Campus Terrors: The Experiment and Book of Horrors

With back-to-school season once again upon us, it’s a good time to return to Salem University and Diane Hoh’s Nightmare Hall series. While much of ‘90s teen horror focuses on high school students, in Hoh’s Nightmare Hall books, the students of Salem U are pretty much left to their own devices and responsible for their own survival, without the safety and comfort of home or parental supervision (though there are plenty for whom home isn’t that safe a place either). While there are occasional interactions with faculty or staff members in the Nightmare Hall books, these characters have most of their conversations with, and get most of their advice from, their fellow students, whether it’s on which classes to take, how to navigate their complicated friendships and love lives, or how to avoid getting murdered. 

Hoh’s Nightmare Hall books appear to focus almost exclusively on Salem University’s freshman class, but these freshmen are really proactive about getting involved on campus. In The Experiment, several freshmen—including protagonist Caryl Amberly—are vying for the opportunity to take Dr. Max DeLure’s Experiment: Poets and Scientists seminar, an intense and competitive class taught by a professor with a reputation for being tough on his students. In Book of Horrors, Reed Monroe aggressively pursues (and wins) a position as a personal assistant to bestselling horror author and writer-in-residence Victoria McCoy. Reed is also the founder and president of the campus’s Victoria McCoy fan club, a group bursting with intrigue and strong personalities. While it’s great that these freshmen are jumping right in and getting involved in academic seminars, professional opportunities, and student organizations, it does raise a few questions about what’s going on with the larger campus community. What are the upper-level students doing? If working with a famous, bestselling author is the kind of opportunity you can score as a freshman, where do you go from there? From a practical standpoint, Hoh’s focus on first-year college students is in sync with her core audience of young adult readers, bridging the gap between high school scares and what might come next post-graduation, as characters tackle the unknown of this transition to college life in tandem with the supernatural and real-life horrors they encounter. I just can’t help but wonder what those upperclassmen are up to. 

In the opening pages of The Experiment, Caryl’s friend Anna Singh refers to Professor DeLure as “a killer” (3), trying to talk Caryl out of her enthusiasm for DeLure’s Poets and Scientists seminar. While Anna follows this up with her criticism that DeLure is “out to kill the students. I mean, the homework alone. Ugh” (5), there are also rumors that DeLure might be an actual murderer, accused of killing his teenage daughter. Caryl shrugs both off, retorting that challenging academic work is “what we’re here for, right?” (5) and dismissing the murder rumors out of hand, though she does so in part because she finds the professor mysterious and handsome, which maybe doesn’t say much for her survival instinct. Who can resist an unstable suspected murderer with an eyepatch, after all? The Poets and Scientists seminar is very selective and students have to compete for a spot in the class, but Caryl makes the cut. (Nerdy academic aside: The seminar itself has a refreshingly interdisciplinary focus, as the Experiment: Poets and Scientists students combine scientific observation and research with poetic expression. This synthesis of science and creative thought seems to be a hallmark of Salem University, which also has a “Botany for Sculptors project” [21].) 

Flush with enthusiasm on learning of her acceptance into the seminar, Caryl stops by the professor’s office to introduce herself and let him know how excited she is about the class. She’s a bit unnerved when she finds him impassively watching a fighting fish attack its own reflection, but things get even weirder when Professor DeLure sees Caryl in the doorway, demands to know who she is and what she wants, and then screams at her to run, laughing maniacally as Caryl flees down a dark hallway. Anna’s warnings are starting to feel a bit more legitimate, but while Caryl is a bit unsettled by this odd interaction, her enthusiasm for the class and her stalwart defense of Professor DeLure are remarkably persistent. Instead of thinking there may be something a bit off about the professor, Caryl instead doubts her own perceptions, thinking that she probably just misunderstood what she was seeing or misconstrued their bizarre interaction, because an unhinged dude screaming at you to run can be easily confused for … well, I’m not quite sure. But whatever it is, that’s what Caryl’s willing to believe in order to sidestep any misgivings about Professor DeLure or his seminar.

Caryl excels in the Poets and Scientists seminar. She also soon starts getting badly-written, threatening poems, like one that reads “Star light, star bright / She’s the teacher’s pet tonight. / But when the sun begins to rise / Teacher’s pet is going to die” (91). Caryl receives a dead fish—identical to the fighting fish she saw in Professor DeLure’s office—with a scary poem. She gets locked in DeLure’s terrifying closet, which is full of dangerous snakes and spiders, and someone tries to give her an envelope with a dangerous spider inside, but she sat in a different seat that day and another student gets bitten instead. 

In Book of Horrors, Reed Monroe has to navigate some similarly terrifying challenges in her dream job as Victoria McCoy’s assistant. McCoy is volatile and unpredictable, prone to sudden, violent mood swings, with McCoy screaming that her assistants are always snooping and stealing things from her, and that Reed is no different. (To be fair, Reed is occasionally overcome by curiosity and does a bit of snooping, but she never steals from McCoy). Reed also falls victim to a series of inexplicable events that seem to be pulled straight from the pages of McCoy’s horror novels: she falls in a well, is stalked through the woods by a terrifying shadowy figure, and is almost crushed by a falling bookcase. Like Caryl, Reed also has to contend with a flurry of rumors, in this case about the mysterious disappearances—and in once case, death—of McCoy’s previous assistants. But again like Caryl, Reed shrugs it off, defends McCoy against her critics, and keeps showing up every day. 

(As an aside, there are some fun parallels between Book of Horrors and James Howe’s Bunnicula Meets Edgar Allan Crow. In both books, a young fan has the chance to get to know their favorite horror author, who turns out to be not quite what they expected. McCoy has a talking mynah bird named Poe, while the titular Edgar Allan Crow is the pet of horror author M.T. Graves, who accompanies him on a trip to the Monroes’ house. These books are written for significantly different audiences and Bunnicula Meets Edgar Allan Crow definitely isn’t the strongest of the Bunnicula books, but it’s still an entertaining connection for considering the perception vs. reality of horror authors and Poe’s profound, lasting impact on horror of all kinds). 

The mysteries of both The Experiment and Book of Horrors are complicated—and in some cases, compounded—by the young women’s peers. Caryl and Reed each must contend with a femme fatale. In The Experiment, Perri can’t beat Caryl in academic achievement, so she attempts to seduce whoever will make Caryl jealous, alternating her attentions between Professor DeLure and Dare, one of their fellow students in the seminar who strikes up a relationship with Caryl. In Book of Horrors, Lilith is interested in snagging Reed’s boyfriend Link (short for Lincoln), and uses Reed’s job with McCoy and Reed’s growing connection with McCoy’s son Rain to drive a wedge between Reed and Link. Much like Suki Thomas in R.L. Stine’s Fear Street books, Perri and Lilith don’t get much character development beyond these attempts at seduction: they wear revealing clothes, are willing to use their beauty and bodies to get what they want, and can’t be trusted around anyone else’s boyfriend. Perri ends up being bitten by the spider that was intended for Caryl, and Lilith sort of fades into the background of the larger action, not worth being taken seriously beyond a pawn that Link uses in an attempt to make Reed jealous when he feels like she’s not paying enough attention to him. Both Caryl and Reed prioritize their academic and professional opportunities above any guy, which is refreshing, but these young women being pitted against and out to get one another by any means necessary is as disappointing as it is familiar. 

The guys in Caryl and Reed’s lives aren’t exactly winners either, which may make it easier for these young women to shunt them down the priorities list. Early in The Experiment, Caryl is dating a guy named Ben. When Ben tells Caryl he loves her, she tells him she doesn’t feel the same way but hopes they can still be friends. Ben responds by chasing her, screaming threats at her, and trying to hit her with his car. Dare is better, but honestly, a bit bland for a guy with a campus bad boy reputation. Caryl’s friend Anna is interested in DeLure’s graduate assistant, Nicholas, though he seems a bit flaky and frequently distracted. In Book of Horrors, Link insists on walking Reed to and from her job at McCoy’s house, in a misguided act of chivalry that he uses to infantilize and control her. He shows up at the McCoy fan club meeting just to make snide comments and tell Reed that he thinks her interest in the author is dumb, even though he has read little of McCoy’s work (and none of it before he started dating Reed). When Reed is busy with classes and her job and Link feels like he isn’t getting enough of her attention, he uses other girls to try to make Reed jealous. Reed begins seeing McCoy’s son Rain, who is solicitous and thoughtful, but he also turns out to be a murderer in the end, so you can’t even trust the ones who seem like good guys. 

Caryl and Reed both put their lives on the line for these academic and professional opportunities and while they each endure terrifying experiences, what they find is that the horrors are much bigger than anticipated, with these young women playing only a small part in much larger stories. Both Professor DeLure and Victoria McCoy are eccentric and unpredictable, but there’s more than meets the eye in each case. Professor DeLure’s daughter is dead, but he’s not the one who killed her: she was kidnapped by an obsessed boy and died in a car crash as the kidnapper tried to escape with her. Though the kidnapper was institutionalized, he was released, donned a disguise, and took a position as DeLure’s graduate assistant (Nicholas), then proceeded to manufacture a series of attacks that would lead authorities directly back to DeLure. Within this larger constellation of violence and vengeance, Caryl is important because she bears a strong resemblance to DeLure’s dead daughter, making her a useful pawn in Nicholas’s attempt to frame DeLure because presumably, meeting a young woman who looks like his daughter could potentially drive him into a homicidal rage. 

Reed is also not particularly special, just another assistant in a series of assistants who never lasted very long before leaving school or mysteriously disappearing, as Rain attempted to drive his mother crazy. While some of these assistants simply quit the job, Rain actually killed one girl, Sunny, who hit her head and died while fleeing from him after he told her about his nefarious plan, offering to cut her in on the deal. He has Carl, another of his mother’s erstwhile assistants, locked in the basement where he’s starving him to death, in a long con to frame his mother for murder; as Rain explains his rationale to Reed, “he has to die very slowly, while I make sure everyone on campus knows my mother is loony as a jaybird” (234, emphasis original). He hits another girl, Karen, with his car when she comes back to campus to try to warn Reed about the dangers of working for McCoy. Rain plans to frame McCoy for all of these attacks, exploiting the fact that she had briefly received in-patient mental health treatment for exhaustion prior to the events of Book of Horrors. Rain moves things around the house, making his mother doubt her own senses and driving her to paranoid delusions. If McCoy dies, all of her money goes to charity, so Rain has decided his only course of action is to find a way to have her institutionalized, become executor of her estate, and live off of her fortune for the rest of his life. Other than greed, his motivation is pretty straightforward, as he tells Reed “It’s easy. I’m evil” (238). Gotta love a straightforward, self-aware villain. 

Caryl and Reed both wander right into complicated and violent conflicts that have nothing to do with them, but end up nearly killed as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and, in Caryl’s case, with the wrong face. But all’s (mostly) well that ends well: In The Experiment, Professor DeLure’s name is cleared, though he still seems pretty unbalanced, with the fish and the screaming and everything. He had also figured out who Nicholas was and has been using Caryl as an unknowing pawn in his revenge plot, though he does apologize to her, telling her that “had I seen any other way to proceed, I would have” (159). An unintended consequence of this revelation is that Caryl is hit with imposter syndrome, wondering if she even really earned her spot in the class to begin with (she did) and lamenting that “this is the hardest class I’ve ever taken” (160). As for Book of Horrors, McCoy heads back to California, wrapping up her writer-in-residence gig at Salem U, though she and Reed become friends and correspondents; Reed continues to head up the fan club and is spearheading a visit and autograph signing by McCoy for the next semester. She’s still with Link (for some inexplicable reason), but at least he has stopped making fun of McCoy or telling Reed that everything she loves is stupid, so I guess that’s progress. Nicholas goes into a catatonic state as a result of the stress of it all and Rain is smooshed when Reed knocks out a support pole in the basement and part of the house falls on him (miraculously not crushing or injuring Reed or Carl), so the bad guys are all accounted for and out of commission. 

There are lots of opportunities to get involved at Salem University and it seems like the faculty members, whether professors or writers-in-residence, are willing to share their time with and become mentors for their students. But when it comes right down to it, some opportunities may be better left un-seized in favor of survival. School spirit is great and all, but you don’t want to become one. 

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.

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