It has to be asked: out of all the types of children’s literature you could write, why choose to spill ink all over 120 tree shavings in service of filling kids’ heads with nightmares and grotesqueries? Has Jovial Bob Stine never touched baby poop at 2 a.m.? The Satanic Panic crowd is easy to make fun of for being skittish little dandelions, but if you’ve ever tried to comfort a scared child, you can at least understand those worrywarts are coming from somewhere. 

I remember loving horror stuff as a kid, even before Goosebumps—I remember watching Disney's Lonesome Ghosts over and over at my grandparents’ house and loving the imagery, and of course, I loved trick-or-treating. I also remember being genuinely scared of movies: I’m told that as a kid, I hid behind the couch the first time I watched Jurassic Park, and I willingly rewound that “The Tale of Dead Man’s Float” episode of Are You Afraid Of The Dark? even though I kept running away at the sight of the corpse. Even though I felt fear, I liked the feeling. I was desperate to know what that demon was, even though I couldn’t bring myself to look at it. With the caveat that literature is under no obligation to do anything, I think exploring those fight-or-flight feelings in a controlled environment like a novel is a good thing for kids. Here’s why …

Hans Christen Andersen and Grimm’s Fairy Tales Are Horror Stories

It’s been said over and over again, but the fairy tales we all grew up with as cute Disney movies are ghastly, macabre flash fictions with severed limbs and cannibalized children. The notion that all children’s entertainment has to be sweetness and light would be stupefying to our ancestors. Hell, our great-great-great-grandparents probably looked at Grimm’s fairy tales as teen slasher movies, given that Jedadiah would be expected to have his arm maimed in a threshing accident by his 11th summer. I know what you did last summer, except it's old-timey times, and everyone’s got some sort of severed digit or missing face part.

Now, I’m very in favor of our 21st-century society, with its concept of children as people who deserve protection and having teenage years viewed as a time for social and brain development instead of factory grindstone fodder. But I do think we underestimate kids’ capacity to engage with things adults might think are too scary. Having raised a toddler during COVID-19 lockdowns, I’ve watched more hours of children’s TV than I knew existed. There are all kinds of musical scores that hit notes designed to be scary, and terrifying situations are basically casual narrative currency. Did you know that the entire premise of Sonic Underground is that Jaleel White’s Sonic, Manic, and Sonia were born in a crumbling empire, ripped away from their mother as infants, and raised in a robot dystopia where everyone’s lives were under constant threat from a technocrat who wants to turn them into robots? Also, the show got canceled after one season, so they never find their mother, EVER? It’s my four-year-old’s favorite show. 

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Easily placing it within the top 180 weirdest things to come out of the Sonic franchise.

You know what really freaks my kid out? Seeing a dog, any dog, of any size, on the sidewalk. He’s known what dogs were since before he could talk, but because Casa de Corlew is a cat household, a physical dog is unfamiliar and usually as big as him. It’s not like he starts crying or running away, but he grabs my leg for a little reassurance that he can jump in my arms like Shaggy if Scooby freaks out. Ghosts and monsters shimmying around a TV or jumping out of pop-up books are controlled and safe. Did you know there’s a Grinch Halloween special? It’s pretty dark and haunting, and the Grinch’s eyebrows are detachable and fly like bats. My kid loves it. Terriers, though? Terrier-fying.

The World Is Scary, and It’s All Brand New to Kids

When an adult says “the world is scary,” we might be talking about anything from serial killers to climate change to crossing a busy intersection. For kids, that’s all true, plus what if Grandma secretly wants to cook and eat me? Horror books help kids navigate all that in a controlled environment. I really don’t want this column to come off like a dentist encouraging trick-or-treating because cavities are good for business. “Horror writer encourages horror reading,” surprise surprise. But it wasn’t until I had a kid that I realized how much of the world children need explaining to them—the city planted a new tree the other day and hung a “no dog poop” sign, and I spent ten solid minutes explaining the red circle with the line through it, why dogs poop on the ground and not in a toilet, the process of cleaning up dog poop, why dog poop is bad for baby trees (was making that one up tbh, kids ask a lot of goddamn questions). A few minutes later, we saw a “no smoking” sign, and he asked, “does that mean no candles?”

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The point is that the world needs naming because a permanent fear is the unknown. One prose criticism I had reading Stine is that it seemed like he was dropping descriptions in for the hell of it. Scenes screech to a halt so he can tell us that this spunky little 12-year-old playing with the Monster’s Blood is wearing Day-Glo yellow shorts over black leggings. After a little more reading, I realized that his characters are often kids in a new situation: moving to a new house (Welcome to Dead House, Beware The Snowman) or spending extended time in an unfamiliar environment (Monster Blood, How To Kill A Monster). They’re already off-balance, then they get haunted. Or attacked by ventriloquist dummies, whatever. Details help orient them in a still-unfamiliar world that is about to betray them. 

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Except for the ventriloquism dummy.  If you can’t predict one of those things turning evil well in advance, that’s on you.

Something Stine hits on in The Blob That Ate Everyone is instructive. Narrator Alex learns that the typewriter she bought is magic, and whatever she types comes true. She writes, “Drenched with rain, Adam stood on the front porch.” Hearing no one at the door, she decides her typewriter isn’t magic. Then her friend points out, “You didn’t write that Adam knocked. You put him on the porch. But you didn’t make him knock.” Sure enough, when she writes Adam knocking, he knocks, and he’s drenched in rain when they answer the door. Nothing happens on the page unless you put it there. Stine, for his part, puts a bunch of scary stuff on the page, but with a bunch of jokes, so nothing ever gets too scary.

Okay, we have complete control of the page. But why choose to fill a kids’ book with scary things? Well, because … 

Kids Do Love Being Scared

The first game babies learn after “try to latch” is peekaboo, and thanks to object permanence, peekaboo is a mini-horror film we introduce to our children before their first full moon. Peekaboo begins with a child seeing literally the only person in the world they trust vanish into the unseen dimensions of the universe, only to reappear with a cheap jump scare. And babies love it.

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It's like playtime as conceived by Friedrich Nietzsche.

If you like horror, being scared is fun. But even if you don’t like horror, maybe you get a thrill from rollercoasters. Or a high-energy concert. I’m told sex can be thrilling, but being a Christian, I’ve never had sex (my biological child was divinely inspired). Every big emotional release has its roots in peekaboo, which is a statement I’m sure science supports. And peekaboo is a horror story. We’re building a solid case here, I can feel the sturdy foundation. Good metaphors, too. 

With its 1-3 page chapters that end on cliffhangers, Goosebumps doles out that same high at a third-grade Accelerated Reader level. Stine is a master of pacing, slowing scenes to It Follows monster crawls or breezing through action-filled climaxes.  But prepubescent drug alternatives aren’t the only reason for the success of Goosebumps

Horror is Just Another Cartoon

Sometime after 9/11 but before the first Run The Jewels album, the War on Christmas started. Something happened with it, too: stores started putting out Christmas decorations earlier and earlier. “Black Friday” became the entire week of Thanksgiving. In the United States, at least, Christmas is the horse archers of the Mongols, spreading further and further across the calendar with no sign of stopping. Except Halloween is waiting there like the Delhi Sultanate, standing stalwart in the subcontinent of autumn and maybe looking to extend its influence past Labor Day. Every TV show has a Halloween special now, and kids’ shows are the worst offenders. Goddamn Blippi has at least two Halloween specials, and we’ve already addressed the Grinch as a secret Halloween offender. Mister Monkey, Monkey Mechanic? You bet your sweet tookas that simian answers the door to trick-or-treaters. 

Look at the covers of all the original Goosebumps books. Don’t they all look, as art critics say, sick as hell? There must have been something in the animators’ water in 1992 since it was the year Batman: The Animated Series debuted with its gorgeously haunted art deco/gothic expressionism images. On Welcome To Dead House—the series’ introduction to the world—the logo is oozing, dripping, indeterminate over a looming gothic mansion with its door ajar past dusk. BUT! It’s also brightly colored, cartoonishly recalling pulp traditions in a way even 10-year-olds can probably sense is camp. The reader knows they’re in for thrills and chills, but the cover still feels safe. 

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Even that ignores the included promise “It will just kill you,” a horror tagline that can only be described as “Primordial.”

Halloween has an established iconography. Kids get cartoony ghosts and witches, teenagers get sexy vampires like Twilight or Cirque du Freak, and adults get nostalgia like Stranger Things or Halloween reboots. Throw in the play-dress-up-and-eat-candy-til-you-puke dopamine rush for kids, and no wonder it feels like every other person claims they’re goth

None of this is to say kids don’t get nightmares—again, the world is terrifying. Here’s a whole paper on how children’s culture is “a sinister and liminal force, or a cutesy façade for the concealment of delirium or violence.” The safe space of the cartoon has limits, which brings us to a very important point about Goosebumps:

Goosebumps Loves Leaving Kids In Terrifying Situations

Despite Stine’s skill at adding humor to defuse scary situations, Goosebumps has never been afraid to leave a scary situation unresolved. When I texted my best friend Brendan to tell him I was writing this series, the first thing he brought up was the terrible circumstances Goosebumps leaves kids in. “Girl got sucked into the mirror world, and now her reflection is gonna live her life,” he said of the story “Mirror Mirror On The Wall.” It’s true of others, too: Stay Out Of The Basement is “girl kills her plant clone dad and gets her real dad back only to find out her dad is actually a plant in the garden. 

The first was dadtiva, the second was indadca.

There’s a whole list of twist endings on the Goosebumps Fandom wiki. When I was re-reading these books, I had a running bet with my wife to see if Stine would kill a dog. Not because I’m pro-dog violence (even if those little Terriers do scare my kid), but because Stine wrote a bunch of situations where it seemed super likely. The Werewolf of Fever Swamp has a character seriously threatening to kill a dog. What could be worse in a kids’ book than killing a dog? Those old Grim/HCA fairy tales where everyone gets maimed? What about the Bible, when God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son because God feels like it, or Moses grows up parentless, or Herod slaughters every infant under age two to get at Jesus? 

Bad stuff happens in literature we show kids. Bad stuff happens in the world. It’s terrifying out there. Even the stuff we can explain is terrifying, like war and climate change and the Supreme Court. What about the stuff we can’t explain, like ghosts and monsters and time-traveling wizards? What about true crime horrors, like the Tate-LaBianca murders or the murder of Emmett Till? How can we go on living, knowing that evil lurks at all times? I dunno, the same way Margaret goes on in life knowing her dad’s a plant in the garden. Feels uneasy, this being the last paragraph. Right? Stine would make a joke here. This is a comedy website. I should make a joke here. Then again, the other thing Stine would do is leave you hanging, knowing there’s something you should be scared of right now, and you probably haven’t even named it yet. 

Chris Corlew is a writer and musician living in Chicago. He co-hosts The Line Break, a podcast about poetry, is one half of b and the shipwrecked sailor, and is a fiction reader for Cotton Xenomorph. Drop him a line on werewolf communes or sea monster sightings on Twitter.

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