The 4 Most Traumatizing Books From My Childhood

flowersMany things from television and film traumatized me as a child. The clown-in-the-hayloft episode on “Little House on the Prairie.” The trailer for the 1974 movie “It’s Alive,” which featured a mutant infant’s clawed hand draped over a bassinet. The eerie ABC Weekend Special “Red Room Riddle” (I can’t even bring myself to describe it). As well as several apparition scenes from “Fantasy Island,” the shooting of J.R. Ewing, and a VHS of my ninth grade play, “The Scheme of a Shiftless Drifter.” But none of these frights affected me as much as the literary ones I encountered. Maybe it’s because my imagination was always running away with itself and what I could come up with in my own head was more troubling than anything I saw on TV. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s because these four books are the most troubling books ever published.

The Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes
Every little girl needs a sad work of fiction to get her through tough pubescent times. When I was a child, The Hundred Dresses was my go-to book when I needed a good, uncontrollable ugly-cry. It’s a book I still own, but can barely touch for fear I may have to join a bereavement support group.

In a nutshell, this story is about Wanda Petronski, a motherless little girl who lives in abject poverty and is teased daily for wearing the same blue dress—although she claims to have one hundred party dresses lined up in her closet at home.

Page after page of this book describes how Wanda stands alone in the schoolyard—in a dress she’s had to wash and iron herself BECAUSE HER MOTHER IS DEAD—while the other girls point and laugh. Eventually, we discover that the one hundred dresses in Wanda’s closet are just drawings. Never mind that the drawings end up winning the classroom art contest, because, at this point in this cruel, cruel fictional world, Wanda has moved away.

All the rich girls feel kind of bad about this, but then they feel lots better when Wanda sends them some pictures she has drawn of them. “Look! She drew you!” one of them says. “She must have really liked us anyway!”

That was when I usually just started dry-heaving. Because the book ends with Wanda still broke and motherless, but the rich girls end up having a hearty laugh and feeling very validated.

God help me. I’m getting ready to go read it again right now.

A Summer To Die, by Lois Lowry
Though beautifully wrought and arguably a timeless young adult masterpiece, this book isn’t complex. It’s simply about two sisters living in a country house one summer while their father writes a novel. What starts out as frequent nosebleeds for one sister, ultimately turns out to be fatal leukemia.

That’s it. Boom bam.

Here’s the horrific thing that happened to me the summer I read this book: I got frequent nosebleeds.

Flowers in the Attic, by V.C. Andrews
Oh, you knew this was going to make the list. Because it’s all about four kids who are locked in an attic, abandoned by their mother, and then slowly poisoned by their grandmother, who feeds them arsenic-laced powdered sugar doughnuts. I mean, there’s more. Like starving children gutting mice to eat, and tar poured into hair as a punishment, and, oh…INCEST.

Yep. Basically this book is a love story. About a brother and sister. It goes without saying that it’s extremely troubling, but it speaks to the crazy stuff you could get away with in young adult fiction back in 1979. You’d think this novel would have caused a social uproar. That everyone would have boycotted it and it would have been burned and that would have been the end of things.

Nope. A whole series based on this brother-sister love affair was written. It sold more than 40 million copies worldwide.

Yay. Yay for what that says about the human race.

Okay, fine. I read ALL OF THEM.

Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous
When I was a teen, I read this book in one sitting. When I emerged from my bedroom for dinner, I think I looked like Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” only there was no scream coming out—just a faint, shallow breathing, the same kind you hear when Last Rites are requested.

To put it mildly, this diary-style book traumatized me. Go Ask Alice is about an innocent 15-year-old girl who accidentally partakes of an LSD-laced drink at a party. And the next thing you know, she’s hooked on sleeping pills, stealing tranquilizers, dealing pot, and having sex. Then Alice runs away from home. Then Alice gets all wrapped up in heroin, prostitution, and homeless shelters. Then Alice is drugged against her will and sent to an insane asylum. Eventually, a priest is brought in to fix things, but Alice is pretty much the human version of the Amityville house. In the end, Alice closes out her quadruple hat trick of horror by overdosing. Probably intentionally.

Go Ask Alice was intended to be a cautionary tale about drug use, but for me it served as a cautionary tale about drinking from a glass that didn’t come out of my own kitchen cabinet. I don’t want to say I developed an anxiety disorder because of this book, so I’ll just say I was very dehydrated for 36 months after reading it.

I’ve recently been informed that Go Ask Alice was made into a 1973 ABC Movie of the Week. Against my better judgment, I’m going to find it on YouTube.

Somebody do me a favor and get some IVs lined up.

  • Michelle Brandley

    These all sound terrifying. I must read them.

  • Spark Letts

    Thanks, now I wont read these. I was so close to getting the one hundred dresses book. Thanks goodness I didn’t!

    • damnitjanet

      Shit, the children’s theatre where I work did this play last year and gave the books out to schools. I had NO idea wtf is was about. I wished it stayed that way.

  • Laurie

    I have read pretty much every single VC Andrews book. Currently they are in a box to donate but perhaps I shall dig FITA out again….

    A book that traumatized me growing up was Where the Red Fern Grows. I still sob like a baby every time I read it.

    • Stephanie Brown

      me too. that’s the book that still gets to me and has for years since i read it in like 5th grade!

  • Patti

    Check out the song “White Rabbit” from Jefferson Airplane, as well.

  • Jamoche

    There’s a Flowers in the Attic movie too.

    • Debbie Harmon

      but it sucks and doesn’t follow the book…

  • damnitjanet

    Easy….A Dog of Flanders. SO. MUCH. BULLSHIT. I literally hurled the book across the room, then hid it so I’d never have to even look at it again. Fast-forward 12 years later when I was helping my parents move, and I found it. I HURLED IT AGAIN. HATE.

  • AS48

    I cannot remember the name of the book, but there was one I read when I was in elementary school about a dollhouse – and the owner of the dollhouse (a pre-teen girl) gets drawn into the dollhouse and suffers at the hands of the inhabitants. Might have been called “The Dollhouse”, for all I know, but I don’t think so. I’ve looked for it again, but can’t find it – but it gave me nightmares for a long time. I’ve always hated movies and stories about dolls (or ventriloquist dummies) that come to life and commit mayhem – ever since I accidentally saw the movie “Magic” when I was about 7. Definitely did its job – scared the life out of me.

    • emmachastain

      Oh my goodness. I’d COMPLETELY forgotten about this book until I saw your comment, but I read this one too! Off to Google now to try to unearth the title…

      • AS48

        Emma, that *might* be it… you recall something about a hatpin in that book….used to punish/torture? *That’s* what stuck in my memory….if it’s in that book, that’s the one!

    • emmachastain
  • Susan Cosgrove

    I was so sensitive as a child, I thought the Chipmunks Christmas song meant they wanted Christmas to come sooner because they weren’t going to live much longer. “Hurry Christmas, because we won’t last…”

    • Caro Carson

      I probably shouldn’t laugh at your pain, but that’s one of the funniest manifestations of a glass-half-empty attitude I’ve ever read.

  • Michelle

    Flowers in the attic really freaked me out. Also, I can’t believe someone else was freaked out by the red froom riddle movie. That’s a flashback.

  • Kim_Ber_Bunny

    You can add The Lovely Bones to this list.

    • Rachel

      She wasn’t a child when that book came out and as such it cannot be on this list. You can put it on yours though. Everyone should do something like this. Get more people reading. 😀

  • anonymous

    “Jay’s Journal”. Written in the style of “Go Ask Alice.” Written as a cautionary tale by Beatrice Sparks, loosely based on journal entries from the titular Jay (although only a portion of the journal entries in the book were actually his – some were constructed from other’s recollections). About a teenage boy (early 1970’s) who gets mixed up in a group of kids that jokingly practice devil worship. Scarier than any Stephen King book I ever read, and one of the few books (along with “The Exorcist”) that I will never, ever read again.

  • Teresa Mankin

    Summer of Fear from Lois Duncan. Great book, but scared the beejezzus out of me.

  • Christy

    I don’t remember “The Hundred Dresses,” but the rest of these would be on my list. Add “Sybil” and “The Exorcist” and there you have my childhood literary freakout list. What were my parents thinking?!?!

    • Kim Sealy Baumer

      “The Exoricist” no doubt about it. I was 16. I read it, shaking over every page, and then went and saw the movie! Talk about traumatized!

  • BeanBunny

    For me it was another V.C. Andrews book called “My Sweet Audrina”

    • Rachel Booker

      That was the first Andrews book I ever read and remains the creepiest one to date.

  • Jennifer Molyneux- Hopkins

    “The Girl in the Box” Here is the description;
    To Anybody Out There
    My name is Jackie McGee. I am
    the girl who disappeared. Listen to the news. See if other pieces of paper are
    scattered nearby. Maybe if you yell really loud I can hear you and yell back. I
    am not making this up. Please help!
    Left in an underground cement
    room by an unknown captor, Jackie has food and water but no light or human
    contact. She does not know when–or if–her abductor will
    As her desperation mounts, Jackie touch-types to focus her
    mind: letters to her family, a story for her English class, and reflections on
    her life in the past few months. In her isolation and fear, Jackie is forced to
    test her emotional boundaries, and in doing so she finds new meaning in her past
    as well as rich reserves of strength and courage within herself.

  • Renee Kaznowski

    This page, based on the Book, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” was banned by my kids, haha. The stories, combined with the pictures, scared them! I tried to find mine – a smallish book with ghost stories, that featured a sketch of a boat on a stormy sea on the cover – but couldn’t find it. :/

    • Amy

      Yes….the illustrations of Schwartz’s “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” were terrifying. I remember being spooked by them when I was younger. Of course, this book is still being published but with less intense illustrations.

    • Akira

      Oh gosh, I remember this series. I didn’t even need to see the illustrations to get freaked out. I still remember some of the stories and cringe.

  • LolitaS

    I am going to add- Lois Lowry’s book- The Giver to your list. I just read it last night. I am 41, but have seen it listed many times through the kids Scholastic book order form. I was horrified at the way they “release” the newborn twin based on his weight. I was more horrified because I have twins of my own.

  • Hannah Zinn

    How funny (and appropriate) that you should reference the Red Room Riddle as an ABC special because before I clicked to see your choices, I went for my number one scary book as a child it was that one. Scott Corbett wrote it. You can find copies of it on Amazon, but I am never brave enought to actually buy it and see if my fears were founded. :0)

  • Anita

    I’m glad to know I wasn’t the ONLY child freaked out by the clown episode from Little House on the Prairie! Flowers in the Attic also traumatized me, as well as Go Ask Alice.

    • Brenda Walker McArdle

      I don’t remember ever seeing this one.

  • CTwildheart

    Wow, it scared me so much I can’t remember the name of it!

  • jburke

    The one book I couldn’t finish as a child was The Yearling – OMG – so sad. I read Go Ask Alice and besides the drugs etc, was her constant dieting, these days you could add anorexia to her problems. Never read The Flowers in the Attic – they never appealed to me, I thought the premise was too stupid for words, but after all the true things you read in the newspapers, I have to revise my opinion, but will pass on the series. Life is too short and there are so many books. To this day those Flying Monkeys in the Wizard of Oz film freak me out.

  • TFJ

    Audrey Rose
    The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair

  • candytree

    YES! flowers in the attic, who remembers sneaking their moms copy off to read it???? and i loved the book about the poor little girl with no mom/dresses, so sad 🙁

  • Wesley Davidson

    I have a horrible habit of ruining Go Ask Alice for students, but I’m getting myself out of that habit. I’m not doing it on purpose. I just like to share little tidbits of information, and the only thing I know about that book is who the real author is. Kind of ruins it. Bad teacher!

  • Wesley Davidson

    Loved reading this!

  • Amanda Kennedy Stemple

    I remember being more than a little traumatized by the book The Giver by Lois Lowry. Go Ask Alice gave me nightmares, but I read it four times back to back the summer it was given to me. And also The Thorn Birds. I was maybe 15 the first time I read it, and still, 15 years later, it breaks my heart everytime I read it.

  • Abby Murphy

    I read an awful lot of things that weren’t meant for children as a child and which sort of did me in: “Faust”, Steinbeck’s “The Red Pony” (which I read because I *liked* animals), and “The Lord of the Rings” when I was just about at “Hobbit” level of ability to handle stuff. As a teen, I really did myself in with “Damien” (kept waking up to an image of a little boy just staring at me as I slept), “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” (where I got to revisit “Faust” since the main character’s falling god was a version of Lucifer), and oddly enough “Ten Little Indians” which was assigned for 7th grade English class and freaked me out entirely. I didn’t read Lois Lowry until I was in my 20s, but most of her stories freaked me out too.

    • Moonpie

      Ten Little Indians! I forgot about that one, thank you!

  • jeff brave

    I read the first VC Andrews book but by the second, too much for me. So many more actually good books out there. I don’t remember any as a child that scared me and I read a LOT. As an adult only “The Shining” scared me as a book. I happened to be alone that weekend and for the first, and only, time in my life I went to bed with lights on all over the house. But, I can tell you, the absolutely most terrifying MOVIE as a child was “The Wizard of Oz”. My girlfriend, myself and her little brother at the ages of about 7 and 9, spent most of the movie in the lobby scared to death. I had nightmares for years over it. I am 72 and have NEVER seen that movie and won’t. It didn’t scare my kids or grandkids but I holed up in the bedroom when they watched it.

    OK I cannot get my grand son’s name off of here. I am NOT Jeff Brave, I’m his Nana. I have got to figure out how to get it to my name, Kathie

  • read1919

    Izzy Willy Nilly always creeped me out.

  • VickiSN

    I read the Flowers In The Attic series, but the book that traumatized me the most of any book I’ve read…EVER…is Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo. It was an assigned reading in school (during the Vietnam war) and why they made us read it I don’t know. After all these years I still have that book in my head.

    • Kat

      I had to read that in High school myself. Didn’t quite traumatize me, but I defiantly can’t get it out of my head. Doesn’t help that I listen to a rock station that plays a LOT of Metallica, and their song “One” is about that book. (we listened to the song in HS as well, and I do enjoy the song, I just hate that it reminds me of the book all the time!)

      • VickiSN

        It didn’t really traumatize me, but the question was the one that traumatized me the most, and of all the books I’ve read in my lifetime, JGHG would have to top the list. I never knew “One” is about the book, but yeah, I can see the connection now that you mentioned it.

  • SAO

    OMG RED ROOM RIDDLE!!! I could not remember the name, or any of the other circumstances of the movie, but I remembered the blond kid being trapped in a red room for the past THIRTY SOME ODD YEARS. Traumatized. Totally traumatized.

    I’ve read most of those books, and agree that they are traumatizing. “A Summer to Die” changed me. I wanted to name my second daughter Margaret, just so I could call her Nutmeg. But then, I changed my mind, because I was afraid of what might happen to her older sister. No, really.

  • Jenny Smith

    I read “It” when I was twelve. Not sure what my parents were thinking allowing me to read Stephen King at that age, but to this day, clowns are not acceptable in any way shape or form.

    • Sarita Alexander

      I read a lot of Stephen King growing up, but ET scared the s**t out of me!

      • Joykins

        For me it was Pet Sematery.

        • Michelle Agee

          Salem’s Lot. I had to jump away from the bed for months when I got up! I’m afraid to read it again.

          • jsmom2

            Shoot, I re-read Salem’s Lot as an adult and still remember turning every light in the house on all night.

  • Sarita Alexander

    Read ‘The Wish Giver’ I think in 1st grade. TRAUMATIZED, to this day! (I’m 30). I was afraid to make a wish for fear it would turn out completely wrong.

  • Brenda Walker McArdle

    Mine was Suffer the Children by John Saul. For years I couldn’t remember the book, just parts of it, nor the author. Then my brother’s gf suggested reading John Saul so I picked his first book and while I was reading it I realized it was the book. Now I have all of his books. Love them.

  • Virginia Ann Ullrich-Serna

    The books that I most hated to read were the books by Jim Kjelgaard. I loved his books but spent 90% of the time reading anticipating the demise of the dog or the boy. Also Johnny Tremain..when they described his burning his hand in the hot silver I had to stop reading. My imagination was too vivid..

  • Sally

    The first chapter of A Secret Garden by Burnett traumatized me so much that I didn’t read it until I was much older. I mean, there’s pretty much a plague in India and everyone dies. Lovely. 🙂 I did like A Little Princess, though, and I loved Heidi. The chapter in Heidi, though, where she is wandering around Clara’s house in her nightgown and everyone thinks the house has a ghost always scared me, so I would just skip that chapter. Which is weird, because I used to love to read ghost stories later on, ones that would frighten me so much I’d stay awake until sunrise because I couldn’t close my eyes in the dark! There was one “true” story I read about a nighthag attacking someone in the shower and I couldn’t shower with no one else home for years.

    • DeeDee Cameron

      OMG! When I was around 8, I had just read Heidi (and that particular scene) and woke up in the middle of the night & swore I saw a ghost in my closet. Between that and Stephen King’s The Boogeyman, to this day I have to have the closet door closed at all times.

  • Melanie S

    Funny, I read all the VC Andrews, lots of Stephen King, and plenty of Tolkien at probably inappropriately young ages, and have only fond memories of all of them. What DID traumatize me? As a slightly older child, Watership Down. I was so attached to the good rabbit characters, I was terrified when they were in dangerous situations, and so upset by how they were treated by the bad rabbits. And when I was very small, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator left me with horrible nightmares for YEARS about Vermicious Knids!! It probably didn’t help that I had the illustrated version.

    • GingerHaycox

      I was the same Melanie. Anything to do with animals hurting or being harmed would just kill me but Watership Down really did me in…still does in fact. Also The Velveteen Rabbit, tho’ it really does have a happy ending looking at it from an adults perspective.

  • Angela

    I read Night of the Twisters when I was 9 or 10. Scared me to death. I was so traumatized I read it to my younger siblings. Then we were all terrified.

    • Rachel

      I remember that

  • lindseymason

    By far, the most terrifying book I read as a kid was “It” by Stephen King. I read the book when I was ten, and I already had a fear of clowns… I still to this day hate clowns…

    • jspeyton

      YUP. I can’t remember if I was afraid of clowns before I read “It” but I definitely hated them after. I’m 30 and still don’t get the allure. I mean, they’re just creepy, aren’t they? “It” still ranks as one of the scariest books I’ve ever read.

  • Vincent Mohan

    The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

  • Barbara Roper Salley

    The Lord of the Flies scared me. I guess because I could think of an actual person to fit each of the characters.

    • DeeDee Cameron

      The part where Piggy falls and smashes his head open on the rock still makes me cringe.

  • Junebug

    Lord of the Flies. I was so mortified that those kids got so crazy! And Bridge to Terabithia made me cry so hard I needed someone to slap me out of it.

  • Kristin Shaw

    Jaws is the first book that comes to mind. I was a child in the mid-late seventies and my mother would find me staring at the cover and take the book away. (The woman swimming – the giant shark right underneath her – shudder.) The first chapter did me in for ever swimming at night in the ocean. But the book started off my lifetime of fascination with sharks as I grew older.

  • Celestine Angel

    I was not aware anything written by V.C. Andrews was considered young adult. Ever. Um. Wow. ‘Cause. Yeah. All of her series are pretty horrifying.

  • kelly wood

    One that freaked me out as a kid is The Mystery of the Red Carnations, by Mary C. Jane. It gave me nightmares for years. It’s not even that scary a book, but it’s about a young man who was killed on his motorcycle (I believe) and no one knows who he was. Yet every year on the anniversary of his death, someone leaves red carnations on the grave. Two kids decide they want to know who is leaving the flowers, so they set out to solve the mystery.
    I think what bothered me was that there was this poor dead kid and no one knew who he was. And no one even tried to find out!


  • Mary Kay Zolezzi

    Your nosebleed story literally made me laugh out loud! When I was young I couldn’t watch hospital or doctor TV shows because I would become convinced I was dying of the disease of the week. Luckily I don’t do that anymore. However, I’m still not going to read “A Summer to Die”, let alone any of the other three. Yikes!

    • Jessica Atchison

      Every time I read Stephen King’s “The Stand” (and I’ve read it several times) I got s snotty nose and cough. Every. Single. Time.

    • Shannon Taylor

      I was the same way. I remember watching an episode of Rescue 911 in the 3rd grade that was about carbon-monoxide poisoning. My parents had to go out and by a detector for it because I woke up every night screaming that I was dying from CO poisoning for an entire month.

  • Meg Keeler

    Behind the Attic Wall, by Sylvia Cassedy. The poor kid was so sad an lonely. I’d love to find another copy and be able to read it as a mother.

  • Jennifer Gibbons

    Carrie by Stephen King…a friend found this at a church (!!!!) book sale. No one had yet heard of Stephen King…OMG, my friends and I were bowled over!

  • DeeDee Cameron

    Ugh, I read this book about a doll that came to life and killed people and I cannot remember the name of it. VC Andrews – read ’em all & didn’t ‘get’ half the content til I was a bit older, then went ‘holy crap, these books are DIRTY’. Salem’s Lot – read it when I was 10 and was terrified to look out the window at night for years. (ok, still am)

  • Elizabeth

    Pretty much anything by Lois Duncan, but Stranger with my Face, in particular, scared me into reading “age appropriate” books back in the 6th grade.

  • Cara Liebowitz

    Um, what about Bridge to Terribithia????? I SOBBED.

  • Cara Liebowitz

    Also basically all Lurlene McDaniel books (which I’m still irrationally addicted to except I’ve grown up to “My Sister’s Keeper” now). And all the Caroline B. Cooney books but ESPECIALLY Flight 116 Is Down. I think of it every time I get on a plane and it’s TERRIFYING.

    • Samm Remillard

      Flight 116 is down is one of my favorite books! I bring it out every few years and feed my fear of flying.

  • Rachel

    I read a book when I was in 5th or 6th. I have no idea what the title was but it did traumatize me a bit. It was a YA novel about a group of teenage kids who were abducted by aliens. When they came back to Earth they had horrible nightmares and physical problems, and I think, psychic powers or something. The thing about the story was that (except for the aliens) the whole situation seemed so real. So possible. They didn’t know for sure if the aliens had actually taken them or if it was a nightmare or whatever. I got the book from the school library in 1996 or 1997 but it could have been written at any point before that. Don’t know if anyone here will be able to help but I would like to find that again. I think now it won’t be nearly as scary

  • Debra L Brown

    I absolutely hate the VC Andrews incest novels, and that is what I call them and always will. The hundred dresses also made me sad, as did Go Ask Alice that I read again at 50. A Summer to Die I have not read, but I love Lowry, and so I shall.

  • Laura Keefer

    I’ve read all of these… and feel a deep urgency to now reread. I have issues…

  • Suzanne Helm

    It by Stephen King….what dork picked the 1st one 100 dresses, sounds sad not scary

  • Heather Scott-Penselin

    When I was perhaps middle school age I read a short story by Orson Scott Card called Deep breathing exercise. Scared the snot out of me and I’m paranoid to this day when some is breathing in and out at the same time I am. Also another short story that terrified me was I think by Orson Scott Card too, and I can’t remember the title. It is about a little boy (possibly autistic) who invents a vacuum like machine that sucks up sound.

  • jsmom2

    I know its technically a short story, but I was completely and totally freaked out by “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson.

  • April @ The Steadfast Reader

    FITA seems to be turning up on a lot of people’s ‘traumatized youth’ lists lately. 🙂

  • Alyson

    Two books traumatized my childhood and still reverberate today. “Black Beauty” ripped my heart out and stomped on it repeatedly when Ginger died, to the point that today I have a very nutty, slightly neurotic thoroughbred that I call “my Ginger” because he reminds me of her. And I can’t find him another home because I’m terrified he’ll wind up on that flatbed trailer the way she did. The other one was another horse book, “Beauty” by Bill Wallace. Boy’s parents divorce, boy and mom move in with grandpa on his farm. Boy has a hard time, but bonds with an older horse named “Beauty” and they have wonderful adventures. One night Beauty gets out during a storm and breaks both front legs. Boy, who’s home alone, has to shoot his horse to end her suffering.

    I had nightmares for weeks.

  • Kieran Gene Black

    Bunnicula always freaked me out as a kid, even though I was never afraid of Dracula.

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