What is the scariest place you could imagine? A dilapidated amusement park inhabited by cannibal clowns? A centuries-old Victorian with brittle bones and fleeting faces frosting up the windows? A creepy basement with one lonely hanging lightbulb flickering off and on like an irregular heartbeat? A farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, complete with swaying cornfields and a barn full of meat hooks on chains clinking together like the world’s most macabre windchime?
Or maybe just a middle school?
I don’t know why it took me so long to discover the Venn-diagram intersection of middle-school tale and horror story—it seems like such a natural fit. After all, scary stories prey upon our anxieties and insecurities. Our fear of being alone, left out in the cold. Our fear that people are watching us, casting sidelong glances, passing judgement. Hearing whispers in the hall. Finding out the people we thought we knew are now strangers to us. That overbearing dread that something terrible is going to happen today. Yes, the bogeyman is intimidating, and the slimy, serrated-toothed thing lurking beneath our beds is nothing to sneeze at, but ask most middle-schoolers what they are most afraid of, and, outside of a few cases of arachnophobia, you will find a host of human anxieties that most of us can relate to—and they are all related to growing up.
The fear of being ostracized. Of losing friends. Fear of disappointing their families. Fear of standing out too much and fear of being left in the shadows. Fears of bullies—because they do still exist, even if they often hide behind an online avatar. Fears of being misunderstood, of not being appreciated, seen, or taken seriously. All manner of fears surrounding an uncertain future. So many of these hit us hard just about the time we make that transition into tweendom, becoming more acutely aware of our identities and our place in the world. That move–from adolescence to young adulthood–can be empowering, but it’s also scary as hell, coming, as it does, with a full complement of demons and monsters.
And, of course, ghosts.
Because what is a ghost if not a manifestation of our own inner turmoil? Brand-new house haunted by spirits? Well, change is scary. A dead grandfather speaking from behind the grave? The grieving process at work. The ghosts that haunt our fictions are just otherworldly projections of our own personal and psychological struggles. I think that’s especially true in children’s books, where the awareness of this other supernatural world mirrors the scary and sometimes painful transition from adolescence to adulthood. In a way, perhaps, that makes all coming-of-age stories ghost stories. They are reflections on a childhood left behind, an innocence lost.
But that just makes them even more potent. In fiction at least, ghosts are reminders. They give us perspective, as Marley’s ghost does in A Christmas Carol. They point out the sins of past. They force us to see the world differently, to take a longer view, to consider the repercussions of our actions. Though they rattle our windows and rearrange our furniture and scare the snot out of us, ghosts often do so with purpose: to bring us to a deeper awareness of our world and ourselves.
Such is the power of fiction. Stories act as a kind of fun-house mirror, allowing us to see ourselves from an altered point of view. Sometimes comical. Sometimes frightening. Sometimes painfully truthful, offering a more honest appraisal than we’re used to. That’s one reason I continue to write them—because it help me to take a harder look at myself and my surroundings. And I always manage to find something there that haunts me—often from my childhood (ahem, middle-school, always and forever), but also from the headlines running across my newsfeed. I uncover things that used to scare me that I’ve managed to overcome and many more that I fear will continue to haunt me into the future. And not just me, but my children and their children.
But that’s the thing about ghost stories. They are frightening, yes, in the most delicious, gut-wrenching, spine-throttlingly cathartic ways. But they offer so much potential for redemption. Contrary to Hollywood lore, you don’t bust a ghost with a proton pack. You beat it by helping it find peace. You beat it through compassion and understanding. You beat it by coming to grips with the sins of the past and using that newfound awareness to carve out a better future.
You beat it through empathy.
That’s something young readers need to be aware of as they are confronted by a world that gets bigger and scarier with every passing year: that they have the agency and courage and heart to overcome their fears and lay their ghosts to rest.
I know when I pick up a ghost story or a horror novel, I want the protagonist to be chased and hunted. I want them to hide in corners and closets. I want them to jump and scream. I want to jump and scream with them. But then I want them to fight back. Fiercely. I want them to uncover the mystery. I want them to learn and to grow. I want them to triumph over their demons, inside and out.
I want the same for my readers. And I know they will. Because even ghost stories have heroes.
John David Anderson is the author of many highly acclaimed books for kids, including the New York Times Notable Book Ms. Bixby’s Last Day, Posted, Granted, One Last Shot, and Stowaway. A dedicated root beer connoisseur and chocolate fiend, he lives with his wonderful wife, two frawesome kids, and clumsy cat, Smudge, in Indianapolis, Indiana. You can visit him online at www.johndavidanderson.org.
ABOUT THE BOOK
From the author of Posted comes a ghost story pulled from the darkest shadows of middle school—and a tale of one girl’s attempt to survive them.
Riley Flynn is alone.
It feels like she’s been on her own since sixth grade, when her best friend, Emily, ditched her for the cool girls. Girls who don’t like Riley. Girls who, on this particular day, decide to lock her in the science closet after hours, after everyone else has gone home.
When Riley is finally able to escape, however, she finds that her horror story is only just beginning. All the school doors are locked, the windows won’t budge, the phones are dead, and the lights aren’t working. Through halls lit only by the narrow beam of her flashlight, Riley roams the building, seeking a way out, an answer, an explanation. And as she does, she starts to suspect she isn’t alone after all.
While she’s always liked a good scary story, Riley knows there is no such thing as ghosts. But what else could explain the things happening in the school, the haunting force that seems to lurk in every shadow, around every corner? As she tries to find answers, she starts reliving moments that brought her to this night.
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