Sometimes a thoughtful note or a sweet gift from a secret admirer can be a much-appreciated confidence boost. These anonymous kindnesses let you know that somebody’s thinking about you and even better, thinks you’re pretty great. An admirer might keep their identity a secret for several different reasons: maybe they’re working on a nice surprise or a grand gesture, maybe they’re smitten but shy, maybe they’re just trying to send a bit of kindness out into the world. Or maybe they’re planning to murder you and don’t want to get caught. In Carol Ellis’s My Secret Admirer (1989) and R.L. Stine’s Secret Admirer (1996), Jenny Fowler and Selena Goodrich have to figure out who their secret admirers are and what they want–before it’s too late.
Teen horror’s female protagonists are regularly drawn to boys they have been warned away from: alluring bad boys. Sometimes these guys have just moved to town and no one knows where they’ve come from or what their lives were like before, and this mystery breeds speculation and gossip. Sometimes they have bad tempers or a rumored history of violence. Sometimes they come from the “wrong side of the tracks” and offer few details of their lives at home because they feel ashamed of their family’s lack. In most cases, the female character discovers that her bad boy isn’t really all that bad, just intensely private, traumatized by some past horror, or he’s a misunderstood loner waiting for the right girl to come along and understand him (an unsettling and potentially dangerous message for teen readers to be soaking in, to be sure).
But every now and again, the bad boy is actually an inhuman monster capable of death and destruction, like in Christopher Pike’s Monster (1992) and Caroline B. Cooney’s The Stranger (1998).
The protagonists of ‘90s teen horror are a little old for trick or treating, but there are still plenty of scares to be had on Halloween, particularly when someone throws a spooky party. Donning a mask or costume often lowers these characters’ inhibitions, giving them the chance to cut loose for the night, while interpersonal conflict runs high (as always) and some of the “tricks” invariably turn nasty, with Halloween the perfect cover for disguising attempted murder as a prank gone wrong. There are lots of party-time tricks and very few treats for the characters of R.L. Stine’s Halloween Party (1990) and Diane Hoh’s The Dummy (1995).
Friendship is a risky business in ‘90s teen horror. There are friends who have your back, no matter what supernatural threat or knife-wielding maniac is lurking just around the corner, and those who would shove you in front of the monster, then step over your dead body to steal your boyfriend. New friends might be mysterious but oddly trustworthy, while your oldest friends might be the ones who betray you. R.L. Stine’s Fear Street books The Best Friend (1992) and The Best Friend 2 (1997) explore the darker side of friendship, when “best friends forever” becomes a curse rather than a comfort.
In horror, there’s a long and bloody history of people who are told not to go somewhere and go there anyway, with disastrous results. An abandoned asylum where people have heard screams in the night? The ruins of an old school, rumored to be haunted by the ghosts of former students? A summer camp where a whole bunch of kids were slaughtered a few years back? That creepy haunted house just down the street? All good places to stay away from. But of course, the siren song of mystery, thrill seeking, and a clandestine place to party/drink/have sex away from the prying eyes of adults is just too strong and our horror heroes and heroines invariably end up right where they’re not supposed to be. In Diane Hoh’s Captives (1995), Sinclair Smith’s Double Date (1996), and R.L. Stine’s Trapped (1997), ‘90s teen horror authors get in on this time-honored tradition, with predictably terrifying results.
With back-to-school season once again upon us, it’s a good time to return to Salem University and Diane Hoh’s Nightmare Hall series. While much of ‘90s teen horror focuses on high school students, in Hoh’s Nightmare Hall books, the students of Salem U are pretty much left to their own devices and responsible for their own survival, without the safety and comfort of home or parental supervision (though there are plenty for whom home isn’t that safe a place either). While there are occasional interactions with faculty or staff members in the Nightmare Hall books, these characters have most of their conversations with, and get most of their advice from, their fellow students, whether it’s on which classes to take, how to navigate their complicated friendships and love lives, or how to avoid getting murdered.
Amnesia and recovered memories have become an accidental theme of recent columns, from the repressed memories of High Tide and The Dead Lifeguard to the amnesia-faking antagonists of Sunburn and The Surfer. All in all, amnesia is ridiculously commonplace in ‘90s teen horror, with traumatic experiences blocking out whole chunks of characters’ memories or, in the case of those who fake their memory loss, providing a convenient excuse to avoid answering tricky questions, like “did you murder my great great grandfather?” While the protagonists of High Tide and The Dead Lifeguard think they remember most of what happened to them, with just a few isolated blind spots in their recollections, in Christopher Pike’s The Lost Mind (1995) and Sinclair Smith’s Amnesia (1996), Jennifer and Alicia both wake up with no idea who they are, what they’ve done, or how they’ve ended up where they find themselves. These girls’ quests to solve these questions and end their nightmares are central to The Lost Mind and Amnesia, with the act of recovering these memories taking center stage.
The summer fun in ‘90s teen horror has proven more dangerous than relaxing, with the repressed memories and attempted murders of High Tide and The Dead Lifeguard, the horrors of Camp Fear, the thrills and chills of Funhouse and Fear Park. But maybe—just maybe—our teen protagonists can catch a break hanging out with their friends, going for a quick run on the beach, or walking to the pier to check out the waves, right? Nope, definitely not. Mayhem and murder follow wherever these teens go, including Claudia Walker’s trip to her friend’s beach house in R.L. Stine’s Sunburn (1993) and the mysterious new girl who literally washes up on the beach in Linda Cargill’s The Surfer (1995).
Teen horror of the ‘90s has dangers aplenty: there are human enemies and supernatural monsters, mistaken identity and elaborate faked-death schemes, and all the stress and intrigue of just trying to get through the day as a regular high school student. But in the world of Christopher Pike, that barely scratches the surface, as characters regularly find themselves contending with the lingering evils of the past, visitors from the future (both malevolent and well-meaning), the depths of the cosmos, and complex spirituality. Three of Pike’s novels that tackle some of these thorny issues are See You Later (1990), Whisper of Death (1991), and The Wicked Heart (1993), though there are several others addressed in previous columns that are part of this larger discussion as well, including Chain Letter 2: The Ancient Evil (1992), Road to Nowhere (1993), The Eternal Enemy (1993), The Immortal (1993), and the Last Vampire series (1994-2013).
In Pike’s universe, the past is never really past, with echoes of evil that carry down through the years, influencing and shaping the events of the present.
A day out at the local amusement park sounds like some good old-fashioned summer fun: the rattle of the roller coaster cars whizzing by, the music of the carousel, the lights of the Ferris wheel, the smells of fried foods and cotton candy, the laughter and delighted screams of children as they run from one ride to the next. The amusement park is a kind of liminal space, a break from the stressors of everyday reality on the other side of the gates, a place intentionally designed for fun. But in Diane Hoh’s Funhouse (1990) and R.L. Stine’s Fear Park trilogy (The First Scream, The Loudest Scream, and The Last Scream; all 1996), that fun turns to terror and the screams are real. In addition to the horrifying events that take place at these parks, each must also reckon with a dark legacy.
The cover of Richie Tankersley Cusick’s The Lifeguard (1988) has become iconic, with a buff, blonde lifeguard glowering from atop his chair and behind his mirrored sunglasses. Cusick’s The Lifeguard was a predecessor of the ‘90s teen horror trend and set the stage for many of the narrative patterns to come. While the beach getaway of The Lifeguard seems to promise fun and sun for the novel’s protagonist, Kelsey Tanner, the ominous cover image and the tagline that advises “Don’t call for help. He may just kill you” let readers know differently before they even get to the first page. The sand, the sun, and a vacation from the predictability and pressures from home sound like the recipe for a really fun summer. But looked at from another angle, it could just as easily be a scary one: there are dangerous tides, big waves, the threat of drowning, and sharks. Those sun-tanned strangers could be potential new friends or romantic partners, or they could be murderers, it’s really anybody’s guess. And if—let’s face it, when—something goes wrong, these teens find themselves trapped between the threat of human violence and a watery grave.
While Cusick’s lifeguard is scary, a summer job on top of that chair isn’t all fun and games in other ‘90s teen horror novels, including R.L. Stine’s The Dead Lifeguard (1994) and High Tide (1997), both Fear Street series Super Chillers. In both of these books, the protagonists leave Shadyside to get summer jobs, Lindsay Beck at the North Beach Country Club pool in The Dead Lifeguard, and Adam Malfitano at sea-side Logan Beach in High Tide.
I miss video stores. The thrill of picking up a long-anticipated new release, the suspense of wondering whether all the copies of the movie you want will already be rented, the endless sense of possibility in wandering aimlessly up and down the aisles in the hope of finding some wonderful, unexpected treasure. Video stores were a gold mine of entertainment, providing the opportunity to rent, watch, and rewatch an ever-evolving collection of hundreds of movies, all for just a few dollars, and conveniently located down the street. We now have access to an even wider range of movies, even more conveniently, streaming onto our screens without ever having to leave the house, but it’s just not the same.
Video cassettes, VCRs, and the horrors of the small screen are central to Christopher Pike’s The Eternal Enemy (1993) and Carol Ellis’s Silent Witness (1994). These two books evoke different modes of horror and suspense, with science fiction in Pike and mystery/thriller in Ellis. However, in both cases, the role of video recording is central to understanding the past and the future, as well as the characters and the people around them, both friends and foes. There is also an interesting dynamic of power and agency at play, in being able to record, watch, and manipulate the images on the screen through how those are created, consumed, and mediated.
Teen horror of the ‘90s was dominated by familiar names like Chrisopher Pike and R.L. Stine, and extended series like Stine’s Fear Street and Diane Hoh’s Nightmare Hall. With the popularity and sheer volume of work being published, it is interesting that ‘90s teen horror was almost exclusively a long-form phenomenon: a few series, lots of standalone novels, but very little short fiction. Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series (1981-1991) and J.B. Stamper’s Tales for the Midnight Hour series (1977-1991) are both short fiction collections that likely appealed to ‘90s teen horror readers in their younger years and serve as notable predecessors, but they are separate from the larger ‘90s teen horror trend. Christopher Pike published two short story collections of his work—Tales of Terror (1996) and Tales of Terror 2 (1997)—though they never achieved the mainstream popularity of his novels. When it comes to ‘90s teen horror short fiction, the T. Pines-edited Thirteen: 13 Tales of Horror by 13 Masters of Horror pretty much stands alone.
A lot of strange stuff happens on Fear Street, from the ominously hulking ruins of Simon Fear’s burned out mansion to odd sounds in the Fear Street woods. If somebody offers you a job on Fear Street, you’re probably putting your life on the line to make that paycheck. If someone invites you over to their house on Fear Street, they might be a ghost. And if someone tells you there’s going to be an awesome party in the Fear Street woods this weekend, you’ll be better off staying at home curled up with a good book and hearing about the mayhem that ensued when you get to school on Monday morning. While the danger of Fear Street seems to be pretty pervasive and free floating, there are a handful of places that are recurring sites of horror, including Simon Fear’s mansion and 99 Fear Street.
The everyday lives of the guys and girls of ‘90s teen horror seem complicated enough, full of secrets, betrayal, murder, and (occasionally) monsters. But when these dangers feel just a bit too prosaic, there are always evils from the past that can resurface, synthesizing ancient civilizations and terrors with the teens’ modern existence. Christopher Pike’s The Immortal (1993) and Barbara Steiner’s The Mummy (1995) connect their young female protagonists to these past lives, with ancient Greece in The Immortal and ancient Egypt in The Mummy. These connections with and explorations of concerns much larger than themselves reveal these girls to be just one small piece of a much larger picture, as well as lending an air of exceptionalism: the young women who are connected to these past lives are special, chosen, and bigger than the petty dramas of the contemporary moment in which they live.
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