"There's something missing my brain," author R.L. Stine tells Bustle. "I don't get scared from books or movies."
Whatever is missing from his brain certainly isn't missing from the minds of the millions of readers who have been spooked senseless over the last two and a half decades by his children's horror series, Goosebumps, which turns 25 years old this year. Giving children nightmares is a task he performs with honor (his Twitter bio proudly proclaims: "My job: to terrify kids"), but Stine, 73, actually got his start writing comedy, first as editor-in-chief of Ohio State University's humor magazine, The Sundial, then as the author of joke books. He says he knew he wanted to be a writer from about the age of nine, but he learned quickly not to be picky about the jobs that came his way. At one point, he was even writing the jokes for Bazooka Joe bubblegum wrappers for $25 a pop. It all paid off — as anyone who's read Goosebumps knows, Stine didn't leave behind his flair for the comedic when he began writing children's horror. The series is just as funny, zany, and quirky as it is spooky — and that's intentional.
"I think humor and horror are very close emotionally," Stine says. "When you go up to a baby and you jump out at them, the very first thing they do is they gasp, then they laugh. Always. If you go to an amusement park, you hear people screaming and laughing at the same time. I think it’s very closely connected. Just that same visceral reaction."
In 1989, Stine got his start in horror with the Fear Street series, aimed at teenagers. Three years later, in 1992, he was asked to do the Goosebumps series for a younger audience, and he begrudgingly agreed, mostly on the urging of his wife, editor and writer Jane Waldhorn. His wife, he explains, saw an opportunity to fill a gap in the marketplace, but Stine was hesitant about writing for kids. He told her that if they could come up with a good name for the book series, he would do it. He stumbled upon the perfect title shortly afterward – at the bottom of TV Guide Magazine in an advertisement that read "Goosebumps Week on channel 11."
"I just stared at it and thought, 'It’s perfect. Because it’s scary and it’s funny,'" Stine says. That idea — of being scary and funny — has permeated his work ever since. He's always believed that a dash of humor can cool down any spooky situation, an essential consideration when writing for children.
"All ages like scary stories," he says. "I think kids like these books because they’re filled with surprises. They’re not straightforward. They’re not linear. You get halfway through the book and suddenly, there's a twist, and it turns around and it’s not what you thought it was. They like being manipulated."
It's true — for 25 years, titles like Welcome To Dead House, Stay out of the Basement, Say Cheese and Die!, and Night of the Living Dummy have kept kids laughing and screaming in equal measure. As was the case with the title "Goosebumps," Stine starts at the top: his books, he explains, always begin with the title, and he won't start writing until he's found the perfect one. (For the record, he says he's never received a good title from a kid, but would be open to asking his Twitter followers for suggestions.)
"You know, I was waking my dog in the park, and a title flashed into my mind: Little Shop of Hamsters. Great title," Stine says. "And then, you have to think, well how do I make hamsters scary? Maybe there's a giant hamster. Maybe there's a thousand of them."
While hamsters might seem like a, well, inspired choice of villain, at this point, Stine is forced to get creative: he's written over 300 novels, and used basically every monster he has an internet in. In all honest, he's written about all the good monsters more than once — and even written about a few he hates, like zombies. "They’re so limited," he says. "All they can do is stagger around and eat flesh. They’re so unsophisticated."
Yet, he wrote an entire story about it — Why I Quit Zombie School, about a flesh-and-blood, living, breathing kid whose parents accidentally drop him off at a boarding school for zombies.
While zombies are Stine's least favorite, his personal favorite are swamp monsters — he's even writing an entire Marvel series about one, Man-Thing. But, among fans, there's a very clear favorite: Slappy the Dummy, a living ventriloquist doll that comes to life to wreak havoc and rain insults upon his victims. Slappy has appeared as the main villain in 11 Goosebumps novels, and even stars in his own book series, SlappyWorld. A future iteration of Slappy will involve a twist Stine hasn't tried before — Slappy's Evil Twin.
Yes, as it turns out, things can always get worse.
"He’s really fun for me to write," Stine says. "Because he insults everyone: 'Is that your face?' or 'Did you throw up on your neck?' I love writing that kind of stuff. He’s so rude. It’s fun for me to write."
"The only problem," he adds. "Is he’s a little limited as far as plots go. Because all he can do is come to life, and say, 'you're my slave.'"
This isn't a problem that's exclusive to Slappy stories; coming up with fresh plots isn't as easy as the prolific writer makes it appear. After he settles on a title, he outlines the entire story in advance. (This is part of the reason he doesn't get scared by his own writing, he says. He always knows what's coming.) Stine fully admits that he's stolen plots and monsters from all kinds of places: the horror movies he and his brother used to watch as kids — films like It Came From Beneath The Sea and Creature from The Black Lagoon — and from other horror books, namely Stephen King's Pet Sematary, which centers upon a mysterious cemetery with sinister powers to bring the dead back to life.
"I’ve taken that plot about five times," Stine says. "It’s too good. With all kinds of things — they come back to life and they’re not quite the same."
Though Stine has learned from other horror masters, he also has a lot of wisdom to share on the subject himself. When things get too scary, he slows it down with humor. With things need to get scarier, he slows things down period.
"Instead of getting them right in the room, first they have to go through a dark hall," he says. "Something like that. If you slow it down, it makes it scarier, because it raises the reader’s anticipation. So, they’re gonna go down in the basement, then they fumble, then they can’t find the light, then the stairs creak. You add all those details."
He's been writing these books for a long time, and the hype hasn't died down. New fans — a.k.a. actual children — still love Goosebumps, but he's also become a bit of a cult figure among millennials who grew up reading the series and watching the TV show. At first, Stine says, he had a lot of questions about why so many grown-ups were showing up to his book signings, standing in line alongside elementary aged kids for a chance to meet their favorite author.
"I'm nostalgia to them," Stine says. "That took a while to get used to. But it’s a wonderful thing. It’s really nice to be able to scare a lot of generations."
After 25 years of Goosebumps, nearly 30 years of Fear Street, a movie that brought the enigmatic author to the big screen (with Jack Black as Stine), a TV show, and millions of copies sold, it may seem like Stine has little else to accomplish. But there's more to come — a second Goosebumps movie is in the works, and Stine promises to continue doing what he's been doing for the last few decades: writing 2,000 words of children's horror each day, six days a week.
In fact, R.L. Stine's prediction for what comes next is just as slyly grim as his stories. "I don’t know. I’ve got four or five more to write. We just keep going. I don’t think writers retire," he says. "I think they just drop dead on their keyboard."