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After the ’80s saw a boom of horror movies that became commercial successes, the ’90s saw the genre open up to a whole new audience: kids. The decade was a golden age for gateway horror stories that introduced the genre to youngsters, with several shows scaring the hell out of them every week – while still providing some age-appropriate laughs.
No matter how many of these shows and movies came out during this time, there was one that reigned supreme when it came to balancing scares with kid-friendly entertainment: Goosebumps, the Fox Kids show based on the works of prolific horror author R. L. Stine. For almost three decades, the Goosebumps episodes produced between 1995 and 1998 have been keeping kids in fits of fright and laughter.
With the show celebrating its 25th anniversary this month, and Sony in development on a reboot, we’re looking back on the original series and the ways in which it prepped a generation of kids to turn off the cartoons and turn towards a new and ghoulish genre. And Stine himself is helping us break it down.
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Young-adult horror was not only a thing, but a major success by the time Goosebumps was released, but it was a genre mainly aimed at teenagers. That changed when author R. L. Stine started releasing the Goosebumps books in 1992, betting on the idea that kids even younger than that wanted to be scared too.
Nearly 30 years later, Stine is still writing Goosebumps, and the children’s horror landscape looks very different. “No one had done a horror book for 7-to-12 year olds, it hadn’t been done,” Stine told Rotten Tomatoes. “Twenty-eight years later and I’m still doing it. Scholastic just asked for six more. I’ll be 102 and still be writing these books.”
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Before Goosebumps hit the airwaves, Are You Afraid of the Dark? had already scared kids for five years with its campfire-side spooky tales. What made Goosebumps special was how it took Stine’s signature dry humor and made the TV show one that was scary enough for younger kids to dip their toes into the horror genre, but safe enough that it wouldn’t traumatize them.
“The people who did Goosebumps [the series] really understood the combination of humor and horror so it wouldn’t be too scary,” says Stine, who started his career in comedy. “If I think a scene is getting too intense, I just throw something funny to lighten it up. Every chapter in the Goosebumps books ends on a punchline. Horror and humor are very close together, and I think you get the same kind of visceral reaction from something funny or something scary, like when you go to a rollercoaster and hear people both laughing and people screaming.”
Indeed, the show was so successful as a gateway into horror because it eased audiences into it little by little, knowing when to pull back to let comedy deflate the tension. One of the best examples is Slappy the Dummy, the funny-yet-still-very-much-evil ventriloquist dummy who quickly grew into one of the most popular characters in the franchise (and the main villain in the 2015 theatrical film adaptation).
“I like writing Slappy sort of like an insult comedian,” Stine says. “I don’t really get it, what’s so scary about him, but people actually are scared of Slappy and like to send me mail and Tweets about it constantly. I think people are intrigued by an inanimate object coming to life.”
Every series needs good theme music, something that sets the mood for what the show is about, and eases you into its world. What’s Friends without The Rembrandts? Or The Simpsons without Danny Elfman’s title theme? For Goosebumps, the opening music and the visuals that accompanied it were creepy enough to live up to the famous tagline, itself a play on the tagline of the books: “Viewer beware, you’re in for a scare.”
It starts with the show’s intro, in which Stine himself – or at least a man in a coat with a briefcase marked “R. L. Stine” – is walking in a field where his briefcase flies open, sending a flurry of papers and a ghostly “G” into the air. The “G” floats through a town, in front of a bunch of scary signs, and past a creepy dog from hell with glowing eyes.
“When I saw the dog, I used a dog barking sound in a couple of places to make it sound like the melody of the theme music,” composer Jack Lenz told us. “And that made everybody laugh, and I thought if the music can’t scare you, at least it might make somebody laugh. It’s a fun theme for people because it’s simple, so it’s easy to remember, and it sounds scary.”
Lenz brought that scary-fun mix to the music used within the episodes, too. “Sometimes, if an episode wasn’t as scary, the producer Bill Siegler would tell me to make the music scarier,” he says. “We’d also use orchestra hits, which instantly makes a scene scarier. We got away with using them more than we probably should have. I thought the show was pretty scary for kids.”
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Three decades after Rod Serling stopped inviting us to The Twilight Zone, Goosebumps introduced kids to a world full of twist endings and surprise turns, often with thoughtful morals. From stories about monsters that turn out to be told from the point of view of the monsters themselves, to a scary summer camp that is revealed to be a training facility for aliens preparing to visit Earth, the ghouls of Goosebumps were rarely what they first appeared to be.
“I think this is why the books and the show are so liked by kids, because they’re not linear,” Stine says. “I think kids like it if a story curves around, twists, and turns instead of going in a straight line. I try to think of an ending first so I can figure out how to keep kids from guessing the ending right away.”
The twists also helped balance the horror and humor, as they were often comic in nature. The series’ big reveals often explained away monsters by making them something ordinary – if looked at a different way. (Which helped Goosebumps fans actually sleep at night.)
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Goosebumps came out decades before spending millions of dollars on a single episode of TV was the norm for some networks, but even if the series’ early CGI hasn’t aged particularly well, the creature effects still hold up. The very first episodes of the show, parts one and two of “The Haunted Mask,” do a great job of selling the horror of the main creature because of just how good the practical masks still look. And who can forget the Carpenter-like blob from “The Blob That Ate Everyone”?
“We had a great monster shop in Toronto,” Stine says. “These guys had a very low budget and they still came up with all the wonderful monsters and masks and all that stuff. For the very first one we did, ‘The Haunted Mask,’ they had four different masks, each one tighter than the last. That’s still my favorite episode, it looks great even today.”
Goosebumps may not have been a huge production, but its creature effects offered young fans some ghastly imagery and a solid introduction to creature features. Add some sharp twists, creepy music and a great sense of humor, and you have the ingredients for the best ’90s horror show aimed towards the little ones. And one that they – now grown-up and gore-happy – still fondly remember.