Scarred for life: the scariest books from our childhood

These are pictures in a CHILDREN'S book. FOR CHILDREN. Photo from Funny Junk.

These are pictures in a CHILDREN’S book. FOR CHILDREN. Photo from Funny Junk.

It’s Halloween, and all we can think about are all the mild horror YA books that built character, but also shattered our little juvenile souls. We read about possessed dolls, vampire bunnies and teachers, ghouls in basements and dudes hanging from nooses – yeah, totally age-appropriate (thanks, R.L. Stine, for making that a thing?).

Read ahead and get scared with us — but it’s not our fault if this takes you back to that one time you accidentally checked out “Coraline” thinking you could relate to her.

“Bunnicula: A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery,” Deborah and James Howe | Brendon Embry

James and Debroah Howe made many kids scared of these furry lovable creatures in their 1979 book about a bunny who exhibits vampire-like abilities. Knowing that the Monroe family found this bunny at a theatre showing the movie “Dracula,” this bunny had to spell trouble (who wants a bunny named after a vampire?).

Look at those fangs, those red eyes. Try and go to sleep with that in your head. Photo from Better World Books.

The bunny’s power to get out of its cage, suck vegtables dry (turning them white) and its fangs and black spot that resembles a cape scared not only readers, but the Monroe family’s cat Chester. Chester wanted to prove to Harold (the family dog) Bunnicula’s strange behavior through silly plots that would catch Bunnicula in the act. These silly plans didn’t last long as Chester’s beef with Bunnicula rises to the point when Chester plans to kill Bunnicula. These death plots were cruel and included attempted starving, stabbings and drowning.

Readers found Bunnicula downright creepy and Chester scary  while wondering why the Monroe family couldn’t piece the clues together (white vegtables, Chester’s strange  behavior, Bunnicula’s illness). Howe added elements such as dark imagery complete with the convenient thunderstorm and an ending that opened up the opprotunity for multiple Bunnicula sequels. These sequels would only continue to give readers (including myself) countless nightmares and a fear of bunnies.

“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” Alan Schwartz | Ross Dickerhoof

Pffft, how scary could this be? It’s just another collection of “spooooooooky” folk tales compiled by some dude who probably jumps at his own shadow. I mean, maybe if you’re eight years old this is scary—oh Jesus Christ.

Yeah, this book and its two sequels really messed me up as a kid, thanks to the blockhead librarian that left it in the children’s section of the local library. The stories themselves are mostly standard fare: urban legends about calls coming from inside the house, stuff falling down the chimney and visiting lonely people, and so on.

But some of them get pretty primal and graphic, like the story of a vampire breaking into a little girl’s room or (especially) the one about a scarecrow flaying a man alive. Most of them tapped into the universal fear (particularly when you’re a kid) of being alone with no one to help you, like in a bad dream.

LOOK OUT, HAROLD’S GONNA GET YOU. Photo from Comics Alliance.

The stories themselves aren’t what really stuck with me, though: that’d be the illustrations. Stephen Gammell drew the original edition’s pictures, and they’re all sinister, dreamlike and grisly. Like this one, on the side here. Have fun trying to sleep tonight.

“Coraline,” Neil Gaiman | Abbie Doyle

Neil Gaiman is one strange son of a bitch. In 2002, the English novelist known for his rather spooky tales of fantasy lands released the novella “Coraline” to astronomical praise. It received many awards, like the Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker awards. One award the novella did not receive but definitely should have would be the Holy Shit What The Fuck Did I Just Read Award.

The story is chock full of creepy imagery, illustrations, and haunting language. “Coraline” is written for children and adults alike, and Gaiman crafts eerily lifelike characters who are a little too familiar to be comfortable. The plot focuses on young Coraline, who is bored with her new life in a dreary, rainy town until a possessed doll (no biggie, just a doll moving around on its own, not a red flag or anything) helps her discover a bricked up tunnel that connects her house to an alternate universe. It’s a story all about escapism fantasies; who can’t relate to that?

Those eyes...those creepy eyes. Photo from Youth Lit Review.

Those eyes…those creepy eyes. Photo from Youth Lit Review.

Gaiman would never be one to say escapism fantasies are a bad thing. After all, that’s how he makes a living. In “Coraline” he demonstrates how these fantasies can be potentially harmful. Coraline’s alternate universe mom seems like a pretty cool gal; she makes delicious food, gives Coraline presents, and most importantly she pays attention to Coraline. Coraline’s real mother is often too busy to give her child attention, Gaiman’s lesson being “Take proper care of your damn kids so they don’t wish they had a different life.”

It’s when this “other mother” turns into a psychotic child-eating spider that things get really out of hand and terrifying. Nightmares are to be expected, and be sure to think twice before wishing you had another mother.

“Vampires Don’t Wear Polka Dots,” Debbie Dadey and Marcia Thornton Jones | Maura McNamee

Not only do the kids of Bailey City have major trust issues, they also seem to really be able to pick up on the supernatural quite well. In each of the “Bailey School Kids” series, Liza, Melody, Howie and Eddie encounter all these adults who, to them, appear to be a mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, Cupid or in this first installment, a vampire.

What’s most scary about these Grade 1 and up chapter books is the fact that these kids roam freely around town, accusing adults of being monsters and/or mystical creatures. To a kid, reading these makes you wonder what evil is, and if a wild imagination is something to be dismissed, or taken seriously.

“Vampires Don’t Wear Polka Dots” begins with the four trouble-making 9-year-olds causing so much disruption that their perfectly normal teacher leaves because she’s sick of their shit. She is replaced by Mrs. Jeepers, a redhead from Transylvania with a penchant for pink polka dot dresses. So naturally, the Bailey School Kids (who are essentially a much worse and dumber version of the Mystery Machine gang, let’s be honest) conclude she is a vampire.

In the kids’ defense, Mrs. Jeepers does some real weird and likely illegal stuff to whip the kids back in shape. If anything, that woman is a child-hater and shouldn’t be teaching. She wears this old, glowing green brooch that supposedly summons her “powers” to make stuff fly around the classroom and scare the bejesus out of Liza, Melody, Howie and Eddie.

“Vampires Don’t Wear Polka Dots,” as idiotic and unlikely the premise may be, sends a message to kids that you can’t trust all adults, a very scary and real piece of advice that may or may not belong in a YA book meant for 7-to-10-year olds.

“Goosebumps: The Revenge of the Garden Gnomes,” R.L. Stine | Colin Trubee

As a young, pre-teen middle schooler there were many books and movies that scared the hell out of me. However, there is a difference between things that creeped me out, and things that left a slightly-traumatic impression on my brain. “Goosebumps” falls into that slightly-traumatic category.

Beware of books with oozing slime for titles. Photo from Fansided.

Beware of books with oozing slime for titles. Photo from Fansided.

First of all, I never should have read “Goosebumps” in the first place given my deathly fear of the “Goosebumps”-esque Nickelodeon series “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”  But hey, I wasn’t going to let that stop me from enjoying some timeless English literature.  Needless to say, through reading those books, R.L. Stine has put a permanent mark on my mind. When trying to understand my unexplained fear of garden gnomes, I can look no further than “The Revenge of the Garden Gnomes.”

Similarly, that pin point feeling of anxiety that I feel when seeing a drain at the bottom of a pool can be blamed on none other than the creature from R.L. Stine’s fictional water park. Oh, and the uneasiness that comes with taking a big family picture? That comes from reading about death predicting cameras in “Say Cheese and Die!” Yes, many of my obscure, somewhat subconscious fears can be linked back to the “Goosebumps” series.

Don’t get the wrong idea “Goosebumps” were a great series. I don’t blame R.L. Stine for anything besides giving me a good scare…and my need for therapy sessions.

What book scarred you for life? Tweet at us @Speakeasymag…and Happy Halloween!

One thought on “Scarred for life: the scariest books from our childhood

  1. I grew up with Alan Schwartz and loved his adaptations. I still think they’re some of the best stories ever.

    I also used to love Goosebumps, but when I look back on them now, I’m not sure I have the same opinion 😛

    Coraline is, hands down, my absolute favorite. I love all of his books, but this one in particular really moved me. It’s so dark and spooky, and so beautifully written. It’s so much better than the movie.

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