Growing up there weren’t many things better than going to the local library. Unlike a trip to the toy or video game store, with the library you knew you were never coming home empty-handed. A journey to the library meant wild adventures with seafaring pirates, chocolate factory crazed CEOs and magical phantom tollbooths. Your imagination had no limits and each book took you somewhere exciting and new. My childhood is filled with good memories of heading to the local library with my parents and my best friend, Nelson.
For kids growing up in the mid ’90s, GOOSEBUMPS was a phenomenon. It was a monthly horror series for kids. The books were not really scary but R.L. Stine found lightning in a bottle. Dark humor, twist endings and spooky happenings that was as addictive as it was macabre. Many kids in the mid ’90s became readers because of R.L. Stine’s tentpole series. Because of Goosebumps I came to love reading. Not only that but I became interested in writing as well. I am far from the only ’90s kid for which that rings true. 20+ years ago all the kids were reading them and discussing the latest chapter (excuse the pun) in the famed franchise out on the playground. The writing wasn’t Hemingway or Fitzgerald, and there was a certain cheesiness to them, but in a way, it was all part of the charm. And a sign of the times. It was more about the feelings that these books evoked. Seeing a new Goosebumps book on the shelf sent a quick shiver down your spine. Be it mutant worms or sinister scarecrows, the books gave kids a rush like few other books did.
THE BIRTH OF A MONSTER
It all began in July 1992. Right away the embossed title and spooky artwork grabbed my attention. At the time there really wasn’t anything else quite like it. WELCOME TO DEAD HOUSE. Oh wait, is it called Goosebumps, or Welcome to Dead House? And just who is that creepy bedraggled figure in the window there? So many questions raced through my mind. And so too for Amanda and Josh, the two protagonists of the story. Arriving at their new home in Dark Falls, they can’t help but feel a strange sense of dread about their neighborhood. Despite being the middle of July, there seems to be an artificial darkness created by massive, overhanging tree limbs. Dark brown leaves and shadows are everywhere. Just who is that ghost in the house that Amanda saw? And with this classic first entry, the cult series was off and running.
STAY OUT OF THE BASEMENT was its second entry in the series.
It’s a lovely warm winter day in California. Siblings Margaret and Casey Brewer are outside playing frisbee. Margaret flings the frisbee her dad’s way as he passes through the backyard. Mr. Brewer gruffly declines, stating he has too much work to do in the basement. But, what exactly does he do in the basement, anyhow? Neither Margaret nor Casey knows, but something is happening down there…
Ever since he got fired from PolyTech, their dad has buried himself away in the basement. Slaving away at all hours of the night, he’s been experimenting with plants. Once, Margaret tried to get a sneak peek at her father’s laboratory, only for him to fire her a stone cold glare, yelling STAY OUTTA THE BASEMENT!
Goosebumps returned in September 1992 with its third entry, Monster Blood. It opens with 12 year old Evan Ross being dropped off at his creepy old aunt Kathryn’s for a few days. He soon bumps into Andy, a cute 12 year old girl in the neighborhood, who asks him to accompany her into town to pick up an early birthday present for her cousin. All too happy to oblige, Evan joins her as the two end up at a toy store in town called Wagner’s Novelties and Sundries. There they find a metal can with the words MONSTER BLOOD written on it. Naturally, the shopkeeper warns them not to buy it but they insist and pandemonium soon ensues.
Kris rearranged her pillows, then glanced across the room to the window. The dummy’s face was half covered in shadow now. But the eyes glowed as if he were alive. And they stared into hers as if they were trying to tell her something. Why does he have to grin like that, Kris asked herself, trying to rub away the prickly feeling on the back of her neck. She pulled up the sheet, settled into the bed, and turned on her side, away from the wide, staring eyes. But still, even with her back turned, she could feel them gazing at her. Even with her eyes closed and the covers pulled up to her head, she could picture the shadowy, distorted grin, the unblinking eyes. Staring at her. Staring. Staring. She drifted into an uncomfortable sleep, drifted into yet another nightmare. Someone was chasing her…
Goosebumps was quickly turning into a household name. Initially, I purposely avoided it. I was a quirky kid: if something became too popular and I was not there in the beginning as a fan, then I hated hopping on the bandwagon. So while everyone at my school was raving about Goosebumps, I stubbornly held out. That all changed one fateful day in late ’93. It was reading time in Mr. G’s 5th grade class. I chose The Girl Who Cried Monster. Figured it couldn’t hurt to read a few pages. A few pages turned into the entire book. It was a spin-off on the classic tale The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Lucy is obsessed with monsters. Late one night, in search of her roller blades, Lucy gets locked in when the librarian closes up shop. She never realized how spooky the library can be until she found herself shrouded in its dark, twisted corridors. That’s when she discovers a horrifying truth: Mr. Mortman is a monster!
I’ll never forget standing there that day in 5th grade, staring at Mr. G’s books trying to pick one to read for silent reading time. I saw The Girl Who Cried Monster near the top of the shelf and finally succumbed. I never looked back.
October 1993. In time for Halloween, The Haunted Mask is one of the greatest Goosebumps books of all time. It tells the tale of Carly Beth: a shy, overly trusting, reserved girl bullied by some guys at school. Carly Beth is often a target for torment. After being scared yet again by the bullies, Carly Beth decided it was time to deliver a little payback. Riding into town she heads for the local costume shop. Distraught that it’s closed for the evening, fate stepped in. The mysterious owner of the store opened the door, ushering her in. As the owner tends to his shop, Carly Beth stumbles into the backroom where she finds the most hideous and grotesque mask one could ever hope to see. The owner refuses to sell her the one she wants, but she throws her money at him and takes off. After racing home she puts the mask on. It feels horribly warm and flesh-like. Her voice changes as well as even her demeanor when adorning the foul mask. The more she put it on, the harder it became to take off. What follows is an unforgettable Halloween night of mischief, revenge and terror. Steve and Chuck get the scare of their lives, and Carly Beth relishes her ultimate conquest. However, Halloween is now over… and the mask just won’t come off. Packed with Halloween atmosphere, The Haunted Mask is arguably R.L. Stine’s finest work.
By December 1993 there wasn’t a single kid who didn’t have Goosebumps fever. The last entry that year was The Werewolf of Fever Swamp. One of the gnarliest covers in the series, the book opens with this chilling intro:
We moved to Florida during Christmas vacation. A week later, I heard the frightening howls in the swamp for the first time. Night after night, the howls made me sit up in bed. I would hold my breath and wrap my arms around myself to keep from shivering. I would stare out my bedroom window at the chalk-colored full moon. And I would listen. What kind of creature makes such a cry? I’d ask myself. And how close is it? Why does it sound as if it’s right outside my window? The wails rose and fell like police car sirens. They weren’t sad or mournful. They were menacing. Angry. They sounded like a warning.
You Can’t Scare Me opened up 1994 with a bang. The 15th entry in the franchise, it sported a strikingly creepy cover that you couldn’t help but stare long and hard at. The aesthetic of the design is perfect. From the embossed title to the memorable artwork to the cheesy little tagline, each book’s cover was special in its own way.
Courtney is a total show-off. She thinks she’s so brave and she’s always making fun of Eddie and his friends. But Eddie’s had enough. Eddie is going to scare Courtney once and for all. And he’s got the perfect plan. He’s going to lure her down to MUDDY CREEK. Because Eddie knows she believes in that silly rumor about the monsters. Mud monsters that live in the creek. It’s too bad Eddie doesn’t believe the rumors…
#16, One Day At HorrorLand, still haunts me to this day. As a little kid I always fancied amusement parks and small town carnivals. It always spooked me to think… what if the attraction site holds a terrible secret… a secret no one is supposed to ever know. What if there was a bloody murder or mishap years ago that haunts the place? I mean, working in a carnival has got to drive one a bit nutty. Who knows what kind of death trap we could be stepping in? One Day At HorrorLand examines those childhood fears and more.
When the Morris family got lost trying to find Zoo Gardens Theme Park, they stumbled onto another amusement park instead. Never seen or heard of before, there are no lines, no crowds and no hassle at HorrorLand. It seems to be everything one could ask for: killer rides and none of the wait. But as the Morris family is about to find out, the rides are killer indeed. Because there’s something weird about the rides at HorrorLand…
One of my favorite things about Goosebumps was reading the back cover. It always sported a lovely caption along with prose that made you want to read the whole book in one sitting right then and there. But the best part was down at the bottom. It actually revealed the title of next month’s entry! Why I’m Afraid of Bees, #17 in the series, is one I will never forget. My best friend Nelson received the book one cold morning. Nelly and I sat across the room from each other. I saw his jaw drop as he read the back cover. What could it be? Nelly showed me the back cover but being across the room I couldn’t quite make it out. That’s when Nelson flipped to the end of the book where there was a page with bigger text. And there I saw it.
At that point I knew about sequels in the world of movies and video games. But I never saw a sequel to a book before. Mind you I was 10 at the time and not the biggest book connoisseur, but yeah. It just blew my mind that R.L. Stine was penning a sequel to one of the most iconic books in his famed franchise. It gave Nelson and me great hope that there may be sequels for other greats in the months to come, such as Night of the Living Dummy and The Haunted Mask. (We got our wish, by the way).
#20 in the series holds a distinct soft spot in my heart. I have always been big on round numbers and coming out in May 1994, it was the last book order of 5th grade. Heading into the summer with the latest Goosebumps entry sounded like a pretty bang up way to kickstart one’s summer. And one of the coolest things about these books was hoping and wishing that R.L. Stine would write one centered around a certain monster or nightmare you were particularly fond of. For me, it was scarecrows. I’d always been fascinated by them; the idea that evil spirits could possess them was a scary thought. With their hideous burlap faces and twisted bodies, scarecrows are the last thing I want to stand next to under a full moon. No thank you!
October 1995. The long awaited sequel to The Haunted Mask finally arrives, a full two years later. This time, Steve (the bully from the first book) finds a horrible mask and it latches onto him like a face hugger. Yeah, sure, it makes Steve the king of scares on this Halloween night, but the problem is, the longer Steve wears the decrepit mask, the older and older his body feels…
R.L. STINE BEFORE GOOSEBUMPS
In the early ’90s it was a weekly tradition for my mom to take me and my best friend, Nelson, to our local library. On our way to the children’s section we had to pass by the aisle containing teen novels, displayed in movable glass panels. Their cover would stick out and you could see some of the books. One day in late ’92 Nelson and I were strolling by when we caught sight of a cover so incredibly disturbing and creepy that it would forever haunt us. A high school cheerleader, possessed by an evil spirit, clutches her pom pom. But there was something eerie and unnatural about the pom pom. We did a double take and realized there was a skull staring back at us. Nelson and I, in our typical exaggerated dorkiness, looked at each other, looked back at the book cover, then looked back at one another with our mouths wide open. We forced ourselves to creep toward the teen section to get a closer look. It stood high on the top glass panel as not to be touched. He dared me to read it. Naturally, I countered by double dog daring him. Finally, after some back and forth ribbing, we agreed to call it a tie. Maybe one day we’ll both read it, but for now, hey, we were only 9 years old…
R.L. Stine’s teen horror novels from that point on became the stuff legends were made of. Nelson and I would peek at the covers whenever we went to the library, but neither of us dared to even pick one up. We definitely made them out to be scarier than they were, but it was all part of the fun of being a kid and being best friends with someone who also loved monsters and horror as much as you did. Throughout ’93 and ’94 it became sort of a running joke between the two of us to see who would read the first teen horror novel. Nelson and I both saw Stine’s teen novels as Goosebumps on steroids. While they scared me as a kid, that didn’t stop me from admiring the covers whenever I stopped by the book store or the library. One of the most gripping and memorable covers was CURTAINS. The image of the lady trying to stab the guy is one that has never left me. These teen novels seemed legitimately disturbing, especially when you were 9 or 10. Even more than 20 years later, most of their art covers are still firmly embedded in my mind.
THE NEXT LEVEL OF FEAR
Fall 1995. I just began the 7th grade. It was silent sustained reading (SSR) time in my language arts class. I thumbed through my teacher’s library of books, trying to find something decent to pass the time. That’s when I first stumbled upon The Babysitter. It’s actually one of the older books R.L. Stine wrote. The Babysitter tells the awful tale of a high school babysitter being stalked by a stranger in the night. Creepy stuff. The back had the best description:
From the minute Jenny accepted the Hagen babysitting job, she knew she had made a mistake. First there was the dark and disheveled Hagen house, moaning and groaning with her every step. Then the crank phone calls started. “Hey babe. Are you all alone? COMPANY’S COMING.” When Jenny discovered a creepy neighbor prowling in the backyard and a threatening note in her backpack, she realized this wasn’t just a harmless game. But who would want to hurt her? What kind of maniac wanted to scare Jenny… to death?
I love this book and actually reread it about six years ago. It holds up well; I believe it’s perhaps Stine’s finest work. Published in the summer of 1989, it also has the distinction of being one of his earliest efforts. The Babysitter made ya think twice, even thrice, about babysitting.
SEND IN THE CLONES!
As with anything else that catches fire, inevitably you’ll get some clones popping up in an attempt to get their own slice of the pie. Goosebumps inspired a string of horror novel series for kids. The first I can recall was Betsy Haynes’ Bone Chillers. Even the title was embossed! There was no shame. The Bone Chillers series opened with Beware the Shopping Mall and ran for a solid 20-plus entries. Of all the clones, I liked this one the most. I’m particularly fond of Frankenturkey. It’s as absurd as it is abominable. Like the other clones, I never chose Bone Chillers over Goosebumps, but they were a decent alternative whenever the latest Goosebumps book was checked out at the library. Hell, there was even a 13 episode run of Bone Chillers on ABC television in the mid-late ’90s. Not bad, Miss Haynes, not bad at all.
Ah, Shadow Zone. My least favorite of the clones, it does hold a special spot in my heart, though. My mom took me and Nelson to the library as usual one day, and we saw Shadow Zone sitting there. Another clone, I thought to myself, and I know Nelson thought the same. There’s something unspeakably awesome about discovering something alongside your best friend. The books themselves weren’t very good. They seemed to lack the charm of Goosebumps. The artwork was also quite awful. The Goosebumps covers were more often hit than miss, but Shadow Zone had some terribly unappealing art Nevertheless, Shadow Zone was a sign of the times: a time when seemingly everyone and their brother was hopping on the youth horror novel bandwagon. If nothing else, it gave us plenty of choices to choose from.
Deadtime Stories. Again with the popular embossed letters, this series was written by the Cascone sisters. I felt it fell somewhere in-between Bone Chillers and Shadow Zone. It wasn’t bad, but it was not my favorite of the clones either. It was just… kinda there. They did have some pretty badass covers, though, so I’ll give them that much. The Faerie Tale one sticks out in mind… it was genuinely creepy to see back in the day, and even now it remains a bit unsettling to look at.
Finally, we have Graveyard School. They were unique in the sense that all the stories revolved around the students of Graveyard School. It was cool to see some sort of connection from one book to the next. Plus, as a kid I got a huge kick out of the author’s fake name, Tom B. Stone. Oh Mr. Stone, you are a funny one, good sir. I was not a huge fan, though. Like Deadtime Stories it was just kind of there for me. Still, not a bad read from time to time when Goosebumps was checked out.
AND A SPECIAL SHOUT OUT TO…
I would be gravely remiss if I didn’t give a special mention to SCARY STORIES to Tell in the Dark. Published in 1981, it’s one of those infamous books we saw in bookstores growing up that we wanted to pick up but were too scared to. I finally read through it in the 4th grade. And simply put, it scared the shit out of me. The stories were as disturbing as the twisted artwork itself. It seemed like something that crawled straight out of hell. Those eerie black and white drawings are firmly embedded in my soul. If you grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, you probably have a memory of Scary Stories as well. It was just one of those infamous books that everyone knew about. It was damn near mythical.
The one story that haunts me most, as well as many others, is the one about the lady who got bit by a spider. A red spot appears on her left cheek. She thinks nothing of it. One day she begins scratching it because it’s so itchy. The spot pops and out comes crawling dozens of baby spiders. Ugh. The drawing still creeps me out to this day. This was the story my friends and I always referred to whenever we talked about Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories book. In fact, they’re making a movie about it. I’m excited to see how it turns out. If it’s half as disturbing as the book was, it will be a mega-hit! Do our childhood proud, Guillermo Del Toro!
Goosebumps played a big role during my childhood. Not only did they cement me as an avid reader, but it grew my love for horror. Goosebumps came during a special period in my life. Right around 1993 and ’94 when the SNES, Saturday morning cartoons and toys were all running wild — what a great time to be a kid. My old best friend Nelson and I used to have friendly competitions where we’d see which one of us could read the latest book each month first. Then we would discuss our thoughts the next day out on the playground. It was all part of the fun. Talk to any kid who grew up during the mid ’90s and they’re sure to fondly recall Goosebumps. Yeah, it was a little cheesy. But there is no denying the success the franchise enjoyed and the profound impact it had on a generation of kids who are now grown adults. Thanks in big part to R.L. Stine, we came to love books and things that go bump in the night. Simply put, Goosebumps struck lightning in a bottle, and I’m lucky to have lived through that era. Looking back, it was truly a magical time.
See more great mock covers here!