Lois Duncan’s ‘Summer of Fear’: The Inspiration Behind Wes Craven’s 1978 Movie [Buried in a Book]

In the 1970s, Lois Duncan’s work began to reflect her interest in the supernatural. The uncanny was an infrequent element throughout her output before she stopped writing fiction entirely, although this fascination led to some of her most popular books. In her ‘76 novel Summer of Fear, Duncan looked no further than her own upbringing as she told a story of rural evil creeping into Middle America.

In Albuquerque, New Mexico, 15-year-old Rachel “Rae” Bryant welcomes a new member to the family when her aunt and uncle die in a car accident along with their housekeeper. Having no one else to look after her now, Rae’s slightly older cousin Julia Grant then moves in with the Bryants. Julia’s parents relocated to the heart of the Ozarks so her father could write, and upon completing his latest project, they would have returned to the city. The Bryant family has not seen Julia since she was a baby, so they know next to nothing about her. Rae, however, grows to dislike her cousin the more she does get to know her. She even begins to fear Julia.

Summer of Fear starts out like a basic tale of cousin rivalry and teenage territorialism. As time goes on, Rae has valid reasons to believe Julia is the source of the increasing unrest at home. Not only does the family dog Trickle die a painful death after lashing out at the new guest, Rae breaks out in a mysterious skin rash on the day of a big dance. Adding to Rae’s suspicions is the discovery of strange objects in her and Julia’s shared bedroom; she finds a wax figure of an animal embedded with strands of Trickle’s hair, as well as a photo of Rae covered in splotches of bright red paint. The warning signs are everywhere, yet only Rae notices them.

Duncan was inspired by her Ozarks-born mother when she wrote Summer of Fear. Not knowing this was the basis, though, an unaware reader might assume the growing concern over Satanism in the ‘70s was the author’s motivation. Evangelical outcry over supposed Devil worshippers hiding in and out of plain sight was already in motion by the time this book came out. This was also shortly before the fear-mongering movement exploded in the following decade. The witchcraft depicted here may not be the same as the kind viewed as an affront to Christian values, but nevertheless it poses the same potential threat cooked up by the moral panickers of yesteryear.

The antagonist of Summer of Fear is a frightening one, but not because of her magic. As journalist Sarah Weinman said in her memoriam of Lois Duncan, Julia “is a vicious snake hiding behind a charming exterior.” The malicious witch does everything in her power to usurp Rae’s family and friends, all the while playing innocent and gaslighting her tortured cousin. Rae’s mother Leslie had not seen her own sister for a number of years, and her guilt over that sad fact is partly why she permits so much of the goings-on in her home. There is also this tiring need to uphold the sanctity of family even if that means sacrificing a daughter. With everyone else eventually on Julia’s side or put out of commission, Rae is left to fend for herself. The book’s first-person perspective puts readers directly in Rae’s shoes, so they have a front-row seat to her rapidly crumbling universe.

Not long after the book was published, it was optioned for a made-for-television feature on NBC. Wes Craven was on the rise in Hollywood following The Hills Have Eyes, so he was approached about directing. This period of American television saw a general uptick in horror, especially once ABC set the standard for the genre on the small screen. The once-underperforming network demonstrated how these star-studded frighteners, each one roughly the length of three or four sitcom episodes, could draw an audience and boost ratings.

The adaptation was called Stranger in Our House when it first aired on Halloween in 1978, but the book’s title was used for international screenings and home-video releases. As far as page-to-screen interpretations go, this one is quite faithful to the book. In this version, the Bryants are relocated to a small ranch in California. They open their home to Julia Trent (Lee Purcell), now a college student, when a car accident leaves her orphaned. In due time, Julia unseats Rae (Linda Blair) as the family’s golden daughter, both Rae’s older brother Peter (Jeff West) and boyfriend Mike (Jeff McCracken) are lovestruck by the bewitching cousin, and resident occult expert Professor Jarvis (Macdonald Carey) is hexed to near death.

Of all the changes made to Duncan’s story, the most notable are replacing Trickle with a horse named Sundance, and magnifying the sexual tension between Julia and her uncle Tom (Jeremy Slate). According to Craven and producer Max A. Keller, the one thing that stood in the way of this production getting off the ground was whether or not they could get Linda Blair to play Rachel. Blair accepted the part provided they changed the family’s dog to a horse; the young Exorcist actor had been riding since she was a kid. Blair’s love of horses comes out in full effect when Sundance is involved, including the inevitable yet still devastating euthanasia scene.

Then comes Julia entrancing all the men in Rae’s life; first her brother and boyfriend, and later her father. This aspect of the book horrifies uninitiated readers until Duncan effectively eases their minds. Meanwhile, Craven’s version of the story lessens Peter’s attraction to Julia while fully dialing up Mr. Bryant’s. There is even the addition of a scene where Mrs. Bryant (Carol Lawrence) confronts her husband about the inappropriate relationship. These suggestive moments between niece and uncle were risqué back in the day, and they were almost cut out altogether. Now they emphasize what a destructive and manipulative force of nature Julia truly is.

As compelling and well-written as Duncan’s book is, it lacks the thrills and action necessary for a movie-of-the-week to be successful and talked about. So naturally, the script embellishes the story in all the right places. Craven honed his future talent for nightmare sequences as Rae dreams of her own possible demise. Sundance is a welcome upgrade since the horse’s two big scenes — the first had to be reshot due to a technical goof — not only rattle the viewers’ nerves, but they also wrack up the tension among the Bryants. Rae and Julia’s pivotal confrontation in the darkroom is now less talk and more fisticuffs as Blair and Purcell engage in a full-on catfight. And while Julia never displayed any real-time magic in the book, Craven showed her blasting a locked door apart. Topping things off is a climactic car chase replete with vehicular daredevilry.

While there is often a night and day difference between novels and their screen adaptations, Wes Craven’s Summer of Fear sticks close to the source material. Both the bones and meat of Duncan’s story are on display, along with a few beneficial adjustments. This collaboration between the author and director, each one an icon in their respective field, is surprisingly intense in spite of the obvious limitations involved. Any dive into America’s most significant era of horror TV-movies is encouraged to start here. As for the book, it is a classic in young-adult speculative fiction. Readers would be remiss to not consider Lois Duncan when visiting the subgenre’s beginnings.

There was a time when the young-adult section of bookstores was overflowing with horror and suspense. These books were easily identified by their flashy fonts and garish cover art. This notable subgenre of YA fiction thrived in the ’80s, peaked in the ’90s, and then finally came to an end in the early ’00s. YA horror of this kind is indeed a thing of the past, but the stories live on at Buried in a Book. This recurring column reflects on the nostalgic novels still haunting readers decades later.

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