Horror is at its scariest when it puts you into the perspective of its terrified victims, but if you’ve read or watched widely in the genre, it can be harder to feel those vicarious thrills, especially when you’re busy yelling at the characters to stop being so stupid. Enter meta-horror: where your extra knowledge of the genre is part of the fun. In meta-horror, the characters may realize that events are happening like in a horror movie; or the story may break the fourth wall and deconstruct horror tropes to do something unfamiliar. It may be as simple as including “wink-wink” references that a horror fiend may be delighted to recognize. Either way, these meta-horror books, movies, and games can be scary, clever, or funny, or all three. You can recommend these titles to your high school teen horror buffs who are looking to put their horror knowledge to good use.
Alone, by Cyn Balog (Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers 2019 nominee)
Seda’s mother inherits a crumbling mansion that was once a murder mystery hotel. Her mother is supposed to renovate and sell it, but she seems more interested in keeping it in the family. Seda likes all of the secret passages and macabre decorations at first, but it turns oppressive when a blizzard strands a group of teenagers at the house. To keep their new guests entertained, her mother decides to host a murder mystery like in the old days.
This is a perfect premise for a chilling tale, and Balog puts its familiarity to good use, gradually building tension, manipulating reader expectations (through clever use of classic horror references), and subtly winding from one possible horror to another. The setting being in a former horror attraction is an added meta boost. Balog sets up several possible endings, yet even the most jaded teen reader will be shocked.
The Devil and Winnie Flynn, by Micol & David Ostow
Winnie Flynn is a horror fan, but she doesn’t confuse horror with reality like some people; for example, the audience for her Aunt Maggie’s popular paranormal investigation show, “Fantastic, Fearsome”. When Winnie becomes a production assistant for the show while they’re researching the Jersey Devil, Winnie expects the “reality” show to be super fake–and it is, most of the time. Some of her experiences, though, cause her to wonder if the paranormal might be real, even if the show is fake.
Setting this horror mystery around a paranormal reality show similar to those always running on the SyFy channel is a classic meta premise. Winnie, as a jaded fan, throws in references left and right that teen horror fans will also love.
Nothing gets more meta than playing through a teen slasher movie from the perspective of several potential victims, but that’s what happens in this choice-based horror game. As eight estranged friends gather for at a remote mountain lodge, your playthrough switches among the characters as they are stalked by an unknown killer. In regularly-placed interludes with a creepy psychologist, you’re asked questions about what scares you most; your answers change parts of the game, so that your personal fears come to the forefront. Rated M, Mature. To see one of my favorite YouTuber’s kick off a playthrough, check this out.
Friday the Thirteenth: The Game
In this popular multiplayer game based on the film franchise, you and your friends (or complete strangers – it is the Internet, after all) play as counselors at Camp Crystal Lake, being stalked by Jason in his iconic hockey mask. The twist? One person is randomly selected to play Jason. While the counselors’ objective is to escape alive (there are several maps based on the movies, and important items like weapons and radios are hidden in different places in each), which requires communication and teamwork, the player controlling Jason needs to kill as many counselors as possible before they can escape. Rated M, Mature. Check out an entertaining Let’s Play from the game’s launch in 2017. (Play starts at 2:40)
Scream (1996) is usually considered the movie that definitively kicked off the meta trend in a big way, with characters who were aware of “the rules” of horror movies and either subverting or upholding those rules with their behavior. The trend has continued into the present day, with excellent movies such as Zombieland (2009), Tucker and Dale Versus Evil (2010), and The Cabin in the Woods (2012) (all R-rated masterpieces of meta goodness). Here are two PG-13 horror movies that follow that tradition in a new way.
Happy Death Day (2017)
This Groundhog Day-inspired horror romp follows mean girl college student Tree (Theresa) on her birthday, from the moment she wakes hungover after a party the night before to being murdered by a masked killer, only to wake up again the next day to do it all over again. As Tree lives her last day over and over, seeking to identify and elude her killer and failing, she wises up about what kind of person she’s been to the people who care about her. If it’s possible to be funny, feel-good, and gruesome, this movie succeeds, and it plays nicely with the tropes of both horror movies and mean girl comedies.
The Final Girls (2015)
Another horror-comedy, this movie plays on the classic trope of the final girl, the only one who makes it to the end of the movie due to her wits, tenacity, and inherent goodness or innocence. Max’s mother is the famous scream queen from the 80’s slasher series Camp Bloodbath, but she is killed in a car accident as the movie opens. Three years later, Max and some horror-loving friends attend a marathon of the Camp Bloodbath movies and wind up trapped in the movie themselves. They must use their knowledge of horror movies and the Camp Bloodbath series to survive, and possibly even rescue the camp counselors from the movie, including Nancy, Max’s mom’s character. This movie works as both an homage and parody of slasher movies and should be a big hit with teen genre fans.
To learn some of your own survival skills learned from YA horror, check out this YALSA Hub article
— Krista Hutley, currently participating in #31horrorfilms31days on Twitter