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'Goosebumps' at 30: R.L. Stine talks creating a horror phenomenon, new BOOM! comic & more 'Fear Street' movies
Reader beware, you're in... well, you know the rest.
Reader beware, you're in...well, you know the rest. Or at least you should. For the last three decades, prolific author R.L. Stine has been scaring the pants off of young readers with the iconic Goosebumps franchise overseen by longtime publisher, Scholastic. The literary horror phenomenon first began in July of 1992 with the publication of Welcome to Dead House, and things have never been the same since. Demonic Halloween masks, sink-dwelling potato monsters, living dummies with wicked senses of humor, oozing Monster Blood, and, in one case, a ravenous blob who sweats snails have all woven themselves into the fabric of youthful pop culture with ease.
To date, the ever-evolving Goosebumps brand spans dozens of novels (printed in 32 languages all over the world with hundreds of millions of copies sold), a television series, seven video game titles, two feature film adaptations starring Jack Black, merchandise galore, and an upcoming Disney+ project. An entire bloodcurdling empire birthed from a single idea Mr. Stine wasn't even interested in pursuing originally. But, we're getting ahead of ourselves here. SYFY WIRE got in on the 30th-anniversary celebrations by hopping on a Zoom call with the legendary writer to discuss the origins of Goosebumps, memorable fan interactions over the years, and the potential for more Fear Street movies at Netflix.
Just to start off, tell me where did the idea for Goosebumps come from?
Not from me, that’s the embarrassing part. The whole story is embarrassing, because I was doing Fear Street books for teenagers. The series was going well and my editor said, "You know, no one's ever done a scary book series for 7 to 12-year-olds. We should try it." And I said, "No, I don't want to." Because I was afraid it would screw up the Fear Street audience. That's the kind of businessman I am. I didn't want to do Goosebumps. And I kept saying, "No, I don't want to do it." And finally, they kept after me and I said, "Well, okay, maybe we'll try two or three." Now, 30 years later...
What scared you the most growing up?
I was a very fearful kid. I started writing when I was nine. I was in my room typing all day — it was this weird kid, just typing [away]. But I think it's because I was very shy and very fearful. I had just a lot of fears. I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and I’d ride my bike around the neighborhood. When I got back, I’d think: "There's something lurking in the garage, there's something waiting for me." I would heave my bike into the garage and run into the house. That was a terrible way to grow up. But later on, when I got scary and started writing these books, I could draw on it. I could remember that feeling of being a kid and panic.
What kind of horror media (if any) did you consume as a kid?
When I was a kid, there were these great EC horror comics: Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror. I just loved those. And I have to say they were very influential on me. They had great art, but the stories were ghastly. They were gruesome, but they are also funny. And they all had funny twist endings. I think that stayed with me.
Many of the Goosebumps novels end with a major twist. What, in your mind, makes for a good narrative reversal?
There's a line in the first Goosebumps movie that I wish I had written. Jack Black is [playing] me. He's a school teacher at the end of the movie. He's up in front of the class and he says, "Every story has a beginning, a middle, and a twist." I wish I'd written that line. I try in every Goosebumps book — like halfway through or at some point in the book — something happens and the reader says, "Oh, my gosh, I had no idea that's what was going on. I had no idea it would go that way." There's some big shock that changes the whole story for them halfway through. That's what I try to do. I think that's one reason why the books have stayed so popular. They're not linear. They don't go in a straight line. You have all these shocks and turns.
At what point did you know Goosebumps had become a cultural phenomenon?
Here's how I knew things were getting weird. I was in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio and I was doing a book signing at a Barnes & Noble. I was in the car and in a terrible traffic jam. And I hate being late — I don't want to keep kids waiting. I was so nervous. Then I looked around at all the cars around me and they were all filled with kids. It was my traffic jam. I had caused it. That's when I knew things were getting a little strange.
What have been some of the other highlights of the last 30 years?
I have a million highlights. We did a five-city tour of China for Goosebumps, which was amazing. The kids were incredible. Goosebumps in Mandarin. We did [a tour in] Australia. It's unbelievable to me how it took off, and it's all from kids. Kids just telling kids. This secret kids network. That’s all it was. How lucky am I?
Do you think of yourself as the Stephen King of horror for young readers?
I never planned to be scary. I was always funny. I wrote 100 joke books for kids and I did a humor magazine called Bananas for kids for 10 years. I wrote my first scary novel for teenagers [and] it was called Blind Date. It came out [and] it was a number one bestseller. I thought, "Wait a minute, kids like to be scared." I said, "Forget the funny stuff!" And I've been scary ever since I discovered kids like to be scared.
And why do you think that is?
I think they like to be scared if they know they're safe at the same time. I think they like to have these creepy adventures [where] they're fighting ghosts and they're invisible, but they know they're safe in their room reading. And they know with my books, it's never gonna go too far and it's gonna let them off okay. There's gotta be a happy ending. There's always a happy ending ... I don't really understand why anyone would want to write for adults. My audience is the best audience. The 7 to 12-year-olds. I get them [at] the last time in their lives they'll ever be enthusiastic. When they turn 12, they discover sex, they have to be cool.
Where did the tagline "Reader beware, you're in for a scare" originate?
I don't remember. I don't think it's mine. We had a wonderful copy editor named Kathryn Cristaldi in the first part of the Goosebumps years and I think she may have come up with it. I don't remember. It's come in very handy. We have a special Goosebumps 30th anniversary hardcover coming out in [September] and it's called Slappy, Beware! So we've gotten good use out of "beware." It's the second hardcover Goosebumps and the first illustrated Goosebumps.
Tell me more about Slappy, Beware!
I've done about four books to tell Slappy’s origin, and they're all different. They're all completely different. One of them said he escaped from a puppet factory in Cincinnati ... But I claim in this book [that] this is the real origin and it goes back like 200 years to this evil sorcerer who creates these talking dummies.
Why did you decide to give him a number of different backstories?
I'm just not consistent. I could never write for the Marvel Universe [where] you have to have everything right. I did a series of Man-Thing comics for Marvel, but I picked Man-Thing because he was so far away from everyone else. He was off in the swamp and I didn't have to learn about the universe. Because I could never keep it straight.
Slappy has essentially become the mascot of the franchise. Why do you think he's become so popular with readers?
[Jokingly] It’s in my contract. This is true. Every other book has to be about Slappy. Every other one... I don't know. I don't really get it. I like writing him because he's like an insult comic. He insults everyone, he's really horrible. I love writing that, but I don't really understand why people are so scared of him. He was so popular in the two Goosebumps movies, that he just took off. Now, every other book has to be a Slappy book.
What is your personal favorite Goosebumps novel?
I think my favorite book is The Haunted Mask. Carly Beth wants to be scary at Halloween, puts on this mask, and it sticks through her face, becomes part of her, and turns her evil. I think that's my best Halloween book.
The TV adaptation of that book scared the crap out of me as a kid!
That was the first TV [episode] that we ever did. I thought it was really great. This wonderful young actress Catherine Long, who played Carly Beth, she was amazing.
Are you able to rank your Top 5 Goosebumps books?
No, I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t remember them. I liked the comic book ones like Attack of the Mutant.
Talk to me about the Give Yourself Goosebumps books. I loved those as a kid...
Those were back in the ‘90s. No one wants to publish them now. They’re a lot of fun, and everyone loves them, but you can't get publishers interested in in that at all. I'm not sure why.
What was the challenge of writing those?
[They were] much easier than they looked. I’d just take a pad and number from one to 100. And then start thinking of punch lines and write a little six-page story and then..."You die. Go back. You do this, you fell off the waterfall and you're dead," and then go back and just fill in the chart. It's just a whole series of like five or six-page punch lines. So they were much easier to write, I think. You didn't have to write a whole book.
I want to talk about the artwork of Tim Jacobus because his covers are just so evocative. How did he become the go-to artist for the original Goosebumps novels?
The Scholastic art department hired him. I actually didn't meet Tim for, like, three years. We were doing these books together and I never met him. He was off in New Jersey and we never got together. And then there was some launch party for the Goosebumps TV show, and I finally met him. But what an amazing thing. He did the cover paintings of the first 100 books. I would be writing the book when he was doing the painting. So I could just send over a little paragraph of what the book was going to be about and then he had to come up with the cover and everything. And he got it right every time, but once.
The one book he didn't get [on the first go] was Say Cheese and Die!, which was about an evil camera and these kids who discover it. He sent in a painting of skeletons barbecuing [and] it had nothing to do with the book. It was skeletons barbecuing. My editor called me and said, "Bob, could you add a scene of skeletons barbecuing? Tim can't change the painting." And so, I put in a dream sequence [where] the kid dreams of skeletons barbecuing. That's how we solved it. That was the only one that he got wrong.
He was great because he wasn't just scary. He didn't just do scary covers, he [also] got the humor of it. His covers were funny at the same time [that] they were scary. That’s what was amazing about his work. I'm just I'm a big admirer of Tim. I'm doing a new comic book series for BOOM! Studios for adults [entitled Stuff of Nightmares], and we got Tim to do one of the covers for that... It's for grownups. It's my version of the Frankenstein legend, which I've never done somehow. And it's really gruesome, it's really ghastly. I keep saying, "Kids, stay away from this." I think they're doing eight or nine covers of the first one, which is insane. The covers are amazing.
Why riff on Frankenstein?
Just [because] I’ve never done it. I've always loved the Frankenstein story, the novel, and the original movie. So I thought, ‘What can I do that’ll be different?’ It's quite different. It doesn't really follow the story.
What was your favorite of Tim's Goosebumps paintings?
There's one on a really bad book. [It’s] called The Barking Ghost, and it has a really evil dog on the cover. That's one of my favorites.
Looking back on the last 30 years, would you say there’s anything you wish you could have done differently?
I wish I was 30 years younger, when I started. I would have done that differently. Otherwise, I have nothing to complain about. Things worked out fine. As I said, I feel very lucky.
What’s next for the franchise?
Disney+ ordered a Goosebumps TV series. I'm sort of at the end of this contract, coming to the end of Slappyworld #20 or something. And then I don't know if we'll continue with Slappy World or give it another fresh title. But the stories are all the same. I think we're just gonna keep going.
What have been some of your favorite fan interactions over the years?
The mail is the best part. Last week I got a letter from a girl who said, "Dear R.L. Stine, you are my second favorite author." That was the whole letter. That was it, keeping me in suspense. I [also] get insulting ones. "I love your Fear Street books. I read them all the time. But I have one question. Why do they end without making any sense?" That's a good one. Here's my all time favorite letter. Maybe you've heard me tell this one. It's from a boy: "Dear R.L. Stine. I've read 40 of your books and I think they're really boring." Isn't that perfect?
Speaking of Fear Street, you had the Netflix trilogy premiere last summer and they were a huge hit...
Every film made No. 1 on Netflix. It was amazing. I was shocked by those films [because] they’re R-rated. Even my life isn't R rated. It was all teenagers being slashed to bits.
Things like Fear Street and Stranger Things are really big right now. Why do you think we’re so enamored with stories of young people fighting evil?
Again, it’s escape. And the real world is pretty scary these days, especially for kids. This is an escape — you can have these adventures and be okay. That's really what it is. You can have these fantasies. There's rumors of more Fear Street movies. Rumors. That would be nice.
Is there a Goosebumps idea you have yet to pursue?
I'm so lucky. I've done everything beyond my wildest dreams. I never thought I'd have a TV series and movies and, a 30-year-old book series.
Are you doing anything special to celebrate the 30-year milestone?
Yeah, breathing. Still breathing. That's the best part. No, it's fun to get out and start talking to people again, and I'm gonna start traveling again. It's been like two-and-a-half-years since we went anywhere. It’s one of the parts that I love, getting out and seeing the kids and seeing the readers. I haven't been able to do it for so long. So we'll be doing a lot of that for the anniversary.
Speaking of which, you should do a COVID-inspired Goosebumps book…
Too scary. In a couple years, no one's gonna want to talk about COVID.
Good point. Still, you’d probably want to wear the Haunted Mask if COVID was around.
[Laughs] I didn’t think of it, but yeah. That's good.
Looking for something horrific to watch in the meantime? Peacock has lots of horror movies to keep you suitably scared including The Amityville Haunting, The Changeling, Firestarter, and several Saw movies.