The Crucible

It's a universal truth that a scary story will be roughly ten times more disturbing if its antagonists are children. This is a common motif in supernatural tales (The Turn of the Screw, The Omen, The Shining), but more terrifying still are the stories with nothing paranormal about them.

Take, for example, Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible." Set in the 1600's, it begins with a harmless children's dance in the woods and ends with the hangings of around twenty innocent people. But that's nothing compared to what happens in the middle.

Bitter after having conducted a secret affair with John Proctor, a young Abigail Williams lashes out against him and the village at large by accusing more or less everyone and their mother of witchcraft. Some unsavory truths are unearthed, but for the most part, we simply witness young girls having to choose between the giving and receiving ends of all the finger pointing. Those who remain neutral are as damned as the accused. (Sorry, Switzerland.)

If the long ago, faraway setting gives you some comfort, remember that The Crucible was written during the Cold War, when liberal, vocal, or simply unpopular Americans were regularly tried as "Communist supporters." Miller, who was blacklisted from Hollywood for opposing the House of Un-American Activities Committee, wrote the play as an allegory equating McCarthyism with Dark-Age thinking – not to mention, a bunch of hysterical pre-teens. (Oh, snap!)

To kick the creepy up a notch, let's fast forward from seventeenth-century New England to a tiny island in the Pacific, where a bunch of proper English boarding-school lads are in the throes of civilization-building. And in the absence of any adults, it isn't going well. (Just imagine what would happen if Harry, Rob, Draco, and Goyle were all on an island together.) This is William Golding's Lord of the Flies – and it ain't no Island of the Blue Dolphins.

Before long, the boys are fighting over fire, hunting wild boars, donning war paint, and, oh yeah, brutally murdering each other. It's enough to make you rethink that whole babysitting thing. What's more, the story is set against the backdrop of an unnamed intercontinental war – i.e. an officially sanctioned "adult" conflict. By holding an ugly mirror to adult violence, the novel demands to know what makes one conflict more legitimate than the other.

Unsurprisingly, the book has been the subject of controversy ever since its publication – not because of it portrays graphic violence, which we get a kick out of every week on CSI, but because it portrays graphic violence conducted by children. (Who, as we all know, are delicate flowers.) Highly ironic moral of the story: put violence back in the hands of adults where it belongs.

Our next story brings us out of the tropical jungle and into the urban jungle, the new frontier of child violence. The Outsiders, written by then-fifteen-year-old S. E. Hinton, follows the story of a high-school gang member who witnesses and then writes about the brutal deaths of three of his friends. In addition to taking an unflinching look at the reality of child violence, Hinton demonstrates how people at the fringes of society are compelled to vie for power.

While the story doesn't have the hysteria factor of a witch hunt or the what-if factor of the desert island scenario, what it does offer is the terrifyingly real factor of… the real. Extraordinary circumstances can't explain away the fact that stories like this happen every day in modern America, which is why The Outsiders is the most terrifying of all three works. The unlikelihood of getting trapped in some remote jungle with your less cherished schoolmates? We'll take that over gang warfare any day.