What’s scarier: seeing something jump out at you, or knowing that it could, and imagining how and when? My bet’s on the latter. Anticipatory fear is the worst. As such, I always find the book version of a spooky tale more frightening than a film or TV show, because my mind will conjure up horrors no special effects team—no matter how good—could touch. With that in mind, here are some of the best books that scarred us for life, from junior high onward, just in time for Halloween.
The Dollhouse Murders, by Betty Ren Wright
“Dolls can’t move by themselves, she told herself, and felt goose bumps pop up on her arms.” You’re not alone with those goosebumps, Amy. This blast from the Scholastic Book Club past is a freak-tastic middle grade novel in which almost-13-year-old Amy agrees to spend a week with her aunt in the long-abandoned, secluded country house where her (murdered) grandparents once lived. Angsting over family troubles, Amy is grateful for the change of scenery. She’s also delighted to discover an intricate, beautiful old dollhouse in the attic. Did I mention the dolls inside look like Amy’s family members, and spend their evenings reenacting their own horrible, unsolved demise?
Audrey Rose, by Frank De Felitta
The Templetons, Bill, Janice, and their 10-year-old daughter, Ivy, live an idyllic, carefree existence in 1970s Manhattan, playing board games in their lavish apartment, listening to opera, and drinking gallons of scotch. Their dream life turns into a nightmare when Elliot Hoover enters their lives. He’s been stalking the Templetons because he believes Ivy is the reincarnation of his 5-year-old, Audrey Rose, who died in a fiery car crash the exact moment Ivy was born. What makes the book so terrifying is that sooner or later you’ll believe it, too, no matter how much you want to fight against the idea.
It, by Stephen King
An unputdownable story that deserves its spot in pop culture history. Creepy Clown? Check. (Let’s face it, Pennywise is the reason so many of us fear them.) Abusive bullies? Check. Small town imbued with ravenous evil, affecting generation after generation? Check. Ingeniously, the “It” in It assumes different forms based on what each adolescent member of the “Losers Club” fears most. For Ben, the creature is a mummy. For Richie, it’s a werewolf. For Mike, it’s a flesh-eating bird. And for Beverly, it’s her father. Yeah, that’ll stick with you. The upcoming two-part film (with Bill Skarsgaard as Pennywise) ensures fresh frights for years to come.
American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis
My husband knew this book would disturb me to my core, so he marked the most shocking sections I could skip over without losing plot threads. Did I heed his warning? No. It has been more than 10 years since I read the book and I still regret this. The film version (starring Christian Bale and Reese Witherspoon) is whimsically adorable in comparison to the book and did not prepare me one iota for the experience of reading it. Depending on your point of view, it’s a brilliantly dark satire about 1980s consumerism and pop culture, or a sadistic murder spree in which the victims are almost entirely young women and children.
The Ruins, by Scott Smith
Four fresh-faced, semi-Ugly Americans and one German are vacationing in Mexico when they decide to ditch the beach and check out an off-map archaeological site. Once there, they are surrounded and trapped by frantic locals who draw weapons as soon as one of them fatefully steps into the vines at the edge of the ancient ruins. Unable to leave the site, and at the mercy of sinister forces, our heroes turn into a bickering, hysteria-fueled mess. Written with a sense of terrifyingly plausible, slow-motion, “this can’t be happening” dread that paralyzes the reader, the horror stems from what the main characters do to each other to stay alive amid a psychologically torturous situation.
Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn
Damaged kleptomaniac Libby Day (portrayed by Cherlize Theron in the film adaptation) survived her family’s massacre as a child, and even identified her older brother, Ben, as the murderer. But then an underground club of true crime aficionados convinces her Ben wasn’t the culprit. Chilling, ghastly, desperate figures abound in this book—particularly in flashbacks—as the truth is revealed about what really went down the night of the killings, and why.
The Other, by Thomas Tryon
Thirteen-year-old twin boys Holland (the shy one) and Niles (the hellraiser) Perry have been left to their own devices ever since the shocking death of their father. Mom is bedroom-bound, unable to deal with widowhood, so the boys’ grandmother, Ada, sweeps in with a supernatural, inherited “game” (which Game of Thrones fans may recognize as one of Bran’s talents). The rural Connecticut farm where they live in the 1930s turns into a psychological horrorscape, and the book requires a second reading after the complex web of lies and distortions is untangled.