By Dushyant Shekhawat Oct. 26, 2018
I learned the lesson that it’s better not to tarnish the memories of the books I would read by torchlight after bedtime with a movie more goofy and ghastly. Written by RL Stine, the Goosebumps books were where younger readers were introduced to all of horror’s tropes as a genre.
’Tis the season to be scared! In the run-up to Halloween, moviemakers and streaming services are taking it upon themselves to frighten audiences with horror-themed content. The brave of heart have already started to watch Haunting on Hill House on Netflix, and audiences in theatres have a chance to revisit the stabbing antics of Michael Myers in the Halloween reboot. The mid-schoolers, meanwhile, will be in the next auditorium watching Goosebumps, which is like horror, but with training wheels still attached.
Today’s twenty-somethings will likely remember the Goosebumps novels. They were as widespread in libraries and on bookshelves in the ’90s and early-’00s as DJ Aqeel videos on Channel V. Paperbacks, often dozens of volumes, stacked in rows, with covers that usually featured a monstrous antagonist and that signature, textured title font that mimicked the feel of the goosebumps the series’ title boasted of causing. Written by RL Stine, the Goosebumps books were the perfect baby pool to splash around in before wading off into the lake of horror. I wouldn’t have been able to read classic spine-chillers by HP Lovecraft or contemporary fright-fests by Stephen King if I hadn’t learned to steel my nerves by reading Stine.
Along with Fear Street, Stine’s other popular horror series meant for teens and young adults, Goosebumps was where younger readers were introduced to the tropes of horror, but not scared senseless by them. There’s a lite-version of most iconic horror stories to be found somewhere in the anthology of Goosebumps tales. The Shining is my favourite horror novel, and when I first completed it, it scared me off reading anything at all for two whole weeks. But then I remembered that the Overlook Hotel was a lot like the spooky mansion in the Goosebumps classic Welcome to Dead House, and managed to cure my jitters. The evil Chucky doll from Child’s Play was (and is) pure nightmare fuel, but pretending he was Slappy from Night of the Living Dummy stopped me from losing too much sleep. Zombies, werewolves, vampires, mummies – all the horror staples that would populate the more mature books, films, and shows I’d come across as I grew older, I first encountered in the pages of Stine’s books.
“Real horror is a culture where kids, especially boys, don’t read – and Stine has done his best to stop that turn of the screw from happening in his lifetime,” says writer Patrick Jones
Most of the Goosebumps novels have a happy ending, with the kid protagonists returning to safety at the end of the action. Most, but not all. Give Yourself Goosebumps was the spin-off series, roleplaying game books that allowed you to choose your own adventure, and if you made the wrong choices, they did not end well. For a ten-year-old grounded from using the PlayStation, these game books were just as thrilling, along with scoring you brownie points from elders for being the kid who reads, which simply added to their appeal.
Being picked up and read is the highest form of praise a book can receive, and Stine’s series helped me learn to appreciate the written word at an age when Cartoon Network and video-games were tempting alternatives. The books were never meant to be taken seriously, and there is precious little literary value to them when I thumb through an old, dog-eared copy today. But they did foster the habit of reading, and that gives them merit. Stine’s books have always elicited polarised opinions, with conservative groups in USA during the ’90s petitioning to ban the Goosebumps and Fear Streets books for “Satanic and occult themes” at the height of their popularity. Others dismissed them as fluff, but as Patrick Jones mentions in his book What’s So Scary About R.L. Stine, “real horror is a culture where kids, especially boys, don’t read – and Stine has done his best to stop that turn of the screw from happening in his lifetime.”
I probably will not be going to see the new Goosebumps movie in theatres on Halloween weekend. I learned the lesson that it’s better not to tarnish the memories of the books I would read by torchlight after bedtime with a movie more goofy and ghastly from the first film. But when I’m picking up popcorn during the interval of Halloween, I hope to see kids queueing up for Goosebumps, and then I’ll know I left the old paperbacks in my school library in good hands.
Dushyant Shekhawat really likes his mustache. He grew it himself. You can find him on Twitter at @SeriousDushyant.