Hungry For Horror

By Jennifer Chauhan — October 01, 1992 7 min read
    Amy shoved Buddy hard as she ran past him. . . .

Her chest was about to explode with pain, her legs so heavy, she had to force them to take every step. She glanced back.

Saw him pick up the long-handled shovel from against the side of the house.

Saw him carry it in one hand as he came running after her, his eyes wild with fury, his mouth open in a silent scream.

Buddy, a shy, murderous 16-year-old in R.L. Stine’s The Beach House, is just one of the characters stalking the pages of a new genre of paperback novels that kids are gobbling up: horror. Glance in a locker or book bag of a middle school student these days and chances are good you will find a well-worn copy of one of these thrillers. They are the hottest trend in children’s literature, and they’re scaring the pants off teens and pre-teens, alike.

“Even if you’re tired and want to go to bed, you just can’t stop; you’ve got to keep reading,” says 12-year-old Vanessa Hogan of Fort Wayne, Ind., who became hooked after reading her first horror novel last year. “There is suspense in every chapter.”

The lure of these books, Vanessa and others say, is that they’re frightening. “Kids like to be scared,” says Kathleen Squires, horror editor for Bantam Books for Young Adults.

Three years ago, Squires’ title didn’t even exist because there were no horror stories being written for young adults. But that changed when publishers realized—in the wake of the success of movies like Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, and their sequels—that a literary niche was waiting to be filled.

It all started in 1989 when Scholastic Inc. Associate Publisher Jean Fiewel teamed up with Christopher Pike, a prominent author, and cooked up the idea for Slumber Party. This is the way Scholastic has done it ever since; the editors come up with the ideas and leave it to the authors to weave the suspenseful, and often bloody, tales. Currently, at least five publishing houses are churning out these spine tinglers. Scholastic, alone, has decided to publish at least one new horror paperback every month.

And kids are snatching them up. There are no hard sales statistics for these novels; the publishing industry doesn’t track separate sales figures for genres within the young adult market. But anecdotal evidence from librarians, teachers, and booksellers suggests that sales are brisk. “Among this age group, it is the most asked for, most requested, most circulated, and most talked about,” affirms Patrick Jones, manager of Pecumseh Library in Fort Wayne and a member of the American Library Association’s Committee for Recommended Books for Reluctant Readers.

In the classroom, too, these grueling tales are quickly moving from hand to hand. Jeanneine Jones, an 8th grade classroom teacher for 15 years and now an education professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, says kids “simply devour them.”

The horror novels—which go for about $3.95 each—are written with young teenagers in mind; they typically have 15- to 16-year-old protagonists and start out in the normal day-to-day world of adolescents.

But as the popularity of the genre grows, the readership is getting younger. Evidence suggests, some observers say, that children as young as 10 are reading these chilling stories.

Publishers say they are aware that younger kids are reading the books and, as a result, are taking special care to select material responsibly. “We do not tolerate gratuitous violence or sexually explicit material,” says Fiewel. “We try to make them psychologically tense and maintain an edge so they’re real, but we keep them in the bounds of good storytelling and good taste.” Officials at Avon Books say that they have similar standards and that they insist that the protagonists in their books have some sort of value system. Overall, publishers say, these books are good “scary” fun and represent no threat to kids.

Just how scary are they? Most of the stories center on a murder or the threat of one. The crime is often motivated by revenge rooted in some type of peer rejection, most often by someone of the opposite sex. Take Buddy, for example. He goes on a mad killing spree after he is excluded by peers and made the butt of numerous jokes. The novel, like others in the genre, has a supernatural twist. Some of the narratives are built around suspense, others violence. There is, according to Squires, a little something for everyone. “We have psychokillers, monsters, regular people who are maladjusted, and unexplained mysteries,” she says.

Although some educators are alarmed by the new trend, many others have welcomed the novels into their classrooms. Horror stories, they say, have a definite place and a long and respectable history in the curriculum. “One assigns Poe or Shakespeare without even blinking an eye; and think about what happens to Macbeth,” notes Leila Christenbury, associate professor of education at Virginia Commonwealth University and editor of Books for You, a publication of the National Council of Teachers of English that recommends books for senior high students.

Many psychologists say the often-grizzly stories of the new horror genre pose no real threat to adolescents—or even younger readers. By the age of 10, they say, most children can differentiate between fantasy and reality. A child may have a nightmare after reading one of these books, says Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology at Temple University and co-author of You and Your Adolescent: A Parent’s Guide for Ages 10-20, but “it is pretty unlikely he or she will read a horrible thing and do it.” Compared with rock lyrics, TV violence, and, most importantly, real life aggression at home, Steinberg says, a few horror books are nothing to worry about.

Librarian Jones agrees. “A 10-year-old who has access to TV and cable is not going to be shocked by what he or she reads in a book,” he says.

Some teachers say the new fascination with horror novels is actually doing some good because it’s stimulating kids to read. One longtime reader, Bree Bristow, a schoolmate of Vanessa’s in Fort Wayne, says she has seen a lot of kids her age start reading because of these books.

“People just want to know kids are reading,” says Sharon Bart, chairwoman for the horror genre committee of the Young Adult Libraries Services Association, a division of the American Library Association. “As long as they’re reading, I don’t care if they start out with the real popular stuff.”

Hopefully, she adds, “they will graduate and go for something better.”

Still, many educators are troubled by the violent focus of the new novels. Reading about Buddy smashing Stuart’s head to a bloody pulp with a piece of driftwood can only have a numbing effect on youngsters, says Kevin Dwyer, a Montgomery County, Md., school psychologist. “They begin to accept violence more easily and take it as a part of life, particularly if they can relate it to their own reality,” Dwyer says. “The closer they can identify to what is going on, the more likely it will have a negative effect.”

Few people think the books will drive youngsters to acts of violence, but many believe the violent images and themes can threaten the emotional security of some children. Young adolescents are at an impressionable age, they say. For some, especially those slow to mature, the material in these books can be too gruesome or depressing. “Some kids are still in La-La land, and these books will body slam them into the reality of life before they are ready,” explains Jones of the University of North Carolina. Such children, Jones adds, may become hounded by bad thoughts or, more typically, nightmares.

Numbing violence and nightmares aside, there is another reason why some adults aren’t crazy about the latest fad, and it has to do with quality; not all horror stories are created equal. Classic stories, like Edgar Allan Poe’s, are one thing, says Mike Pressby, professor of education at the National Center for the Study of Reading at University of Maryland at College Park, but most of the currently hip novels are a waste of time. “Reading these books just doesn’t do anything for a reader,” Pressby says. “It might increase fluency a little but you can do that by reading books that are knowledgeable and may actually stimulate interests in other areas.”

For their part, kids seem able to recognize the new novels for what they are: bubble-gum fiction. As 13-year-old Bree says: “We don’t take these books seriously. They’re scary, but they’re not real.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Hungry For Horror