This is more than just some Goosebumps.
YA, they said. Great for children, they said. We all have that one book that scared us so bad it’s now a core memory. Maybe you found it tucked away in your middle school library. Or maybe your fifth-grade class read it out loud–popcorn style–glossing over disturbing, chilling scenes in monotone voices. But you noticed them. And to this day, you can’t forget them. These are stories that got under our skin and still haunt us.
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I vividly remember checking out Spider’s Voice from the school library in seventh grade. And then promptly having nightmares. I thought I was getting a salacious romance novel about France in the Middle Ages. Nope. Not even close. Human Centipede has nothing on this story about welding a boy into a permanent metal vest to keep his torso short and stretch his limbs long to turn him into a human spider. Had I plugged the name Gloria Skurzynski into Ask Jeeves (it was a dark dial-up time), I would have found out that this writer always chooses violence. Her other popular books for kids include Deadly Waters, Valley of Death, Buried Alive, Running Scared, Devastation, and so many more. The real question is what books Skurzynski read as a child!
'Island of the Blue Dolphins'
Survivalists’ stories hold a special place in the halls of tween emotional torture. And nothing traumatizes more than 12-year-old Karana’s experience in Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins. The novel is based on the very real story of Juana Maria, a woman from the Nicoleño Native American tribe who lived alone on San Nicolas Island (part of California’s Channel Islands) for nearly 20 years. In the book, Karana isn’t stranded that long, but it does make Castaway look like Saturday morning cartoons. There’s no Wilson here, just Karana watching her brother Ramo get ripped apart by feral dogs. And when she’s finally rescued, she learns that her entire tribe–everyone she’s ever known–is dead. All she has left is a scratchy dress and two birds that are her friends. It’s bleak.
'Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark'
Let’s get this one out of the way because it’s likely shared consciousness for millions of American adults. Come Halloween, there was always a waitlist for this Alvin Schwartz book–or the two volumes that followed–at the school library. But it wasn’t really scary because of the ghost stories. (Although, I still look in the backseat to check if there’s a madman every time I start my car.) Those dark, eerie illustrations by Stephen Gammell are permanently seared into millions of brains. Apparently, new editions have done away with that artwork and cover design, and kids today will never know the horror of watercolor paint.
'In a Dark, Dark Room'
This was supposed to be Alvin Schwartz Light for younger readers with short copy and more playful pictures. But, honestly, this one had a story way worse than anything in the three volumes of Scary Stories combined—I’m talking about the green ribbon. Remember that one? A girl has a green ribbon wrapped around her neck, and a boy keeps asking her why. She won’t say. They grow up, get married, grow old, and the man again asks the woman why she’s still wearing that green ribbon. She finally removes the ribbon….and her head falls off. Her head. Falls off.
'Flowers in the Attic'
Incest? Incest. And unfortunately, that’s not the half of it for the Dollanganger children. This gothic tale by V. C. Andrews is a dark, disturbing story about child abandonment, physical abuse, and how humans will completely spiral and all mental health will collapse if left locked in an attic by your own grandma. Remember when Corey drank Chris’s blood? I’m not for banning books. But why is evangelical, conservative America so busy banning LGBTQ+ stories that show happy, healthy examples of queer families and queer kids when this actual horror perversion is a middle school library book staple?
'Lord of the Flies'
Where do we start? Human violence? Pig violence? Human-pig violence? The weirdest thing to me was how nonchalant our literature teacher approached William Golding. We glazed right over that spearing at top speed and never looked back. But this is where the public school system truly failed me: My biology teacher and literature teacher didn’t compare syllabi because at about the same time we read the pig beheading, we were also dissecting piglets. Yes, really. And some punk kid went full Jack Merridew and mounted his little piggie on a knife. Pretty sure he got suspended for that. But it was a lesson to all of us in life imitating art.
If you thought the survivalist vibes were scary in Island of the Blue Dolphins, strap in for Hatchet. That rotting corpse is just the beginning. Gary Paulsen’s infamous novel follows the journey of 13-year-old Brian after his private plane pilot has a heart attack and dies mid-flight. The plane crashes into a lake between New York and Canada, leaving Brian alone to survive in the wilderness. What I never understood is how our elementary school went about the big fifth-grade sex talk presentation with a shrouded seriousness and a solemn oath vibe. And yet reading a book about suicidal ideation and a suicide attempt is just totally cool and casual for 10-year-olds.
'The Dollhouse Murders'
To be fair, the word murder is in the title. What were we expecting? (And what was our school librarian expecting?) These days, the cover looks a little more sinister. But in the ’80s and ’90s, Betty Ren Wright’s book had a cute Baby-Sitters Club meets Nancy Drew vibe that made you forget about murder. But as soon as you crack that bad boy open, it’s in every chapter. Spoiler alert: A murder happened. And a creepy dollhouse in the attic (why is it always the attic?) comes to life and reenacts the murder for children. Sounds fun, right! I gave my Victorian Playmobil dollhouse a double-take forever after reading this one.
'The Giving Tree'
Many people think this Shel Silverstein classic is a sweet story, and those people are probably narcissists and psychopaths because this picture book taught me abject sorrow and complete compassion. In short, a boy and a tree grow up together. And the boy takes and takes and takes from the tree whenever he needs something (like money or a house) until the tree is reduced to a sad, old, and “weak” stump. But it’s allegedly A-okay because the boy has grown old, too, and all he can do as an old man is sit on the stump. This really bothered me as a kid. That happily-ever-after ending is nonsense. Full stop: That boy murdered the tree, and that tree was terrible at setting boundaries with friends.
'The Time Machine'
I saw it featured on Wishbone, so I thought, “You know what? I’ll read the OG.” That was a poor choice. Any symbolism about society class differences or pay equity in this H.G. Wells’ classic went straight over my head because, of course, all I could worry about were the terrifying shadow creatures that live in the ground beneath you and hunt you at night. WTF were the Morlocks, Mr. Wells? Explain yourself, sir. I had nightmares for weeks. Truly, PBS Kids did a great job of watering down the horror of cannibalistic humanoid goblins for daytime TV.
'Out of the Dust'
Again, what have we learned about fire? This sixth-grade literature go-to by Karen Hesse has a lot of drama. Sure, times were tough for farmers in the 1930s, from the Great Depression to the Dust Bowl. However, that’s no excuse for Billie Jo’s daddy and his lack of fatherly support. Remember when he blew her entire college fund on one night of booze? But what really got me was the violent kerosene accident and Billie Jo’s oozing, puss hands. That still makes me shudder. Ma was so engulfed in flames that she was unrecognizable. And then she had to go into labor as a burn victim.
Several short stories have haunted plenty of kids, too. (Remember The Veldt by Ray Bradbury?!) But none impacted me like Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. It deserves a spot in this lineup as it was probably read in your high school literature or drama class. Or, in my case, both. Forget The Hunger Games or The Purge. This one-act is the OG organized community murder story. Because unlike today’s dystopian tales with futuristic technology or high-grade weapons, these killings were done with stones, and that’s much more animalistic. That reveal with Mrs. Harrison’s final, muffled scream is bone-chilling.