10 Dark Children's Books That Were Not So Safe For Kids
When it comes to horror, nothing beats a Stephen King book. He’s the king of scares, so it seems like he’d be the obvious choice, right? Wrong.
Although it seems to be the last genre we’d look at, children’s novels are where the real terror is. On the surface, they might seem innocent enough, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find traumatizing origin stories and disturbing themes that might just ruin your childhood. In fact, we’ve compiled a list of children’s books to prove it.
1| Coraline by Neil Gaiman
It’s no surprise that Coraline still does one heck of a job of creeping out grown adults. In Coraline, Neil Geiman crafts a brilliant dream world where a young girl escapes to another realm that provides everything she wants. Enticed by the attention and affection of her “other” parents, Coraline frequently returns to this alternate world… even if everyone’s eyes have been replaced with black buttons and they want to sew buttons onto your eyes too.
But the fantasy quickly loses its appeal when Coraline notices that every time she returns, her “other mother” begins to transform into something more malevolent–more monster than mother. And she notices something else: the ghosts of other children who were lured by the “other” mother and died.
If you’ve seen the movie, then you know just how creepy this supposed children’s tale gets. Aside from the prevailing mommy issues, the black buttoned-eyes of children and monstrous “other” mother are enough to traumatize any kid–and adult.
2| The Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is undeniably the ace when it comes to writing spine-chilling children’s stories, so you should already know that he’d make a back-to-back appearance on this list. In The Wolves in the Walls, the main character Lucy begins hearing noises from inside the walls of her home. But every time she would tell her parents about it, they’d suspiciously brush it off and say, “You know what they say about the wolves. If the wolves come out of the walls, it’s over.”
Every day, Lucy lived in fear as the noises grew louder. Like always, her parents wouldn’t believe her cries for help. Until one day, the wolves finally managed to break into their house. Elephants eventually made their way inside, too. But it wasn’t clear if the family survived.
The book left us with more questions than answers. Why were Lucy’s parents acting so strange? Where did the wolves even come from? Did they kill Lucy and her family? To further amp up the creepiness, the book’s illustrations sport dark colors, making Lucy, her family, and her house seem all the more shady and uninviting. Who knows what secrets they hold? Just as Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince continues to comfort adults, The Wolves in the Walls gives us the heebie-jeebies.
3| The Witches by Roald Dahl
A goofy book like Green Eggs and Ham might give you the impression that Roald Dahl merely churns out lighthearted children’s stories, but as they always say, expect the unexpected. The Witches is practically a gory serial killer novel in disguise as it talks about how witches get pleasure from kidnapping children, squelching them, and making them disappear off the face of the earth.
Apparently, witches—real witches—are everywhere and are often disguised to look unassuming. Even your sweetest next-door neighbor could secretly be plotting to kill you. Dahl gives readers a stern warning: trust no one. Be extra cautious if someone is nice to you because they’re probably trying to draw you into their ploy to mercilessly finish you off.
The Witches has undeniably left many children too scared to leave their homes.
But the book presents an even eerier arguably controversial narrative: a witch is always a woman, so children should, at all costs, be careful around women. Sure, there are ghouls who are always male, but apparently, they’re not even half as scary as female witches. From a broader perspective, it seems a lot like Dahl is villainizing women… But is it really women we should teach children to be cautious around? Just a thought.
4| Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
When you think of a place with an endless supply of candy, you’d imagine it to be the embodiment of heaven on earth. But a story’s dark origins always find a way to emerge. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, an odd candy maker named Willy Wonka decides to hide five golden tickets in his famous chocolate bars. The lucky winners are then given a chance to visit Wonka’s famed chocolate factory but what should have been an exciting experience for the winners took a dark turn.
For one, when Augustus Gloop begins to drown in the chocolate river, Willy Wonka does absolutely nothing. To weed out the “bad nuts,” Wonka sends the golden ticket winners to the Nut Sorting Room, where a dray of squirrels examines each child. If they’re found to be bad nuts, they’re immediately taken away by the squirrels and hidden from view. This particular practice shares an uncanny resemblance to the medieval rat torture method, which was when restrained victims were eaten alive by a caged rat that was placed on top of their abdomen.
The sheer terror behind the story is masked by its being a children’s book, so revisiting this Roald Dahl book as an adult years later will, to say the least, be sure to unsettle you. Just like rewatching your favorite childhood show as an adult finally made you catch on to the sexual innuendos it had, re-reading a childhood book like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory–or any book by Roald Dahl–can help you discover that a story that once evoked excitement for you fostered tons of dark details you were probably too young to catch on to.
5| The Dollhouse Murders by Betty Ren Wright
The mere fact that this novel was nominated for the 1984 Edgar Allan Poe Award should already convince you to read it. But for clarity’s sake, The Dollhouse Murders revolves around uncovering dark family secrets. When Amy storms off to her late great-grandparents’ house where her Aunt Clare was temporarily living, she finds a dollhouse that looks exactly like her old folks’ home—with matching dolls to represent the dead couple.
As Amy begins to grow more fond of the dollhouse, she journeys to find out more about her grandparents’ untimely deaths. However, her search for answers just led to more questions. The only thing that could give her actual clues was the dollhouse. One day, to her surprise, the dollhouse and its contents begin moving and reenacting the final moments before Amy’s grandparents’ demise. From there, she is left to seek justice for them.
Processing grief is already a difficult thing to experience in and of itself, so topping that off with being made to investigate the bloody murders of your great-grandparents just adds insult to injury. For someone to experience all of this as a young child opens a whole new door for lifelong suffering to firmly establish itself in one’s life. Talk about trauma.
6| Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn
Books that tackle paranormal matters aren’t always guaranteed to be page-turners, but Wait Till Helen Comes easily takes the cake as one of the eeriest middle-grade novels out there. It dives deep into the lives of Molly and Michael, whose family moves into an old countryside home that used to be a church. They can’t stand their new whiny step-sister Heather.
But things changed when Heather begins to make friends with Helen, who they thought was a just harmless little girl. Their parents’ belongings mysteriously start getting destroyed but they can’t seem to pinpoint a culprit. Molly and Michael then discover that Helen is the dangerous ghost of a young girl who has yet to cross over to the other side.
To save their step-sister from Helen’s evil ways, they must set aside their resentment toward Heather and do whatever they can to finally get Helen the closure she needs. This is definitely an unusual way to reconcile your differences with a sibling you tend to butt heads with a lot. Remember all of the times you had to look after your baby while your parents were away? The imaginary figure they were innocently laughing at probably wasn’t as harmless as you thought it was.
7| The Watcher in the Woods by Florence Engel Randall
Moving into a new house in an isolated area is always guaranteed to be a recipe for disaster. But who can ever get enough of it? And so Florence Engel Randall delivered. The Watcher in the Woods follows an American family that settles into their new home in the woods. Unbeknownst to them, it was the very site an occult event took place years before.
The disturbed spirit that remains in the house subjects the family to a string of terrifying paranormal occurrences. Blindsided, the family has no choice but to face the ghost that has made their lives a living hell upon their move as they simultaneously begin to piece together the dark history behind their house.
Despite originally being marketed as a mystery novel, The Watcher in the Woods reveals dire truths that can perturb the reader when carefully examined. It adds a chilling flare to things as mundane as moving into a new place. Who would’ve thought that the one thing that could affirm our seemingly unreasonable superstitions would come in the form of a middle-grade novel? Cults and kids apparently make for a great children’s book.
8| Chain Letter by Christopher Pike
Blood, suspense, threats, accidents, anonymous chain mail. If these words excite you, you’re in for a treat. In Christopher Pike’s Chain Letter, a group of teenagers runs a man over while driving one night. So they come up with the worst solution possible: leave him left for dead on the road. Just when they thought they were in the clear, they start receiving anonymous chain letters a year later about their crime.
And in the blink of an eye, they find themselves doing extreme tasks out of fear that their hit-and-run case would be exposed. Of course, this doesn’t end well. Bloody accidents begin to happen to them until they finally experience what the anonymous sender wanted all along: their death.
This book, though riveting and unputdownable, doubles as a cautionary tale for readers from the ages 12 to 14. This is definitely a harsh way to teach the young that their actions always have consequences. Sure, it’ll help them learn their lesson, but not without scarring them in the process by giving thorough descriptions of gory incidents that would leave anyone shaken.
9| Be Careful What you Wish For by R.L. Stine
The Goosebumps books, though a hit or miss, have earned themselves a permanent space in articles like this. This particular novel follows the story of Samantha, a tall and awkward basketball player who often gets bullied by her teammate Judith.
Staying true to her clumsiness, Samantha bumps into a peculiar woman in the woods who offers to grant her three wishes, and everything goes downhill from there. She innocently obliges, not knowing that everything she said would be taken literally from then on. Just imagine telling someone to kiss your ass in a fit of rage and they actually do. Gross, huh?
But kidding aside, Samantha’s case is definitely enough to rattle anyone. It can’t be easy living in a world where everything you say and have said in the past, regardless of whether or not you actually meant it, is brought into existence. You’d probably spend the rest of your life regretting all the times you’ve used figures of speech too.
10| The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe (short story)
For Edgar Allan Poe, a few thousand words are more than enough to leave you hiding under the covers by the time you reach the end of his stories. The Fall of the House of Usher is told from the point of view of an unnamed narrator who sets out to take care of his ill childhood friend Roderick Usher. As he arrives at the gloomy Usher mansion, he is greeted by the looming feeling of death.
The narrator finds that for almost all their lives, Roderick and his ailing sister Madeline had been shut into their large house and were forbidden from ever coming outside. Though he tried his best to take care of Roderick, a series of ominous experiences prompts the narrator to leave the Usher house immediately and never look back.
While The Fall of the House of Usher may seem like a thrilling adventure to some, its actual themes are anything but that. Roderick appeared to be severely mentally disturbed after being locked away in their house for so long. He even thought Madeline to be dead at one point, so he buried her alive. Moreover, some readers believe that inbreeding was one of this short story’s central motifs. They suspect Roderick and Madeline’s prevailing maladies to be a direct result of their parents’ incestuous tendencies. Such heavy topics make it difficult to believe that Poe’s short story is meant for readers from year levels nine to 12.