On the fifth floor of a storage facility off of US 1 sits my collection of Goosebumps books. They used to sit on the top shelf of a bookcase in my childhood bedroom, next to the Bible and a few issues of National Geographic. In that same box is a compilation of R.L. Stine’s “scariest stories” called Nightmare Hour: Time for Terror that frightened me so much that my mother had to hide it in my father’s dresser between his old pants. I only found it years later, and by then, there were other things to be afraid of.
R.L. Stine, who started off working on a Nickelodeon children’s show and turns 70 today, became one of the most prolific horror writers of our time and landed the Goosebumps series ahead of The Anarchist Cookbook on the ALA’s Most Banned & Challenged Books List. Stine realized that regardless of age, we all share the same collective anxieties. He tapped into them and gave birth to a ’90s-defining phenomenon.
Goosebumps led to several subsequent series, but none captured the intersection of childhood and fear as distinctly as those original 62 books published between July 1992 and December 1997. Following are ten of our favorites:
The Beast from the East
One of the most distinctive elements of Goosebumps was Stine’s ability to take something immediately familiar to children and suffuse it with the supernatural. The Beast from the East is emblematic of that effort. Ginger Wald and her brothers are trapped in a forest playing a game of tag with some blue-furred quasi-bear creatures that obviously want them dead. Remember playing tag? The strange tingle in your spine as you hid wordlessly behind a bush or, in my case, beneath a car (living in the city didn’t stop us)? Stine upped the stakes tenfold in his 43rd book in the series.
Welcome to Camp Nightmare
Never having gone to camp left me at a distinct disadvantage when it came to horror-genre consumption. I assume my parents had good reason not to send me and question why Billy Harlan’s would ever let him attend a camp called Nightmoon. As campers start to disappear, arguably at the hands of a creature called Sabre, we’re left to wonder whether sending kids to a sleepaway camp with a “Forbidden Bunk” is really the best idea.
Phantom of the Auditorium
A script for a play called The Phantom is found in the basement of a middle school. Yes, it is preposterously similar to what the cover art and title imply. There’s a trap door in the auditorium’s stage, and Brooke and Zeke decide to explore below. The rest you can figure out. For those of us lured by the dark corners behind our school’s stage curtains, the shadowy rafters and all that might have been lurking within them were sure to cause a hushed pause.
Evan’s parents are going house-hunting in Georgia, and so naturally, they drop him off with his 80-year old Aunt Kathryn. She greets him in the kitchen, bloody knife in hand. Looking for something to do, Evan goes into town, where he buys a tin of a Gak-like concoction labeled “MONSTER BLOOD: SURPRISING MIRACLE SUBSTANCE.” Novelty shops and the dusty homes of ancient relatives were all it took to inspire fear in an early-’90s child.
In another this-is-going-to-remind-you-of-something-else-immediately situation, let’s get it out of the way and just say it: Jaws. OK, now, brother/sister team Billy and Sheena Deep are vacationing on the fictitious Caribbean island of Ilandra with their uncle Dr. Deep, when Billy is attacked on an early morning swim by a hammerhead shark. What makes this the kids’ version of the carnivorous shark tale is the appearance of life-saving mermaids... (Sorry for trailing off; I’m too busy contemplating how funny Jaws would have been with mermaids.)
Welcome to Dead House
In the series’ first book, Stine tackles one of horror’s most instantly recognizable tropes: the haunted house. The Benson family decides to move to Dark Falls, where Compton Dawes, their real estate agent, found them the perfect home. Unfortunately for them, a slew of children were murdered there and once a year return to collect the new blood they need to sustain their spectral existence. As long as we live and continue to die in houses, this sort of thing is sure to persist.
Night of the Living Dummy
Ventriloquism, I think we can all agree, is terrifying. The fact that the dummies are often carved, it seems specifically, to induce discomfort may have something to do with it. In Stine’s tale, twins Lindy and Kris Powell are walking home when they find a dummy behind the dumpster of a house under construction. They name him Slappy. Their father, deciding that his daughters should each have one of everything, buys another dummy, Mr. Wood. When both dummies come to life and start fighting each other, one is reminded why playing with inanimate humanoid dolls that one has to give voice to is really weird.
Say Cheese and Die!
Barring the preposterous title, this is a personal favorite. A lazy summer day has four friends exploring the abandoned Coffman House. In a secret compartment in the basement’s walls they find an old camera. The children discover that the camera takes photos of terrible future occurrences. And that the camera precipitates these manifestations of evil itself. The revenge-of-technology angle was a clever one for Stine to take on and made Say Cheese and Die! one of his more alarming stories.
One Day at Horrorland
As they drive through the desert searching for Zoo Gardens, the Morris family becomes incurably lost. They soon come upon a sign, though, for HorrorLand; scrapping their original plans, they head there instead. A sign at the park heralds that there’s “NO EXIT” and that “NOBODY LEAVES HORRORLAND ALIVE.” Damn. While One Day at Horrorland spawned the spin-off series HorrorLand, what matters here is how fun the rides at HorrorLand seemed. I’d get on the Coffin Cruise or the Deadly Doom Slide any day.
The Haunted Mask
Tim Jacobus’ (the artist responsible for all 62 original Goosebumps covers) gripping illustration and Stine’s straightforward plot made The Haunted Mask an emblem for the series. Quiet Carly Caldwell saves up her money and buys a mask for Halloween at a local costume shop. The mask Carly chooses, we later learn, is not a mask at all but a real, living face. The unusually macabre turn ensured that this ten-year-old had yet another reason to look forward to Halloween. And Carly’s brother’s question at the end (“How do I look in your mask?”) sent a chill down my spine that I still remember.