Sarah Pinborough Delivers Scares Across the Pond

Sarah Pinborough grew up living in a lot of different places—Syria, Moscow, India, and Sudan—since her father worked as a diplomat. When she moved back to England at eight, she started attending British boarding schools, a setting she has used in some of her writing. She wasn’t very happy there and spent a lot of time on her own, searching the backs of cupboards and wardrobes, looking for the entrance to Narnia. But to her classmates, she was seen as the jokester, the class clown.


In her last years of boarding school, she discovered acting after being chosen for the lead role in the school play on her first day at Edinburgh Academy. After that, she decided that she was going to be a great actress, but things didn’t go as planned.


She had a series of “adventures” in her twenties, and after hating school for so long, she found herself a teacher when she was thirty. Pinborough liked teaching and interacting with students, telling kids that second place meant they were “first loser,” and she became the head of English after only two years. She taught in total for six years before focusing exclusively on her writing.


Pinborough had written a little here and there and came to publish her short stories when somebody read a few that she had accidentally left out while babysitting. Before, when she was twenty-three, she had submitted a story and was told that “I was terrible and an incompetent writer and I’d never be a writer!”


After she published a few short stories in her late twenties, she married and was living in Devon when she decided that she wanted to write a horror novel—a natural fit after being influenced by Stephen King, Daphne du Maurier, and others. She wrote The Hidden about a woman with amnesia who is trying to get on with her life, but dark forces beckon to her from behind a mirror. While she was on vacation, she saw novels in the airport from Leisure Books and decided to send them a synopsis and her first three chapters. The publisher requested the rest and then bought her novel, and for the next six years, Pinborough published a novel a year with them. Pinborough says, “When I wrote The Hidden for Leisure, they didn’t edit your books. I handed my book in, and they would change ‘got’ for ‘gotten’ and that was it. There was no copyedit, there was no line edit. I just got page proofs. There was no learning curve.


“I only started learning and being edited properly when I started at Gollancz. It was great being edited—just stupid things like sentence construction, learning clauses, and things like that…I think horror writers tend to get a bit caught up in it, because you have to make people suspend their belief so much, so you overdo the description. But I learnt to pare it back and learn that less is more.”


While writing a movie based on her first novel The Hidden, she revisited the work and wasn’t happy with some of the writing she found there. “I look now at the dialogue and think, Jesus Christ, what was I doing?” she says. “I think dialogue is the hardest thing for novelists to get right because it can be a bit stilted, particularly historical or fantasy. It can go a bit, ‘Where art thou?’ When I was a teacher, and you teach kids to write stories, they will very often avoid dialogue because it is quite hard to do it naturally.”


In 2013, Pinborough published a trilogy of dark tales based on classic fairy tales—Poison, Charm, and Beauty—and Murder and Mayhem, two books in a supernatural series, exploring serial killers that come after Jack the Ripper in Victorian England. She’s used serial killer characters often in her work.


Pinborough says, “If horror and crime are cousins, then the serial killer is their love child. He fits so perfectly into both genres (I chose to use a serial killer in A Matter of Bood and had also used one in a horror novel). The serial killer is the embodiment of every boogeyman under the bed or monster in the closet for those who are too grown up to believe in such things. I look at films like Seven or The Silence of the Lambs, and I can’t decide whether they’re crime thrillers or horrors.”


“The serial killer is the adult’s nightmare, in the way ghosts and vampires (the old-school sort, anyway) should scare children. So maybe, in a lot of ways, the genre of crime is for grown-ups who like horror. Certainly more women write crime than they do horror, and the whole world knows we’re the more grown up of the sexes! Also, the women writing crime are writing some quite horrific stuff—I visited a friend of mine yesterday, who told me he’d been reading a Karin Slaughter novel. He paled slightly and said, ‘She doesn’t pull any punches, does she? That is some really graphic shit.’”


While doing research on the Victorian era, Pinborough discovered that women numbered among serial killers, too. She wrote in The Big Issue, “Women were not to be outdone by their male counterparts, either. Mary Ann Cotton was suspected of the murder of twenty-one people by arsenic poisoning by the time she went to the gallows. The baby farmers, like Amelia Dyer, hanged at Newgate in 1896, promised to find homes for children of the poor but took their money, murdered the babies, and then dumped their bodies in the river. Only charged with one death, Dyer was suspected of murdering up to four hundred more.”


Pinborough no longer considers herself strictly a horror writer, but her novels are hard to classify as one genre. They jump from sci-fi to fantasy, young adult, and now crime, but they all share one thing—she agrees—they’re dark. “I write stories with dark elements. I do have a penchant for the darker side of life…you’d never guess!”



For a Wicked Good Time, Go to Killers: A Nightmare Haunted House

I spent Sunday with nervousness in the pit of my stomach, that psychic sense of unease that comes up when I have to speak in front of an audience or I have a job interview. The reason for it on Sunday was for something completely different, though, something quite preventable, and something I paid thirty dollars for—Killers: A Nightmare Haunted House. My sister Kristi found out about this serial killer-themed haunted house in September, and as horror aficionados (knowing more than our fair share about serial killers) and after coming off of my accidental haunted house experience last year, I was ready to go. Funny how that went away the day of the experience.

The half hour Kristi, Sarah, and I spent walking to the haunted house after our last supper of hot dogs, fries, and Diet Coke was almost completely silent. I don’t know about Kristi and Sarah, but I was spending that half hour completely freaking out—would I have a panic attack while inside? Even worse, what if I peed myself? I was wearing black pants and had a relatively empty bladder, so I thought I would be okay on that count.

We had a mix-up with the tickets and had to get to the haunted house early to get everything fixed, but the staff was very gracious and accommodating toward us, even though it was my error. There was a good-sized crowd, and we were herded into a labyrinth-like line similar to what you wait in while at an airport check-in counter. The staff pushed us in tight and close, starting with the horrific, claustrophobic feeling early before we even entered the haunted house.

While in the pens, two members of the haunted house staff walked the periphery, trying to scare the audience. One wore a multicolored clown wig and plastic mask like the killer in Alice Sweet Alice and would stand silently next to members of the audience while rubbing together a thumb and forefinger that were tacky with a bloodlike substance. This character wasn’t so much scary as awkward, making me think, Go away already. The other guy wore a long blond ponytail and lab coat; he went around asking audience members, “Do you want to play?” Kristi and Sarah signed up for this right away. When the man asked me, I frowned, which I guess he took as assent and painted a line on my cheek. The fake blood felt cold and weird so I drew away and let him go paint other members of the audience.

Kristi and Sarah with their X’s at Killers: A Nightmare Haunted House.


As we got nearer to the door, I overheard the guard of the haunted house giving the group in front of us the rules for the tour. Number one: Don’t touch the actors. Number two: If you are painted with a red X, that means you’re allowing the actors to touch you. I started cowering. I couldn’t have anybody touch me, or I would freak out for sure. Sarah dug in her purse and found a balled-up Kleenex so I could wipe off my half-assed X. We were in position to be the next group to enter the haunted house, and the staff found a lovely, well-dressed couple to go with us so we were a nice even six. We were warned, “If you can’t go on, say, ‘I need to leave,’ and somebody will escort you out of the haunted house. If you think this is going to be a problem, do it earlier rather than later. The further you go, the scarier it gets.” The guard asked if there were any questions. I asked how long it lasted and was told twenty-five to thirty minutes. Surely I could make it that long. With that, the door opened, and I pushed my friends ahead of me while clinging to one. I sure as hell wasn’t going to go in first.

In the first room, we were subjected to a searchlight in our faces, and various members of our party were called out, told to come to the middle under the light or to face the wall. Sarah was wearing slippers and showing some skin, and her leg ended up getting snuffled by our first serial killer. (She was the one most often called out when we went into the different rooms, but she was also the lippy one in our group.)

Jeffrey Dahmer at Killers: A Nightmare Haunted House.


Each room of the haunted house is themed for a different serial killer. Jeffrey Dahmer, Ed Gein, Lizzie Borden, H. H. Holmes, Elizabeth Bathory, John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, and Jack the Ripper all make an appearance, along with others, and in each room, there is an out-of-nowhere surprise. I was menaced with sniffing, balloons, open wounds, an ax, and a chainsaw. I screamed and grabbed onto every member of our party (including those who I didn’t know), crying, “You go first,” “Don’t leave me here,” or “No touching” (this to the actors). And it was cathartic and a lot of fun. The staff of Killers: A Nightmare Haunted House are an enthusiastic bunch, and they do their very best to give you a scary good time.

H. H. Holmes and a victim at Killers: A Nightmare Haunted House.


Families of some of the serial killers’ victims were quite upset to hear that serial killers would be glorified in this exhibit. The architects of the haunted house were sensitive to these remarks and included an exhibit that focused on a parent’s grief and the victims of the various serial killers who are featured in this haunted house. That was the one nonscary room of Killers: A Nightmare Haunted House; for the rest—well, gird yourselves!