The protagonists of ‘90s teen horror are a little old for trick or treating, but there are still plenty of scares to be had on Halloween, particularly when someone throws a spooky party. Donning a mask or costume often lowers these characters’ inhibitions, giving them the chance to cut loose for the night, while interpersonal conflict runs high (as always) and some of the “tricks” invariably turn nasty, with Halloween the perfect cover for disguising attempted murder as a prank gone wrong. There are lots of party-time tricks and very few treats for the characters of R.L. Stine’s Halloween Party (1990) and Diane Hoh’s The Dummy (1995).
Halloween Party is part of Stine’s Fear Street series and The Dummy is one of Hoh’s Nightmare Hall books and really, if you’re invited to a Halloween party at Fear Street or Nightmare Hall, it seems like that should be a pretty easy no. The characters are well aware of the long track record of horrible and terrifying things that have happened at these places; even the names themselves speak directly to dangers these teens are likely to encounter. But Halloween’s all about fear and nightmares anyway, so they shrug off others’ warnings, take their lives in their hands, and go get their scare on for Halloween.
There’s plenty to be scared of: in Halloween Party, Justine Cameron’s old house on Fear Street is full of all kinds of Halloween surprises. Some of these are tricks and orchestrated scares, but when Bobby McCorey and Marty Danforth—two Shadyside High students who are ticked off about not having been invited to the party—roll in on their motorcycles, half drunk, looking to fight, and attacking Justine’s guests, that’s no laughing matter. The partygoers have separated themselves into two opposing groups—the jocks and the nerds—and spend the evening playing increasingly cruel pranks on one another. There are two fake murders that the teens enact in order to freak one another out, which only makes it harder for them to gauge the reality of the threat when one of the partygoers, Les Whittle, is actually killed. Another of the guests, Niki Meyer, goes missing partway through the party and the others have a difficult time finding her (turns out she’s been knocked unconscious and locked in the basement). Justine falls from the second floor landing when the banister she’s leaning on gives way. A truth or dare-type game in which everyone is challenged to “tell everyone the worst thing you’ve ever done” (88) certainly doesn’t help matters.
There are also a lot of interpersonal tensions and complicated history between these teens: Terry Ryan is dating Niki, but she used to go out with Alex Beale, who used to be Terry’s best friend. Niki and Alex are still friends, which really bothers Terry. Niki is one of just a handful of differently-abled characters in ‘90s teen horror, with profound hearing loss, though “she spoke so clearly and read lips so well, most people didn’t even realize” (2). Justine is new in town and gorgeous, and while just about every guy at Shadyside High has asked her out and been turned down, that doesn’t stop them from trying. The Halloween party guest list is exclusive and eclectic: Justine only invites nine people, from a cross-section of the high school social strata. There doesn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason to who she has invited or why, and access is tightly controlled, with no dates allowed.
Buy the Book
Late in the party, they find themselves in the house’s dining room, with the door locked and bars on the windows: the specific people Justine wanted, right where she wanted them, as her motive becomes clear. Nearly three decades ago, Justine’s parents were killed in a car crash on their way home from a Halloween party when they got into a head-on collision with a drag-racing car coming from the other direction. The teens in the other two cars sustained only minor injuries, but Justine’s parents were killed when their car rolled and caught on fire, a terrible death that Justine now plans to inflict on her Halloween party guests, who are the children of those reckless teens responsible for her parents’ deaths. While this is definitely more vengeance than justice—none of the kids Justine has invited to her party are responsible in any way and most of them have no idea that the accident even happened until she tells them—the most shocking twist of all is that Justine is a thirty year old woman who has been masquerading as a high school student to gain access to her intended victims. In the opening pages of Halloween Party, Stine gives readers a description of Justine: “She was the most beautiful girl at Shadyside High—maybe in the whole town. Even the girls thought so. She was tall and slim, and looked more like a model than a student, with her long shiny blond hair and eyes as green as jade” (8). Everyone comments upon how beautiful Justine is and how mysterious, but apparently no one notices that she’s an adult rather than a teenager.
Justine sets the house on fire while she has her guests locked in the dining room, subjecting them to an ear-splitting soundtrack of screams and car crash sounds, in an attempt to make these teens suffer just as her parents had. Niki ends up being the hero: she can’t hear the deafening screams and as a result, is able to focus more clearly on how to get them all out there, riding in the house’s dumbwaiter to the basement, breaking out through a window, and freeing her friends by prying the bars off the outside of the dining room window, with help from Justine’s Uncle Philip (whom Justine had also knocked unconscious and stashed in the basement). Justine tries to run into the burning house, but Terry and Alex work together to stop her and she is taken into custody. The nightmare is over for everyone except for poor Les, who is actually, really dead.
While Niki’s peers in Halloween Party do not treat her any differently as a result of her hearing loss, the same cannot be said for the characters in The Dummy. When Jaye Bishop is invited to a Halloween party at Nightmare Hall where attendees have been asked to prepare a kind of spooky talent show piece to contribute to the evening’s entertainment, Jaye decides on a ventriloquism act. But Jaye has absolutely no ventriloquism experience, can’t throw her voice, and discovers that the doll she wants from the toy store to complete her act is prohibitively expensive. Instead of choosing literally ANY other talent or act, she decides that the best possible course of action is to “partner” with Fiona Hazard, a fellow student who is incredibly small statured, and who can sit on Jaye’s knee and be her “dummy,” taking all the lines and doing all the work while Jaye does almost nothing. After all, why work hard, practice, or spend money on a doll when you can exploit someone for free? Fiona goes along with the plan because she has had a difficult time making friends since getting to Salem University and she thinks Jaye really likes her and values her contribution to their shared act. And Jaye does … right up until their Halloween party performance is over and Jaye tries to ditch Fiona, telling her that “my friends are waiting for me” 30), clearly excluding Fiona from that collective group.
Fiona doesn’t take this well (and who can blame her?). Before she cedes their spot on the stage to the next act, Fiona loudly tells the entire party all of the terrible—though admittedly out of context—things that Jaye has said about her “real” friends, including that her boyfriend Maguire is too poor, her friend Sooz wouldn’t be so overweight if she stopped eating so much junk food, and her friend Caroline would have better luck in the romance department if she spent less time going out with other girls’ boyfriends. The act is over and Jaye is finally free of Fiona, though she now finds that she doesn’t really have that many friends looking forward to welcoming her back with open arms, as she immediately has to start making apologies, trying to explain herself, and rebuilding bridges.
In the meantime, someone’s out to get Jaye, as the Nightmare Hall Halloween party becomes a very dangerous place for her. She is talked into getting strapped into the fake electric chair and when everyone runs to the back of the house because they hear the barn out back is on fire (it’s not, just a handy red herring of a distraction), Jaye is immobilized and alone as someone wraps her in a string of Halloween lights that quickly begin burning her. She’s freed from this danger but a short while later, when the partygoers are running through the house on a scavenger hunt, Jaye finds herself forced into a guillotine decoration, where the cardboard blade has been replaced with sheet metal. She gets her head out of the contraption before the blade falls, but gets a nasty cut on her leg. At least then she gets to leave Nightmare Hall and the Halloween party behind and head to the infirmary for stitches.
But the horrors don’t end when the party does: Jaye’s friends are still mad at her and she starts getting threatening notes left on her dorm room door, with cringingly misspelled threats like “U DEESERV 2 DI. U HERT PEEPLE … WEER NOT DUMMEES. URE THE DUMMEE. WEER GOING TO SHUT U UP PERMINENTLY” (144). Jaye is almost crushed by a runaway wagon wheel that comes careening down the stairs at Nightmare Hall when she goes to help clean up the day after the party and she finds a dismembered doll in her room, the same doll she had looked at in the mall toy store before deciding taking advantage of Fiona was the cheaper alternative. She keeps hearing the creepy voice that Fiona developed as the “dummy” for their act, threatening and taunting her.
While Fiona is the primary suspect as far as Jaye is concerned, she really has quite a few enemies–and while Fiona did play a trick or two on Jaye to try to get back at Jaye for using her, Fiona’s not actually trying to hurt or kill her. Fiona ends up being just as much a victim in the scheme as Jaye is, when it turns out that Caroline’s the culprit and she plans to kill Jaye, frame Fiona, and then kill Fiona too. Caroline has been trying to seduce Jaye’s boyfriend Maguire, though he has remained stubbornly faithful. However, Caroline’s pretty sure that if she just removes Jaye from the picture permanently, he’ll come around. While this seems like a pretty dramatic way to go about getting a boyfriend, Caroline’s unbothered because it turns out she has done this all before in high school: there was a guy named Aaron who she liked who wouldn’t cheat on his girlfriend Katherine Anne to be with Caroline, so Caroline orchestrated an ice skating accident and when THAT didn’t kill the girl, Caroline snuck into her hospital room and opened the window. Katherine Anne already had pneumonia and with the cold wind blowing on her all night, she got even sicker and died. Caroline got the guy she wanted, but then decided that “since Aaron had forgotten about Katherine Anne in only one month, I realized he wasn’t the one for me, after all. He wasn’t faithful. Hadn’t been faithful to her memory, had he? One month … what is that? That’s not long enough to mourn someone” (219, emphasis original). This also reinforces and validates the snarky, gossipy things that Jaye said about Caroline that started some of the trouble. After all, is it really so bad to point out that Caroline is boy crazy and faithless if she actually is boy crazy and faithless … and a murderer? It may not be kind but it certainly seems to be true, which, come to think of it, is also true of the things Jaye said about Maguire and Sooz. This doesn’t exactly excuse the unkind things that Jaye said and Fiona repeated, but it does seem to (maybe?) temper some of their meanness.
Jaye and Fiona work together to outsmart Caroline and escape, though this doesn’t make them BFFs. When Jaye sees Fiona walking across campus several days later, “she thought about waving but decided against it. They could never be friends now. Fiona hadn’t tried to kill her, after all, but she had started things in motion by saying those nasty things at the party … But I did use her, Jaye admitted reluctantly. And she lifted an arm and waved casually. Fiona waved back, then quickly returned her attention to her own friends” (229). Jaye at least seems a bit more self-aware about how she treats people and the consequences of her actions, which is something, and Fiona no longer wants to be friends with someone who would take advantage of and use her, which is a positive, though it problematically relegates Fiona back to a peripheral status, seen as odd but no longer a direct threat.
In Halloween Party and The Dummy, there aren’t many Halloween treats to be had, though dangerous and potentially deadly tricks abound. In both books, the characters first have to find out where the actual threat is coming from and who is responsible for the horrors they face. While in many ways, Jaye’s own behavior in The Dummy is the catalyst that kicks off the mayhem, with Halloween Party, Stine explores generational guilt, as the sins of the parents fall on the heads of their children when Justine comes for revenge. Even once the scheme has been uncovered and the threat has been neutralized, it’s not really over—Jaye has some personal reflection to do and self-awareness to work on, while the teens who survived Justine’s Halloween party are probably having some tough conversations with their parents, unearthing a secret that has been buried for decades and the guilt that maintained their silence. The parties might be over, but their repercussions will extend well past October’s end.
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.