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Alissa Burger

Forgotten Selves: The Lost Mind and Amnesia 

Amnesia and recovered memories have become an accidental theme of recent columns, from the repressed memories of High Tide and The Dead Lifeguard to the amnesia-faking antagonists of Sunburn and The Surfer. All in all, amnesia is ridiculously commonplace in ‘90s teen horror, with traumatic experiences blocking out whole chunks of characters’ memories or, in the case of those who fake their memory loss, providing a convenient excuse to avoid answering tricky questions, like “did you murder my great great grandfather?” While the protagonists of High Tide and The Dead Lifeguard think they remember most of what happened to them, with just a few isolated blind spots in their recollections, in Christopher Pike’s The Lost Mind (1995) and Sinclair Smith’s Amnesia (1996), Jennifer and Alicia both wake up with no idea who they are, what they’ve done, or how they’ve ended up where they find themselves. These girls’ quests to solve these questions and end their nightmares are central to The Lost Mind and Amnesia, with the act of recovering these memories taking center stage.

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Don’t Go in the Water: Sunburn and The Surfer

The summer fun in ‘90s teen horror has proven more dangerous than relaxing, with the repressed memories and attempted murders of High Tide and The Dead Lifeguard, the horrors of Camp Fear, the thrills and chills of Funhouse and Fear Park. But maybe—just maybe—our teen protagonists can catch a break hanging out with their friends, going for a quick run on the beach, or walking to the pier to check out the waves, right?  Nope, definitely not. Mayhem and murder follow wherever these teens go, including Claudia Walker’s trip to her friend’s beach house in R.L. Stine’s Sunburn (1993) and the mysterious new girl who literally washes up on the beach in Linda Cargill’s The Surfer (1995). 

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Past, Future, and Beyond: A Cosmology of Christopher Pike 

Teen horror of the ‘90s has dangers aplenty: there are human enemies and supernatural monsters, mistaken identity and elaborate faked-death schemes, and all the stress and intrigue of just trying to get through the day as a regular high school student. But in the world of Christopher Pike, that barely scratches the surface, as characters regularly find themselves contending with the lingering evils of the past, visitors from the future (both malevolent and well-meaning), the depths of the cosmos, and complex spirituality. Three of Pike’s novels that tackle some of these thorny issues are See You Later (1990), Whisper of Death (1991), and The Wicked Heart (1993), though there are several others addressed in previous columns that are part of this larger discussion as well, including Chain Letter 2: The Ancient Evil (1992), Road to Nowhere (1993), The Eternal Enemy (1993), The Immortal (1993), and the Last Vampire series (1994-2013). 

In Pike’s universe, the past is never really past, with echoes of evil that carry down through the years, influencing and shaping the events of the present. 

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Dark Legacies and the Price of Admission in Funhouse and the Fear Park Trilogy 

A day out at the local amusement park sounds like some good old-fashioned summer fun: the rattle of the roller coaster cars whizzing by, the music of the carousel, the lights of the Ferris wheel, the smells of fried foods and cotton candy, the laughter and delighted screams of children as they run from one ride to the next. The amusement park is a kind of liminal space, a break from the stressors of everyday reality on the other side of the gates, a place intentionally designed for fun. But in Diane Hoh’s Funhouse (1990) and R.L. Stine’s Fear Park trilogy (The First Scream, The Loudest Scream, and The Last Scream; all 1996), that fun turns to terror and the screams are real. In addition to the horrifying events that take place at these parks, each must also reckon with a dark legacy.

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Fun, Sun, and Murder: The Dead Lifeguard and High Tide 

The cover of Richie Tankersley Cusick’s The Lifeguard (1988) has become iconic, with a buff, blonde lifeguard glowering from atop his chair and behind his mirrored sunglasses. Cusick’s The Lifeguard was a predecessor of the ‘90s teen horror trend and set the stage for many of the narrative patterns to come. While the beach getaway of The Lifeguard seems to promise fun and sun for the novel’s protagonist, Kelsey Tanner, the ominous cover image and the tagline that advises “Don’t call for help. He may just kill you” let readers know differently before they even get to the first page. The sand, the sun, and a vacation from the predictability and pressures from home sound like the recipe for a really fun summer. But looked at from another angle, it could just as easily be a scary one: there are dangerous tides, big waves, the threat of drowning, and sharks. Those sun-tanned strangers could be potential new friends or romantic partners, or they could be murderers, it’s really anybody’s guess. And if—let’s face it, when—something goes wrong, these teens find themselves trapped between the threat of human violence and a watery grave. 

While Cusick’s lifeguard is scary, a summer job on top of that chair isn’t all fun and games in other ‘90s teen horror novels, including R.L. Stine’s The Dead Lifeguard (1994) and High Tide (1997), both Fear Street series Super Chillers. In both of these books, the protagonists leave Shadyside to get summer jobs, Lindsay Beck at the North Beach Country Club pool in The Dead Lifeguard, and Adam Malfitano at sea-side Logan Beach in High Tide

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Be Kind, Rewind: Horror on Tape in The Eternal Enemy and Silent Witness 

I miss video stores. The thrill of picking up a long-anticipated new release, the suspense of wondering whether all the copies of the movie you want will already be rented, the endless sense of possibility in wandering aimlessly up and down the aisles in the hope of finding some wonderful, unexpected treasure. Video stores were a gold mine of entertainment, providing the opportunity to rent, watch, and rewatch an ever-evolving collection of hundreds of movies, all for just a few dollars, and conveniently located down the street. We now have access to an even wider range of movies, even more conveniently, streaming onto our screens without ever having to leave the house, but it’s just not the same. 

Video cassettes, VCRs, and the horrors of the small screen are central to Christopher Pike’s The Eternal Enemy (1993) and Carol Ellis’s Silent Witness (1994). These two books evoke different modes of horror and suspense, with science fiction in Pike and mystery/thriller in Ellis. However, in both cases, the role of video recording is central to understanding the past and the future, as well as the characters and the people around them, both friends and foes. There is also an interesting dynamic of power and agency at play, in being able to record, watch, and manipulate the images on the screen through how those are created, consumed, and mediated. 

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Vignettes of Horror and Thirteen: 13 Tales of Horror by 13 Masters of Horror 

Teen horror of the ‘90s was dominated by familiar names like Chrisopher Pike and R.L. Stine, and extended series like Stine’s Fear Street and Diane Hoh’s Nightmare Hall. With the popularity and sheer volume of work being published, it is interesting that ‘90s teen horror was almost exclusively a long-form phenomenon: a few series, lots of standalone novels, but very little short fiction. Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series (1981-1991) and J.B. Stamper’s Tales for the Midnight Hour series (1977-1991) are both short fiction collections that likely appealed to ‘90s teen horror readers in their younger years and serve as notable predecessors, but they are separate from the larger ‘90s teen horror trend. Christopher Pike published two short story collections of his work—Tales of Terror (1996) and Tales of Terror 2 (1997)—though they never achieved the mainstream popularity of his novels. When it comes to ‘90s teen horror short fiction, the T. Pines-edited Thirteen: 13 Tales of Horror by 13 Masters of Horror pretty much stands alone. 

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Home Sweet Horror: R.L. Stine’s 99 Fear Street Trilogy 

A lot of strange stuff happens on Fear Street, from the ominously hulking ruins of Simon Fear’s burned out mansion to odd sounds in the Fear Street woods. If somebody offers you a job on Fear Street, you’re probably putting your life on the line to make that paycheck. If someone invites you over to their house on Fear Street, they might be a ghost. And if someone tells you there’s going to be an awesome party in the Fear Street woods this weekend, you’ll be better off staying at home curled up with a good book and hearing about the mayhem that ensued when you get to school on Monday morning. While the danger of Fear Street seems to be pretty pervasive and free floating, there are a handful of places that are recurring sites of horror, including Simon Fear’s mansion and 99 Fear Street.

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Ancient Evils: The Immortal and The Mummy

The everyday lives of the guys and girls of ‘90s teen horror seem complicated enough, full of secrets, betrayal, murder, and (occasionally) monsters. But when these dangers feel just a bit too prosaic, there are always evils from the past that can resurface, synthesizing ancient civilizations and terrors with the teens’ modern existence. Christopher Pike’s The Immortal (1993) and Barbara Steiner’s The Mummy (1995) connect their young female protagonists to these past lives, with ancient Greece in The Immortal and ancient Egypt in The Mummy. These connections with and explorations of concerns much larger than themselves reveal these girls to be just one small piece of a much larger picture, as well as lending an air of exceptionalism: the young women who are connected to these past lives are special, chosen, and bigger than the petty dramas of the contemporary moment in which they live. 

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Midnight Strolls: The Sleepwalker and The Night Walker 

All kinds of dangers lurk in the shadowy corners after darkness falls, which are often compounded by the terror of one’s own nightmares. But in R.L. Stine’s The Sleepwalker (1990) and Diane Hoh’s The Night Walker (1994), characters encounter the worst of both worlds when they find themselves walking in their sleep, unable to remember where they have been or what they have done, as inexplicable threats and mysterious attacks pile up around them. In addition to the fear they share with their friends as they try to figure out what’s really going on, both of these characters find themselves wondering how well they know themselves and what they’re capable of.

There’s a lot of potential here for exploring the mysteries of the unconscious mind and the hidden depths of the human psyche, and while these books are ill-equipped to actually solve any of these riddles, the lengths they go to in order to figure things out reflect their characters’ deep-seated fear of both themselves and others. 

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Beyond Death: Christopher Pike’s Remember Me Trilogy 

The horror genre abounds with stories of ghosts and the restless dead. Most of these stories are told from the perspective of the living: those left behind to grieve their losses, solve their mysteries, or contend with the inexplicable goings on in the haunted house they just moved into. Far fewer of these stories are told from the perspective of the dead themselves, though this is the basic premise of Christopher Pike’s Remember Me trilogy, which includes Remember Me (1989), The Return (1994), and The Last Story (1995). 

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Pushing Daisies: Death, Life, and The Pie Hole

Welcome to Close Reads! In this series, Leah Schnelbach and guest authors dig into the tiny, weird moments of pop culture—from books to theme songs to viral internet hits—that have burrowed into our minds, found rent-stabilized apartments, started community gardens, and refused to be forced out by corporate interests. This time out, Alissa Burger celebrates Pi Day with a look back at Pushing Daisies and a visit to our favorite cafe: the Pie Hole.

While Alfred, Lord Tennyson notes that “In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love,” as Pi Day nears, Pushing Daisies fans’ thoughts turn yearningly to thoughts of The Pie Hole. Or at least, mine do.

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Series: Close Reads

Playing for Keeps: The Dead Game, Truth or Die, and Hide and Seek 

There’s so much subterfuge and deception in ‘90s teen horror, from outright lies and misplaced suspicion to hidden or mistaken identities. People’s motivations are rarely straightforward, your best friend could be the one who’s trying to kill you, and there’s a good chance that pretty much everyone is lying about something, whether it’s where they were last Friday night, who they’ve been making out with behind someone else’s back, or whether they’re secretly terrorizing their classmates under cover of darkness. People are playing a lot of games, but the parameters are often fuzzy and the rules unarticulated. So it should be a refreshing change of pace when the games are out in the open, a fun diversion from all of the murder and mayhem, right? Not exactly. In A. Bates’ The Dead Game (1992), Diane Hoh’s Truth or Die (1994), and Jane McFann’s Hide and Seek (1995), the stakes of these games are high: you lose, you die.

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A Date With Death: R.L. Stine’s The Boyfriend and The Girlfriend

The terrain of dating and romantic relationships is tough to navigate for any teen, full of all kinds of perils and pitfalls, from the taboo crossing of social hierarchies, the faux pas of asking out someone else’s crush, and overthinking whether you should pick up the phone or wait for the other person to make the first move. In the world of R.L. Stine, though, these worries pale in comparison to larger concerns like whether the guy you’re making out with might actually be undead, or how to protect yourself from the violent stalker who thinks she’s your girlfriend and won’t take no for an answer. These are the high-stakes dangers of dating in the ‘90s teen horror world. But what else are you going to do—sit at home alone on a Friday night? Stine’s The Boyfriend (1990) and The Girlfriend (1991) are standalone novels, separate from his popular Fear Street series, and each one delves into the dark side of teen romance.

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Secrets of the Wilderness: Christopher Pike’s Spellbound and Fall Into Darkness

A group of teens heads out into the wilderness, chock full of sexual tension and dark secrets, and they don’t all make it back alive. What happened out there? With Spellbound (1988) and Fall Into Darkness (1990), Christopher Pike begins with this shared premise and then provides readers with two very different explanations. While Fall Into Darkness foregrounds realistic horror and Spellbound draws on the supernatural, both also reflect on how these stories get told and who gets to tell them, as lawyers and journalists try to shape the narrative of what happens to these teens, and the books become a tug-of-war over different versions of the truth.

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