Serious horror fans are often victims of a frustrating catch 22: we love to be scared, but our constant consumption of scary stuff leaves us almost impossible to scare. As much as I love to reread Stoker’s Dracula and Shelley’s Frankenstein, they do not actually frighten me, and I am highly dubious when some twenty-first century person includes them on one of those “50 Scariest Books Ever!” lists that litter the Internet. How many of the entries on those lists actually frightened the people who wrote them?
I, dear reader, refuse to cheat you in such a manner. When I tell you a book is frightening, it’s because it actually frightened me, because sometimes a work is effective enough to hack through that thick horror callous I’ve built up over the years. It should be telling that I searched and searched through the cobwebby attic of my memory to come up with books and stories that actually scared me and was only able to come up with five, but I assure you, the following five frightening stories scared me, indeed. And if you’re not careful, they may scare you too.
1. The Bad Seed by William March (1954)
Surprise is horror’s best friend. That’s why lazy scare meisters like sudden loud noises and scary faces popping out of shadows unexpectedly. The Bad Seed is a surprise of a different sort, because if you are familiar with Mervyn LeRoy’s 1956 cult classic, you probably regard the tale of evil little Rhoda Penmark as a work of high camp. Stripped of Patty McCormack’s googly eyes and the rest of the cast’s ham sandwiches, there is nothing funny about children killing children. March’s conception of the development of a calculating murderer without an ounce of human empathy is inherently scary and deeply troubling because Rhoda’s mother still loves the girl and wants to believe she did not give birth to a demon even though she knows she totally did. Rhoda completely exploits that fact, manipulating her mother’s emotions with ruthless crocodile tears. Rosemary’s Baby is the nightmare of every pregnant woman, but The Bad Seed will chill all parents…and based on the fact that I first read it long before becoming a parent, plenty of other people too.
The most gruesomely conceived horror fiction is no match for true stories of murder and chaos. The ultimate such story is also one of the most famous. Everyone knows what the Manson Family did in broad strokes, but only those who’ve read journalists Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry’s Helter Skelter know how deeply disturbing their actions were and how deeply disturbed Manson and his clan were. In preparation of the murders, the killers would do something they called “creepy crawling.” They would silently invade homes in the middle of the night, simply sliding furniture out of place to unsettle the homeowners when they woke. If that sounds like a merry prank to you, know that the Mansonites would be wielding knives in case the homeowners stumbled in while the creepy crawling was going on. Also imagine that people who would soon commit one of his history’s most vile murders had invaded your home. Not so merry anymore. On Manson’s direction to make their crimes “witchy,” the killers terrified their victims before completing the extremely gory tasks, and Bugliosi and Gentry’s descriptions of these acts shame any seasoned horror writer. Following the descriptions of the murders, Helter Skelter lapses into a procedural much less frightening than its opening passage, but that opening passage is the scariest thing I’ve ever read.
3. “Gotcha!” by Ray Bradbury (1978)
Ray Bradbury is celebrated as a master of fantasy and horror, but as much as I enjoy many of his stories, I often find his endless descriptions to be pointlessly purple and pretentious. One story in which he really used his tendency to over-describe to his advantage is a short one with the misleadingly comic title “Gotcha!” Like all great horror short stories, the plot is extremely simple. A pair of new lovers are forever changed when Beth convinces Charles to play a game called “Gotcha!” The game, which makes up the bulk of this very short tale, basically consists of Beth doing creepy things in a darkened bedroom. This allows Bradbury to give a point to his dense descriptions, and his relating of strange sounds followed by stranger silences, Beth’s body collapsing like a “Japanese paper-lantern” at the foot of the bed, her final deranged appearance, and Charles’s sweaty terror throughout the entire ordeal made me sweat too. At the heart of all these spooky shenanigans is the message that discovering something terrible about a new love can taint that relationship forever. Terrifying and ultimately depressing, “Gotcha!” is Bradbury’s emotionally draining best.
4. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz (1981)
Scaring adults can be very challenging. Scaring kids is another story. With their tender emotions and lack of life experiences, ghosts, goblins, and other hoo-hah are usually enough to keep them awake. Now deliver those imaginary haunts with a big “Boo!” and illustrations that will disturb veteran horror freaks, and you could be charged with child abuse. In fact, the hoary tales Alvin Schwartz adapted in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark have occasionally been banned in schools over the year. This is more due to Stephen Gammell’s outrageously grotesque watercolors than the contents of the stories, but reading them in the right setting will get the scary job done even without passing around the pictures. These stories are exceedingly simple, usually only a couple of pages of a corpse being robbed and returning from the dead to hunt down the thief and coo “Whooooo stole my [fill in the blank]” before the reader is supposed to grab the arm of the nearest child and scream “You did!” Some stories are basically nonsense that entirely depend on Schwartz’s stage directions (“drop your voice…turn out the lights…scream…”) and the reader’s ability to follow them well, but simply imagining a piece such as “A Man Who Lived in Leeds” being read aloud effectively was enough to chill me while reading it during my adult years. Hearing these stories as a kid supplied me with years of nightmares.
5. It by Stephen King (1986)
Stephen King is synonymous with horror, yet I rarely actually feel scared when reading his stuff. It is a different story and one of the most willful attempts to scare in literature. Fat as a concrete block, It is so loaded with potentially frightening material that something in it is bound to get to you. The premise opens the possibilities brilliantly with an ancient evil that takes the form of the thing that scares its victims most. By doing truly nasty things while in the guise of mummies and werewolves, It makes those cuddly old Universal monsters scary again. More often it profanes a key childhood symbol by taking the form of a grinning circus clown, and Pennywise has surely been the star of oodles of nightmares (especially after Tim Curry embodied him so enthusiastically in a TV miniseries that was rarely very scary when he wasn’t on screen). King didn’t rely on his main monster to provide all of the scares, and in one of the novel’s most notorious chapters, a psychotic kid named Patrick Hockstetter does things with puppies and his own baby brother that are easily more horrific than anything Pennywise perpetrates. King does other queasy things with his cast of kids that are confoundingly disturbing, if not exactly scary (sewer orgy). Piled on everything else It commits, it all adds up to a shattering and truly frightening experience.