The purpose of horror literature is to incite fear, shock, disgust, or cause emotional and psychological distress to the reader. Because emotion is subjective to each individual, it is very difficult to ascertain what literature is considered purely horror. What one considers to be adventure or fantasy could easily incite fear, shock, or digest in another. In addition, it becomes extremely difficult to classify horror literature because of the many sub-genres that are encompassed within the horror genre. For our purposes, horror literature can categorized by the blatant attempt of the author to scare the reader. Horror has been prevalent in literature since the publication of Dracula by Bram Stoker and continues to be published in our modern era with novels such as,Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.
Since the time of Stoker’s work, the horror genre has mutated and evolved. Early horror novels relied on supernatural components to create shocking and scary themes. These supernatural themes were abstract thus creating a sense of unfamiliarity with readers. This unfamiliarity caused feelings of apprehension, tension, and fear in the reader, creating psychological horror. As the genre progressed, authors strayed from supernatural elements and began to create fear with blood. Much of this movement can be attributed to Stephen King’s brilliant writing. Themes of psychological horror began to seem tame in comparison to the slashing, psychotic, and violent novels that were making the foundation of the gore sub-genre. Within young adult literature, gore novels have occupied a small sliver of the market. Graphic scenes, images, and themes have caused this sub-genre to be less than ideal for many young readers, but more appealing to adult audiences.
Young Adult Horror v. Adult Horror
The young adult genre is difficult to define, and when paired with horror, an also notoriously difficult type of fiction for which to determine a definitive definition, it can be hard to categorically sort novels into such a broad yet narrow type. However, young adult novels are generally less inclined to graphic sex and violence, at least when compared to books geared towards adults. While these elements still exist, they do so on a less intimidating level.
As for the horror aspect, writer and educator Patrick Freivald suggests young adult horror focuses more on emotions rather than the graphic elements more “grown up” books might employ. He writes on his popular YA Horror Blog, “It’s Scary Out There!” that “The dread is more Alfred Hitchcock thanWes Craven, more Identity than Saw. There can be violence, and gore, and even rape or other terrible aspects of the human (and inhuman) condition, but more is left to the imagination in YA fiction.”
At first glance, one would question whether or not the horror genre is appropriate for a young adult audience, considering the disturbing aspects that this type of book often contains. J.G. Faherty, who focuses on writing young adult horror, discussed the importance of not grouping an audience of young adult readers into a single group, and understanding that different ages and different individuals are affected by reading materials in distinct ways. Kirtsten Kowalewski has also reminded readers to remember that most of the current adult generation began reading Stephen King books in high school, as well as other adult horror books. There is no guarantee that young adults will read specifically what is marketed to them, any more than adults will specifically read only what are considered “adult books.”
Common Subgenres of Horror
- Apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic (Cell & Rot and Ruin)
- Vampires (The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, Peeps, Twilight)
- Gothic (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Asylum)
- Demons (The Summoning, The Demon’s Lexicon)
- Fairytale horror (Coraline, Through the Woods)
- Ghosts (Anna Dressed in Blood, Imaginary Girls)
- Humorous horror (The Library at Mount Char, Half-Minute Horrors)
- Man-made horror (Frankenstein, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde)
- Monsters (The Replacement, The Monstrumologist)
- Mythic fiction (The Girl from the Well)
- Occult (The Diviners, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea)
- Psychic abilities (The Bone Clocks, The Knife of Never Letting Go)
- Psychological – (Z For Zechariah, The Enchanted, Gone Girl)
- Witches – (Half Bad)
- Zombies/undead (Something Strange and Deadly)
Common Tropes Within Young Adult Horror
There are certain tropes that are often used in young adult horror literature. Many of these tropes contain the idea of death; specifically these horror novels often push the boundaries of violent deaths, gruesome gore, disturbing creatures, and the evils of reality. Susan Dennard’s zombie novel Something Strange and Deadly is an example of this. Other tropes common in these horror novels tend to emphasize the individual’s strengths and weaknesses. The protagonist often survives by recognizing a certain strength they have. This strength is usually an inner strength of character or some type of magical ability. A single protagonist is generally also likely to survive, whereas if there are multiple protagonists one of them will likely be killed or seriously injured. Young adult horror often incorporates fantastical elements or creatures, such as we see in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. This allows for many authors of young adult horror to combine their genre with others such as mystery, science fiction, or fantasy.
The Hero’s Journey in Young Adult Horror
Much of the young adult horror genre is centered around the “hero’s journey,” established by Joseph Campbell in the mid-twentieth century. The frequent use of horror as a framework for the “hero’s journey” motif works well because it provides the necessary visceral and cathartic reactions that readers have come to associate with the hero’s quest. Kelly Jensen, who performed a survey of genre with the help of several authors known for their work in this sphere, suggests that horror is “any work where the emotions of fear, dread, and/or disgust drive the narrative.” As such, this kind of emotional response works well with the journey most horror protagonists embark upon, mainly because a central part of this quest is the initial reluctance most heroes or heroines face when called upon to participate.
Recent Examples of Young Adult Horror
Young adult horror films tend to center around familial or peer relationships in addition to the horror aspect. These relationships are at the center of the text, and while the main character may be forced to face challenges on their own, the surrounding characters play a large role.
In The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall (2015), the main character, Delia, finds herself a ghost after a mysterious force pushes her out the window of the house her deceased Aunt Cordelia bequeathed to her after she committed suicide. Delia struggles with the isolation of joining the dead, but the true horror of the novel comes from the interactions with her friends and sister, Janie, from beyond the grave as Delia attempts to determine how she fell upon her fate.
In Cuckoo Song (2014), sister relationships are once again at the forefront as Tris, after an almost-deadly fall into a bog, struggles to regain her place amongst her family with a sister who is convinced Tris is not who she says she is. The two girls must rely on each other when faced with the “horror” derived from the genre, and it is their quest to understand the changes within their relationship that provides the sense of suspense that drives the plot forward.
- Freivald, Patrick. “What is Young Adult Horror? Answers for Interested Readers and Bemused Writers.” It’s Scary Out There. 1 June 2013.
- Jensen, Kelly. “Horor in YA Lit a Staple, Not a Trend.” School Library Journal. 13 September 2013. Web.