'A good horror story starts in the backyard': Goosebumps legend R.L. Stine on why fear is good for children

Published on: 19 February 2019 Author: Anna McKerrow

On the release of the Goosebumps 2 movie, Anna McKerrow asked prolific Goosebumps author R.L. Stine about writing horror and getting kids into reading.

A still from Goosebumps and author R.L. Stine

R.L. Stine photo by Dan Nelken

The Goosebumps series is more than 60 books long. What do you think it is about long series that kids really get into?

Everyone enjoys reading a series. I read the same authors all the time – my wife says I'm a Pringles reader, I like everything the same! I'm a big fan of PG Wodehouse, which ruins my scary image! But I so admire those books because each one is completely identical and there's such a comfort for the reader in that.

I think kids like returning to the Goosebumps series because they know what they're going to get. It's a world they know, they know it's going to be creepy, scary, they know there are going to be twists and turns. But they also know the story's going to have a happy ending.

What makes a great horror story for children?

A good horror story for kids starts in the backyard. I don't think it starts in a dark castle. It starts in the kitchen or the attic, somewhere close to them, and it threatens reality just enough.

But at the same time, the kids reading the book have to know that it's fantasy. They have to know that the scary things can't really happen. Once they know that, things can get pretty scary! For me it's a balance between horror and humour; I try and make the Goosebumps books funny, too. If I think things are getting too scary, I put something funny in to lighten the mood.

A still from Goosebumps

Horror and humour both seem to appeal to reluctant readers, too.

Right - it's the same visceral reaction. Horror and humour are very close. If you creep up behind someone and say boo, the first thing they do is gasp, and then laugh. But the other secret to Goosebumps is that it's written with a fourth grade - or 9-10-year-old - reading level. It's really simple. There aren't any hard vocabulary words. The chapters are really short, and each chapter ends with a teaser that makes them want to turn the page. I think that's what keeps kids reading.

How important are friendships in the Goosebumps books and movies?

Friendship is important in the Goosebumps books because the parents are all useless – either they don't believe the kids, or they're not there, or they don't help them. So you can't rely on your parents to help you and you've got to get yourself out of the jam. Your friends are the ones that help you get away from the monster.

In the first scene of Goosebumps 2, one of the characters has to write a college entrance essay about her experience of fear and what she might have learnt from it. Is fear a useful emotion for children?

I think it's a really scary world for kids. These books are kind of an escape from that – you go on these creepy adventures but everything turns out okay, so that's kind of reassuring.

Something like Goosebumps is kind of a safe exposure to fear. You're having these crazy adventures, but you know you're safe in your own room. No-one wants to terrify 8-year-olds! 10-year-olds, maybe...

Goosebumps 2 is available now on digital download, Blu-ray and DVD.

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