Originally published 11.6.18 on The Nerd Daily
Before Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games), before Stephanie Meyer (Twilight), even before J. K. Rowling (Harry Potter, incase you’ve been living under a rock for the past twenty years), there was R. L. STINE.
Few things say “horror” to 90s kids like recalling memories of curling up in front of the TV on Saturday night to catch an episode of Are You Afraid Of The Dark?, the Canadian horror fantasy-themed anthology Nickelodeon series that made spooky campfire stories a weekly event, and reading Goosebumps books, usually harvested from those most magical of school day events: the Scholastic Book Fair. At a time when girls in my peer group were busy reading series like The Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley High, rare would have been the occurrence to find eight-year old me without my nose stuffed deep in the pages of a Goosebumps book (the very first installment, Welcome to Dead House, residing squarely beside the quintessential Stine classic, Night of the Living Dummy, as my personal favorites). Nothing horrified my mother more than finding me still reading in bed past midnight, armed with a flashlight and shivering with eager dread under a blanket as I sped through the pages of a Goosebumps novel. “You’ll give yourself nightmares,” she’d often warn, and I did—I’m still a little uneasy around ventriloquist, er, dolls—but I also kept reading.
I wasn’t alone in my fascination with these books, with their neon covers and catchy harrowing titles like A Scarecrow Walks at Midnight and The Werewolf of Fever Swamp. The Goosebumps series—along with myriad spinoff series written by Stine, including Goosebumps Series 2000 (1998 to 2000), Goosebumps Gold (never released), Give Yourself Goosebumps (1995 to 2000), Goosebumps HorrorLand (2008 to 2012) and Goosebumps Most Wanted (2012 to 2016)—have sold more than 400 million copies since 1992. During a particular prosperous time in their mid-90s heyday, Goosebumps were flying off the shelf at a rate of 4 million copies per month, a speed unmatched until we met Harry Potter in 1997.
When the first Goosebumps movie hit theaters in October 2015, I found myself curious, excited, and frankly a little nervous. While the recent remake-revival of everything 80s and 90s was fun at first, I will concede it started getting a little hard to watch when Lisa Frank merchandise reappeared at Hot Topic and a remake of The Magic School Bus showed up streaming on Netflix. I watched the trailer for Goosebumps (2015) and thought to myself, please Hollywood, you’ve taken my sticker collections, trapper keepers, and Ms. Frizzle, please don’t destroy my childhood books, too. (Much of my anxiety was relieved when I saw that Jack Black had signed on to portray Stine himself. I don’t know why, but I think it had something to do with every Jack Black movie ever made.)
Of course, I went and saw it, dragging my then-nine-year-old son along with me. He was, admittedly, disinterested, going along with it only because it “might be cool.” In hopes of converting my son into a Goosebumps-kid, I picked him up a tattered old copy of one of the newer installments--Zombie School, I believe—at a secondhand bookstore, and although it had never left the bookshelf since it arrived at our house, I was still hopeful. We saw Goosebumps, and it was everything my childhood self could have ever dreamed it would be. All the classics came out to play, led as you might expect, by Slappy himself. There were twists, emotionally resonant characters, and just the right amount of absurdity and nail biting. I loved it.
And then came the sequel.
I was terrified. Not in the Goosebumps kind of way, but in the holy crap they’re going to remake the remake and they’re going to ruin it kind of way. My son, now 11, however, saw the preview and demanded we see it at once. I balked. Read some early notes. Checked to see if Black was still involved with the project. Whined a little about how sequels destroy dreams. Then, one day as I was organizing my son’s bookshelves I came across that secondhand copy of Zombie School. Its pages were falling out. The cover had detached itself and was now hanging off the book’s spine like the decaying flesh of one of the title characters. There were dog ears and highlighted passages, the kind that only appear after you’ve read a story a whole bunch of times and fallen completely in love with it.
At long last, my son, who has morphed into a sternly devout reader of series limited to Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Spy School, was becoming a Goosebumps kid. We went to the bookstore, and in the kid’s section—one I rarely visit—I was amazed to discover a massive stand of all-things Stine. Standing at that blissful kiosk I almost forgot that I am a fully-grown woman who reads Stephen King anthologies for breakfast. I had to stop myself from going home with a few old favorites, even though I really wanted to read Ghost Beach again. I started to feel hopeful about the remake-sequel of Goosebumps. The next week, the book fair came to school, and my son came home with a copy of the novelization of the new film.
I quit fussing and bought the damn tickets.
If the first Goosebumps film was the thing all of us 90s kids’ had been waiting for, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween was the thing we all worried about. The overly silly storyline was busy desperately trying to be original while still borrowing as many iconic Goosebumps characters as it could. If managing that messy kludge of doom wasn’t already bad enough, all of this was forcefully shoved against a Halloween backdrop like an unwitting kid in a school portrait, ignoring any potentially better suited plot that might have been leveraged from the 150+ actual Goosebumps stories. One particular standout scene—which usurped a ridiculous amount of screen time—involved a small army of demonic gummy bears that congealed themselves into one fanged gummy beast. It remains a mystery whether this goofball scene got so much real state because someone ran out of ideas to fill the hour and a half film, or because some writer had a particular fascination with the idea of a herd of little squishy candies blobbing together into one very large, very toothy gummy blob. In fact, that may be the single best way to sum up the movie itself: a lot of gummy fang instead of any real bite.
Silliness aside, there were some pretty decent scenes in the film—like when Slappy calls upon various Halloween decorations, from rubber rats to zombie masks, languishing on a discount department store shelf to come to life—and some pretty decent spooks for a family film—like (again) Slappy creeping into the bedroom of a sleeping girl, his shadow towering over hers with questionable intent. The most enjoyable aspect of the film isn’t found in the plotline itself, but perhaps in its character cast—though Black himself was only allotted a measly and completely unnecessary ten minutes to revive his role as Stine, sigh. From a single-mom, to an unassuming and vaguely nerdy main character, an entrepreneurial best friend who is equal parts comedic relief and the friend we all wish we had, a stereotypical bicycle-gang of preteen bullies, and a teenage sister navigating everything from bad boyfriends to college applications, this group might have been lifted directly out of any real world neighborhood and put into a twisted, over the top scenario that is too silly to be scary but still manages to give you—dare I say—goose bumps—assuming you’re eleven years old.
Realization hit me walking out of the theater. While I was busy rattling off reasons the film failed cinematically, why it didn’t live up to the expectations set in the first, why it just didn’t remind me of my childhood love affair with R. L. Stine, my son turned to me and asked the question I had been waiting to hear ever since I caught him reading in bed with a flashlight: “What’s your favorite Goosebumps book?” he asked. “Maybe I’ll read it next.” Sweet, shivery bliss filled my heart, and a sinister smirk even Slappy might have approved of crossed my face. I looped my arm around my son’s shoulders and steered him back toward that Goosebumps book kiosk waiting for us in the children’s section of the bookstore.
Suddenly, I found myself really, really happy with this nonsensical, Jello-for-storyline movie because while it didn’t do right by us old school readers, it did something I think might be even better. It’s reinvigorated a new generation of kids to pick up a Goosebumps novel, hide under bed sheets with a flashlight, and enjoy a case of the shivers. After all, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween wasn’t made for us 90s kids to relive our Goosebumps glory days. It was made for the kids of those 90s kids. To let them worry just a little bit about stuff that goes bump in the night. To scare the ever-living hell out of them every time they look at a ventriloquist doll. To give a new generation of readers goose bumps.