Sometimes a thoughtful note or a sweet gift from a secret admirer can be a much-appreciated confidence boost. These anonymous kindnesses let you know that somebody’s thinking about you and even better, thinks you’re pretty great. An admirer might keep their identity a secret for several different reasons: maybe they’re working on a nice surprise or a grand gesture, maybe they’re smitten but shy, maybe they’re just trying to send a bit of kindness out into the world. Or maybe they’re planning to murder you and don’t want to get caught. In Carol Ellis’s My Secret Admirer (1989) and R.L. Stine’s Secret Admirer (1996), Jenny Fowler and Selena Goodrich have to figure out who their secret admirers are and what they want–before it’s too late.
In My Secret Admirer, Jenny and her family are new in town, the latest stop in a series of frequent relocations for her father’s work. It’s the tail-end of summer and school hasn’t started yet, which means Jenny hasn’t had many opportunities to meet the teens who will be her classmates and (hopefully) friends. Their new home is a small town near some mountains and one afternoon on a grocery run, Jenny meets her neighbor, Sally Rafino, when Sally comes up the street on a horse, “riding bareback and … [not] the least bit self-conscious about being on a horse in the middle of a paved street lined with cars” (11). Jenny and Sally hit it off right away and Sally invites Jenny to come to their high school class’s scavenger hunt, a local tradition that sends kids running all over town for zany and unexpected prizes. It all gets off to a good start and Jenny feels like she’s starting to get a handle on the high school social hierarchy: there’s mean girl Diana, cute boy David, athlete (and Diana’s ex-boyfriend) Brad, and computer genius Dean. David kisses Jenny as they work their way through the scavenger hunt list, but things take a dangerous turn when they find themselves in the rimrocks (the bluffs near the mountains’ edge) hunting for a bird’s nest when a storm rolls in. David and Jenny are separated, Jenny hears what she thinks is shouting followed by a scream, and the night comes to an abrupt end, with Jenny yelling at David for abandoning her and the scavenger hunt called off because of the rain.
Jenny’s pretty cranky about the way the night ended and finds herself struggling to sort out how she feels about David (is he a jerk who left her behind in an unfamiliar and scary place? Did she panic and overreact?). Things get even more complicated when they all find out that Diana was on the rimrocks too and fell; she wasn’t found right away and when the teens meet up at a local diner a couple of days later, they learn that Diana is in a coma (a series of events that adds “did David push Diana?” to Jenny’s list of uncomfortable questions). But whatever her feelings about David might be, somebody likes Jenny. She gets back from dropping her parents off at the airport for a trip and comes home to find an anonymous message on the answering machine. As she listens, this mystery man says “You’re going to think I’m crazy, Jenny … And I guess I am. Crazy about you, that is. Don’t laugh. This isn’t a joke. You’re really incredible. Maybe someday I’ll be able to tell you face to face. Until then, I’ll just keep my eye on you. And believe me, that’s one spectacular view. Bye, Jenny. For now” (41). Jenny’s first thought is that the call could be a prank. After she has some time to think about it, she comes to the conclusion that “It was silly, but it was flattering, too” (42), deciding she doesn’t mind having a secret admirer and hoping he calls again soon. She mentally reviews the guys she has met since moving to town, but can’t figure out who this mystery caller could be.
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After this phone call, anonymous gifts keep showing up on her doorstep as well, including fresh-picked flowers. But things take a darker turn when someone leaves a nice bow-wrapped box outside her front door containing a dead, beheaded rattlesnake. Sally tries to shrug it off as an admittedly weird and gross joke, but things become increasingly dangerous as someone rolls up her car windows while Jenny’s in the grocery store, trapping her dog Peaches in the hot car where she nearly dies of heatstroke. Whoever it is also tampers with Jenny’s car so that she’ll be stranded in the middle of nowhere and then menaces her on a motorcycle while Jenny is trapped in a roadside phone booth. Jenny’s parents have gone out of town to deal with closing details on the sale of their previous home, so Jenny is on her own to figure out what’s going on and protect herself from these threats. At first, Peaches is actually a pretty good guard dog, standing sentry at the front door when she hears strange noises in the night (presumably the dead snake delivery), but after the heatstroke incident, the vet keeps Peaches at the clinic for observation and Jenny is more alone than ever.
Jenny remains adamant that these messages are coming from two different people—one who likes her and one who is trying to scare her—and when she gets a final message from her secret admirer, asking her to meet him in an isolated spot in the rimrocks, she thinks this sounds like a great idea, reassuring herself that whoever this mystery man is, he’ll be able to protect her from the other mystery man who is trying to scare and hurt her. But of course, these two mystery men are the same man, who now intends to find out what Jenny heard that night and do whatever it takes to silence her. Even when she meets him in the rimrocks, he stays out of sight, continuing to conceal his identity as he pushes Jenny off the cliff, and when Jenny regains consciousness to find that David has come to rescue her, she decides he must be the bad guy and hits him in the head with a rock … then finds out the culprit was Dean all along.
Jenny’s first impression of Dean was deeply flawed—what she took for shyness is quiet cockiness, and all in all, he’s just not that “nice.” It turns out he used his computer skills to change his records in the school’s system when a few bad grades threatened to derail his Ivy League dreams, Diana found out and threatened to tell. Dean tells Jenny that he “didn’t push Diana. She fell by accident. It worked out very conveniently for me, though. Until you started talking about what you heard that night” (169). Dean falls and is injured but not killed, then taken into police custody. Jenny escapes with nothing more than a badly sprained ankle and the disappointing knowledge that her secret admirer really just wanted to kill her.
In Stine’s Fear Street book Secret Admirer, at least Selena doesn’t have to wonder so much about what her admirer’s intentions are: from the very first note Selena finds, her admirer’s attentions are creepy and threatening. She has the lead in the school play and after she has taken her curtain call, she goes to her dressing room locker to find a bunch of dead flowers and a note that says “Congratulations! Enjoy your last curtain call. Did you know you are giving up the stage—to be with me? Forever” (9). While Selena knows from the beginning that her secret admirer does not have romantic intentions, she does go back and forth on how seriously she needs to take this threat. She, her friends, and even their theatre teacher initially believe that it could all be a joke—an unkind, sick joke, to be sure, but probably nothing to really worry about. But when Selena thinks she sees someone looking in her bedroom window, a wardrobe chest falls on her competition for the next role (who had the bad luck to be sitting in Selena’s usual spot), Selena finds a partially decomposed rat on her back porch, and her friend Jake dies after a fall from the theatre’s catwalk, they all have to admit that Selena is in serious danger. Despite the danger, however, they all forge on with a “the show must go on” mentality, including Selena, whose only chance to go to college is to score a scholarship based on the recommendation of the college recruiter–who is coming to see the show.
Selena mentally works her way through the list of potential suspects, which is headed up by her disgruntled ex-boyfriend Danny, her friend Jake (who falls off the suspect list when he gets murdered, of course), and Eddy, a college intern who is helping with the show and keen on starting an inappropriate romantic relationship with Selena. When Selena gets a note telling her that another one of her friends is going to be killed at the theatre that night, she rushes there, intent on warning and saving her best friend Katy, only to find out that Katy is behind the whole thing. And there is a LOT to unpack when Katy reveals her motivation.
First of all, Katy and Selena have been best friends since they were small children and used to have a lot in common. Both Katy and Selena thought they’d “be fat and unpopular forever” (12). But when Selena decided she wanted to be a performer, she decided the only way to do so successfully would be to lose weight, reflecting that “I knew I couldn’t get lead parts unless I stopped eating so much” (13), a commentary on body type discrimination and fat-shaming that Stine lets pass by entirely unremarked. Selena becomes a star and Katy becomes a stage crew member, working behind the scenes, and when Katy expresses her envy of Selena, Selena’s awful advice to Katy is that “you could lose weight too” (13). Selena is wrapped up in her newfound popularity and she and Katy have been drifting apart, with Selena having little empathy or patience with Katy for not simply transforming herself completely. Katy also knows the best way to manipulate Selena is to play to Selena’s ego and belief in her own irresistibility: as Katy explains about the notes, “I knew you’d never suspect me. I knew you’d think it was some guy who was madly in love with you … I knew you’d never question it. Every guy has to fall for you, right?” (133, emphasis original). All Selena cares about is popularity, how she looks, and whether or not boys find her attractive. Spurred on by her fear about the growing distance between them as Selena prepares to go to college, Katy decides to hold Selena accountable and show her just how shallow and self-centered she is.
While Selena’s priorities are well worth critiquing, however, Katy isn’t some feminist vigilante or a radical, forward-thinking teen ready to smash the patriarchy. She’s just jealous, catty, and pretty much completely unhinged. Stine does not cultivate any depth in or empathy for Katy’s character and in the end, the majority of readers likely find themselves identifying with Selena, moving forward with the skewed and problematic priorities that shape her life, without any substantial reflection or critical consideration taking place. Katy’s plan is thwarted, she’s tied up and handed over the authorities, the terror is over, and that’s that.
Additionally, if being stalked and nearly murdered by their secret admirers isn’t terrifying enough, both Ellis and Stine include side plots that make it abundantly clear that even without this specific threat, the world isn’t a safe place for young women. In My Secret Admirer, one of the chores Jenny’s parents give her while they’re out of town is to meet with the local painters and get an estimate of what it would cost them to have a few rooms in their new house repainted. When the two painters show up, they’re initially condescending and dismissive that they have to deal with Jenny rather than her parents, and it only gets creepier when the younger of the two painters pointedly asks “you’re still alone here, then?” (95). When he calls and leaves a message on the machine with the quote for the painting job, he once again points out that he knows Jenny’s alone in the house. These comments briefly make him a suspect as Jenny tries to figure out who’s terrorizing her, but the painter is a red herring, serving as a reminder of the harassment and danger that women face on a regular basis. In Secret Admirer, Selena’s relationship with Eddy is stalker-ish and predatory. Not only is he a college intern in a position of power when it comes to theatre classes and the show, but it quickly becomes apparent that he has been paying close attention to Selena for several years, watching her from afar. He makes comments in passing about her grades, her previous performances, and how her appearance has changed over the years, and while to her credit, these odd comments do give Selena pause, she ends up brushing them off. Eddy asks Selena out on a date but tells her that she’ll have to keep it a secret so they don’t get in trouble, even ducking out of the restaurant where they’ve just had dinner when one of Selena’s classmates comes in. Eddy is seriously creepy and taking advantage of Selena, though in the book’s final pages, he helps rescue her from Katy and remains her romantic interest, as they contemplate their potential future together.
Jenny and Selena are young, vulnerable, and so happy to have romantic interest that it doesn’t seem like a dealbreaker when that interest comes all mixed up with threatening notes, dead snakes, and murdered friends. Even when they avoid being murdered, there are plenty of other day-to-day threats and exploitations for these young women to contend with. They are willing to give up so much to be seen as desirable, to be worthy objects of their admirers’ attentions, though in the end, those secret admirers are more focused on murder than romance. But in the end, there are other (slightly) less creepy guys waiting in the wings, so Jenny and Selena aren’t walking away empty handed, but rather hand in hand with fellas that they at least briefly considered might be trying to kill them.
Alissa Burger is an associate professor at Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Missouri. She writes about horror, queer representation in literature and popular culture, graphic novels, and Stephen King. She loves yoga, cats, and cheese.