Between 2020 and 2021, I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about children’s horror. It started with my Nightworms blog post about the scary books that I grew up reading. I discussed classics like Goosebumps and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, but I also talked about books that I had thought were obscure—that is, until other readers confirmed that they too had been raised on Paul Zindel’s Reef of Death or J. B. Stamper’s Tales for the Midnight Hour. In April, to honor children’s horror, I also posted a series of Instagram photos that highlighted books from my childhood, titles like The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural and Bloody Waters: Terrorizing Shark Tales. Once again, I was greeted by more enthusiastic horror fans who had also read these books when they were kids.
Those two occurrences led to so many questions…
Where Were My Fellow Kid Horror Fans When I Was Young?
Why didn’t we bump into each other at Blockbuster (or in my case, Iggle Video in Pittsburgh) and bare our fangs in a friendly greeting as we both reached for The Frighteners or Scream? Why didn’t we cross paths at the library and exclaim, “Cool Goosebumps book! Have you read The Werewolf of Fever Swamp yet?” Though, if I’m being honest, I would have never talked to someone I didn’t know, even a kid my own age, because I was extremely shy and anxious. Maybe we did see each other, but we were too afraid to speak because we were products of the Stranger Danger decade of the 1990s.
My recent experiences with children’s horror forced me to reexamine just how lonely the life of a child horror fan can be. My family has always enjoyed a good scare, but the same wasn’t true for the people I interacted with outside of my home. The ages of eight to fourteen were lonely for me. There weren’t many people I could talk to about my fascination with being afraid. I didn’t think much about best-seller lists, but I knew that I couldn’t be the only person reading Goosebumps books. After all, there was a TV show and merch and my big sister was reading the Fear Street books, so other kids had to love R.L. Stine and spooky things too, right? I was smart enough to know that with my $10.00, I hadn’t cleaned out the entire school book fair of scary stories… right?
What Were We So Afraid Of?
I often wonder if fellow horror fans were afraid to come forward because they feared being mocked by peers. Horror fans know fear well, which means that we also know how to protect ourselves from things that are scary. We know how to outsmart the mask-wearing, knife-wielding maniac. We know how to hide from the monsters. Growing up as a horror nerd, it was difficult to differentiate between those who were having fun with you and those who were poking fun at you. Maybe that’s why we never met…
Or maybe we didn’t meet because you were afraid of being reprimanded by adults. After all, it isn’t “normal” to like things that creep and crawl and howl and moan, right? Go ahead, you can roll your eyes with me.
When I was in the fifth grade, my mom bought me a toy alien fetus in a jar full of slime. It sounds gross and it was, but gross is often part of the horror landscape, particularly for kids. Anyway, as a kid who was a Roswell fanatic, I loved that little alien. So, the day after I got it, I did what any kid would want to do: I took it to school.
Now, maybe this sort of thing would have been fine at your school, but at a Catholic school, it was very, very frowned upon. But I didn’t know that because I was ten.
I pulled the toy from my backpack and quickly showed it to my best friend, who giggled and said something like, “Ewww!” My classmates saw it and wanted a closer look. Before long, that hushed whispering that often descends over a space where children’s attention is occupied fell over my homeroom. It didn’t take long for the teacher to realize that something was up. The alien fetus, which was being passed from one set of small hands to another, finally made its way to the teacher. Is there a word for simultaneous anger and repulsion? If so, my teacher exuded it. She declared that the toy was vile and disgusting and that whoever owned it was “sick.” She made eye contact with me. Hurt and embarrassed, I put my head down. To reiterate, I was a shy and anxious student who rarely got into trouble in school, so to see disapproval radiating off a teacher in waves left me reeling. A small part of my soul drowned in those waves, and I wondered if something was “wrong” with me.
The disapproval from adults didn’t stop there. When I encountered older relatives or parents of acquaintances, the repugnance was written all over their faces. They were not shy about letting me know that the book I was reading or the horror film I had recently watched with my family was dreadful and gross.
In my Catholic high school, when I sat against my locker reading The Vampire Lestat, I didn’t need to look up to know that I would be met with pursed lips by some faculty and staff members. I once wrote a high school research paper about the Roswell Crash. I wouldn’t be surprised if my history teacher rolled his eyes a lot while reading it.
In my later high school years, it was acceptable to like horror movies—it was probably even cool—but only on Friday and Saturday nights at the movie theater, under recessed lighting and with popcorn. Even then, it seemed like the goal of some fellow high school moviegoers was to poke fun at the horror film—to point out all its flaws and shame the film into a less scary subservience. I, a scaredy cat, often laughed along… even when I loved the movie, the makeup, the monsters, and the jump scares. And weekends aside, I still had to confront a lot of horror alone Sunday through Thursday.
Where Was My Mystery Gang?
I probably would have felt less alone if I’d had a whole gang of creepy friends to go on an adventure with. I can’t speak for other horror fans who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color, but for me, at least, the issue of being a lonely kid horror fan was further compounded by race. More often than not, I watched Black and brown characters act as sidekicks, but they rarely got to survive the horror, let alone go on the harrowing adventure.
I watched countless young white people be part of ragtag groups of kids who always had each other’s backs when a monster reared its ugly head. Max, Dani, and Allison got to gallivant around Salem while they waged war against three witches from the 1600s on Halloween night, and they had help from a zombie and a cursed black cat. The monster squad didn’t even have to leave the comfort of suburbia to battle iconic horror legends like Dracula and Wolfman. Sam and the Frog brothers got to boil a vamp in a tub of holy water, and just a few years later, Buffy slayed vampires after cheerleading practice. Marshall and Simon were allowed to just exist within the boundaries of their very weird town of Eerie, Indiana.
I know a lot of Black and brown kids who wanted to be the leader of the Midnight Society. I wanted to be Fi, traveling the country on a tour bus while solving weird mysteries and blogging about them on the net. I wanted to be one of those kids in the Goosebumps books who always had scary things happening to them—dangerous sponges, suspicious plant dads, and evil wisecracking dummies. But my options for self-imagination were limited.
So, long live Fool and Tyler and Walter and Rochelle and Kincaid and Kiki. If you know, you know.
(May I pause to quickly shout out to @blackhorroricons on Instagram? Tyrone is doing the important work of cataloging Black actors in horror films, and that work should be applauded.)
What Ever Happened to Those Creepy Kids?
Those childhood experiences shaped me into a quiet horror fan, and I suspect the same was true for many other young creeps as they emerged into adulthood and shambled to daily jobs dressed in business casual clothing. As an adult, I continued to shout about scary things to close friends and family. But as a young professional in corporate America, I only whispered about my love of the weird, and if someone did discover that I loved horror, our conversation usually never moved beyond Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King.
It wasn’t until recently that I stopped whispering about horror and started screaming. I’m not sure what prompted the change. Perhaps it was the mundanity of nine-to-five corporate life? I stopped caring about how others might judge me for the movies and books I consumed and instead started looking for friends who would like me because of our shared interest in horror. As an adult, I managed to stitch together the ragtag horror-loving friend group that I always wanted as a kid.
How Can We Save Young Horror Fans Today?
If I could go back in time and talk to my younger self and other kid horror fans. I would tell them that something called “social media” is coming! I would tell them that in the future, they’ll be able to more easily connect with other creeps. I would tell them that social media will be tough to navigate, but it will also be a place where they will find communities built by and for people who love what they love. I would tell them that legit Goosebumps horror comedies are on the way and that they’ll star Jack Black of all people! Oh, and I would tell them to check out the Teenage Werewolves Horror Film Fiend Club. (Remember the after-school horror movie club from Scream 4? The TWHFFC is like that–but with werewolves and cool merch!)
And to the horror kids who are Black and brown, I would tell them that they will begin to see themselves represented more in the genre they love. I would tell them to keep their eyes peeled for Blood Moon and Vampires vs. the Bronx. I would tell them that stories like Hide and Seeker by Daka Hermon and Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal will make their way to bookstore shelves. I would tell them that an incredibly smart and gross film adaptation of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is coming and that it will be produced by a Mexican filmmaker.
I would tell all young horror fans to stay spooky, even if their parents and friends don’t understand.
If you know a young horror fan, protect them at all costs. Let them explore the boundaries of their fear. When the terror becomes too much, kids know how to close the book or press pause. Let them use horror to tackle the traumas that this world will wreak on their young souls. They may use the genre to confront their fears or to heal. They may use the genre for entertainment. They might become lifelong fans… or not. That’s all right. The important thing is that they have support and space to confront their fears in a safe setting, because the monsters out there ::points to the world around us:: are much worse than the monsters in our media.