Like many others of my generation, I grew up in front of my television set. For me, it was a form of religion with multiple deities to subscribe to. With that said, however, I did not spend my time watching horror movies. As a kid, I was a bona fide weeny and hence I devoted my time watching shows on kid-friendly stations like Nickelodeon and The Disney Channel. At yet, even then, I was not entirely exempt from horror programming.
During the 90s, there were two main horror anthologies for kids: Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark? Both shows were Canadian produced and featured several of the same actors. Between the two, however, Goosebumps had greater notoriety. This was attributed to the fact that it was based on the book series of the same name by author R.L. Stine. Everyone growing up back then knew the Goosebumps name and, between the books and the VHS tapes, Goosebumps was a household name.
To cater to a young audience, the show featured themes specific to kids and young adults. For instance, the theme of having to move was common amongst several of the episodes. Likewise, the notion of having to visit a distant (and usually boring) relative was also common. The most prevailing underlying theme was that of being isolated and without help. Typically, the young protagonist(s) would discover some supernatural threat or issue. They would then try to warn the adults, often their parents, only to be dismissed as merely seeking attention. In general, most of the adults featured on the show were portrayed as inept or unreliable. In certain cases, the adults themselves were the monster or the otherworldly antagonist. As such, the kids were usually on their own, tasked with finding a way to defeat the monster or villain.
Of course, no episode of Goosebumps was complete without a twist ending. This was a defining characteristic of the series, an element intended to surprise viewers. Although some episodes ended on a positive note, most ended on a complication. This meant that, even if the monster was vanquished, a new horror would spring up in its place. These ending instilled viewers with a sense of lingering dread and vulnerability, something that few, if any, other kid shows bothered to attempt.
The series featured many memorable episodes including “Welcome to Camp Nightmare,” “The Headless Ghost,” and “Stay Out of the Basement.” However, the one that always sticks out in my mind is my very first Goosebumps episode. It happened when I was in kindergarten. My brother and I had gotten home from school one day and had spent the afternoon watching Fox Kids. We had just finished an episode of the Power Rangers when Goosebumps began to play.
On the television screen, a man wearing a dark coat and hat walked alone. Although his face remained unexposed to the camera, the name R.L. Stine was printed on the man’s briefcase. As he came to the top of a hill, his briefcase opened inexplicably. The man, looking out over an unsuspecting town below, seemed unconcern with his opened briefcase, the papers inside now scattered by a gust of wind. But more than just papers left the case. A shadow in the shape of an uppercase letter “G” slithered out, descending upon the town. As the shadow passed a billboard, the image of the woman featured on it began to wilt. Likewise, as the shadow passed over a lounging dog, the pet’s eyes glowed an unnatural yellow, its pupils suddenly slits. Arriving at a darkened house, the shadow crept its way up the front steps where its presence seemed to open the front opened, revealing a series of frightening images: a girl screaming, an intimidating old man, kids running in the night, a bed of worms, an encroaching mummy.
The glue that tied all of these images together was the theme song. Comprised of a spidery piano melody and accompanied by other instruments and sound effects, the theme song was both playful yet sinister (the word “spooky” feels appropriate). As the opening came to a close, a disembodied voice called out the line,“Viewer beware: you’re in for a scare.” By the time the voice finished its warning, the word “Goosebumps” appeared in the green lettering against an empty black background. Altogether, this title sequence was a stark contrast to the upbeat superhero fight-fest that my brother and I had just watched. We knew we were in for something very different, something that might scare us. Yet, we could not look away nor did we attempt to change the channel.
The episode that my brother and I saw that day was “Night of the Living Dummy II.” The title was no doubt an homage to the late George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). This was not the only episode titled after a classic horror or science fiction film. Other examples included “Phantom of the Auditorium” (1925’s Phantom of the Opera) and “It Came from Beneath the Kitchen Sink” (It Came from Outer Space, 1953). The episode itself opens with the Kramer family conducting a kind of show-and-tell gathering in their living room. Amy (Maggie Castle), the middle child, tries her hand at a ventriloquist performance with an old dummy, Dennis. The performance is cut short however after the dummy’s head pops off. It is then that her father (Richard Fitzpatrick) reveals he recently purchased a new dummy for her. Out from an old trunk Amy pulls Slappy, a dummy dressed in a tuxedo with red hair and large green eyes. In his breast pocket Amy finds a small card with an incantation written on it. Confused by the strange words, Amy reads the incantation aloud.
Although initially excited with her new dummy, Amy’s enthusiasm quickly grows into contempt. The morning after, Amy’s older sister, Sara (Caterina Scorsone), finds freshly painted stick figures on her detailed painting. Despite her claims of innocence, Amy catches the blame for ruining the painting. Likewise, when Amy attempts another ventriloquist routine for her family, Slappy spouts out an insult regarding her father’s guitar-playing skills. Again, Amy is scolded. Other such occurrences continue to take place inside the Kramer household. In spite of Amy’s claims that Slappy is behind these incidents, her family and friends continue to hold her responsible. Eventually, Amy tries to rid herself of Slappy, dumping him in a storm drain outside.
Later that night, however, Slappy confronts Amy in her bedroom. He reveals that she, having read the incantation, brought Slappy to life and bound himself to her and her family. When Sara enters, Slappy reveals himself to her. The two girls scream in terror and run out of the room, seeking shelter in Sara’s bedroom. Although safe, the two sisters realize their younger brother, Ted (Andrew Sardella), is still unaware of Slappy’s presence. Fearing for his safety, the girls make their way to the darkened living room. Hiding underneath one of the couches, Slappy trips Amy. He stands over her atop the coffee table and announces himself the new head of the family. As he stands there laughing, a small figure tackles Slappy, his head breaking open upon hitting the brick fireplace. A green gases disperses into the room from the dummy’s head. Just then, Mr. and Mrs. Kramer arrive home from work. They ask about the commotion. The two girls explain Amy’s innocence and claim Ted to have saved them from Slappy. Confused, Ted enters the room and asks what happened. Just then, the family turns towards the coffee table. There, bathed in moonlight, stands Dennis — Amy’s previous dummy. He chuckles and remarks about once again being part of the family. The Kramers stares back in horror, the episode fading to black.
“Night of the Living Dummy II” is not considered one of the more iconic episodes, but it still holds significance. It marked the first appearance of Slappy, one of the few reoccurring villains on the show. As such, he stood as something of a poster-child for the Goosebumps franchise. Slappy appeared twice more in the episodes “Night of the Living Dummy III” and “Bride of the Living Dummy.”
Despite its wide appeal, Goosebumps only lasted for four seasons across four years. By the fourth season, the novelty of the series had worn off and the many of the episodes started to feel stale. Most featured a false scare just before the first commercial break as a means to keep viewers from changing the channel. These scares often turned out be a character playing a prank or just something trivial catching the protagonist off-guard. The twist endings, although a significant characteristic of the series, also contributed to the structural repetition. While the specifics of each ending varied between episodes, endings often fell into one of several categories. Likewise, the guarantee of a twist ending could undermine an episode’s tension, especially knowing that, even if the protagonist was triumphant, a new threat would ultimately be revealed. In certain instances, the twist ending would directly negate the build-up of the entire episode. Whereas the previous seasons averaged around twenty episodes, the fourth season was comprised of only eight episodes – four two-parters. It stands to reason that the showrunners were aware of the fact that many of the better episodes were two-parters when making season four. Unfortunately, these episodes are not particularly memorable and can be considered the weakest in the entire series. The final episode, “Deep Trouble” aired on November 16th, 1998.
Despite the television series’ cancellation, the Goosebumps name still lives on. To date, over one hundred Goosebumps books have been published by Stine and Scholastic Inc. While the Goosebumps name never returned to television after 1998, its legacy continued in R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour (2010-2014). Most recently, 2015 saw the series return to the mainstream with the release of the Goosebumps motion picture.
Looking back, the series has not aged too well with dated special effects and a formula repeated across many of the episodes. With that said, I hold both Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark? in high nostalgic regards. This is not only because of the memories I have of watching them, but also for their status as artifacts of my childhood. The clothing, the hairstyles and other aesthetics of the shows all scream the 90s – the era in which I grew up. Beyond the nostalgia factor, both Goosebumps and AYAotD? hold significance for their contributions to horror. Both took the genre and made it something approachable for kids without outright scarring them for life. I believe neither show to be solely responsible for shaping my current appreciation for the genre, but I do believe that they did help to ease me into it.
Today, most of the Goosebumps episodes have been released on DVD. However, all four seasons of the show are available for streaming on Netflix and for purchase on iTunes. With the release of the Goosebumps movie, now stands as good a time as any to revisit the series or to expose it to new generations.