Horror and Adolescence
Horror and adolescence go hand in hand for many reasons, which explains why teens tend to thrive on horror films and books more than any other demographic.
Adolescence is a time of great change for kids – a transitional period between childhood and adulthood. No, teens are not young adults until they reach the age of eighteen (despite the media obsessively referring to 11 year olds as “young men” or “young women”), but their brains and bodies are changing at such a rapid pace that these years teeter between exhilarating and terrifying on a daily basis. The adolescent brain has one foot firmly planted on the accelerator while the other foot struggles to find the brake. Teens seek out thrilling experiences that pump the adrenalin and pound the heart. Hence the love of amusement park thrill rides, fast driving, and the heart-pounding experience of a good horror film or book.
But the “thrill gene,” as it’s been loosely dubbed, in teens isn’t the only correlation to horror, or the only reason teens love the genre. Fear is a HUGE part of adolescence, and teens stress over how best to manage that fear. What fears do teens face on a daily basis? Depends on where they live and go to school. For many, the fear is physical. Will they make it through the school day without getting bullied? Will they make it home without getting jumped? Will they fail yet another class and have to take it over? Will dad be drunk again tonight? Will mom tell them they’re losers? Will there be any food for dinner or will they have to go hungry until school the following day? These are but a few of the real fears no kid should have to live with, but far too many in America do.
But, above and beyond these issues, every adolescent is afraid to be different, to stand out from their peers, to not fit in. This is a palpable fear that guides almost every decision teenagers make. While some parents may encourage kids to embrace their differentness, most want their kids to be “mini-me’s” and conform to the “accepted societal norms” so they (the parents) don’t look bad in the eyes of other adults for having “that weird kid.” Such parents are embarrassed to have a disabled child, or one who isn’t good at sports, or who doesn’t get all A’s in school or who’s LGBT. By the time the adolescent brain kicks in, the wiring is geared toward socialization and social acceptance, so teens squelch their innate differentness in order to fit in. They live in fear every day that the mask they wear will be knocked off, the real “them” will shine through, and they will be ostracized as a result. So they dress the same, talk the same and act the same as their peers out of fear that their real selves will be rejected.
How does this fear relate to horror? Look at the huge number of horror stories that feature a kid who’s odd or different or possessed or threatened by nightmares that expose his secrets to the world. Look at how many feature a damaged character that hides behind a literal mask. Horror often features the outsider kid, the one nobody likes because he or she is “different” as the hero, the one who saves the day when his or her “conforming” peers are getting knocked off one by one. The plethora of possession stories speak to teen fears of having someone inside themselves, i.e. the real human being, revealing itself to the world and not being accepted. For LGBT youth, this fear is profound because they know how society consistently rejects kids like them for being born “different.” I supervised the GSA at my high school and, sadly, most of those kids were more afraid of their parents than their peers. Many kids wanted to attend meetings or functions, they’d tell me in private, but were afraid other kids would turn against them or, worse yet, inform their parents.
Special Education (SPED) kids harbor a similar fear. As a teacher to disabled students, I know from experience that their greatest fear is for peers to find out they’re SPED. I know the fear – I’ve lived with hearing impairment my whole life and there was not a single kid like me at any grade level up through and including graduate school. I never told peers that I couldn’t hear clearly. I just laughed if other kids did, even though I didn’t hear the punch line, or I stayed silent and nodded if I didn’t clearly understand something. I shied away from group sports or dances or activities that were loud and had many kids talking at once because I was afraid I’d have to admit my weakness and then get mocked for it. So it’s no surprise that even as a child I loved horror films and books. For me, seeing people manage fears that were greater than mine helped me deal with my own. These stories also raced my heart and fueled my imagination and inspired me to be a writer when I grew up. Horror is a thrill ride teens hope they never have to live through in real life, but they thrive on the adrenaline rush of being chased by the guy with the chainsaw, or having an exorcism performed on them, or having a guy with blades for fingers reach out of their dreams to try and kill them. Their hearts pound, blood rushes, and then they get to walk away unharmed.
For these very reasons, the best horror stories feature teen protagonists. Teens are always more willing to take risks that adults won’t – like opening that cellar door to see what’s down below, or sneaking into a graveyard to dig up graves or playing with that Ouija board that they know from countless films will lead to disaster. Teens are risk-takers, and horror stories are about managing fear while taking extreme risks, the kind that can often be deadly.
Spinner features a cast of teen characters with disabilities who have to solve a centuries-old mystery, as well as a string of murders quite possibly committed by one of them, all without the ability to read or write or, in Alex’s case, walk. Like gay kids and bullied kids, these characters face real fear every day just by going to school where they know they’ll be mocked and ridiculed for being “different.” But being different doesn’t stop them from bonding together and risking their lives for each other. At the heart of any good horror story is friendship between characters who have to make life and death choices that the viewing audience, or the reader, hopes never to have to make in the real world. Horror teaches kids valuable lessons without being dogmatic or preachy. Some lessons are complex, like how the smallest choices can have the biggest consequences, while others are minor – like don’t go into a dark basement alone when you hear sounds down there.
Being a teen today shouldn’t be the equivalent of a horror film, but it sadly often is; reading a novel or watching a film can be cathartic and help kids survive by reminding them that the different one, the “odd kid out,” the bullied kid, the kid who thinks outside the box will be the last man standing. Within these fictional forays into terror, kids see how their true selves, the ones they hide from the world, are the ones that ultimately survive and save others along the way. In teen horror, “different” is the new “normal.”
About the Book
Michael J. Bowler
Fifteen-year-old Alex is a “spinner.” His friends are “dummies.” Two clandestine groups of humans want his power. And an ancient evil is stalking him. If people weren’t being murdered, Alex might laugh at how his life turned into a horror movie overnight.
In a wheelchair since birth, his freakish ability has gotten him kicked out of ten foster homes since the age of four. Now saddled with a sadistic housemother who uses his spinning to heal the kids she physically abuses, Alex and his misfit group of learning disabled classmates are the only ones who can solve the mystery of his birth before more people meet a gruesome end.
They need to find out who murdered their beloved teacher, and why the hot young substitute acts like she’s flirting with them. Then there’s the mysterious medallion that seems to have unleashed something malevolent, and an ancient prophecy suggesting Alex has the power to destroy the human race.
The boys break into homes, dig up graves, elude kidnappers, fight for their lives against feral cats, and ultimately confront an evil as old as humanity. Friendships are tested, secrets uncovered, love spoken, and destiny revealed.
The kid who’s always been a loner will finally learn the value of friends, family, and loyalty.
If he survives…
Spinner Buy links
Spinner by Michael J Bowler was a fantastic suspense-thriller. It is not the type of book I would normally pick up and read but I found myself unable to put it down and here’s why. First the main character and his friends are all in Special Ed. As a Special Ed teacher this makes me giddy. I have worked with “these” boys. The mannerisms, bonds of friendship and the emotions of each kid is spot on. I felt like each boy I had worked with at one point in my career. Spinner is in a wheelchair and has the ability to heal people. Because of this people are after him, wanting to use his abilities for evil. He also has nightmares which become reality. Reason two is the subtle religious tones in the book. Spinner feels the one man he can confide in is the Catholic priest at the local church. Even he has some changes of the heart as he helps Spinner and his friends solve the mystery of how Spinner came to be. Another is the amazing way the characters deal with one of the boys being “different”. I don’t want to give spoilers so I will just say that the young boy did not need to be afraid to open and share his life. Lastly, and I think the biggest message in the story, is that even though bad things happen to you or in your life does not make you bad. We all have the choice to choose between the light and dark sides, good vs. evil; however you want to label it. Each sub story in here was intriguing. I wanted to know more about each of the boys that helped him and called him friend. There are so many great moments in this book that to share would spoil it for you. If this were a movie I would be hiding under a blanket holding my bestie’s hand and a tissue in the other. One moment I was scared, next saddened, and followed by a wash of relief. There are happy and funny moments too, so don’t worry, but have your blanket and tissue close and a mug of hot tea. I will read on, I want to know what happens to Spinner and his friends. 5 stars
Spinner by Michael J. Bowler is an exceptional roller coaster of a book. It’s been a while since I’ve read any YA, but this book was fantastic.
Our hero is a boy named Alex. He has spina bifida, is in Special Ed and has to live in a foster home run by an evil hag. He is extraordinary. Bowler has given him the angst and fears of any teenager, but a charming depth and poise we all hope our children will have. He is surrounded by his friends, an eclectic group of boys also in the Special Education program at his school. Each one is different and exceptional.
I really enjoyed the paranormal and religious mythology of this book. It took and original concept and wove it intricately through a variety of well-known religions. I loved that the boys had limitations, not just Alex’s spina bifida, but their mental restrictions, and still managed to find a way to understand. Not just one another, but whatever was thrust at them.
This is a YA book, but it is gritty and real and not for the faint of heart. There is danger, adventure and evil… real evil. The characters are fantastic, and the relationships intense.
I couldn’t put this book down. I read it in about 12 hours, and had to force myself to go to sleep. If you are looking for a adventure, mystery full of depth and originality, this is the book for you. 5 stars! Can’t wait to find out how the journey continues!
The Dream Cast of the Movie
Michael J. Bowler is an award-winning author who grew up in Northern California. He taught high school in Hawthorne, California for twenty-five years, both in general education and to students with disabilities. He’s made low-budget horror films, written stage plays, and coached strength training at YMCA’s. He loves volunteering as a youth mentor with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program and within the juvenile justice system in Los Angeles. He is a passionate advocate for the fair treatment of children and teens in California, and hopes his books can show young people they are not alone in their struggles