An Interview with R.L. Stine, Creator of Goosebumps

Neatorama welcomes a guest post by Julie Winterbottom, author of Pranklopedia. She is now working on a new book called Frightlopedia, a compendium of scary stuff from Arachnids to Zombies.

Researching her new book brought an opportunity for Winterbottom to interview R.L. Stine, the mastermind behind the Goosebumps series of books. Stine is sometimes referred to as the "Stephen King of children’s literature." The movie Goosebumps, based on the book series, is opening in theaters this Friday. Jack Black plays the part of R.L. Stine.

You’ve written more than 100 Goosebumps books and you’re still going strong. Clearly, you have yet to get bored with writing scary stories.
Well, I wouldn’t know what else to do. My wife always tells me I need a hobby but I don’t have one. So this is what I do. I haven’t gotten tired of it because I don’t feel like I’m stuck in the genre—they’re not only scary books, they’re funny. That’s all I ever cared about. I never actually wanted them to be scary. I just wanted them to be funny.

But the books are scary.
Well yeah, there is creepiness to them and grossness and surprise. But I think kids like them because there are so many twists and turns. Something happens in the middle that turns the whole story around. They’ll say, “Oh, I was totally fooled.” I think that’s what they like about the books, all the teasing and all the twists.

Do you think that what scares kids has changed since you were a kid?
I think it’s exactly the same. Technology has changed, but kids haven’t changed very much and our fears never change. We all have the same fears, like looking under your bed in case someone grabs your leg as you sit up, or thinking something’s in the closet—that sort of thing.

Do you get letters from kids who say your books absolutely terrified them?
Yeah, I do. I’ve never had that feeling, so it’s kind of hard for me to understand. I hear all the time that the stories gave them nightmares. I believe them, but I don’t understand them. I don’t really know what that feeling is like. I’ve never really been scared by a movie or a book.

Even as a kid?

No, I always thought horror was funny. I was always the one who was laughing [at a movie] when a monster would come out and rip somebody to pieces.

So what did scare you when you were young?
Oh, I was a very fearful kid. I think that’s why I stayed in my room typing. I’ve been writing since I was nine. I would close myself in my bedroom and type for hours. My mother would tell me: “Go outside and play! What’s wrong with you?” But I was just shy and had a million fears. I was afraid of the dark. Riding my bike around at night and pulling into the driveway, I was always sure there was something lurking in the garage waiting for me. I would put the bike in the garage and run into the house as fast as I could. There were woods behind my house and there were mounds of big, round, white stones. I was always sure someone was buried under there. I had those kinds of fears. And I had a mother who was like, “Don’t do that, you’ll poke your eye out. Don’t do that, you’ll break your arm.” It’s a terrible way to grow up, but later when I started writing these books, I could remember that feeling of panic. And it helped me a lot in writing Goosebumps.

Did you simply outgrow all those fears?
Yeah, I moved to New York and had to be more confident. It was very liberating.

(Image credit: Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 3.0)

What did you write when you were a kid?
When I was nine or ten years old, I used to do these little joke magazines. I would write stories that I would type up and then make drawings and staple them together and bring them to school and pass them around the class. My teachers begged me to stop. People ask me now, “Did you ever have teachers that encouraged you?” but no, they begged me to stop doing this stuff. I was so shy—I think I did it for attention.

What did you read growing up?
I wasn’t much of a reader at all, but I had a big stack of comic books. I read the EC horror comics—Tales From the Crypt and The Vault of Horror. And I read Mad when it was a comic book and that was very influential for me. When I was nine or ten, this librarian took me over to the shelf and said, “Bob. I know you like comic books and I think you’ll like these books.”  It was a Ray Bradbury story and it changed my life. I could believe it, it was so great. Ray Bradbury turned me into a reader. I just began devouring all these science fiction stories—I read Robert Sheckley and Isaac Asimov.

Where did you get the idea for Goosebumps?
I wrote a series called Fear Street that started in 1989. My wife, Jane Stine, and her partner have a company called Parachute Press. They are packagers, and the Fear Street books were going through them and they would send them to Simon & Schuster. They were after me to do a younger series for 7-12 year-olds. I didn’t want to do it because I thought it would screw up Fear Street. I thought the audience would get confused and think the books were too young. But they kept after me and I gave in and said maybe if I can think of a good name for a series then we can try a couple of them. Then one day I was reading TV Guide and there was an ad that said: “It’s goosebumps week on channel 11.” And there it was, just sitting there. It’s a perfect name, scary and funny. So I came up with a proposal and Scholastic bought four of them.

Were they an instant success?
No. They just sat on the shelf. It was a total flop. But something happened after four or five months. Kids found out about them. There was no advertising. It was a secret kids' network. They just started flying off the shelves. It was incredible. If they had come out now, the stores would’ve yanked them out immediately. They don’t give anything that long a chance now.

What’s the hardest thing about writing Goosebumps?
The chapter endings. And at this point, having written so many, the real challenge is not repeating myself. Coming up with new chapters, new scares, new cliffhangers, new creatures. I’ve done every story you could possibly do, I think.

So where do you get your ideas?
I never really come up with ideas. I just come up with titles and then the title leads me to a story. It’s kind of backwards to most authors. They usually don’t think of the titles of their books until two-thirds into it.

Do the titles just come to you?
Sometimes. Like I was walking my dog in Riverside Park and in my head I heard “Little Shop of Hamsters.” I thought, How can I make hamsters scary? It just came to me. But I do have to think about it sometimes. My brother and I used to go see horror movies every weekend—Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Creatures Walk Among Us. I’d take those ‘50s movie titles and adapt them. There’s a Goosebumps called It Came from Beneath the Sink.

What are your favorite Goosebumps books?
I’m very proud of The Haunted Mask. I think it’s kind of a perfect story. It’s about a girl who wants to be scary because everyone picks on her, and she finds this green mask and puts it on and it attaches itself to her face and becomes a part of her skin. She can’t get it off and she turns evil. And the Slappy books [featuring Slappy, an evil ventriloquist's dummy]. I love writing those because he’s so evil and rude to everyone, so I get to write all these insults. I love writing bad families.

Have you ever written something and realized it was too scary?
I’m actually conservative about that part and usually the editors tell me to make it scarier. But there was an early Goosebumps book called The Girl Who Cried Monster about a girl who’s in the library and she becomes convinced that the librarian is a monster. In the original version, she’s in the stacks watching him and the librarian eats a kid. [My editors] thought that was going too far. So I had the librarian take one of the live turtles out of a big bowl on his desk and put it in his mouth and shoot it out. That’s when the girl knows he’s a monster. He eats turtles. Which is better than a kid, right?

Were there any Fear Street books that went too far?
They all have happy endings, but one time I decided that just for fun, I’m going to let the bad girl win. The good girl is hauled off as a murderer. It was called The Best Friend and everyone hated it. The letters started pouring in: “Dear R. L. Stine: You moron… How could you do that? Are you going to write a sequel and finish the story?” It was a huge mistake. So I wrote the sequel. They absolutely won’t accept an unhappy ending.

If you were to switch genres, what would you do?
Humor. That’s all I would do. I did a humor magazine [for Scholastic] for 10 years called Bananas. I did a humor series for HarperCollins called Rotten School about this really rotten boarding school. That was fun, just really funny stuff. If I wasn’t doing scary, I would do funny.

What are your memories of Halloween?
My memories of Halloween were humiliating. My family was very poor, and [my parents] went out to buy us Halloween costumes at a dime store one year. I wanted to be something scary, like a skeleton or a ghost. They came back and I opened the box and it was a yellow duck costume with a fuzzy tail. And a duck mask. I had to be a duck. We couldn’t afford to get a new costume every year so I was a duck for more than one year. It was humiliating. I actually used this in The Haunted Mask. It’s what inspires Carly Beth to go out and find a scary mask when her mother brings her a duck costume in the beginning of the book.

Was the trick-or-treating good at least?
It was great. People didn’t give you healthy stuff in those days so you didn’t have to worry. Except, I used to live in this tiny little house that was one block from the Ohio governor’s mansion so we used to trick-or-treat there and every year he gave out apples. We used to take them and heave them down the driveway.

Are you scared of clowns?
No, not at all. And I don’t understand why people are. But I’m happy to scare people with clowns. I have a character called Murder the Clown. He has an axe in his head.

Ever seen a ghost?
No. But I keep looking.

Julie Winterbottom is the author of Pranklopedia, a collection of pranks and stories about famous pranksters. Neatorama published an excerpt from the book last year.

Her new book Frightlopedia is a compendium of scary stuff from Arachnids to Zombies. Look for it at a bookstore near you in 2016.

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