Coming-of-age stories almost always star a young protagonist or a group of friends who go through a life-changing experience and emerge as completely different people. These characters and life-altering experiences they are exposed to are often relatable to the readers. Moving to a new place and trying to fit in, going through family changes, realizing life isn’t easy, a murderous clown bent on killing everyone in town. Well, not everything is relatable. But that’s where the horror part comes in.
It’s pretty safe to assume that no one can relate to the horrific things that happen in these stories, but that doesn’t mean the lessons learned and character changes are unrelatable. These stories are still coming-of-age genres, after all, despite the unrelatable horror aspects. If a character starts as a bratty teenager but ends the book as a confident and reliable mature young adult, then it doesn’t matter how many zombies they had to run from during the course of the story. What matters is how we, as readers, recognize that character’s transition and how that transition was shaped over the course of the book.
Growing Up is Horrific
I think we all know what I mean when I say growing up sucks. Putting aside adult responsibilities, it’s tough discovering who you are as you transition into adulthood. For some, that transition might have happened at a young age, while for others, it might feel like that change never really came. These moments of severe life adjustments aren’t something we simply wake up with an understanding of. They are often accompanied by an emotional event that requires us to change over time slowly or causes us to lose our childhood innocence. For the characters in these coming-of-age stories, these moments are often filled with fear and the unknown.
Luckily, we as readers don’t have to actually experience being put in these horrific situations to learn these life lessons. That’s what the characters are for! They go through painful and frightening moments for us while we read from the comfort of our homes and witness life-changing moments in safety. I know I personally won’t have to run from zombies or fight a murderous alien clown in a sewer, but the lessons I take from having seen characters do it is something I can hold onto. It doesn’t matter the journey a character took to attain self-growth. What really matters is how I relate to that character’s journey.
History of Growing Up Scared
The history of coming-of-age horror stories is difficult to pinpoint because it is such a niche subgenre. The horror genre can be dated all the way back to the 1300s, while coming-of-age can be dated around the 1800s. In hindsight, the mixture of the two genres seemed inevitable. What better way to transition into adulthood than by having your vision of reality shattered, twisted, and contorted by something unexplainable before overcoming it and coming out the other end a changed person?
The origin of horror can be traced back to ancient folklore and religion, often talking about death, the afterlife, and evil. However, some of these ancient horror stories can be used for a good purpose, despite their scary roots. I’m sure we all remember the bogeyman and how it punishes children for misbehaving. I just checked under my bed and I can confirm the bogeyman isn’t real. But to children, it is a real threat.
Ever since the 15th century, this monster has been making sure children behave by being a fearful and horrific monster. These original “horror” stories inspired a long chain of authors to pick up and write about their own creative ideas of horror. A common theme with horror stories is the shock factor of exploring and witnessing the unknown, in which the feeling of fear tightly winds itself around.
Coming-of-age stories are old but not as old as the horror genre. These stories that support the idea of children becoming adults have been around since the 1800s. The term itself was coined by German philologist Karl Morgenstern and its popularity rose in Europe before spreading throughout the world. This genre typically follows a young and naive protagonist with the goal of maturing through the experience of the world. This goal of maturing might not be something the protagonist desires, but it is something that they will have to go through to become the person they were meant to be.
Coming-Of-Age Horror Books
Clown In A Cornfield – Adam Cesare
A small town called Kettle Springs suffers a generational divide. The older generation sees the younger generation as self-absorbed, with an interest in having fun and playing on their phones. The conflict between the generations is only made worse by a blood-crazed killer clown with a habit of committing murder. A wonderfully bloody introduction to the slasher genre.
Rot and Ruin – Jonathan Maberry
A teenager grows up in a fenced-up town, has a loyal friend, a crush, an older half-brother he hates, difficulty finding a job, and there are zombies outside with endless hunger. Not a typical teenager growing up story, but not too far from it. Sure, zombies run the world now, but that doesn’t change the classic teenager attitude and their moments of personal growth. The main characters still struggle to discover who they are and who, or what, they want to become.
Boys in the Valley – Philip Fracassi
A horror story that takes place in an orphanage run by priests. The kids get along well until, shockingly, a group of strangers arrives asking for help, and things begin to fall apart for the orphanage. A terror is unleashed on the orphanage, twisting the minds of the boys inside. Full of companionship, betrayal, and demonic worship.
It – Stephen King
I know, Stephen King on a list of coming-of-age horror novels. I’m just as shocked as you. Jokes aside, King is one of the best when it comes to coming-of-age novels with a sprinkling of horror. This story follows a group of children in a small town as they discover a horrifying clown is haunting it. What better way to grow up and mature than to deal with a clown that lives in the sewer?
House of Salt and Sorrows – Erin A. Craig
This story follows a family of twelve daughters, a father, and a stepmother living in a manor by the sea. By the start of the story, a few of the daughters have already mysteriously died. The protagonist, Annaleigh, is haunted by visions of ghosts which raises her suspicion in the disappearances of her sisters. She wonders if her family is cursed, and if so, she brings it upon herself to fix it.
Coming-of-age horror is a bittersweet genre. The experience of the unknown and looking death in the eyes is enough of an experience to change anyone. But to overcome those experiences and grow as a person from them is taking those agonizing moments and making them into the foundation of who they could become.
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