If you’re at all like me, your love of horror started at a young age. And, if you were a bookworm, like me, you probably read some adult horror that was beyond your years. However, there are some books designed for kids that are pretty freaky and intense.
Horror for kids hasn’t been as prominent since the 90s. Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark marked one of the great scary heydays for the tween crowd. Since then, a preference for fantasy and stories with less of an edge has been more the norm on bookshelves.
With the fall releases of movies like Goosebumps 2 and The House With a Clock in Its Walls, family-friendly scares are poised to make a comeback!
Here is a list of my top 5 nostalgic books for kids that still guarantee a sleepless night.
5. Goosebumps: Night of the Living Dummy by R. L. Stine
You couldn’t be a tween in the 90s and not have read any Goosebumps. This series was where it was AT! While there are lots to choose from, and lots that I love, the story of Slappy, the surprisingly violent and unsurprisingly creepy living dummy, was the defining Goosebumps tale for me. To this day, ventriloquists dummies are a big NO for me. What makes R. L. Stine’s stories for kids so great is that they have a great balance of horror and humour. Just when it’s getting to get super tense, someone will flick on the lights and reassure the character that whatever they think is happening is ridiculous. While it stops the story from crossing the line into teen level terror territory (aka Fear Street, am I right?), it also successfully ratchets up the tension with each interruption, making for a dizzying story that catapults the reader solidly into having a ton of fun being scared. For those of you who want a bit of nostalgia but crave a new story, the Goosebumps movies feature Slappy, who is even creepier than I remembered him. On top of that, R. L. Stone has continued the stories with a Goosebumps series called Slappyworld. The latest is called The Ghost of Slappy; the grownup me can’t handle an undead Slappy, and I’m pretty sure the kid me would have been undone. Guaranteed.
4. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz
While it may seem like a cliché to include this one on a list of scary stories for children’s literature, it’s because this book is truly a formative one for many horror fans, and continues to be today. This book is a collection of very short tales designed to be told aloud. Who doesn’t remember camping or being at a sleepover and whipping this book out? There are a couple of reasons that this book stands out. It is a collection that consists of folktales and good old fashioned urban legends. For many kids, it is their first exposure to some of the classics: the escaped patient with the hook for a hand, the guy hiding in the backseat of the car, the call is coming from inside the house! I remember feeling like I was reading something special; it was dark, creepy, and written matter of factly enough that you just believed that some of them might be true. Best of all, this book fosters not only a love of scary stories, but a love of storytelling. Many stories in this collection come with instructions on how to scare your friends when you read them out loud. While it is someone abridged and toned down for a 9-12 age category, there are severed heads and rotting bits of flesh a-plenty! Watch for the upcoming movie on this one – it should be a blast!
3. Ghosts, Hauntings, and Mysterious Happenings by Phyllis Raybin Emert
Unfortunately, this gem from my childhood is out of print. However, this was my first exposure to the true stories of paranormal events, and I still remember it to this day. In fact, when I saw The Conjuring, I immediately recognized the story of the Perron family from this book. True stories always have a fascination with kids, and lend an air of gravity to the tales that aren’t always present in a fictional novel. Even now, who doesn’t shiver just a little bit more seeing that “Based on True Events” flashing on the screen with There are loads of based on true events stories that would appeal today. They have the added appeal of being great for picky or reluctant readers, as they are often short stories that can be skimmed over if it doesn’t grab interest right away.
2. Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn
This one is just a really great classic ghost story. It’s a little bit dated in the sense that the main character uses a Walkman, but other than that, it holds up. The story follows Molly, the eldest daughter in a recently combined family. She, her brother, and her mother, struggle to get along with Heather. Heather is the young daughter of their new stepfather, who is struggling with the death of her mother when she was much younger. As a result, she has her father wrapped around her little finger, and lives to be a terror to her new siblings and get them in trouble. The family moves to the country, and in a neighbouring graveyard, Heather befriends the ghost of a little girl, Helen. As her new playmate gets more and more possessive, Heather and Molly struggle more and more to get along. While this is a genuinely spooky story for kids, it also has the added layer of the struggling family, which adds a lot of genuine tension to the story. I was actually very surprised at the detail of the family’s issues, especially as you get the perspective of their mother as well, who is having a hard time bonding with Heather.
1. The Witches by Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl was one of my absolute favourite authors when I was a child. He was dark, funny, and, best of all, refused to ever be condescending in his writing for children. I devoured the English slang, and shrieked with delight as the big bads always got their (usually disturbing) comeuppance. In The Witches, every witch in England comes to meet at the hotel where our hero is staying with his grandmother. After he is caught snooping at the meeting, he is turned into a mouse. Teaming up with his grandmother, the boy attempts to take down the head witch, who is aiming to get her coven of 200 or so witches to turn every child in England into mice, so they can then be squashed accordingly. What makes this one so creepy is the descriptions of the witches…they are NOT beautiful creatures. This one also has an interesting ending, and while it is not a sad ending, it is definitely not the happy one that I was expecting.