Halloween is the only holiday associated with horror, but no one dreads it out of fear. Outside of the movies that tend to be watched, there’s nothing scary about October 31, no modern tradition that’s ominous or unsettling, unless you’re a parent worried about your kid’s sugar intake. Even the season’s decorations, which celebrate horror iconography like skeletons and black cats, are defused of any tense or threatening element. It’s a day for unmonstrous monsters and defanged vampires; if there’s a movie that captures the spirit of Halloween, it’s less Halloween than Young Frankenstein, which similarly revels in gothic atmosphere while not being the least bit eerie.
Viewed in this light, there are no books that encapsulate Halloween like R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps franchise. Over the course of the series’ 62 novellas (as well as spin-off series, a TV show, and now a movie), released monthly between July 1992 and December 1997, Stine plumbed the entirety of horror for inspiration, basing entries off macabre staples like ghosts, vampires, and werewolves while elsewhere drawing from stories both classic (Pinocchio, The Phantom Of The Opera) and new (The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T, The Fly). Almost all of spooky fiction is represented in Goosebumps; the Blob makes an appearance, as do lizard people and aliens and creepy scarecrows. But despite all those creepy critters, the whole series is about as scary as an elementary school classroom in October, and Stine uses his horror elements in the same way, as decorations.
Historically, vampire and werewolf myths rose out of deep societal fears—of seductive, corrupting forces and sinful, uncontrollable urges; they gained power because of how they functioned as metaphors. Stine chucks all that context, retaining only well-known surface elements like full moons. None of the books attempt to connect their stories to deeper fears; even My Hairiest Adventure, a Teen Wolf riff about an adolescent who finds hair where there was no hair before, steps back from any kind of connection to puberty. I was obsessed with the series for three years growing up, but I can’t remember ever being even slightly creeped out, and it certainly wasn’t because I was tough. (My biggest phobia, which somehow never got Goosebumped, was balloons.)
This isn’t a criticism of quality so much as marketing. Stine’s affection for horror is palpable, celebrating it just as sincerely as Mel Brooks did with Young Frankenstein, but he rarely seems to be working in the genre. Each issue warned, “Reader beware—you’re in for a scare!” but by Stine’s own admission, he wanted the books to be as funny as scary. Revisited today, the Goosebumps series remains fun, though it’s puzzling they were ever pushed as horror (making them vulnerable to the inevitable and eye-rolling challenges from parent groups) when it seems impossible for anyone to be scared by them. A more accurate name for the series would be Thrilling Adventures For Kids or Jr. Twilight Zone, a nod to Stine’s biggest inspiration, from which he took multiple premises and twist endings.
Take Attack Of The Mutant, one of my favorite entries growing up. The book is a superhero story with a terrific hook (a comic-book fan realizes that the real world is mimicking the plot of his favorite series), and while the hero gets into mortal danger at the end, this is no more horror than The Avengers is. Others are also in this kind of adventure vein. Deep Trouble is about a boy who protects a friendly mermaid from poachers, and while there are brief attacks by a sea monster and hammerhead shark, these are red herrings (ha, fish joke), over in a flash and forgotten about almost immediately. Despite its title, The Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb isn’t about a curse or a mummy, and it barely involves a tomb. Rather than being the Goosebumps version of a horror icon, the threat is a guy who will stop at nothing to halt an archaeological excavation. There’s a page of supernatural action, but it’s meant to be rousing, not scary. Mysterious power aside, How I Learned To Fly is about a boy’s rivalry with a competitive peer; there’s no villain to stop or threat to overcome.
The only horror-ish element in a lot of the books are gotcha moments to end chapters, the literary equivalent of horror-movie cats jumping in front of the camera. Nearly every entry features a nightmare or someone surprising the protagonist, but the tension is deflated before it even begins: The next chapter invariably starts with the person waking up or the prankster revealing him or herself. No doubt the brief chapters were meant to make the books less intimidating to young readers, but this structure prohibits any kind of suspense, while regular readers will feel even less spooked once they learn the books’ basic formula.
Stine’s reliance on the same few tricks gets old after a while, but as an adult I was amused by how shameless he was with his cliffhangers about nothing. Consider the chapter endings in Monster Blood, one of the series’ most lasting titles:
One: “Evan’s spooky aunt has a bloody knife!” (She’s cutting beef for dinner.)
Two: “Something leaps out of the closet and covers his face!” (It’s a kitty.)
Three: “What is the aunt going to do to Evan’s dog!?” (Put it outside.)
Four: “Someone suddenly stops him on the street!” (It’s a friendly girl.)
And so on. Probably the only kids who would even register this as intensity would be too young to read a chapter book. (The publisher recommends them for ages 10 to 12, which seems high. I read them from 8 to 10, and frankly even that seems old.) I loved the genre elements and pulpiness—epitomized by Tim Jacobus’ marvelously atmospheric covers—but as an adult, the horror elements were actually the least scary parts of the books. The most effective one I revisited was Night Of The Living Dummy, about a possessed ventriloquist dummy (the series’ most iconic character). To the extent it works, it does so because the scares are fairly subtle, with the creature not explicitly revealed as alive until the end. Far more alarming than the dummy, though, was the vicious sibling rivalry between the book’s twin-sister protagonists, which came off as bracingly hostile.
Likewise, there was nothing hair-raising about Gary Lutz transforming into an insect in Why I’m Afraid Of Bees, but it was troubling that he was such a target for the neighborhood bully that he nearly runs out of shirts because he’s hiding blood-stained ones faster than anyone does the laundry.
That’s not the only real-world violence in Goosebumps. In Monster Blood, twin meatheads give Evan a black eye—far more damage than is done to him by the eponymous goo. The pair also tie a cat to a tree and leave it there overnight, a deeply disturbing detail that’s quickly forgotten. As the series went on, these kinds of depictions would mellow—later bullies would be more into embarrassing than clobbering—but in all cases, authority figures would be ignorant of or indifferent to what’s going on. And because the bullies invariably got their comeuppance, the unofficial moral of the series is that just deserts are delicious and there’s no need to trouble your parents because someone is beating the shit out of you.
You Can’t Scare Me! here emerges as the most interesting book of the series, as its the only one essentially told from a bully’s point of view, with four friends who hate the most popular girl in class concocting schemes to publicly scare her. Unlike the villain equivalent in other books, though, Scare’s Courtney King is friendly and helpful, even sharing her lunch with less-fortunate kids. She’s admittedly a teacher’s pet, but our quartet hates her because she’s cool under pressure and they’re not. (There’s a moment when the narrator is too cowardly to rescue a cat out of a tree, so Courtney does it instead. The cat’s owner hilariously snipes that at least someone in town is brave. Take that, kid with a fear of heights.)
As a result, the pranks they aspire to pull are nothing if not cruel and unwarranted, and their obsession is unsettling. While I don’t want to make too much of this, the basic premise of outcast loners wanting revenge on the popular kid plays very differently now than it would have in 1994, and the fact that none of the four realize how creepy they’re being is far more unsettling than the mud monsters who makes a cameo at the end.
I can’t pretend like any of this bothered me growing up. If anything, the bully scenes were fascinating to someone who had never been in a fight and hadn’t even suffered a notable injury. But they stood out as an adult, especially since they were just subplots and not the supposedly horrifying tale being told. I enjoyed it when the series got dark—a bratty sister getting wiped out of existence in The Cuckoo Clock Of Doom, the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” ending of Calling All Creeps—but realistic violence used as background color was dark in a way that wasn’t fun.
I was also dismayed by how thin the books felt upon revisiting. A lot essentially jump from the end of the first act to the end of the third, the threat getting resolved as soon as it gets established. And prior to my reread I hadn’t realized the extent to which Stine recycled phrases (“I opened my mouth to scream, but no sound came out.”), personality traits (nicknames or real names that the characters hate being called), even dialogue (multiple parents chop onions and say they wish they knew the trick to doing it without crying). Even for a children’s thriller, there are a lot of unnecessary exclamation points (“Conan was 12, but he looked about 20 years older!”).
Part of this disappointment stems from the fact that while the books are short, the foundations are strong enough to support stories twice the series’ 120-page average. The settings are vivid, and the way Stine depicts classroom and family dynamics is credible and convincing, with little in the way of dated slang or references. The narrative twist endings don’t pretend to be earth shattering, but have an amusing “eh, screw it” tone that’s another indication Stine’s goal was to make reading fun, not harrowing.
There was enough variety in Goosebumps premises that all tastes could find a title to their liking, and enough variety in the protagonists that every kid could relate to at least one of them, whether they were shy or their group’s funny one, whether they were jocks, theater kids, in a band, artists, book-lovers, etc. Admirably, the series is filled with great girl characters and heroes, and because the protagonists are always 12—an age of independence without puberty—almost none are reduced to being romantic interests who don’t pull their narrative weight. Andy from Monster Blood is a particular highlight, as a confident and funny character shrugs off a bratty spat by saying, “I’m an only child. What can I tell you? I’m spoiled.”
It would be surprising if Goosebumps showed the same multi-generational longevity as, say, Roald Dahl (who didn’t hesitate to make his kids’ books get genuinely dark). Fun though they are, they just don’t have the depth to be undisputed classics. But it wouldn’t surprise me if their structure came back in vogue. With anthologies again a major player in the TV landscape, surely there’s room for a flexible literary property for young adults, one that can skip between settings and tones and themes from entry to entry. That’d be a welcome reprieve from the heavy mythologization that characterizes most franchises, and as Stine proved, they needn’t even be scary.