The Best Academic Horror for Fall
For me, September calls to mind a very specific type of horror. What I like to call Academic Horror. One of my favorite types of novels to read this time of year are novels set on campuses. Which may seem like a broad category, but something about the autumn air and that back-to-school feeling evoke something nostalgic in me. Combine that with a terrifying story and I’m in.
Here are the best Academic Horror novels of all time.
Bunny written by Mona Awad. Bunny was published in 2019 and tells the story of Samantha who is struggling to fit in at her MFA program at an exclusive and prestigious New England university. That is, until she is lured into a popular clique, and all hell breaks loose. Bunny is perfect parts supernatural, psychological, and drama. There is a rhythm to the writing that I adore, and somehow a depth even with the shallowest of characters.
Mona Awad is a Canadian writer who has written many books. Most recently, Rogue hit the shelves in 2023. It's described as a horrific gothic fairy tale, and I can't wait to read it this fall. Awad also wrote a book called All's Well in 2021 which is high on my to-read list. Overall Mona Awad is breathing fresh energy into the horror genre, in it's written form. Much of her work seems to be a critique on beauty standards, through the lens of female-led horror stories.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles. First published in 1956, A Separate Peace has a totally different take on Academic Horror than Bunny. I first read this novel in my high school English class, if that gives you any indication of it’s style. A Separate Peace takes place at an all-boys boarding school in New England; while it might not be strictly horror, it explores some very dark and heavy topics set against the backdrop of World War II.
A Separate Peace was the first and most popular novel by John Knowles. Knowles was born in West Virginia, but obviously drew on some inspiration from his own life. He went to Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, and graduated in the mid-1940s. Though this novel is the oldest on this list, it's certainly fascinating to see early examples in this category vs modern takes on Academic Horror.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt. My absolute favorite novel in the category, The Secret History is the gold standard of Academic Horror. Originally hitting shelves in 1992, The Secret History tells the story of a small group of students who become obsessed with their classics professor. Again, set at a prestigious New England prep school, The Secret History is somehow a mix of The Lord of The Flies and A Separate Peace.
Donna Tartt has also written The Goldfinch which evokes classic literature through a modern lens. The Goldfinch follows the life of one specific character in intense and incredibly impressive detail. But it goes far beyond that. Overall The Secret History remains not only one of my favorite examples of Academic Horror, but also one of my favorite novels of all time. If you were going to read one book on this list, I would hand you this novel.
The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler. The Basic 8 is Heathers meets The Secret History meets A Separate Peace meets Bunny. And I’m not just saying that. It’s equal parts rhythmic and fresh writing, coupled with a darkness and secret that still haunts me.
Daniel Handler is an incredible author; he is perhaps most well-known for writing A Series of Unfortunate Events, which is comprised of 13 books. The Basic Eight was his first novel. Though it only pre-dates the first book in the Lemony Snicket series by one year. While A Series of Unfortunate Events is distinctly a children's series, The Basic Eight definitely appeals to an older audience.
For anyone familiar with Heathers, you will also notice the similar imagery in the cover art for The Basic Eight.
Piranesi written by Susanna Clarke. One final book that I want to mention is Piranesi, first published in 2020. Piranesi has all of the typical elements of Academic Horror but in a fantasy setting. I’m obsessed with it. Once you’ve made your way through the rest of this list, Piranesi brings Academic Horror into a fresh setting.
I would suggest reading Piranesi only after reading all of the other novels on this list, not because it's the worst, but simply because it's the most experimental. It takes the tropes from the above four books and transforms them into something completely ethereal and incredibly beautiful.
Clarke has written many award winning books over the span of her career, but this is my first exposure to her work. I am eager to keep reading her novels and exploring more of her library.
We also have to take a moment for Heathers (1988), a film of course, but one that belongs on this list along with The Craft (1996). Both films exemplify the Academic Horror trope through film. Heathers stars Christian Slater and Winona Ryder. It explores the typical nature of teen drama, cliques, romance, deception all wrapped up in a horrifying story. The Craft is the iconic battle cry for all modern witches. Supernatural…check, teen drama…check, terrifying scene with snakes that haunts my dreams forever…check.
If you’re interested in more Academic Horror, there is one story I’ve written that was performed on the Lunatics Radio Hour podcast. No spoilers, but it has to do with mummies and secret societies. You can listen here.
A big appeal of this genre for me is nostalgia, growing up in New England, it’s not hard to understand why the autumn air would spark memories of brick bulidings and high school drama. But there is something universally appealing here, most people who went to middle school or high school in the United States can relate cliques, yearning to be accepted by the popular kids, (or rebelling and planting yourself firmly as one of the weird kids), and the tension that is puberty and youth. In my opinion, the perfect backdrop for any horror story. After all, what’s scarier than coming of age?