Before the boy wizard began his reign in the fantasies of the world’s children, another book series dominated their nightmares. “Reader beware” read the tagline, “you’re in for a scare!” This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the debut of Goosebumps, the horror anthology that thrilled a generation of kids, taught them that reading was fun, and sold over 350 million copies worldwide. The popularity of the series endures, evidenced by news that Marvel will adapt the franchise into comic book form beginning in October. Given the longevity of R.L. Stine’s creation, it’s worth exploring why the series resonated so powerfully with young readers.
To start, Stine crafted stories of good old-fashioned roller coaster fun. The books were a romp, a throwback to 1950s science-fiction and horror films, filled with ghouls, goblins, monsters, and aliens. The delightful titles paid homage to the genre’s B-movie origins: Welcome to Dead House; It Came from Beneath the Sink; Egg Monsters from Mars; Attack of the Mutant; A Shocker on Shock Street; Say Cheese and Die. Wonderful stuff! The cover illustrations alone were worth the price of the paperbacks. These were lush, vibrant, masterful images by artist Tim Jacobus, worthy of framed display. Every fan of the series can remember the ritual of hunting for the artist’s signature, which he hid within the illustration like an Easter egg, adding to the pleasure of the franchise. And who can forget the raised lettering of the green, dripping Goosebumps logo that adorned the top of each edition? These books were ingeniously engineered vehicles of imagination, right down to the tactile features of the binding.
But the most alluring aspect of Goosebumps, at least to an eight-year-old child, was that the tales between the covers were truly frightening. They were not school material. Kids perceived them as slightly dangerous, forbidden, and menacing. You would crack one open under your desk and read a couple of pages, and then dog ear the page in anticipation of the next gulp when the teacher wasn’t looking. After all, you were desperate to see how things turned out in The Haunted Mask, where a possessed Halloween mask seizes control of Carly Beth Caldwell, or in The Cuckoo Clock of Doom, where Michael Webster is trapped in a timeloop and finds himself aging backwards when he awakes each morning, or in The Headless Ghost, where two friends investigate a seaside house stalked by the ghost of decapitated sailor. The stories presented real peril, and kids felt that they were infiltrating a darkly wild landscape of the bizarre and macabre that was otherwise off limits to them. In effect, Goosebumps operated on the assumption of classic fairytales: that children are resilient, know that evil exists, and naturally desire to confront it and test their courage.
To be sure, there are psychological limits in children’s literature that a responsible publisher must respect. Goosebumps never set out to traumatize the reader. The books maintained a zany, pulpy tone, while helping kids playfully engage with symbolic representations of malevolence. R.L. Stine has explained that part of the formula for the series was that each story essentially began in the main character’s backyard, that is, in familiar territory, then moved into the horror-laden world, and finally returned to the safety of the yard. This geographical scheme helped the child reader relate to the narrative, and subconsciously assured him or her that, in the end, the story wasn’t real. The fear was all imaginative.
But something deeper was at work as well. The perennial narrative is that of the hero who leaves home, confronts the dragon in the dark woods, and realizes that his or her fear is self-generated. With that realization, their fear dissolves, the dragon is slayed, and the hero returns home to safety, stronger and wiser. R.L. Stine may not have consciously modeled his books on this ancient structure, but the structure is there nevertheless. When combined with the bubble-gum, sci-fi, B-movie packaging of the Goosebumps brand, kids couldn’t resist devouring the books as they rolled monthly into stores.
It’s hardly a surprise that the pop-culture freight train that was Goosebumps was halted by the boy wizard who followed the same heroic narrative structure, albeit in the trappings of fantasy rather than horror. And just as J.K. Rowling taught a generation of children to love reading through Harry Potter, so too did R.L. Stine through Goosebumps. There’s nothing scary about that.