Warning: Spoilers for the Goosebumps movie are ahead. To avoid them, don't read the penultimate paragraph of the essay.
Though Rob Letterman’s movie adaptation of the Goosebumps children’s books won the weekend box office race, the theater where I saw the film was less than half full, including the pair of teens sprawled across the back row who likely had no intention of looking at the screen. People chatted and texted the entire time—it was that kind of movie. But if none of us seemed too invested in a pristine viewing experience, there we were anyway: giggling, gasping, nudging each other at in-jokes. I heard it from the first line of dialogue, when wholesome teen Zach (Dylan Minnette) and his loving, clueless mom drive past a sign welcoming them to the sleepy town of Madison, Delaware. According to formula, Zach is appealing and sarcastic. In a blithe burst of exposition that is so Goosebumps, he asks his mom: “You’re sure there aren’t any other towns that need a vice principal?” The sorcerers who made Goosebumps figured out how to bottle the irreducible essence of a Goosebumps book and pour it onto the big screen. Goosebumps was so Goosebumps I got goosebumps.
Actual goosebumps are not a physical reaction you associate with intense horror. They attest to mild chills, a shivery disturbance that could as easily flow from amused delight as from fear. Letterman’s antic film, which reportedly aims “to scare without traumatizing,” combines the chaos principle of a certain strand of kiddie lit with R.L. Stinian cheesiness. Its stock characters—a normal kid; a mysterious and beautiful neighbor; a dweeb with a heart of gold—tromp through an array of kitsch-horror settings: derelict amusement parks, cemeteries, the auditorium on the night of the big dance.
Anyway, stop me if you’ve read this one before. Zach hates his new town—until he meets Hannah, the raven-haired girl next door (Odeya Rush), whose hot-tempered father (Jack Black) forbids him from speaking to her. Here Goosebumps the movie departs a bit from its source, for it boasts an asset that the books never had: R.L. Stine himself as a character. Stine—who in Madison goes by Mr. Shivers to avoid detection—keeps his original Goosebumps manuscripts under lock and key; should anyone open the books, the monsters contained therein will bound, stagger, and ooze off the page. Which they do, of course, thanks to the cocktail of bad luck and bad judgment that is on-brand for a Goosebumps plot. To save Madison, reclusive Mr. Shivers must pen a new book narrating the imprisonment of all his glorious beasties. Can he do it while being pursued by a vengeful menagerie of supernatural fiends? Does he even want to?
The uncertainty Black displays when confronted with the monsters his famous Smith-Corona has created is a brilliant stroke, allowing the movie to make explicit an ambivalence that rippled, serpent-like, through the books: Was Stine, the author, your friend or your tormentor? The purveyor of jokes and scares, his imagination rooting through crypts and opening dark closets—a Goosebumps reader always wondered whose side he was on, finally. The film concludes, as we readers did, that Stine is a good guy, interested in personal growth for his characters, warm parent-child relationships, and the ultimate triumph of order. But the uneasiness lingers. Jack Black’s eyes glint with mischief—or is it wickedness? The safe space of children’s horror, which conjures fear only to tame and gentle it, can’t help suggesting to the adult viewer the world of adult horror, which exists to tell you what you already know. That you were right, as a four-year-old. That death is coming. That there’s nothing you can do about it.
But never fear (for now)! Goosebumps, as I’ve argued before, is kid horror. And Goosebumps: The Movie is kid horror spliced with tongue-in-cheek hagiography. As Zach and Hannah fend off such familiar bads as Slappy the ventriloquist’s dummy and the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena, the film reads as a love letter to Stine and his wacky oeuvre. It is the force of his imagination that summons these creatures to life. It is his famously fast pace that enables him to churn out the world-saving book in one night. Outside the frame, it is his unique blend of humor and menace that makes the viewer’s nostalgia tour—the haunted car! The ghost next door!—such a trip. Speaking of gooseflesh, one of the uncanniest experiences I had watching the movie was seeing yet another antagonist emerge from the shadows and knowing immediately that he was not just a werewolf, but The Werewolf of Fever Swamp. While the Goosebumps movie is angled tonally at an audience too young to remember cracking phosphorescent Tim Jacobus covers by flashlight, it’s fueled by an abiding love for Stine and his work. Which would seem to place Goosebumps in a strange and not quite sellable position. Is Letterman hanging his hopes on a crowd of twenty- and thirtysomethings consuming the film sentimentally, as schmaltz? Or on preteens in search of goofy thrills?
Either way, the trick with Goosebumps is always to notice the shard of elemental power amid the wackiness, to honor the deep theme, even as you allow Stine to soften it. Goosebumps: The Movie has one voltaic instance, a beautiful moment that catches the two teenage leads in a stream of moonlight. They’re so attractive and charming, and one of them is imaginary, a dream of Stine’s brought to half-life, though she doesn’t know it yet. The frame is wrenching. It encapsulates, somehow, the way all first crushes are phantasms and idealizations. I found myself thinking of my own Goosebumps infatuation, wondering how many of my childish love objects were ever truly real.
Then a zombie lurched out of the blackness and tried to eat Zach’s face. We all gasped! Leaving the theater, though, it was the previous shot that left me with goosebumps.