Like Daughters of Eve before it, Lois Duncan’s Down a Dark Hall is an expertly executed parable of the terror of teenage girlhood, when adults simply don’t understand and refuse to listen and the most valuable thing about you is your unspoiled youth and your easily influenced mind. Teenage girls in fiction—and, sometimes, in real life—are prone to a sort of groupthink that can make them targets for those who would wish to do them harm.
Down a Dark Hall is Duncan’s most terrifying work, revisited a few years back on this very site by the inimitable Lizzie Skurnick, but since revised for modern readers, in 2011. The story, which remains essentially the same, is instantly recognizable as a Duncan masterpiece: There is a teen girl, sans parents, dropped in a situation where everything is not as peachy as it seems. Kit Gordy has been brought by her parents to Blackwood Hall, an elite boarding school for very special girls, dropping her off like dirty laundry while they jet off on an extended European holiday.
Because this is a thriller, nothing is at it seems. There are only four girls at the school, each chosen for what turns out to be psychic abilities, and they are played like violins by the evil, unfeeling Madame Duret, a gifted medium who uses her ability to channel the dead as a weapon. The girls and their youth are nothing but vessels for the spirits of former geniuses, all of whom died before they could share their immense talents with the world.
Duncan is an expert at mining the depths of teenage isolation and using it to full dramatic effect—the girls are alone, experiencing phenomena that no adult seems to understand. Unlike life, the adults in this book aren’t on the side of the teens; even though your parents suck when you’re fourteen and don’t seem to understand anything that you’re saying, they generally, hopefully, have the best of intentions. At Blackwood Hall, the adults are the one true enemy. It’s the stuff of nightmares, especially for teenage girls who are already convinced that their parents are out to get them.
Consider this curious safety feature of the rooms at Blackwood—the doors lock from the outside only. Kit confronts Jules, Madame Duret’s handsome son, about this hazard after a harrowing incident the night before—Sandy, another girl staying at Blackwood, was screaming in the night, saying she saw a woman in her room, and Kit went to help, only to discover that the door was locked. He responds with the cool indifference of a parent telling their child that not getting their tongue pierced at 14 is really the best thing for them, even if they can’t see it now.
“Last night, Sandy’s door was locked. I tried the knob. And then, suddenly, it did come open as though somebody had released it.”
“Then it wasn’t locked,” Jules said with certainty. “It must just have been stuck. I’ll see about putting some oil on those latches. Which room did you say it was?”
Kit regarded him with frustration. “Weren’t you listening at all? I’m not asking you to oil Sandy’s lock. What I’m trying to tell you is that something weird’s happening at Blackwood. There was somebody in Sandy’s room last night. A woman. I know it sounds crazy, but Sandy saw her with her own eyes!”
Jules’s denial of what he plainly knows to be true is a classic horror movie trope, but that sense of frustration and not being heard when all you’re trying to do is tell someone what you know to be true is a pillar of the teen experience.
I didn’t expect to be as scared as I was by my revisit, even though I am scared very easily by jump scares, the dark, and the thought of bending down to wash my face and then looking in the mirror to see someone standing behind me. But Duncan’s work remains as unsettling as whenever I first read it, even though my experience this time was altered by the updates strewn throughout the text. In a Q&A with Duncan that was included in the copy I read, she said that revising the text to account for modern times was challenging but necessary. “Remember, some of these books were written in the 1970s,” she told Jenny Han. “And a very strong element in many of my novels was the fact that the endangered heroines were unable to cry out for help.”
The addition of cell phones, text messaging, and modern conveniences to the world Duncan creates somehow works very well in this setting. When Kit, the intrepid heroine of this nightmare, tries to use her phone upon arriving at Blackwood Manor, she discovers pretty quickly that the giant pile where her parents have left her is a dead zone. Reverting to the time-old tradition of the written word, Kit must communicate her growing fears about her prison via written letters, which do not make it to their intended recipients, because they’re being hoarded by one of the shady professors working to keep the girls trapped against their will. Even though they’re being tormented by the souls of the talented and the dead, teenage girlhood in 2017 is made a little worse by cell phones. At the risk of sounding like a more gimlet-eyed Nancy Jo Sales, a smartphone is either a portal to hell or a valuable means of escape.
Suspending disbelief is essential for horror movies, thrillers, and scary stories, all of which generally present situations that could be easily remedied if one person stepped back, took a look at the situation, and applied some very basic logic. The modernization of Duncan’s work makes sense on a commercial level, but I have a hard time believing that a helicopter parent dropping their child off at an exclusive boarding school would be fine with the utter lack of communication as presented in this specific scenario. I digress; logic simply does not apply in a YA book about young girls being exploited by an old woman intent on profiting off their youth and any hint of potential talent.
Still, the purpose of re-reading this book was to assess whether or not I was actually scared by something I read as a child. The answer, unsurprisingly, is yes.