R.L. Stine on the Importance of Scaring the Hell Out of Children
The Goosebumps author has sold millions of kids’ horror novels. Adults who grew up on the books say it helped them immensely.
For more than 30 years, and over the course of some 330 books typed mostly with one now-gnarly and crooked index finger—that’s right: 330 books with one finger—R.L. Stine has been frightening and enthralling young readers all over the world. In that time, the Goosebumps series has sold hundreds of millions of copies and spawned a television series, video games, a zone in a theme park, and a movie, starring Jack Black as Stine, whose sequel will premiere in October.
On a recent dark and stormy afternoon in New York, the author—who turns 75 next month and goes by Bob in real life—showed me around his Upper West Side apartment. His office was decorated with several vintage radios, a skeleton wearing a Goosebumps cap, and a giant prop cockroach from a school production. “How many offices have a three-foot-long cockroach?” Stine asks. “I tell people it came from under the sink.”
We spoke about his accidental career, drawing on his own youthful fears, plus the appeal and importance of horror for kids already living with life’s own horrors.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Medium: Has writing these stories for around 30 years actually affected your imagination in a way? Has it made you look at the world with a gimlet eye, or not at all?
R.L. Stine: No! No, see, I think these books are funny. I think horror is funny. Horror makes me laugh in a movie theater. When the shark comes up and starts eating the kid, I’m in the theater laughing. I just never get scared. There’s something missing in my brain where if I’m reading a Stephen King novel or I’m at a horror movie, I just laugh. Writing this stuff hasn’t really affected me at all. I just, I think it’s funny. In Goosebumps, every chapter end is a punchline.
You edited the Sundial at Ohio State, following in the footsteps of the great humorist James Thurber. Do you think that you could have sustained a career making children laugh rather than making them scream?
I did it for quite a while. I wrote about 100 joke books. I actually made a living like that. I had a humor magazine at Scholastic for 10 years called Bananas, which I wrote. But nothing caught on. They didn’t like the funny stuff as well.
There’s more of a market for scares.
Yeah. My very first horror novel for teenagers was called Blind Date. I’d never written one. I never planned to write horror. And it was number one on the Publishers Weekly list. I’d never been close to that list, and I didn’t understand it. I did school visits after and said, “Why? Why do you like these books?” And every single time the kids would say, “We like to be scared.” And I’ve been scary ever since.
“I was a very fearful kid, just afraid of all kinds of things… I was really very shy. It was a terrible way to grow up.”
I’ve always thought of your books like thrill rides at an amusement park. There’s a palpable sense of unease and danger, but you’re essentially safe.
That’s it exactly.
Have you ever steered away from that and realized that you’ve crossed the line into too-scary territory?
No, not too scary. I’m pretty conservative and a lot of times my editors are telling me to make it scarier, to really hype it up. I’m kind of careful. I don’t really want to scare kids.
But one time in a Fear Street book, I think it was called The Best Friend, the good girl is taken off as a murderer at the end. That was just for a laugh—just for me. I had the murderer get off scot-free and the good girl taken off as a murderer.
That’s a little dark, Bob.
Yes. An unhappy ending, which I never do. And that book haunted me. Readers turned on me immediately. I got mail: “R.L. Stine, you idiot. How could you do that? You moron. Why did you write that?” And I’d go do school visits for months and hands would go up. “Why did you write that book…?” They hated it. And these kids wrote and said, “Are you gonna write a sequel to finish the story?” They couldn’t accept an unhappy end, so I wrote a sequel to finish the story. I’ve never done it again.
Have you thought about the implications of that?
It just isn’t what they want. They don’t want to be left up in the air after they’ve had all these scares.
They need to come back safely down off the roller coaster.
Yeah. They really want that.
Though I understand at one point you maybe did go a little bit too far. In The Girl Who Cried Monster you wanted the monster to eat children.
Jane [Stine’s wife and editor] didn’t think that was appropriate. That’s the only time I can remember. So what I did, I put a bowl of live turtles on the librarian’s desk, and every once in a while, the monster would take a turtle and chew it up.
It’s crunchier than a kid. It’s kind of more disgusting than eating a kid.
Do kids feel emboldened, do you think? Reading scary stories as a kind of immunization against real fears?
I was talking to a child psychologist in LA once who told me that he had a patient, a girl who was a very fearful kid, and she would come in and just recite the plots to Fear Street books. He thought that was helping her get over these fears. But I don’t know, I don’t think about that. When you’re writing a story, you’re just writing a story. It all comes as a surprise. All these parents at book signings come up and say, “You changed my kid’s life. They didn’t read before you.” As an author, you don’t really think about it.
But just to return to this theme of scaring children—the world itself is a pretty scary place.
It is. It’s a very scary place for kids.
How much do you think about the role of Goosebumps in that world?
My one rule is that they have to know that what’s happening in this book can’t happen. They have to know it’s a fantasy. And then I can make it pretty scary. There aren’t any real-world scares in the book. There’s no kidnapping, or divorce, or anything. No real-world stuff. It’s an escape from real-world stuff.
Do a lot of adults come up to you and express their debt to you?
Oh, I hear it. You know, when I did the Comic Con last year, I had this long line of people, and every single one of these guys said, “You are my childhood. You were my childhood.” You never get tired of hearing it. It’s kind of always kind of a shock, but I hear it all the time. We captured that. We just got lucky.
“I get wonderful messages from [former readers]. A lot of them say, ‘Thank you for getting me through a hard childhood.’ I hear that a lot.”
You did a Masterclass, and in it you said that writing shouldn’t be something you slave over. It should be fun.
When I’m on a writers’ panel or something and these guys say, “Oh, writing is so hard. My kids aren’t allowed anywhere in the room when I’m writing.” I hate that. I just hate that.
They also say writing should be deeply felt. That it should come from your heart.
That’s the other thing. When authors come to schools and tell kids, “Write from your heart.” Those kids will never write again! I say to kids, “I’ve written 330 books, not a single one from my heart. Not one! They’re all written to entertain an audience. That’s it.”
You say that, but how in touch are you with your inner child when you’re writing? And in touch with the fears of your inner child?
My inner child is a very fearful child. I mean, I was a very fearful kid, just afraid of all kinds of things. I used to ride my bike around the neighborhood and come back at night and think that something was lurking in the garage, something was waiting for me, and I just hurled my bike into the garage and ran into the house. I was afraid of swimming. I didn’t swim—like, let go of the side of the pool—till I was 12. I was really very shy. It was a terrible way to grow up.
I think that’s why I stayed in my room typing. When it came time to write these books, I could draw on that and remember that feeling of childish panic. So, in that way, I think it helped me write Goosebumps.
Being an outsider in general helped too?
My family was very poor. We lived on the of edge a very wealthy suburb in Columbus. The governor’s mansion was two blocks away. We used to trick or treat at the governor’s mansion. But my family lived in a tiny little white brick house, five of us. My Dad was a blue collar worker, loading trucks. His best year he made $9,000, and here we were on the edge of all these mansions, and all the kids at school are all rich. I always felt like an outsider. I think that part of it, you know, is that you become an observer, you watch things.
What’s the volume of your output now compared to the height of Goosebumps days?
This is kind of not too believable, but at the height of Goosebumps and Fear Street, they both came out every month and I’d write one every two weeks. I don’t know how we did that. I was younger, but I think it was that it was so exhilarating. I’d been writing for 20 years. I mean I wasn’t a young guy and to have that kind of success suddenly was so exhilarating. I think it kept me going. I had to do 20 pages a day. So I could write a Goosebumps book in eight days and then go on to the Fear Street. Can’t do that now. I’m kind of amazed myself just saying it.
I do four Goosebumps books a year and I’ve been doing two Fear Streets and then another couple of projects, graphic novels. Seven or eight things.
Nothing to sneeze at.
It’s like being on vacation compared to the ’90s.
Is there a time when you think you might hang up the hat?
People never used to ask me that question! It’s only recently. Why is that? Kids ask it too. “Are you gonna quit?” I don’t think authors retire. I think of Robert B. Parker, who just dropped dead on the keyboard. I think that’s the way to go. Anyway, I just signed on to do six more Goosebumps books. Maybe some of them will be posthumous, I don’t know.