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Alissa Burger

Landlines and Mystery Callers: Party Line, The Wrong Number, and Call Waiting

While some elements of ‘90s teen horror remain relevant to a contemporary reading audience—like friendship drama, boyfriend troubles, trying to fit in and be accepted by one’s peers—others already feel like vestiges of a bygone era, like mimeograph machines and landline telephones. If these characters just had cell phones or access to the internet, it would change everything. Not sure where your friend is and worried she’s in danger? Text her. You’re being followed by some creepy dude who just might be a murderer? Call 911. Mysterious new guy school? Google him and stalk all his social media looking for his dark secret. But the guys and girls of ‘90s teen horror have none of these options and find terror on the landline in A. Bates’ Party Line (1989) and R.L. Stine’s The Wrong Number (1990) and Call Waiting (1994).

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Mystery, Death, and the Caretaker: Christopher Pike’s Chain Letter and Chain Letter 2 

When it comes to teen horror, Christopher Pike’s Chain Letter (1986) is iconic, and although  the novel predated the ‘90s horror heyday, Chain Letter laid the groundwork for many of the novels that followed in that teen horror tradition. While Chain Letter is a compelling standalone novel, its narrative is dramatically reframed and complicated with Pike’s Chain Letter 2 (1992), which returns to the same characters and scenario but takes the horror in a completely new direction. 

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Help Wanted: Summer Jobs and Survival in Mother’s Helper and The Claw 

Summer is a great opportunity for teens to get some work experience, finding a part-time job to earn a bit of spending money or landing an internship to add to their college application portfolios. But like everything else in ‘90s teen horror, these jobs are never easy and they invariably come with a wide range of dangers that definitely weren’t listed in the job description. In A. Bates’ Mother’s Helper (1991) and Carmen Adams’ The Claw (1995), their female protagonists find unique and exciting summer jobs that end up being more than they bargained for. Interestingly, while many novels of the ‘90s teen horror tradition lean into the supernatural, Mother’s Helper and The Claw both keep their horrors firmly grounded in the realistic, providing not just thrills and chills, but a glimpse of some of the everyday dangers of the adult world beyond. 

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It Wasn’t Me: Duos and Doppelgangers in Caroline B. Cooney’s The Perfume and Twins

In ‘90s teen horror, there are a lot of burning questions about mistaken identity and subterfuge, leaving characters often wondering who they can trust and whether their new friends are who they claim to be. In The Perfume (1992) and Twins (1994), Caroline B. Cooney takes this question of identity and reality one step further, as Dove and Mary Lee must face their respective twins and deal with the consequences of their actions. In The Perfume, Dove’s twin is internalized, a presence in her mind that takes over her body, while in Twins, Mary Lee has an actual identical twin named Madrigal, but while the nature of the girls’ twins differ, the themes of identity, self, and perception resonate between the two novels. 

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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.

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Wilderness and Survival in R.L. Stine’s The Overnight and Carol Ellis’s Camp Fear 

Sometimes getting back to nature can be a perfect break from the day-to-day demands and stressors of modern life: the wind in the trees, stars overhead, fresh air, maybe an invigorating hike or a cozy night spent around a campfire. For the protagonists of ‘90s teen horror novels, the wilderness offers this escape, as well as a chance to get out from under the constant surveillance of their parents and (to a lesser extent) away from the social stratification of their communal peer group. However, while the high school hallways of teen horror are wild enough, the great outdoors holds its own set of challenges and dangers. The teens in R.L. Stine’s The Overnight (1989) and Carol Ellis’s Camp Fear (1993) venture into the woods and find a whole new set of horrors. 

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The Broken Promises of Christopher Pike’s Last Vampire Series 

When I started this column a few months ago, there were several Christopher Pike books that I remembered particularly fondly and was looking forward to revisiting, including Slumber Party, Master of Murder, Die Softly, Last Act, the Final Friends trilogy, and the Chain Letter duology. (The Midnight Club is my absolute favorite, but I’ll not-very-patiently wait for Mike Flanagan’s Netflix adaptation to come out before we go there). The brightly colored spines, the flashy fluorescent titles, Christopher Pike’s name in that big script-y font at the top of each cover. Just the sight of a Christopher Pike cover—really ANY Christopher Pike cover—takes me back to those feelings of excitement and anticipation, standing in the library or the mall bookstore, book in hand, thrilled to see what he had in store for us this time.

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I Was (Sort Of) A Teenage Vampire: Caroline B. Cooney’s The Cheerleader and Christopher Pike’s The Last Vampire 

Vampires have been a staple of the Gothic and horror traditions, with iconic texts including Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and a host of Hollywood incarnations, from Nosferatu (1922) to Bela Lugosi’s iconic performance in Universal Pictures’ adaptation of Dracula (1931). While vampires are perennially popular, these creatures of the night were particularly ubiquitous in 1990s pop culture, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer (both the 1992 feature film and the hit television series), Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Neil Jordan’s film adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1994), Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), and the Wesley Snipes franchise Blade (1998-2004). What is particularly notable about ‘90s incarnations of the vampire is the way in which these films negotiated or subverted traditional conceptions and expectations, whether through exploring the depths of vampire subjectivity or creating space in these narratives for women and people of color.

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Corsages, Romance, and Death: Lael Littke’s Prom Dress and Diane Hoh’s Prom Date

Prom night holds a privileged place in the annals of popular culture, depicted as a rite of passage, particularly for high school seniors who are getting ready to put their adolescence behind them, looking forward to graduation and their future beyond it. If high school is a four-year gauntlet of popularity contents and social peril, prom night is the final exam. Following in the tradition of Stephen King’s Carrie (1974) and the 1980 slasher Prom Night, Lael Littke’s Prom Dress (1989) and Diane Hoh’s Prom Date (1996) explore the potential horrors of the prom.

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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. 

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Somebody’s Watching Me: Christopher Pike’s Last Act and Carol Ellis’s The Stalker 

There is a distinct element of mystery and suspense that permeates much of 1990s teen horror (and the genre as a whole, for that matter). Characters run around trying to figure out who is sending cryptic notes or making creepy phone calls, or working to determine the identity of the dark figure lurking in the shadows, the face hiding behind a mask. While these dangers are unnerving and often create a sense of uneasiness for the characters being targeted, surveillance and stalking are their own unique subset of terror.

In Christopher Pike’s Last Act (1988) and Carol Ellis’s The Stalker (1996), the novels’ respective heroines are performers, in a position where they expect and even enjoy being looked at, though some of the people who watch them take this voyeurism to threatening levels, not content to stop when the curtain falls.

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Survivors and Silence: Caroline B. Cooney’s The Fog, The Snow, and The Fire 

Caroline B. Cooney’s trio of novels of The Fog (1989), The Snow (1990), and The Fire (1990)—also known as the Losing Christina trilogy—was Cooney’s first horror series. Prior to The Fog, Cooney was particularly well-known for novels of teen romance and drama, including the high school dance-themed Night to Remember series (1986-1988). Following the Point Horror success of the Losing Christina series, Cooney became one of the main names in the ‘90s teen horror trend, with her Vampire trilogy of The Cheerleader (1991), The Return of the Vampire (1992), and The Vampire’s Promise (1993), as well as several standalone novels, including Freeze Tag (1992), The Perfume (1992), and Twins (1994).

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Valentine or Death Threat? R.L. Stine’s Broken Hearts and Jo Gibson’s My Bloody Valentine

Valentine’s Day is a complicated holiday, particularly in adolescence. While children’s experiences of Valentine’s Day are often nostalgically-remembered iterations of the holiday with classroom parties where everyone got valentines, for teens the expectation pivots to the high-stakes hope of a meaningful gift from a special someone, worrying about whether they’ll be chosen or left out, and working to find one’s place in the uncertain landscape of high school relationships, binary gender expectations, and heterosexual romance.

While popularity, the “right” clothes, and who’s dating who are presented as perennial teen problems in ‘90s teen horror, these all seem to hit a fever pitch with Valentine’s Day, with its prescribed romantic rituals, from valentine cards to flowers, dates, and dances. In both R.L. Stine’s Fear Street Super Chiller Broken Hearts (1993) and Jo Gibson’s My Bloody Valentine (1995),  these worries are further compounded by mystery, revenge, and murder. 

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Hitting the Slopes in Christopher Pike’s Slumber Party and Carol Ellis’ The Window

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.

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‘Tis the Season: R.L. Stine’s Silent Night Trilogy

Holiday horror has a long and illustrious history, from traditional Victorian Christmas ghost stories like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) to more contemporary examples like Black Christmas (1974), Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), Krampus (2015), and A Christmas Horror Story (2015), among others.

R.L. Stine’s first Silent Night (1991) Fear Street novel combines the traditions of the Christmas slasher film with the redemptive transformation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with mean girl Reva Dalby as the Scrooge character in this variation.

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