Evil Teachers and Beyond: 5 School Scare Sources
The days are getting shorter and cooler, and ravaged store displays are picked-over, having only straggling survivors among the pencils, notebooks, and backpacks. Children and teens have mysteriously vanished from public places on weekdays… It’s Back to School season! In honor of returning yellow school buses, here are five school aspects to be mined for your horror stories.
1) Mind Control
From preschool to high school, kids spend a large portion of their day having someone else tell them what to do. Wear this. Eat now. Do this work now. You need the bathroom? The break’s in 15 minutes, so you’ll have to wait. Say this Pledge of Allegiance. Parrot back the textbook, even if you’ve read conflicting facts elsewhere.
No one likes being controlled, hence rebellion. It’s one thing to do as you’re told, begrudgingly, to avoid consequences, all the while resenting the external controls. Now, take that normal school experience and amp it up to horror. After all, what could be scarier than a force that takes away your ability to rebel, something that insidiously seeps into your brain until you can only think pre-approved thoughts? To watch your peers succumb one by one to mind control—be it by drugs, parasite, or good old-fashioned brainwashing—while wondering when it will be your turn.
2) Embarrassment and Social Isolation
A leading nightmare for kids, especially those in middle and teen years, is to be humiliated and ostracized. While that fear often continues into adulthood, it’s a much sharper, more concrete facet of life for the young. After all, they don’t have the freedom to leave and start fresh of their own agency, or the experience-born perspective to see how temporary it is. All they have is the school, a panopticon prison quick to amplify the odd social faux pas. Now, imagine that ostracization when survival relies on safety in numbers? It becomes physically dangerous for your characters.
Even without an obvious threat (like, say, zombies to hide from), the normal anxiety of daily school life is a good source of narrative tension horror. Protagonists frequently know that if they tell anyone the crazy stuff that’s going on, they won’t be believed—so they keep quiet. This leads to their actions being misunderstood, the character labeled weird. Of course, your protagonist will prioritize saving her literal life over saving her social life when survival’s on the line. But, along the way, desire to salvage a social situation for after the horror can lead to mistakes. She might not confirm the villain is really gone. While trying to pretend nothing’s amiss, she might stumble into a trap. Delight readers with the unintentional consequences of things your hero does to avoid humiliation—the more dangerous the better.
3) Pathogen’s Playground
Teachers list boxes of tissues on every school supply list for a reason. Colds and other viruses always follow that old maxim: “Be sure to bring enough to share with the class!” Schools are Petri dishes made disgusting by the very varying levels of student hygiene and the still-a-work-in-progress immune system of the developing young. And this is without getting into how easy a fungal or bacterial contamination could happen in already gross school food. Yum, delicious e. coli!
A school’s the perfect place for the outbreak of practically any ailment. As added bonuses, it’s an easy location to track an outbreak to and just as easy to quarantine. The diseases then can breed the extra tension of claustrophobia, enforced by those attempting to contain the pathogen.
4) Forbidden Places
Familiarity breeds contempt, and aside from their own homes where else is a kid more familiar than their school? But what about the off-limits areas: boiler rooms, janitor closets, and storage areas? These familiar-but-not places are perfect for scares. A vengeful demon could lure and trap victims in the boiler room. The janitor’s closet could hold a mop that, despite the bleach, is still contaminated by the something sinister in that student vomit. And the storage area is a perfect place for a slasher to hide the bodies. And who even wants to know what lurks in the teachers’ lounge?
5) Evil Teachers
Of course, evil teachers lurk in the teachers’ lounge! There are stories for kids of all ages about their teachers being witches, monsters, and aliens. As the closest, direct authority figure, whose wants are frequently in opposition to the wishes of the students, the teacher makes a natural antagonist. Adults know that, evil rare exceptions aside, most people wouldn’t devote years of education to a low paying job without sincerely liking kids and wanting the best for them.
But that just means that it’s harder for young protagonists to turn to adults for help in the event that the teacher really is evil.
There’s a reason the trope is a classic among stories of how scary school can be.
Mac Childs is a book reviewer, academic critic, sometimes-bookseller, and sometimes-librarian who has published (and buried) horror short stories under a different name. Mac first came to horror through the ancient art of “Making up stories for the sole purpose of tormenting younger siblings and giving them nightmares.” Mac’s favorite children’s horror tale is Goosebumps #43: Beast from the East by R. L. Stine.