A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post reflecting on trends and memories of the 90s, including music, movie stars, and television shows. One thing I didn’t mention were popular books of the decade. This past weekend’s release of Goosebumps, based on the best-selling Young Adult horror novels and featuring Jack Black as a fictional version of series author R.L. Stine, echoes back to that decade, while also delivering special-effects roller-coaster thrills a la Ghostbusters or Jumanji.
I read some of the books growing up—The Haunted Mask, The Girl Who Cried Monster, Welcome to Camp Nightmare, to name a few—and I remember being engrossed and sometimes frightened by the cover artwork. The success of the book series (published between 1992 to 1997) led to a popular T.V. series on the Fox Kids Network (1995-1998), a spin-off book series titled “Give Yourself Goosebumps” (designed to allow readers to choose different endings or plots), and a more recent T.V. series titled “R.L. Stine’s The Haunted Hour”.
In the new film, a teenage kid named Zack and his mom move to a new town. They move next door to a pretty girl named Hannah with a strange father who goes by “Mr. Shivers”. (It’s no surprise, really, that Shivers turns out to be Stine.) When Zach hears noises next door one night, he sneaks over to investigate and soon discovers manuscripts of the original “Goosebumps” series. When he opens one up, mayhem ensues as Stine’s original creations run amok. The result is a clever thrill ride of scares and silliness that really feels like something from the 90s (save for references to “Tweeting” and doing “selfies”).
The real question, in spite of all these scares and silliness, is this: Does it traumatize kids?
To be fair, fear is a natural human emotion. We all experience it growing up. According to Stine (once described as “the Stephen King of children’s literature” by the Cape Cod Times in 2007), “Most fears are basic: fear of the dark, fear of going down in the basement, fear of weird sounds, fear that somebody is waiting for you in the closet. Those kinds of things stay with you no matter what age.” We also fear letting go of certain things like towns we grew up in, loved ones, and even growing up and moving on.
Still, it’s worth considering the following definitions of scare and trauma. To scare is “to fill, especially suddenly, with fear or terror [or to] frighten [or] alarm” (dictionary.com). To traumatize is “to cause (someone) to become very upset in a way that often leads to serious emotional problems” (i.word.com). The movie Gremlins, for example, can arguably be considered traumatizing, considering its Christmastime setting and images of little green monsters coming out of snow and Christmas trees. Plus, some characters get killed. Ghostbusters includes images of demon dogs and possessing spirits.
Fortunately, the scares in Goosebumps have more to do with dark fantasy—all the monsters and characters come from the author’s imagination, and literally come back to haunt him—than with occult spirituality. There’s no graphic violence or bloody violence as well. It’s the kind of predictable fantasy, despite some clever plot twists, where you know things will turn out alright. It should also be worth noting that Stine was, in a way, considerate of his young readers as well as the line between fantasy and reality. “When I write for kids,” says Stine, “I have to make sure they know what can’t happen. They have to know it’s a fantasy” (IMDb).
So, what is seen onscreen isn’t meant to be taken seriously, but rather humorously and as mere fantasy. Still, images of ghouls, a werewolf, a talking ventriloquist dummy, ax-wielding gnomes, a giant praying mantis, and a vampire French poodle can be frightening (especially for the film's target audience of kids), and should also give parents of young children reason to discern over age-appropriateness and how the movie will, one way or another, affect them.