Often in ‘90s teen horror, the protagonists go looking for love in all the wrong places, though they don’t usually realize their mistake until they’re fighting for their lives. They may be searching for that special someone, or for genuine connection with another person, but these teens’ dating lives are often just as strongly influenced by peer pressure, the need to feel seen and validated by someone else, and the desire to not be alone, even if that means settling for someone whose warning flags include being oddly secretive, potentially dangerous, or even a suspected murderer. In R.L. Stine’s First Date (1992) and Diane Hoh’s Last Date (1994), the young women may each have their own agenda on the dating scene, but they end up just lucky to have survived.
Stine’s First Date is part of his Fear Street series. The book adds some new blood to Shadyside, with a handful of teens all moving to town around the same time: Chelsea Richards, Will Blakely, and Tim Sparks. Chelsea has had some trouble making friends since moving to Shadyside and the one friend she has made, Nina, spends all of her time obsessing about drama with her boyfriend Doug. No matter what Chelsea is talking about, Nina always has one eye over Chelsea’s shoulder, waiting for Doug to walk into the room, running to his side the second he does so. When Chelsea calls Nina in a panic after her father’s restaurant is robbed and he’s taken to the hospital in dire condition, asking Nina to come spend the night at her house so she doesn’t have to be alone after this traumatic experience, Nina quickly agrees, but then brings Doug along and starts making out with him in Chelsea’s living room, rather than asking how Chelsea’s doing and what she needs. Nina definitely sets a bad precedent for what it means to have a boyfriend and how that relationship negatively impacts and compromises every other aspect of her life, but Chelsea still thinks it looks pretty great and is anxious to find a guy of her own.
Chelsea ends up with two guys to choose from, both of whom are tall, dark, and handsome, but only one of whom is an actual murderer. Will Blakely and Tim Sparks both have dark hair, leather jackets, and notably toned biceps, and Chelsea finds herself curious about each of them in different ways. Will sits next to her in homeroom at Shadyside High and while he doesn’t say much or reveal too many details about his past or where he was before he came to Shadyside, Chelsea figures that’s just because he’s shy. Sparks doesn’t go to their school, but Chelsea keeps bumping into him when she waitresses at her father’s restaurant in the Old Village. Sparks is more of the brooding and mysterious type, tough and angry, but alluring. Chelsea thinks Sparks could be potentially dangerous and might have even been part of the gang that came in to rob the restaurant and assault her father, the point guy sent to scope things out and report back to the others before they make their move. So he might’ve almost killed her dad, but he’s still hot. All the way through First Date, Chelsea goes back and forth between these two boys, trying to figure out which one she likes, what secrets they’re keeping, which ones she wants to go on a date with, and whether or not she really should.
Stine keeps the reader guessing throughout the first half of the book, starting with the first chapter, in which Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome murders a teenage girl in another town on another date, before heading to Shadyside. There are some warning signs for both of these guys: Will has a length of rope in his pocket that he’s always pulling out when Chelsea isn’t looking and one night after Sparks leaves the restaurant, he goes back to a dark apartment alone, and, overcome by rage, throws a telephone through a window. In addition to these individualized scenes of troubling behavior, Stine also gives brief chapters where readers see from the killer’s perspective, without any indication of which of the two guys this is. Through these depersonalized scenes, readers learn that he kills because he was abandoned by his mother, who took his sister with her when she left the boy’s abusive father, but left him behind to a horrifying and traumatic childhood. (We never learn whether this is true. His mother didn’t tell him goodbye and he hasn’t heard from her since. Another possibility might be that his father killed them both, then lied to the boy.) Abandoned and abused, he decides the only way to get revenge on his mother is by killing other women, particularly ones that bear a strong resemblance to her, with long, dark hair. Just in case readers start to maybe sympathize with the killer, though, there’s also a scene where he strangles a kitten, so tragic backstory or not, he’s a terrible, horrible person.
Will asks Chelsea out on a date and she’s so happy to finally have a guy interested in her that it doesn’t set off any alarm bells when he asks her to keep the date a secret and takes her to nearby Waynesbridge so no one from Shadyside sees them together. He tells her “Let’s make it a secret date … Don’t tell anyone. Let’s make it our private, secret date. Just for us” (66). Instead of being suspicious or unsettled by this request, Chelsea thinks it’s “so romantic” (66), that Will would want to have their connection be something intimate and separate from the real world. Both Nina and Chelsea’s mom are unflatteringly shocked when they find out there’s a guy interested in Chelsea, so it could also be that she doesn’t want to have those awkward and insulting conversations either, though that’s a whole separate challenge and might provide some clues as to why Chelsea has such a low opinion of herself and is so desperate for validation.
Things take a sinister turn when an FBI agent shows up at Chelsea’s house, asking if she’s seen any new guys in town with dark hair and leather jackets, and in a book full of intimidating and potentially dangerous men, he is another one, “an enormous, hulking man in a dark trench coat … with the coldest eyes she had ever seen” (105). Sparks comes immediately to Chelsea’s mind and when he comes to see her at the restaurant, she calls the FBI agent and turns him in. By this point in First Date, Stine has let readers in on the secret that Will’s the killer, including his plan to get Chelsea alone and murder her, presenting Chelsea as kind of a patsy for not having put the pieces together sooner as she makes one misjudgement after another. It’s messier than that though, because it’s not like Sparks comes into the restaurant being gentlemanly and asking Chelsea for a date: he shows up drunk, tries to isolate and corner her in the kitchen after the restaurant has closed, and is angry when she turns him down, telling her she should be more “friendly” (120) and that he’s “just playing” (121). While Chelsea’s first instinct is to escape and put as much distance between herself and Sparks as possible, when he slips and burns his hand on the flat top grill in the restaurant’s kitchen, she stops to take care of him and calls for medical assistance (though she does also call the FBI agent). Will takes Chelsea home—her knight in shining armor—and then tries to kill her, which starts a domino effect, because after he learns that Chelsea told Nina about their secret date, he decides he really needs to kill Nina too, just to cover his bases. Chelsea pretends to be dead, then reappears to surprise Will and save Nina, just in time for the FBI agents to arrive and arrest Will. Chelsea seems to be gaining a sense of her own self-worth, telling Will “I’m not as stupid as you think” (162), though this is pretty quickly compromised when she goes to the hospital to see Sparks and apologizes for thinking he was a murderer and protecting herself against his drunken, threatening advances the night before. She tells him she feels “so guilty”(164) and when he tells her that he ran away from home because of his parents’ fighting and has been trying to make it on his own in Shadyside, that apparently excuses weeks of suspicious, disturbing, and even potentially violent behavior. In the book’s final scene, Sparks asks Chelsea out and she says yes, telling him “It’s bound to be better than my first date!” (165, emphasis original), though that’s an incredibly low bar and seems to suggest that Chelsea hasn’t learned anything at all about trusting her instincts, valuing herself, or making good choices when it comes to guys.
While Chelsea is blindsided by the complex intricacies of the dating scene, in Hoh’s Nightmare Hall book Last Date, Demi Blake starts going on dates with an ulterior motive of her own. The Shadyside University student newspaper is running a new segment called CALL ME, where students can publish anonymous blurbs about themselves and fellow students interested in a date can call a number and leave a message. It’s kind of like a blind date telephone dating service that students can use to “find a good time, a new scene—or maybe even true love” (5). There are plenty of potential problems and dangers with this scenario, all of which Demi’s friend Shannon Thompson tries to warn her about, telling Demi “anything could happen!” (3). Demi’s not worried, responding that “That’s just it … I want something to happen. I’m bored” (3, emphasis original), which of course is a perfectly acceptable reason for a young woman to put herself in a potentially dangerous situation alone with a stranger. The plot thickens when Demi decides that rather than using the personals column for her own private entertainment, she’ll write a feature column about it for the school paper, making fun of the terrible dates she goes on and ridiculing the guys who ask her out.
These dates are (unsurprisingly) bad. First there’s Lance, a French major who takes her to a French movie and whispers the translations in her ear, even though there are subtitles on the screen and she asks him to please stop. Then there’s a creepy guy named Phillip who gets mad when Demi tries to end their date after pizza and a movie, turning down his offers to make out or go on another date, demanding “Do you think you’re too good for me? Is that it?” (30). Andrew is the worst though, a guy who responded to the personals ad as a dare from his fraternity brothers, though when he sees Demi, he smarmily says “wait’ll the guys hear about you. You’re no joke” (53). He doesn’t ask her what she wants to do or where she wants to go, telling her that they’re going to see a Clint Eastwood movie and driving her to a steakhouse in the middle of nowhere even though Demi asks him to take her home instead. When he stops at a pool hall after that and kisses her, Demi pushes him off and tells him enough is enough. Andrew loses it, telling her “I take you out, a loser babe so desperate she has to get dates in the personals column. And this is the thanks I get … Wait’ll the brother’s hear about this. You’ll never have a date in this town again” (60). Then he drives off, leaving her stranded at a seedy pool hall on a dark road in the middle of the night. Demi’s personal column dating life is further complicated by the fact that every guy she goes on one of these blind dates with ends up assaulted, missing, or dead. Lance is nearly killed in a hit and run and Phillip almost dies by asphyxiating in his car, an attempted murder that’s set up to look like suicide. Andrew goes missing and a few days later is found dead, having drowned in a local quarry (though it’s hard to feel too badly about him).
Demi’s friend Shannon tries to convince her to stop going on these dates. The student editor of the paper, Kevin, is invested in the project and thinks Demi is great, while Kevin’s girlfriend Marge is jealous of Kevin’s interest in her, and is prepared to sabotage the whole thing. Demi also has a jealous ex-boyfriend named Jack who might think he has a vested interest in this whole debacle, though as far as Demi is concerned, they are absolutely over. Demi starts getting increasingly weird calls in her answering service box for the dating column and threatening calls in her dorm room. She even starts to dream about ominous calls coming in the middle of the night, with a mysterious voice telling her that she’s going to die.
As the situation becomes increasingly terrifying, there are two guys Demi finds herself leaning on more and more: editor Kevin and Kevin’s friend Brant, who Demi ended up connected with through one of the dating calls and who she actually really likes. Brant was attacked and terrorized after his first date with Demi, just like the others, but he survived and lived to date another day, calling Demi the very next morning to ask her to go out with him again. Brant seems like a nice guy and he and Demi have a really great time together, while Kevin encourages Demi’s project, reminds her to take care of herself, and gives her part of his sandwich when she looks a bit peaky. Brant might have survived his first date with Demi, but their second date doesn’t go as well, when a mysterious someone pushes them both in a lake and leaves them to drown. The police come to the rescue, tipped off by a worried Kevin, who knew where they were going and that they hadn’t returned, but only Demi makes her way out of the lake.
Mired in a deep depression following Brant’s disappearance and presumed death, when Demi gets a creepy call telling her to come to the Salem University clock tower at half past midnight to find out who’s responsible for all these horrible things, she figures there’s no reason she shouldn’t go. She climbs the stairs of the clock tower and is surprised to find not one guy waiting there for her, but two. First there’s Kevin, who tells Demi that he lured her there for her own good, that he’s been “Keeping an eye on you. Taking care of you” (139). This is weird and paternalistic and though Demi tells Kevin that she doesn’t need him looking out for her, she is oddly reassured, thinking that Kevin is “so safe, so familiar” (139). Then Brant emerges from the shadows, very much alive and accusing Kevin of being the one terrorizing Demi, because Kevin is obsessed with Demi and was driven mad by her rejection of him. Brant confesses that their second date at the lake was a bit of a set up because “I thought that would be sure to make Kevin give himself away, to prove it” (142), and that he let everyone think he was dead so that he could trick Kevin into revealing his true intentions. Much like Will and Sparks in First Date, there’s not a clear frontrunner here and both Kevin and Brant are problematic in their own ways, though Kevin’s the one Demi decides to brain with a flashlight (and rightly so, because he really is the bad guy, though her thought processes in making this determination remain a bit muddy). And like First Date, Last Date ends with—you guessed it—another date, with Demi deciding that Brant’s pretty great, even if he did use her as bait to try to trap a murderer.
Beyond each young woman’s individual encounters, what is particularly disturbing about both First Date and Last Date is the overwhelming sense of entitlement of some of the men in these books. The way they see it, they’re doing these women a favor by going out with them and because they’re so darn charitable, their dates should do whatever the guys want. Throughout First Date, multiple characters—including Chelsea herself—remark that Chelsea is “short and dumpy” (10), and that she’s just fortunate that any guy would pay attention to her at all. Her mom tells Chelsea that she’d be really pretty if she lost some weight and wore some makeup, and when Will is dragging what he thinks is Chelsea’s dead body into the bushes next to her house, he wonders “Why hadn’t he picked someone a little lighter?” (146). When Chelsea and Nina fight back against being murdered, Will is annoyed that they’re making things so hard for him, wishing they’d just sit still and let him get it over with so he can escape the FBI and get on with his life. In Last Date, Phillip and Andrew both feel that Demi owes them her time, attention, and (to some extent at least) her body because they have taken her out on a date and paid for dinner and a movie.
This isn’t limited to the specific guys that Chelsea and Demi date, either. Early in First Date, when Chelsea is walking home and thinking about how lonely she is, a carload of guys pull up alongside her and begin harassing her. These boys are all strangers and when one of them asks her out, they all laugh. They try to convince her to get in the car with them, telling her she really ought to be “friendly” (19), and when she refuses, one of them throws a lit cigarette at her before they speed off. Even then, in the midst of her fear and relief, she stops to think “If only something good would happen to me … If only I could meet a guy who liked me” (20, emphasis original). In Last Date, when Demi goes to the movies with Andrew, his fraternity brothers are waiting at the same theatre, there for the express purpose of ogling and ridiculing his date.
In First Date and Last Date, both Chelsea and Demi are looking for a good time and are willing to go on some pretty sketchy dates to try to find it. Demi’s self-esteem is a lot less tied up in what guys think of her and she’s a lot more outspoken about how she deserves to be treated and what she will and won’t put up with, but in the end she still lets this dating game take over her life and endanger her well-being. There are only a couple of truly dangerous guys in the mix (if we define “dangerous” as being capable of murder), but there’s no shortage of creepy, entitled, and boorish ones as well. Chelsea and Demi both end up happily paired off at the end of their respective books, but are these really very satisfying or healthy conclusions? In First Date, Sparks’ behavior was legitimately scary on more than one occasion and he likely still has plenty of unresolved anger issues, and in Last Date, Brant was willing to gamble with Demi’s life to try to catch a killer and then let her believe he was dead as part of his long-con to unmask Kevin. If these are the best romantic heroes on offer, it’s probably best to just stay home alone with a good book.