A tribute to R.L. Stine, our first horror hero

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Jul 10, 2018, 6:00 PM EDT

A monstrous amusement park. A dangerous camera. A ghostly neighbor. A mask that adhered to a child's skin and made her strangle a friend. For those of us of a certain age, these were the stories that filled our childhoods, and when we grew out of them, we moved on to murderous stepsisters, murderous boyfriends, and murderous dissociative identities. One man was behind it all, creating an entire generation of baby horror enthusiasts: R.L. Stine.

Welcome to the Dead House, the first book in Stine's long-running Goosebumps series, was released in July of 1992. I remember being in third or fourth grade reading Goosebumps books like One Day at HorrorLand and my favorite, The Haunted Mask, and feeling like I was getting away with something. That there were dangerous and unknowable things and I was reading about them and it was thrilling. But it was also comforting. It was inside a book with a bright cover on the same shelf as Vampires Don't Wear Polka Dots and My Teacher Is an Alien, books I knew couldn't be real and therefore whatever sense of fear they instilled wasn't based in reality. These books were just fun. Being scared in this way, the safest way imaginable, was fun. It laid the groundwork for a lifetime of loving this exact feeling.

But eventually, I grew up — all the way to fifth and sixth grade — and I needed something stronger. Once again Stine provided, this time with Fear Street and Point Horror, series that predated Goosebumps by a few years. Those books brought the elements a budding pre-teen fear-seeker desperately needed: makeouts and murder. They had backstabbing (figuratively) and backstabbing (literally). They also had a lot of hair brushing (an affinity for brushing their long beautiful hair was a character trait of more than a few female protagonists and villains alike). 

Fear Street books

The primary Stine series introduced concepts necessary not only to the enjoyment of horror but of storytelling across the genre spectrum. Goosebumps gave readers the introduction of chaos into the otherwise typical lives of children. It gave fans kids who were capable but confused and afraid, and it didn't always give them a happy ending. Fear Street gave young bookworms mystery, for many their first whodunit.

What I loved about Stine's books was everything I would come to love about horror later. That exhilarating terror, the sheer joy in seeing the bad guy get it and the gleeful agony of watching him get away, and above all else, this strange, comforting sense of control we could only capture from watching or reading, that sense that we as women are gathering tips to take on attackers, that we were capable of defeating evil if faced with it — whether the heroines we're studying do or not.

Because, best of all, so many Goosebumps books — and most of the Fear Street books — gave us female heroes and villains. That's not to say these were exactly all complex rich female characters (seriously, so much hair brushing), but young women and girls could be both victim and killer in the same book, save the day and act as the day's ruin. This was revolutionary for me, growing up with the still-disturbing children's films of the '80s and '90s in which female villains were a rarity and what female villains we had were withered old crones. We could be the recipient of spooky Valentine's Day poems predicting our untimely deaths, or we could be the sister behind it all, stabbing our sister in the back with an ice skate and then ourselves in the side with a letter opener to frame the neighbor boy. Women, we can have it all!

With Goosebumps, this was especially important. Because even as children, there was a clear divide in boy books and girl books. And I loved my girl books dearly, my Babysitter's Club and Lurlene McDaniel tragedies. But this major book series was and remains beloved across the childhood gender spectrum and featured boys and girls in the starring roles, often taking turns book to book. And as they were for children, they lacked the more gendered horror tropes that we would see a few years later. We weren't punished for sexuality or virginal Final Girls yet. In Goosebumps and only in Goosebumps, we could just be kids. 

My love of horror left Fear Street behind years ago in favor of darker, bloodier offerings. But Stine will always be my first haunted mask, my first Dead House, my first death-by-ice-skate. And for that, I'm ghoulishly grateful.

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