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The Many Flavors of "Scary:" Horror Fiction for Teens

by Lesley James

*This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of RA News.*

"Do you have any scary stories?"

This request is easier to handle when the person asking is a child. For starters, you can pick up one of Alvin Schwartz's books, which are literally titled Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. When the patron is a teen, however, you might have to stop and think: What scares teens these days? More importantly: What scares this particular teen standing in front of me? What is this teen looking to get out of the experience of reading a scary story?

To figure that out, let's start by asking ourselves the question: Why do some people, no matter what their age, like to be frightened in the first place? After all, the choice of reading (and viewing) materials are up to them. There are various theories. Some people may seek out imaginary monsters and demons as a way to toughen themselves up in the face of very real dangers. It's helpful to practice dealing with fictional fears since you can just shut the book or turn off the TV if things get too frightening. Other people read scary stories for the same reason they ride roller coasters: It provides adrenaline-fueled excitement. Your heart beats faster as you plummet downwards and swoop upwards, but you know you'll eventually arrive at the end safely. You'll be able step off the ride, maybe a little nauseated, but otherwise feeling energized, alive -- just like you might after reading a scary story.

"Why do some people, no matter what their age, like to be frightened in the first place?"

On the other hand, we could turn to someone who knows a thing or two about horror: In his essay, "Why We Crave Horror Movies," Stephen King suggests that horror stories allow us to safely vent our "uncivilized emotions," what he describes as "lifting a trap door in the civilized forebrain and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in that subterranean river beneath." Why? "Because it keeps them from getting out, man." In addition, for some young people, reading a scary story can be a rite of passage, a way of earning bragging rights: "That didn't scare me!" (Not to mention a way of courting that highly sought-after prize, adult disapproval.)

A third theory is that scary stories help some people deal with taboo issues through the distancing medium of allegory. Is it a coincidence that zombies are experiencing such a surge in popularity in an era when the news is full of epidemics and incurable diseases? And what is a vampire but an embodiment of forbidden desires and inexplicable (and possibly embarrassing) physical transformations? Just like the ones teens may be experiencing as they face that most dreaded of monsters, puberty.

Now I know, I know: Many of today's vampires (and zombies, etc., etc.) tend to be not only super-hot but super-sensitive and the protagonist is more likely to fall in love with them than run away screaming. I would hasten to propose that books featuring "monsters" that sparkle are not scary stories. They provide a different type of heart-pounding frisson.

These are just the some of the many theories out there, but they can be helpful when considering how to meet the needs of teen readers. The next question is: What does "scary" mean to different teens?

There are plenty of teens who still want an old-school tale about things that go bump in the night, what we might call "original flavor." These are most likely to earn readers the right to say nonchalantly, "Oh, yeah, I've read everything by Dean Koontz." But there are other "flavors" of scary. For instance, sparkly vampires notwithstanding, some urban fantasy does take a trip to the scary side, pleasing fans of modern-day wizards and slayers who want their heroes to confront genuinely horrifying monsters, preferably with extra helpings of gore. Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake comes to mind. The title character is a ghost who dismembers anyone who enters her haunted house. Dystopian science fiction can also be scary, with a totalitarian government playing the role of the monster.  Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, in which women are forced to bear children for the ruling class of a brutal theocracy, remains one of the most frightening stories I've ever read.

However, it's important to distinguish between genre blends that add horror to the mix and those that contain what could more rightly be termed action. In most horror scenarios, the protagonist is in a position of weakness and vulnerability. Think of the familiar tropes: a character running through the woods, in a house alone, taking a shower -- a character who's usually female, certainly without any special ninja skills or, in most cases, clothes. Contrast this with Katniss in The Hunger Games: Scary things happen to her, but she's equal to the challenge, thanks to her training as a hunter. As readers, we admire her, aspire to be her, possibly even take up archery inspired by her. But we're more likely to identify with that girl running through the woods, as we wait for her inevitable trip and fall, knowing that's what we'd be more likely to do if confronted by danger. You hear the term "action hero," but never "horror hero." In truly frightening stories, there are only victims and survivors.

"In truly frightening stories, there are only victims and survivors."

It's also helpful to determine how the reader in question interprets "real" vs. "fantasy." I have had a scary story-seeker say, "I don't like all that supernatural stuff. I want a real ghost story." It's possible they were looking for the "original flavor" ghost story, without all the trappings of characters having magic ghost-hunting powers or being chosen by an ancient prophecy to defeat ghosts or falling in love with the super-hot ghost. They just want a killer clown doll to crawl out from under the bed and scare the daylights out of everyone. Or that reader might be looking for books from the 133's: "true" stories of haunted houses and ghost hunters with night vision goggles. They've seen these stories on TV so they must be true!

Another possibility is that the reader is looking for stories that are entirely realistic. This is where we get to the real heart of the difference between children's and teens' fears. In children's stories, most of the monsters live under the bed and only come out when the lights are off. Teens, however, may be looking for stories that will help them cope with fears of things they know might come out at any time. In some cases, they know these fears all too well: abusive parents, drug addiction, and online predators are just a few examples. To them, a scary story might be an Ellen Hopkins verse novel or Trafficked by Kim Purcell. The flavor of scary sought by these readers might very well be in the nonfiction collection: A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard and A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer are very scary stories indeed.

There are still other stories that might have the "flavor" of a thriller about a stalker or a suspense novel about a serial killer. Again, it's not as easy to step off these rides. Readers can't just reassure themselves of their safety by closing the book: We read these same stories in the news. I'm sure you can think of many other "flavors" of scary, whether they help readers cope with reality or take a thrilling ride. And the next time a teen asks for a scary story, you'll be prepared to ask, "What do you find scary?" You can walk them through their many options, maybe even talk about what you find scary. I know, for me, it's definitely that killer clown doll hiding under the bed.


Lesley James is a Teen Services Librarian at the Douglass-Truth Branch of the Seattle Public Library.