know that she did not take her own life. Jess spearheads the investigation into Giselle’s death after finding the letters when they fall out of the dresser in her room. She discovers that Trucker murdered Giselle and has been staying close to the house by posing as a handyman, which allows him to search for this incriminating evidence. While Salem University students see Nightmare Hall as a quintessential haunted house and cursed place, Trucker sees the house as a different kind of bad place, telling Jess “It was this place, the people she lived with here, that turned her against me. I knew if she’d just come away with me and we were alone together, we’d get back to where we used to be” (223, emphasis original). Giselle found a new place and a new life, one with no room for Trucker’s manipulation and abuse, though in the end, she isn’t able to escape him. While nothing can bring Giselle back, when Trucker attacks Jess, Giselle’s spirit intervenes, saving Jess’s life and then passing on into whatever peace awaits her in the afterlife beyond Nightmare Hall, as “the old brick house seemed to shudder, as if sighing heavily, and then settle back on its haunches peacefully” (229). Given Giselle’s departure, it could well be that Nightmare Hall isn’t even actually haunted after the end of this first book, though its legend endures.
While every campus has its legends and ghost stories, tales of monsters and vampires are a bit fewer and further between, though Salem University has at least one of each. Just like the realistic horrors that complicate the ghost story of Nightmare Hall, however, in both Monster and The Vampire’s Kiss, the dangers aren’t limited to the supernatural. In Monster, Salem University students are being attacked by a mysterious creature in the woods, usually when they’re out in the woods near Varsity Pond. Students head that way to take an ill-advised shortcut, to clandestinely canoodle, or as part of some secret hazing ritual, and end up attacked by the monster, who smells terrible, has coarse fur, and razor-sharp claws. Despite the real damage inflicted by the monster’s attacks and the physical evidence it leaves behind, it takes people a long time to actually accept that there might be a literal monster on the loose. The attacks are explained away as a hazing prank that went wrong and as some sort of experimental drama performance, with students debating the veracity of these stories, while the police just flat-out refuse to believe in the possibility of a monster.
As with The Silent Scream, there are plenty of interpersonal conflicts that complicate matters: Abby McDonald is the main character of Monster and while she and her high-school boyfriend David Waters came to Salem University together, they’re both now realizing that after four years together and a change in scenery, it might be time to start seeing other people, though neither of them is quite ready to admit that to themselves or one another. For example, Abby finds herself torn between being jealous of David’s newfound chemistry with a girl named Sissy King, worrying that with her demanding class schedule she doesn’t have enough time to devote to David and will lose him, and thinking about how she might want to spend some quality time with the cute guy she met at the library. Abby is worried about her chemistry grade and is doing some extra credit work in the lab at night, where she is harassed by fellow student Stan Hurley, who seems to have trouble taking no for an answer. Abby and her roommate Carrie Milholland haven’t really gotten to know each other, leaving Abby with misgivings and suspicions about the other girl, though she eventually discovers that Carrie’s odd behavior, tears, and bruises are because her boyfriend Quinton Brooks is physically abusive, not because Carrie is turning into a monster and attacking people. Hoh teases out some parallels between an abuser and literal monstrosity, as Abby follows Carrie when she flees Quinton, only to witness him attacking Carrie again in the exact same spot the monster has been frequenting. When Abby attempts to intervene, she finds “A dark shadow loom[ing] in front of her” (125) that echoes what the survivors of the monster attacks attest to seeing and Quinton’s voice is described as “growl” (126). Much like those who have attempted to resist the monster and failed, when Abby gets between Quinton and Carrie, Quinton punches Abby, first in the stomach and then in the face, before she loses consciousness. While the similarities between Quinton and the monster are alluded to here, they remain disappointingly undeveloped, more symbol than social awareness.
While there aren’t any shortage of things to be afraid of on the Salem University campus, in Monster, Abby discovers that what she really should be scared of is herself: while she has been toiling away on her mysterious chemistry extra credit project, she inadvertently created some sort of powerful concoction that turns her into a rampaging monster when she breathes the fumes. While many of her attacks in this monster form are opportunistic and not targeted, when she finds David and Sissy making out by Varsity Pond, she attacks him and disfigures his handsome face, an animalistic indulgence of her jealousy that maims David and dispels Sissy’s interest right around the same time that Abby decides she doesn’t want David anymore anyway, in a problematic unsettling riff on the “if I can’t have you, nobody can” relationship abuse narrative. Similarly problematic, stalker Stan ends up being the (kind of) hero of the piece, revealing that he has been following Abby not because he’s a creep, but because he’s a genius who suspected that she was the one turning into a monster and attacking everyone. When she turns into a monster while working on her experiment in the lab again, Stan locks her in a closet and whips up an antidote that restores her humanity. As they stand together in the aftermath in the chemistry lab, Stan tells Abby, “you’re going to need a friend. One who does believe what’s happened,” to which she replies “I’d be honored, Stan. Thanks, You might turn out to the best friend I’ve ever had” (165). And just like that, Abby and Stan’s relationship dynamic goes from creepy dude making Abby uncomfortable and following her all over to campus to the only guy who believes her and who can save her from herself, a standup guy for whose attention she should be grateful.
Finally, The Vampire’s Kiss similarly blurs the line between supernatural and real-world horrors, as well as addressing the impact of trauma that many teens come to college bearing. While Janie Curtis is enthusiastic about starting a new chapter of her life at Salem University, she’s also doing everything she can to run away from her old one, where she showed up late for a rendezvous with her boyfriend Lucas to find him dead, with two puncture wounds in his neck (cue ominous music). Janie has thrown herself into her schoolwork, taken up a part-time job working at an off-campus coffee shop just to keep herself busy, and is navigating a complicated relationship with her high-school best friend and now roommate, Susanne Delacorte, who is encouraging Janie to get back out there while also serving as an unintentional, constant reminder of who Janie used to be and all that she has lost. Crystal Avon, Janie’s fellow waitress, is a full-time waitress and part-time student figuring out what she wants out of life, which provides Janie with a new perspective and friendship dynamic. Things get even further complicated when Janie all of the sudden has three guys vying for her attention: basketball star Stretch, bad-boy transfer student Bram, and a mysterious guy named Jon who shows up at the coffee shop wearing dark sunglasses at night to sit and stare unnervingly at Janie (which is just as creepy as it sounds and is acknowledged as such, with none of that “oh, isn’t it flattering that he’s so interested in you and so persistent” garbage).
After a security guard is killed and Janie begins seeing wolves, rats, and bats everywhere, rumors start to fly that there’s a vampire on campus. Bram is considered the most likely suspect because he’s new in town, darkly mysterious, and his name is BRAM. But he also has a motorcycle and is a great kisser, so Janie’s willing to overlook these suspicions. In tandem with all of this vampire speculation, Janie begins to realized that she might not know all there is to know about Lucas’s murder, as she begins receiving notes from beyond the grave, asking “Have you forgotten me so soon? I haven’t forgotten you. I never will. Sweet Jane Forever. Mine” (104, emphasis original). So now Janie has to try to juggle three guys AND her dead boyfriend. Or her undead boyfriend. Or maybe her dead boyfriend’s murderer who could have been hanging out when she found Lucas’s body and heard his pet name for her, using it now to terrorize her. Or maybe even Susanne, who Janie suspects might have been in love with Lucas and is now faking these notes to try to drive Janie crazy. Janie’s got a lot going on.
When Crystal is attacked, Janie makes a practical and totally level-headed plan to take a makeshift stake and wander around the darkest parts of campus to lure the vampire into attacking her. He does, but this is further complicated by the fact that Bram was secretly following Janie to make sure she got home safely, while Stretch was following Bram because he through Bram was the vampire and Stretch wanted to protect Janie, while the real vampire is Jon (who is actually undead Lucas, who for some reason Janie doesn’t recognize until he takes off his sunglasses). The guys all attack each other, knocking one another unconscious until Janie and Jon/Lucas are the last ones standing, and Lucas tells Janie he has come back to make good on his promise that they’ll be together forever by turning her into a vampire. As much as she has missed Lucas, this isn’t the (after)life Janie wants and she rejects him, plunging the stake into his chest. Though she fails to land a killing blow, Lucas respects her decision, leaps at the chance to be freed of his eternal hunger, tells Janie he loves her, and throws himself onto the stake, finishing the job she started. In the end, nobody’s really sure exactly what happened other than Janie herself, but Janie chooses Bram and becomes a one-man woman again, while Stretch and Crystal meet one another and immediately hit it off, with all the characters once again conventionally paired off, and the monogamous heteronormative order restored. No more love that transcends death or playing the field to avoid deciding between the nice guy and the bad boy, just a whole lot of double dates at the coffee shop.
In Hoh’s Nightmare Hall series, there’s a lot for these freshmen to fear. They’re starting new lives in a new place, worried about making friends, finding their way around campus, the rigor of their classes, and the challenges of balancing school, work, and a social life. This stress is further compounded by the real-world threats and dangers they encounter, including relationship violence, stalking, harassment, and loss, as they struggle to protect themselves, support their friends, and make the right decisions. All three of these Nightmare Hall books feature abusive boyfriends, a relationship dynamic that comes across as both life-threatening and inevitable. (It’s more than a little unsettling that one of the “good” guys here is a vampire who has killed multiple people and means to kill Janie as well, but listens to and respects her when she tells him no). If the day-to-day challenges of college life weren’t enough, adding ghosts, monsters, and vampires to the mix necessitates a whole different set of survival skills, particularly when the monster is yourself. When Abby realizes that she is the monster, Salem University’s campus becomes safer, though she herself is in danger of losing everything, including her own fundamental sense of who she is, what she’s capable of, and who her allies are, as she finds herself beholden to creepy Stan. In the closing pages of Monster, Abby’s narrative remains unresolved, as she picks up the phone to call the police and turn herself in. She worries about a range of potential repercussions, from being kicked out of school to facing criminal charges, at loose ends as she says “I can’t even think right now what would be best for everyone concerned” (165), with no consideration of what she wants or hopes will happen. While she has regained control of her body and is no longer a monster, she has lost her agency: Stan is responsible for her transformation back into a human and has convinced her that he’s the only one on her side, further isolating her in the aftermath of this traumatic experience; she turns herself over to the police, who haven’t been particularly kind or empathetic throughout the larger investigation of monster attacks; and there’s little sense of control, motivation, or desire as Abby moves on to whatever comes next. In The Silent Scream and The Vampire’s Kiss, Giselle and Janie find themselves in similar situations, losing themselves in the shadow of a guy or a mystery, with Giselle murdered and Janie only narrowly avoiding being turned into a vampire. In the world of Nightmare Hall, if a college girl’s not careful (and maybe even if she is, actually), she could all too easily end up dead, nearly dead, or undead.
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.