Ok, you’ve had some time to geek out over the nostalgia-gasm that is the new trailer for Goosebumps, right? You’ve splooshed and boi-oi-oinged to the barrage of imagery straight from the pages of R.L. Stine‘s landmark, commercially record-breaking, critically-null epic chronicle of that which lurks beneath the sink and the seemingly mundane life of every kid born between 1983 and 1988 (my apologies to the precocious and the held-back).
Mad props must go to Tim Jacobus, as well. It’s great to see some of his inventive images in the trailer as well. I try to opt out of discussions about the business side of “the industry,” but he better have gotten a paycheck the size of the blob that ate everything and a credit as big as a hamster (after eating hella monster blood of course) because his work is all over this trailer. It’s some of the greatest visual horror still-art for kids this side of the Garbage Pail kids trading cards. My personal favorite cover is still “The Haunted Mask”.
Rather than pick a few iconic plots and do the film anthology style (à la Twilight Zone: The Movie), the plot seems to involve a fictionalized R.L. Stine (played by Jack Black….and dammit, as if contemplating how long ago the O.G. books came out out doesn’t make me feel old enough, now I have to face the reality that Jack Black has entered the “kooky dad” phase of his career) who gives the new kid on the block the evil eye when he catches the youth talking to his daughter. Turns out, he’s not just being overprotective. In his house are the Necronomicon first editions of his Goosebumps book series and if you open the books all of the mummys, mutants, East-hailing beasts, and ghost beach bums R.L. has ever created come a-bustin’ out and wreaking havoc all over the world.
So yes, as many have already pointed out, it’s more a re-imagining of Jumanji (or Pandora’s Box) than it is an adaptation of Goosebumps stories themselves.
The threat Goosebumps books pose and the danger one risks in opening one is not a new concern. They were frequently challenged and banned throughout the 90s – though I’m not sure those haters could quite have articulated just what was dangerous about them, besides babbling some generic nonsense about stories involving evil spirits.
If anything, the premise of the new film seems to be based on the opening from the Fox Kids T.V. show (which by the way featured a young Ryan Gosling in the adaptation of “Say Cheese and Die”, FYI) where a cloaked and face-obscured R.L. Stine (you could tell it was him because his name was written on his briefcase) looked out over a view of a helpless town when said briefcase accidentally (or WAS it an accident??) fell open and unleashed that iconic G (G for Goosebumps) unto the town….it floated around and made things evil. For instance, a dog’s eyes began to glow red, I seem to recall. This opening dramatized the insidious, all-encompassing, zeitgeist-conquering power of Stine’s pages. There was a power in his books that went way beyond his addictive cliffhanger-obsessive writing style. And this film is taking the next logical step.
These books were dangerous, make no mistake. But not because of the monsters. Because of the existential bleakness and darkness of the black hole where other stories have a moral center. And I fear that darkness has been lost in translation to the big screen.
And don’t get me wrong. There’s so much to gleefully squeal over in this trailer. You’ll recognize that Pasadenian Abominable Snowman, the invisible boy, and Slappy the Dummy (never my favorite, but I suppose three books merit him a close-up).
And trust me, I’m a sworn enemy of anyone who brings up differences between books and movies as if that’s ever relevant information for experiencing a work of cinema. My eyes glaze over whenever I talk to anyone who wants to list for me what HBO “gets right” and “gets wrong” about Game of Thrones. I’m not here to complain that the Abominable Snowman doesn’t look much like he did on Tim Jacobus’s cover (it doesn’t), but there is clearly something missing from this trailer and movie—that dark, clobbering pessimism that was mixed with the pulp that became these ungodly pages.
I don’t mean these books were dark in a “Harry Potter” or a “Hunger Games” kind of way. Stine didn’t overtly take on more “mature” and “adult” themes. Goosebumps were just “silly” adventures for and of kids. And let’s face it—as allegedly dark as those aforementioned latter-day anthologies are supposed to be, they all end with the validation and celebration of those same ole Spielbergian/American/capitalist virtues— hope, persistence, stick-to-it-iveness, stick-together-ness, the family unit…take your pick. I suppose it’s hard to stay on the best-seller list if you don’t champion at least a couple of ’em. But Goosebumps violently rejected all notions of optimism and goodness. The world is made of nightmares. That is the beginning, middle, and end of Stine’s ethos.
These books were downers. Some of them had a simple “you may have won the battle, but the war is from over” kind of ending where the hero succeeds in defeating an army of vengeful worms led by their giant worm king-general only to take up butterfly collecting and get attacked by a gigantic butterfly carrying a spear with the clear intention of pinning our hero up on the butterfly’s collection board. And then the book ends. No hint of survival, no reason to hope. But before that sat with us too long, we were launched into the sample chapter from next month’s issue that the wise and merciful Stine gave us at the end of each book.
Others went further and concluded with some “your entire life is a lie, you have no idea who you are, and all identity is an illusion” kind of revelation. In “A Shocker on Shock Street”, our heroes survive an amusement park full of aggressive and violent robotic attractions only to find that instead of being the son and daughter of the inventor of the park, they’re actually mere sentient inventions. All of their memories were implanted. Now thinking back, I wonder: was their “daddy” inventor even aware that he had created two perfect prototypes of artificial intelligence, capable of ingenuity, empathy, and of feeling true terror? That was the real shocker on Shock St? Not the big-ass praying mantis robot (but that does look dope in this trailer).
And yeah, sure, fine, a number of the books end with an evil force defeated by the kid, usually with the help of a non-familial ally. Parents never understood or believed (and let’s face it, they never do), while brothers and sisters, rarely helpful and usually sadistic and sociopathic, were incarnates of every ugly, envious, wrathful element embedded in the sibling relationship when Cain struck Abel (or was it Abel who struck Cain? Nevermind, I’m sure if it were important, Stine would have written about it, right?)
Even in the ones with happy endings, victory was achieved by overcoming and vanquishing the destructive forces of one’s family. Our reluctant Goosebumps heroes had crappy families who were at best lazy and neglectful and at worst monsters (and if you were lucky they would share the human flesh they feasted on with you.)
But even some of these “happy endings” were sick enough to make The Dark Knight Rises look like a conservative, sentimental bear hug (ok, bad example). After the unstuck-in-time hero of “The Cuckoo Clock of Doom” finally finds his way back to his own time, he discovers there is an unfortunate catch—he’s accidentally wiped his little sister out of existence. Her birth never occurred in this new timeline. But remember what I said about siblings in the Stine-verse? She was a huge pain in the ass anyway, so our hero is happy about it. Now he’s an only child at peace. Maybe he didn’t mean to, but he did timeline-kill his baby sister. And not only is he happy about it, but as the reader, you know he’s better off and that he’s going to have a better life than he would have, had she stayed alive. Because let’s face it—our lives would often be much better if some people had never been born. And then the book ends. For Ages 8+.
So how was this allowed to be distributed to the youth of a nation?
Maybe it’s because there was always another Goosebumps book coming out the next month and so we never had to sit with those existentially face-slapping endings for very long before we were whisked away on an all-new adventure with an all-new cast of characters. We seldom found out what happened to our heroes, except in the rare of case of a sequel and even then, the sequels usually continued the stories of the villains; leaving us to wonder and assume the worst about the protagonists. They had been life behind. Left behind by Stine.
Or maybe it’s because this was before parents were reading their children’s books. I don’t know if the youthful fans Harry Potter or The Hunger Games liked overhearing their parents say to their friends, “Oh yeah, they’re actually really good books to read for adults too,” but it would have horrified my fourth-grade self to hear adults singing Stine’s praises.
These books were adult-free and adult-proof. Today, it’s commonplace to see adults shamelessly and publicly reading the latest youth-oriented bestseller about vampires/dystopia/witches/teen with cancer, but in the 90s anyone over 20 who was reading “Animorphs” or Matt Christopher books must’ve been hiding the covers inside of a National Geographic. It’s not obvious to me whether the shift took place in the books themselves or in the culture. Probably a little of both—today’s kids’ literature clearly was written with parents and adult readers in mind, and as we progress in pop culture our adult spenders are increasingly infantilized.
There is evil in these books. There is horror, but it’s not in the visages of ghost dogs or egg monsters as the covers that distracted our parents and (apparently) the filmmakers of the new film. The horror is the absolute truth of existence, that we are born alone and not even our parents or siblings can understand us, help us, or even want to help us to defeat the evil that lies. That we are not who we think we are and our identities are delusions. Sound too harsh for kids? No, it’s adults who can’t handle this kind of truth and it’s why you will see none of it on the big screen.
For more absurdly detailed trailer breakdown, check our collection of Gratuitous Trailer Breakdowns.