When Childhood Nightmares Come A-Knocking

I recently attended a conference called Scares that Care in Richmond VA. It was my first conference since publishing my debut Ghost Girl and I was excited to be on a panel. We talked about our childhood horrors and if they made their way into our books. At first, I thought there was nothing in Ghost Girl that related to the nightmares I had as a kid but the more I thought about it the more I realized I was wrong.

There was. This guy:

I saw Nightmare on Elm Street at too young of an age at a friend’s sleepover. Or maybe it wasn’t that I was too young but maybe just too fearful. Either way that knife-gloved nightmare found it’s way into my brain and refused to budge. First it was the claw I was afraid of. But then over time, that changed. Then I was just afraid of the man himself and at night I thought he would be standing in the corner of my room.

As I grew up I developed a very healthy fear of home invasion. The Strangers is a nightmare movie for me. But it wasn’t until this panel that I realized that my fear of home invasion linked directly back to my fear of seeing that Freddy in the corner of my room.

In Ghost Girl, the first time my main character Zee sees a ghost, it has invaded her home and is hiding in her living room. The original scene was actually written to take place in her bedroom but my editor felt that the bedroom needed to be a safe space and now, linking it all together, I see why.

So i thought I would chat with some of my Middle Grade Spooky friends and see how the things they were scared of found it’s way into their books.

Hi all! First off, why don’t you introduce yourselves, friends.

Bradley: I’m Fleur Bradley, author of various middle-grade mysteries, some with supernatural and horror elements in them. Midnight at the Barclay Hotel is a younger MG with a lighter haunted vibe; my upcoming book Daybreak on Raven Island is definitely scarier and digs deeper into horror themes. I like to mix mystery with horror in my books. I aim to write for reluctant readers (I’m one myself) with hopes of encouraging kids to enjoy reading for life.

Lawrence:  My name is Lorien Lawrence. I’m a seventh grade English teacher from Connecticut, and I love to write stories based on my haunted little state. My current horror series, Fright Watch, follows a small group of middle schoolers as they investigate paranormal mysteries in their town. The first book is called The Stitchers; the second is The Collectors; the third, Unmasked, is out in August!

Petti: Hello! My name is Erin Petti and I’m the author of THE PECULIAR HAUNTING OF THELMA BEE, and THELMA BEE IN TOIL AND TREBLE (coming 9/6/22)!

Cohen: I’m Marina Cohen, elementary school teacher and author of several creepy middle-grade books including, The Inn Between, The Doll’s Eye, A Box of Bones. and coming in this May—Shadow Grave.

Malinenko: Excellent! And I should say, I’m Ally Malinenko, author of Ghost Girl and the forthcoming This Appearing House (8/16/2022). So, what would you say got you into horror in the first place? What was your gateway? For me, it definitely started early with Scooby Doo cartoons and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

Bradley: My gateway to horror was TV before books. I loved The Twilight ZoneTales from the Crypt and The Outer Limits–so the the more supernatural side of horror. I also watched my share of Alfred Hitchcock movies and TV; I like to blend a little humor into horror like those shows did, just so I don’t start to take myself too seriously or scare myself too much.

Lawrence: My gateway to horror happened in kindergarten. The library was in the basement of the school – already creepy! – and the librarian read to us from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. (I KNOW!) And it was terrifying but also electric. I’ve been trying to chase that electricity ever since. And it’s contagious. You give a reluctant reader a horror book, and they will absolutely read to the end to find out if the protagonist makes it out safely. I can’t think of another genre that gives results like that. 

Malinenko: Me neither! That’s something I love about Horror. But wow, Lorein, KINDERGARTEN and you were already hearing Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark? I wouldn’t have lasted. What about you, Erin?

Petti: Honestly, sometimes I think that I just came into the world with ghost stories braided into my DNA, but for this exercise I went way back, and I found it. I remember the first time I felt that buzzing, dizzy, glorious fascination with the paranormal.

When I was three years old, my mom bought me a Talk N Play. It was the mid-80’s and this was the height of technology, as far as I was concerned. The Playskool Talk N Play became my office. I would sit in my living room every day for hours, eating cheerios and paging through these choose-your-own-adventure stories, and listening to the accompanying cassettes. I loved all of the adventures but there was one that had me absolutely, positively enraptured.

The Haunted House Mystery. It was dark and dangerous! There were mazes filled with ghosts, and an overcast graveyard to pick through. But most memorably…a staircase that went down to the basement. I remember sitting there, frozen in fear and exhilaration, about to choose whether to descend into the darkness.

I was three!

I was terrified!

I was in heaven.

There have been so many amazing ghoulish stories that have shaped my tastes and my creativity – but I think The Haunted House Mystery was my very first glimpse of the wonderful world of scary.

Cohen: My mother immigrated to Canada from Germany and so the first bedtime stories she read to me were in German. They were not the sugar-coated fairytales we tell our children today, but rather the original dark, and at times quite macabre, stories meant to educate children of the consequences of bad choices and evil deeds. Beware of wolves that might eat you and cannibal witches that live in cookie houses. If you are lazy and vain horrible things might befall you. And of course, as all little mermaids know, there is not necessarily a happily-ever-after. I listened, equal parts enthralled, equal parts horrified, to these beloved tales told to me over and over and I enjoyed the thrill of the dark settings and creepy plots and characters all while feeling safe and snug in my bed. I’d move on to enjoy Nancy Drew mysteries that had dark undertones, like The Mystery at the Moss-covered Mansion and the Sign of the Twisted Candles, and later, Poe, Lovecraft, and eventually Stephen King and Anne Rice.

Malinenko: Well it looks like all our gateways were a little bit different but one thing is for sure – Horror got us YOUNG. Has that gateway, or any of your childhood fears, found its way
into your writing?

Bradley: I (still) have a definite fear of the dark and enclosed spaces–those usually end up making their way into my books. Daybreak on Raven Island is partially set inside an abandoned prison, so I got to explore that fear. I think MG horror is a great way to take those very scary things and have kid characters find a solution within a fictional realm. Even if you get locked inside a dark room, there’s always a door out (or maybe a friend who will open that door for you). Now there’s some metaphors… 

Lawrence: The reason Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was SO scary is because the stories were based on folktales. It’s easy to convince yourself that there is a truth to them. No monster or ghost is scarier than one that may ACTUALLY get you. I became pretty obsessed with folklore at a really young age, and even though I had a ton of nightmares from reading about the ghosts of my hometown, they absolutely made it into my writing. The Stitchers and The Collectors are based on on Connecticut folklore, specifically the Ladies in White and the Goodie Basset witch. 

Petti: I think that there’s a particular mood–a wonderful, thrilling, mysterious atmosphere that I’m always chasing in my work. There’s the edge of real danger, but there’s also the warm glow of humor and play near at hand. My early childhood spooky obsessions all had this beautiful feeling and this particular balance. Capturing this kind of energy is always my goal in storytelling, and it’s absolutely the world that Thelma Bee lives in.

Malinenko: And what about you Marina? Did Nancy Drew’s mysteries find their way into your books?

Cohen: Settings are very important in any novel but in horror particularly so. Often, the setting takes on the role of a character—at times it represents the antagonist itself. I’ve set my novels in old, decrepit houses, dark lakes, deep forests and certainly one can find the influences of the old fairytales at work here. As well, the theme of choices and consequences weaves its way through many of my novels thanks to these old tales. I often include an element of mystery to my horror novels—which I can attribute to Nancy Drew. And of course, my works have been heavily influenced by Poe and Lovecraft whose stories often leave readers wondering as to what was real, what was imagined, and what might just lie beyond the human experience.

Malinenko: Fascinating! Looks like our childhoods never really get left behind, do they? At least not the fears! Nice to think the stories that stuck with you have found their way into your own stories that will do the same for a whole new generation of kids! Thanks for chatting with me, spooky friends!

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