R.L. Stine’s Secret to Scaring the Crap Out of Kids
He got kids obsessed with reading because they couldn’t put his terrifying books down. Two decades later, Goosebumps author R.L. Stine shares his scare tactics.
October is a busy month for R.L. Stine.
The author behind the blockbuster Goosebumps and Fear Street book series—pulpy horror novels that became points of obsession for a generation of kids just learning that reading can be fun—has become expectedly accustomed to being associated with the ghouls, spooks, and scares of Halloween season.
“And then in November, they forget about me,” he jokes.
Not that, at least in this particular October, Stine isn’t a bit complicit in his in-demand status. The best-selling author—to the tune of over 400 million copies sold since his first Fear Street book in 1989—is busy promoting the return of his Emmy-winning TV series Saturday on The Hub network, The Haunting Hour: The Series, and just released the first new Fear Street book since ending the series in 1995.
“I thought I’d killed enough teenagers,” he says about why he’s reviving the series after nearly 20 years. “But then I thought it’d be fun to kill teenagers again.”
All of this, and he recently wrapped filming a cameo in next August’s film version of Goosebumps, which stars Jack Black, no less. The School of Rock clown and Kung Fu Panda goofball might seem like a strange choice at first to portray the purveyor of the first scares many of us had as kids, but when you get to know more about Stine’s philosophy about the marriage of humor and horror—he did begin his career as a humor writer for Bananas magazine, after all—the casting becomes sort of perfect.
“They’re so close,” Stine says about fright and funny. “When I go to a horror movie and the shark comes up and is chewing the girl and the girl is screaming, I’m the one in the theater who’s laughing. I don’t know that feeling of being scared.”
Stine shows up for our conversation in New York City dressed in head-to-toe black, displaying an earnest fondness for the twentysomething fans who gawk at him as he walks by, shuddering as they nostalgically remember the chills he gave them decades ago as they bewitched the midnight hours on school nights devouring Goosebumps by flashlight. But he’s also careful to note that there’s more to R.L. Stine than going, “Boo!”
“The biggest misconception is that my whole life is horror,” he tells me as we talk through his more than 25 years of being one of the most successful children’s authors of all time. From Goosebumps to The Haunting Hour, and every scare and laugh in between, here’s what Stine had to say about the secret to terrifying kids, coming up with new scare tactics, dealing with aging fans, and being played in a movie by that guy from Tenacious D.
You’ve had your writing adapted into TV series before, but what makes The Haunting Hour different for you?
There’s a few things I like about it. These are the same producers who did the Goosebumps show back in the ’90s. So we felt we were in very good hands. Because they did those shows and they turned out really nice. We talked about it and thought, let’s just make this a little older and just a little bit scarier than Goosebumps. And the emphasis should be that it’s not really a kids’ show, that it’s a show for the whole family.
Right. Well, the slogan is, “Don’t let your parents watch this alone.” That’s the slogan! They pretty much kept to that. They’ve used teenage actors instead of kids, which automatically elevates it. And they just elevated the danger level some. So that’s kind of fun—but still not to go too far.
So talk about that. How do you work that dial? How do you know what’s “just a little bit scarier” for an older audience, what’s tame enough for a younger audience, what’s too much for either? How do you calibrate that?
That’s the skill. You just have to know it. I’ve been doing it for so long, and you just have to know it. I have one rule with this “scary kids” stuff, which is that kids have to know it’s a fantasy. They have to know it can’t really happen. And then once you do that, they have to know it’s not part of the real world. Because the real world is a creepy place for kids right now. For everybody. Once you do that, then you can do a lot and I feel like we’re OK. We’re not scaring them too badly.
The Haunting Hour has other writers working on scripts. How do you do quality control when other people are writing for your brand?
The Goosebumps shows as well were all written by others. I didn’t have time! I was writing a Goosebumps book a month. I never got out! And my main concern always is the right balance between scary and funny. For me, the funny part is just as important as the scary part. It has to be that right mix. It can’t be just a comedy thing. It can’t be just a horror movie. That’s what I look at when I read the scripts.
What is the relationship between fright and funny, then?
I don’t know. But they’re very close. I was just saying, I’m missing something I think. Because I never had that feeling… When I go to a horror movie and the shark comes up and is chewing the girl, and the girl is screaming, I’m the one in the theater who’s laughing. I always think it’s funny. Horror makes me laugh. Always. I don’t know that feeling of being scared. And I read Stephen King books, and they’re creepy and everything. But a lot of times they just make me laugh. There’s a close connection. When you go hide in a corner and jump up and say, “Boo!” Well, they jump at first, and then they laugh. Or when you go to an amusement park and there’s a roller coaster, you hear people laughing and screaming at the same time. It’s a gut emotion. I just think they’re very close together.
If the gut reaction for horror and humor comes from the same place, then, as a writer, do you think the ability to craft both things and write both things comes from a similar place?
I see Goosebumps books as each chapter having a punchline. It’s sort of like writing a joke. I plan everything out first before I write, so it would be like writing jokes each chapter. I knew I’d have to set it all up and get to this punchline, so it’s very similar. Writing horror is much easier, I think. Being funny is pretty hard. It’s not appreciated enough.
Has writing for kids over the years changed at all? Has what they find funny or scary or interesting changed across the decades?
I don’t think so. I think what’s changed is the technology more than the kids. I don’t think I’ve changed what I do for kids. You have to make sure you’re not using outdated stuff. But I think the Goosebumps books could’ve been written in the ’50s, back when DC Horror Comics were around, Tales From the Crypt and that kind of stuff. Because fears don’t change. And the kind of fears that I write about aren’t new. They’re the same: fear of the dark. Fear that someone’s lurking in the closet or hiding under the bed trying to grab you. You know, that kind of thing. That never changes. But now you just text someone on your phone about it. “Help me!”
Take a selfie with the killer and put it on Instagram.
[Laughs] Cellphones have ruined mysteries! It’s made it so much harder for mystery writers, it’s unbelievable. You can’t have a mysterious call come in, because you know who it is immediately!
And for an audience, too! Could you imagine if cellphones or Twitter were popular when The Sixth Sense came out?
Ruined! That’s right. And that film had one surprise. The funny thing is, my wife and I went to see that film and about two minutes into it I said, “Jane, he’s dead.” I had already written that plot about five times! I had already done that in about five Fear Streets.
That’s a great point. How do you, after you’ve already written so many words and so many stories in your career, still come up with fresh ideas?
Who said they were fresh? [Laughs] No one’s noticed so far… I just love it. I started doing this when I was 9. I wouldn’t know what else to do all day. I still enjoy it. It’s more of a challenge to think of new scares and try to think of things I haven’t done before. New chapter endings that I haven’t done before. It hasn’t gotten easier. It’s gotten harder. But I just keep going. Some of it is luck.
Granted that not everything is as fresh as you’d like it to be, but have you thought up a twist or a scare recently that you just thought, “Eureka!” because it was so good.
Have you…? [Laughs] I need one! I didn’t write Fear Street for 20 years. I ended that series. I thought I’d killed enough teenagers. But then I thought it’d be fun to kill teenagers again. So I’m trying to do new approaches for the new Fear Street books.
When I was combing through interviews you’ve done over the years, it seems like the question people always, always asked you was, “What are you afraid of?”
Yeah. I never had a good answer for that. Isn’t that something?
Is that the question you’ve gotten most? Or is there another one that you got all the time and you’re tired of answering?
The question that every author gets is, “Where do you get your ideas?” I have to say two-thirds of my fan mail from kids: “Dear R.L. Stine, Our teacher is forcing us to write to an author and I chose you. Where do you get your ideas?” And every reporter, too. Everyone. I always wanted to say, well, where do you get your ideas? Because we all get ideas in our jobs. But I started to get it over and over again, and I started to take it seriously with kids. And I realized that kids are required to write more than any living humans. They have to write reports and essays. And they really think that if an author can tell them some kind of trick on how to get ideas it would change their lives, so I took it seriously. At first it was the most annoying thing in the world. Because I honestly don’t know!
Are you asked a lot whether you have a favorite book?
Wherever you go you do get asked the same questions by kids. It doesn’t change anywhere. It’s always, “Where do you get your ideas?” “Do you have a favorite book of yours that you’ve written?” “What scares you?” “What kind of car do you drive?”
Really!? What kind of car do you drive? I’m not sure that would ever be on my list of Top Five questions to ask R.L. Stine.
I know! I get that all the time. “How old are you?” Those are my favorites: “How old are you? How much money do you make?” They don’t ask that in the South, though. The kids there are polite. They don’t ask you how old you are or how much money you make. You only get that in the North.
Have you found in your years of doing press that there’s something that is the biggest misconception that people have about you?
The biggest misconception is that my whole life is horror. That it’s all I care about—that I go to horror movies and read horror novels and just live horror. But they don’t realize that I’m a New Yorker and I go to the opera and I’m a ballet fan and I like country music. That’s shocking to people, somehow.
Do you always dress in black?
For appearances and interviews. But not in my personal life. Never. My wife said I’m supposed to be scary, and that if I don’t wear black I just look someone’s dad. [Laughs] It’s really nice to have a costume, too. I don’t have to think about what to put on for this stuff. Unfortunately, I now look like every waiter in New York. It’s the same costume…
What do you think of books that are written today aimed at younger demographics, like The Hunger Games.
I think it’s wonderful. I think there’s so much more good stuff for kids than when I started in children’s publishing. The Harry Potter books are fabulous. They’re wonderful books, and they’ve just started a whole trend of more wonderful books. There’s such variety now, and such richness. Children’s publishing has just improved a million percent when I just started out.
The conversation now around books like The Hunger Games is how much violence is too much violence in a book geared at children. You must have been a part of the conversation when Goosebumps and Fear Street were catching on.
Violence, I approve of. I like violence. I think violence is really good for kids. I think kids are really smart. And I think they know the difference between fiction violence and real violence. There’s no overlap. If kids see a fistfight on a street, that’s a totally different thing from reading about a fistfight in a book. Kids aren’t dumb. Violence in books gets aggression out of kids. I think it’s a good escape.
So why do you think there’s always such pearl clutching and controversy when there’s violence in books?
Because there are so many people who don’t like kids. There are so many people who resent kids, and don’t want kids to have any fun. Anywhere you go you’ll see people who don’t want kids to have fun and are trying to take things away. “Those games are too violent! Those games are too this or that.”
You’ve spent your career writing books geared towards children. But are you a kid person?
I am. But you don’t have to be. I could list some children’s authors for you who didn’t like kids at all. There are some really famous ones who really hated kids. But I like kids. I have a grandson now. I’ve always liked kids.
I read once when you were talking about the Fear Street series that you said, “I killed a lot of teenagers and I wondered why I liked it so much. Then I realized it’s because I had one at home.” When you’re raising a child [Stine’s son is now 34] and writing books with kids as characters, how much of your son and his friends end up in your books?
Oh, I stole from him constantly! It was a great thing. The thing about Matt [Stine’s son] is that he never read one of my books. Just to make me nuts. Now he does my website so he has to at least keep in touch with my stuff, but he never would read one. He would bring them into his friends. He would sell parts in Goosebumps to his friends. They would pay him ten bucks and he’d come home and say, “Dad, you have to put James in the next one.” I think he cashed in on them.
Ha! He had it figured out.
But he would never read one, just because it was dad. But it was so valuable to me to have his friends over. I would spy on them and listen to them and see what they were wearing and their expressions and the way they talked and listen to what cartoon shows they were talking about. It was a real help, because that’s a really important part of writing these kids’ books.
The Goosebumps movie was just filming. In the age we’re in where Hollywood makes movies out of every single recognizable brand, book, or property, how did it take 20 years for a proper feature-length Goosebumps movie to get made?
You know, everyone has a million horror stories from Hollywood. And I have mine. We started out with a contract from Fox to do a Goosebumps movie that Tim Burton would produce. We had a meeting with Tim Burton 20 years ago when Goosebumps was at the height of its popularity, in 1995 I think, and nothing ever happened. No one ever did anything. And then it foundered for a while and someone else picked it up. There’s a million stories like this. When Maurice Sendak wrote Where the Wild Things Are, he was in his 30s. When the movie came out, he was in his 80s. It took over 50 years. So only 20 years is pretty good.
And Jack Black is playing you…
I’m happy about Jack Black. Jack Black is great. We’re like twins, right? [Laughs] I was down there watching him for a while—I did a cameo with him at the end of the film—and he was very funny. I think he’s going to be very good in this.
It certainly bodes well to the film adhering to what you were saying before, about humor being as important as the horror.
There’s a lot of laughs in the film. A lot of laughs.