What's Up in YA

👻👻 Why Do Teen Readers Love Horror?

Hey YA Readers!

Let’s talk about all things spooky. Or, more specifically, let’s talk about why it is teen readers seem to love scary books.

I’m always fascinated by the passion teen readers have for all things scary. I was one of those teens, and I worked with those teens in libraries — and I’ve heard from them time and time again in my author life, too. Why is that? What is it that makes horror so appealing to teen readers?

To get an answer, I reached out to a handful of incredible YA authors who are writing horror to see if they had any insight. Of course they did!

The authors who responded are but a small fraction of the diverse range of voices writing horror in YA, which continues to offer incredible titles year after year. All of the authors below have penned multiple horror titles themselves.

So: why do teens love horror?

Amelinda Bérubé, author of Here There Are Monsters

I think there’s an intensity to the experience of horror that appeals to a lot of teens. The outsized feels make it engaging. It’s also a way to dip a toe into terrifying experiences without any actual danger – kind of like how carnival rides let you plunge from a dizzying height without the hard landing.

Another analogy I like to use is the metal cage divers use to observe sharks up close. With the cage between you and the sharks, they’re fascinating. Everyone has a line in the sand where scary media gets “too real” – where the cage between you and the sharks disappears – and it’s no longer fun. But media that rides that line can be really cathartic as well as thrilling; it gives you enough distance from your fears to look them in the eye and think about them. As a teen, you’re starting to realize all the ways it’s scary out there. Horror gives you a measure of power over that.

Daniel Kraus, author of Bent Heavens (February 2020)

The two most powerful, primeval emotions, especially for teens, are lust and fear. Teens seek out more of both and want to experiment. My tiny role in that ritual is to provide inroads into fear that are intelligent and complex, and are going to make readers grapple with their feelings in more sophisticated way.

There’s room for all levels of horror. I tend to work at the extreme end. I want a teen to pick up a book of mine and feel like it’s a dangerous object. I want them to read it and know the author isn’t trying to “protect” them. Look, it’s a book — if it burns, they’ll drop it. Otherwise, they’re going to find me pushing, and they might have to push back, and in the process they’re going to learn something about themselves. You get the right reader, this pushing match can make them stronger. It can change lives. I’m not fucking around.

Micol Ostow, author of The Devil and Winnie Flynn

If horror as a genre is about an externalized, socially-approved manifestation of our innermost fears, then how could it not particularly appeal to teens? Young adult fiction is so resonant precisely because of the passionate, unique emotional moment of being a teenager, and specifically dealing with the horrors of societal expectations and pressures, the mortal flaws of our most formative authority figures, and even the betrayal of our own bodies in unexplainable, uncontrollable ways.

The terrifying truth is: if horror is discomfiting, it is no more discomfiting than life itself, and perhaps at no point in time more so than during young adulthood. For me, at least, the visceral but wholly metaphorical traumas depicted in horror have always been infinitely more compelling than my own teenaged nightmares.

Rebecca Schaeffer, author of Not Even Bones

I think horror has a number of different facets that appeal to readers. Horror as a genre, especially in YA, is incredibly character driven. There’s nothing quite like edge of your seat life-threatening terror to force characters to face their own inner demons. The best horror uses the ‘monster’ as a dark reflection of the main character’s personal flaws and failures, and overcoming it helps them also come to critical realizations about themselves. There’s something very powerful about having a physical manifestation of a character’s flaws that they have to fight, as is typical in the horror genre.

The other reason I think it appeals to readers how viscerally engaging fast-paced books are. You see a similar atmosphere in thrillers, a feeling that you have to keep going, you need to find out what happens next. They’re both genres that keep you on the edge of your seat the whole read, paced so that you can’t put them down for fear something terrible is waiting just around the corner for the character. This kind of style creates highly addictive reads.

In horror, the combination of the fast pacing, terrifying monsters, and vivid character arcs combine to make an extremely appealing genre.

Amy Lukavics, author of Nightingale

I can only speak to my own experiences, but as a teen I found horror weirdly comforting in the fact that it focused on darker aspects of humanity that were otherwise ignored (but not forgotten.) I appreciated the heavy themes and dark, morbid descriptions, which I didn’t view as gratuitous, but rather brave in their willingness to speak the grisly truth, societal norms be damned. Horror can provide a safe haven to sort through the tangle of questions and concerns we have about each other and ourselves, and additionally, it always felt nice to get lost in stories of pretend suffering in order to forget about my own. My favorite YA horror novel would probably have to be Bleeding Earth by Kaitlin Ward, followed by Through the Woods by Emily Carroll, This Is Not a Test by Courtney Summers, and In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters. And while it hasn’t released yet, I am so excited for and intrigued by the upcoming Jennifer Strange by Cat Scully.

Kate Alice Marshall, author of Rules for Vanishing

Horror is a genre that thrives in liminal spaces—the in-between places. Doorways, dusk, roads, the edges where wilderness and civilization intersect. Ghosts, zombies, and vampires all occupy the in-between space between life and death. It’s in these gaps that uncertainty and change thrive—and what stage of life is more full of uncertainty and change than adolescence? Teens occupy the ultimate liminal space. The youngest teens are leaving childhood behind; the oldest teens are entering adulthood, ready or not. Teens are leaving one world and entering another, but there’s no clear boundary between them. And horror is all about taking muddled boundaries, confusion, and transformation, and delving into the darkest possibilities it holds.

I think that horror and its relatives hold a special thrill for teens because the themes of uncertainty, rules, and transgression speak so strongly to the teen experience. And because there’s a whole adult world waiting for them, full of very real danger, uncertainty and fear—but within the pages of a book, the fear is knowable. It can be conquered—or it can conquer you—but at the end of the story, you get to close the book and move on. It gives you a chance to engage with the uncertainty of the world waiting for you without the danger of getting lost in it.

Jimmy Cajoleas, author of Minor Prophets

First off, horror novels are really, really, really fun to read. I mean, who doesn’t love being scared, at least a little bit? Some of the happiest moments of my childhood were lying in my bedroom late into the night, reading Stephen King or Lois Duncan, daring myself to turn the next page.

But if I can take it a step further. The great horror film director Stuart Gordon once said, “When you look at most horror movies, they’re about an impossible dream.” I think horror novels are the same. They’re about the dreams of the storyteller, the mysteries of the heart laid bare in all of their terror and wonder. In this way, horror for me has always been a way to look inward, to confront the parts of ourselves and the world that we fear the most. That’s why I find horror to be so comforting. More than anything, even the bleakest of horror novels carry a kind of hope with them, a recognition that we live in a mysterious, unknowable world full of secrets, surrounded by people who are just as mysterious and unknowable. The world really isn’t as it seems. And that means anything is possible, anything at all.

I don’t know about you, but just reading this makes me want to pick up every YA horror book right now. May I recommend some YA witch stories or YA ghost books?

Thank you to the authors above for such fabulous insight.

Thanks for hanging out, and we’ll see you next week!

— Kelly Jensen, @heykellyjensen on Instagram (note the new name!) and editor of (Don’t) Call Me Crazy and Here We Are.