Remember that story about the girl with a ribbon around her neck? I do. And I'm pretty sure that story was singlehandedly responsible for my nightmares from ages five to 11. I assume that there are some kids, somewhere, who genuinely enjoy being scared. They must actually want to go to bed with the belief that a murderous ventriloquist dummy is lurking just outside their door. I was never one of those kids. And yet, I somehow read all of these deeply creepy children's books anyway, and put up with the several resulting years of sleepless nights. Here are some of the books that gave us nightmares as kids.
I don't know what it was about the '90s that made people want to terrify small children, but there were a lot of creepy books around. The Goosebumps books ruled the creepy kids' book universe, of course, but R.L. Stine was far from the only person pumping out nightmare fuel. We had disturbing mystery novels, weird fairy tales, and books with frightful illustrations that would burn into your retinas for all eternity. So, if you're looking to unpack some terrifying childhood memories, or if you're looking for ways to terrorize a whole new generation, here are a few books that gave us all nightmares as kids:
1'The Mysteries of Harris Burdick' by Chris Van Allsburg
The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is not so much a story as a series of beautifully drawn, utterly creepy images. Each page gives you a random illustration and a single line of text, prompting the reader to invent their own explanation for why a house is rocketing into space, or why an ocean liner is careening through a city. This book was equal parts gorgeous and unsettling, and I always made sure not to think too hard about Harris or his mysteries right before bed.
2'Lon Po Po' by Ed Young
Red Riding Hood is already an unpleasant story about a small girl who can't differentiate between her own grandmother and an apex predator. Ed Young's Lon Po Po presents a "Red Riding Hood Story from China," which involves more children and is somehow even more upsetting. The beautiful, atmospheric illustrations help to put this one over the edge into nightmare territory.
3'The Witches' by Roald Dahl
Do I even have to explain this one? Roald Dahl is creepy even at his most whimsical (don't try to tell me that Willy Wonka's chocolate wasn't made out of those murdered children). But The Witches is next level scary. Those witches with their gloves and their masks? The turning children into mice and then murdering them? The fact that the protagonist is going to die as a mouse with his elderly grandmother? Get away from me with this horror show, Roald.
4'Night of the Living Dummy' by R. L. Stine
So I had marionette dolls on display in my childhood bedroom, and after I started reading Goosebumps I had to hide them in a shoe box in the back of my closet and just live in fear. It's impossible to pick just one Goosebumps book, but, in my very biased opinion, Night of the Living Dummy is the most likely to give you life long nightmares.
5'Coraline' by Neil Gaiman
Coraline is kind of like Alice in Wonderland meets David Lynch. Little Coraline stumbles through a strange door in her house, and finds herself in another, identical home, where her "Other Mother" lives. That premise alone is plenty to haunt your dreams, but Gaiman only gets darker and more twisted from there.
6'In the Night Kitchen' by Maurice Sendak
I... I don't think this one is meant to be all that scary. I think it's meant to be charming? But as usual, Maurice Sendack's children's books are brilliant because they tap into every child's deep-seated fear of being eaten. In the Night Kitchen features a baby flying around, narrowly avoid the clutches of some cannibal chefs, and it's unavoidably disturbing.
7'Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales' by Hans Christian Andersen
Stop me if you've heard this one: you watched The Little Mermaid as a kid, and you loved it. Your well meaning parents then decided to get a book of Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales out of the library. And you realized that the Disney version of the story changed a lot, because Andersen specializes in adorable fairy tales in which mermaids and little match girls die horribly and haunt our waking thoughts.
8'Inside UFO 54-40' by Edward Packard
The Choose Your Own Adventure books were all nightmarish in their own way. Every book involved myriad, creative ways for "you" to die in agonizing pain. Inside UFO 54-40 gets a special shout out for being both terrorizing and unwinnable. There is one "happy" ending in the book, but you can't get to in through any of the choices offered—you have to "cheat" by flipping straight through the book to find the hidden paradise ending. Otherwise you'll probably end up split in half by an inter-dimensional portal.
9'A Wrinkle in Time' by Madeleine L'Engle
A Wrinkle in Time is, by all accounts, a heartwarming book about math and family and space travel. But if you read this as a kid, you probably just remember being petrified by the brain who ran everything on that creepy dystopian Stepford Wives planet. Having to rescue your parent from an all-controlling space brain is a terrifying concept, and some of L'Engles' imagery definitely made its way into my distressed subconscious.
10'Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark' by Alvin Schwartz
This was it. The ultimate. I recall Scary Stories being passed around in elementary school like some sort of rite of passage: if you could make it through this book without instantly dying of fright, you were in. The stories were pure, unadulterated terror, and the illustrations were simply haunting. The whole thing was a waking nightmare. I do not recommend telling these scary stories in the actual dark.