Sibling Rivalry and Attempted Murder: The Stepsister and The Stepsister 2

While much of teen fiction in the ‘90s and earlier featured the nuclear family as the norm (a mom, dad, couple of kids, a dog), teen horror is one of the first places I remember seeing complicated family dynamics take center stage. In these teen horror books, while the nuclear family is still prominently featured, there are also kids living on their own because their parents are abusive or unable to take care of them, kids with divorced parents, and kids whose parents have died. In most cases, this paves the way for a story in which a struggling single mom works too many hours, leaving her teen child with too much time on their hands and too little supervision, but in rare instances, the widowed or divorced parent gets another shot at love and we end up with a blended family. In R.L. Stine’s Fear Street duo The Stepsister (1990) and The Stepsister 2 (1995), this is exactly what happens, and when Emily Casey gets a new stepdad, stepsister, and stepbrother, everyone’s lives get complicated. 

In The Stepsister, Emily’s mom marries Hugh Wallner about a year after Emily and her sister Nancy’s father dies in a tragic boating accident during a family camping trip. (While this fairly quick remarriage might contribute to Emily and Nancy’s trouble adjusting to their new life, that’s never overtly addressed.) Hugh and his two children come to live with the Caseys on Fear Street. We might wonder why people would actively choose to move to Shadyside and Fear Street, but it turns out the Wallners have some things they’re running away from, too, so any port in a storm and all that. There’s already a bit of tension in the Casey family, because Emily is dating Nancy’s ex-boyfriend Josh, but Nancy says she’s fine with it (she’s clearly not, but Emily would rather believe her sister’s lie than have to actually deal with it, so that’s what she does). Emily is excited about getting a new stepsister and sharing her room, though from the first moments, she starts to realize that it might not be all that great: her new stepsister Jessie takes Emily’s bed, complains about the lack of closet space, calls Emily’s dog Tiger “disgusting” (11), and rips the head off of the teddy bear Emily has had since she was a baby. Emily’s new stepbrother Rich is more reserved, mostly just wanting to be left alone and read horror novels in his room.

There are some growing pains as everyone gets adjusted to this new family dynamic, which is further complicated by Emily’s mom’s aggressively chipper “one big happy family” vision, and Hugh’s constant belittling and harassment of Rich (he’s too thin, he’s too quiet, he reads too much, he’s weak) and Jessie’s people-pleasing attempts to get her dad to lay off Rich. Nancy is a senior in high school and talks a lot about the heavy workload and applying for colleges, while Emily vacillates between kindness toward and fear of Jessie, who makes whispered midnight phone calls, then lies about them in the morning. Ominous and dangerous things start happening: someone puts bleach in Emily’s shampoo and later, sets a school bathroom on fire and locks Emily inside. This same someone murders poor Tiger and then stuffs the dead dog in Emily’s backpack. 

Based on their earlier interactions and Jessie’s continued unhappiness, Emily assumes her new stepsister is to blame. One night when Jessie’s out, Emily reads her stepsister’s diary and finds out about Jessie’s former friend Jolie. Emily reads on with increasing horror as Jessie writes “Jolie isn’t here anymore. They found us—just me and Jolie at the bottom of the slope. I told them I didn’t do it. Jolie fell. It was an accident. It wasn’t my fault. But Jolie is dead … They all think I killed Jolie” (91, emphasis original). This sheds some light on why the Wallners were so quick to move to Shadyside, to get away from these suspicions and have a fresh start. Reading Jessie’s diary, Emily doesn’t believe for a moment that Jolie’s death was an accident and draws a terrifying conclusion: Jessie has killed before and she’s planning to kill again, this time with Emily as her intended victim. Emily fears for both her life and her sanity, but is left largely alone with this fear: Rich stays in his room, Nancy’s busy with all her senior stuff, and Emily’s mom shrugs off the increasingly life-threatening attacks as a series of unfortunate accidents and wonders why everyone can’t just get along. 

With all the family strife, Hugh decides the best thing to do is to take the family on a camping trip. It’s early spring and too cold for camping in Shadyside—but that’s fine because they’re going to fly to South Carolina for a long weekend to go camping at a spot Hugh remembers from his own childhood days. This all seems a bit over the top, and when we factor in that Emily and Nancy’s dad and Jolie both died on similar outdoorsy trips, it starts to feel like a really bad idea or at the very least, insensitive to the three girls who had traumatic camping experiences not that long ago. But Hugh is adamant that camping is the true path to family togetherness and they’re all going, whether they like it or not. Rich grumbles, Nancy promises to protect Emily from Jessie, and Emily’s mom dials her aggressive positivity up another notch, while they hike off into the forest for some good old-fashioned family fun.

The Stepsister has one of the most unhinged conclusions in all of ‘90s teen horror (a genre where ridiculous endings are almost a requirement). There’s an old cemetery near the spot that Hugh picks for their campsite and when Emily runs away from Jessie in the dark and spooky woods, she tumbles right into an open grave. Once Emily’s in there and unable to get out, she figures she’s done for and Jessie’s going to come finish her off, but it turns out it was Nancy all along. Nancy blames Emily for their father’s death, since he died while he and Emily were out on the boat together, and she figures that even if it was just a tragic accident, it’s an accident that should have left Emily dead instead of their father. And she’s actually not okay with Emily dating her ex-boyfriend. Nancy alternates between whacking Emily with a shovel and pushing grave dirt in on top of her, all while screaming “You killed daddy!” (155) and “It wasn’t enough. You haven’t paid enough” (156). Nancy falls into the grave and when she goes to finish Emily off, it’s Jessie to the rescue when she clonks Nancy on the head with her own abandoned murder shovel. 

(To be honest, I’ve got a lot of questions about this open grave and Stine’s holding out on the answers. At first I thought that Nancy dug the grave specifically for this murder-y purpose, but how and when would she have accomplished that? They just got to the campsite like an hour ago and what with the plane ride and all, it’s not like she could have run out there to do it beforehand so it was ready to go. When Emily falls into the grave, she finds a dead rabbit in there, which would seem to suggest that the grave might have been there for a while, if the rabbit fell in and died because it couldn’t get out. But if that’s the case, how long has this open grave just been sitting there? Who dug it and why? If they had a murder-y plot of their own, what was it and was it thwarted, or is this weird open grave in the forest about to get a little overcrowded? I guess another possibility is that Nancy dug the grave and happened to find a dead rabbit and just tossed it in there as an extra gross-out for Emily and that’s weird, but maybe not any weirder than some of the other possibilities, if you get thinking about it. Once Nancy falls into the grave and takes a hands-on approach to Emily’s murder, Emily throws the dead rabbit at her sister, but this proves to be an ineffective defense mechanism.)

Once Emily is pulled out of the grave and Nancy is checked into a mental health facility, Emily and Jessie have a fresh start, opening up to each other and becoming fast friends, a connection that carries over into The Stepsister 2, which picks up one year later when Nancy is released and comes back home. There’s also a new girl in the mix, Jessie’s friend Cora-Ann, who spends a lot of time at the Wallners’ house because her parents are always fighting. Rich has settled even more firmly into his rebellious stage, sneaking out to parties and getting busted shoplifting. When horrible things start to happen again—including cut brake lines, superglue in the toothpaste, and ANOTHER murdered dog—it seems like everyone’s got a motive. Cora-Ann doesn’t really like sharing Jessie’s attention and Rich is convinced that Emily told their parents about him going to a party and drinking a beer. 

But Emily’s go-to suspect is Nancy, despite the fact that Nancy tells the family that she has worked through her trauma and just wants to rebuild her relationship with Emily. Nancy is devastated every time Emily accuses her of being behind one of these cruel, dangerous pranks, and Emily repeatedly talks herself into trusting her sister, but the very next time something awful happens, she’s right back to blaming Nancy. There’s an interesting subtext here about second chances, fresh starts, and how people can grow and change, largely expressed through everyone else telling Emily over and over again that she needs to trust Nancy and focus on rebuilding that relationship.

In some ways, everyone’s enthusiasm about this new, healthier Nancy mirrors Jessie’s journey of self-discovery following Jolie’s accidental death, though that tragedy still haunts her nightmares. This forgiveness—including Jessie and Nancy forgiving themselves—is central to this conversation and shown to be very much a work in progress for both of them. Jessie’s attempts to move on are complicated when Jessie finds out that Cora-Ann is Jolie’s cousin, who has come to Shadyside “spying on Jessie, trying to find out if Jessie had really killed her cousin” (145). This is a game-changer and when they discover this truth, Jessie and Emily start to think that all of the bad things that have been happening to Emily might have actually been orchestrated by Cora-Ann and intended for Jessie in revenge for Jolie’s death. 

But it’s all an attempted murder bait-and-switch, because when all the cards are down, it turns out that Nancy is behind everything. AGAIN. This problematically stigmatizes mental health treatment for violent offenders, with Nancy telling Emily how easy it was to fake out the doctors and “pretend to be cured … I knew it was the only way back here. The only way to pay you back for ruining my life” (140). When Nancy chases Emily through the house attempting to stab her, Emily finally (and somewhat inexplicably) achieves the forgiveness she has found so challenging up to this point. She wraps her arms around Nancy in a hug that also conveniently pins Nancy’s knife-wielding arm to her side and keeps repeating “Don’t hate me! I’m your sister. I forgive you. I forgive you!” (143). Nancy doesn’t actually seem to care that Emily forgives her and would still very much like to stab her sister, but they’re able to keep her safely restrained and get her back to the hospital. Emily goes to visit Nancy regularly, to remind her that she has forgiven her and how much she loves her, and Emily feels pretty great about all this, thinking that “It was like a huge weight off her shoulders” (144). We don’t get many clues to how Nancy’s doing or what her path looks like going forward, other than that this hospitalization will “Probably … [be] a long stay” (144). Not a particularly optimistic conclusion for Nancy, but Emily’s doing okay and presumably any dogs the family gets now won’t be murdered (thank goodness). 

In The Stepsister and The Stepsister 2, Emily is on an emotional roller coaster ride, trying to figure out who she can trust and what this new family of hers looks like. With Jessie, Emily is excited about having a new stepsister, though that elation turns to terror, and then settles into friendship, with an undercurrent of sibling rivalry. On the other hand, throughout her whole life, Emily’s older sister Nancy has been a solid, reliable supporter, her confidante and best friend, but now Nancy wants her dead, and even when Emily thinks she just might get her sister back, she is betrayed again. In the final pages of The Stepsister 2, the family is still very much a work in progress, but they’ve been there for one another and gotten each other through some tough times, so they may just survive … at least, as long as Nancy stays in the hospital. icon-paragraph-end

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