Every '90s kid remembers the prickly feeling of anticipation and fear that preceded any reading of Goosebumps. In 2017, the infamous horror series turns 25 years old, and author R.L. Stine is still going strong and still terrifying kids for a living. At this point, the author has written over 300 books, and the Goosebumps series has spawned a TV show and a movie starring Jack Black as R.L. Stine.
When I heard news of Goosebumps big birthday, I realized it had been decades since I had actually read one of the books. So, I popped over to my library website and checked out a copy of a Goosebumps classic — Night of the Living Dummy, the seventh book in the original Goosebumps series and the first starring what would become Stine's most infamous villain: Slappy the Dummy. My original plan was to read it under my covers with a flashlight, true '90s kid style, but then I realized that with the book on my iPad, I didn't even need a flashlight. I turned out the lights and switched the graphics over to night mode, so it was just me and the white words floating eerily in the dark.
What happened next gave me nightmares for days.
About two paragraphs in, I realized that I made a fatal mistake. I hadn't really paid attention to the title, Night of the Living Dummy. Here's a not-so-secret secret about me: stories in which dolls come to life scare me more than anything. Even though I'm a grown-up and I know logically that dolls coming to life is preposterous, there's something about them that plunges me into cold abyss of fear. A large part of me wanted to put this book down and just read a different one. But, I reminded myself, isn't it the point to get scared?
So, I plowed on. In Night of the Living Dummy, Lindy discovers a ventriloquist doll in the construction site beside her home. Lindy, thanks to her new doll, Slappy, is getting tons of attention for all the tricks she can do. But her twin sister, Kris, is jealous, so she gets a doll of her own: Mr. Wood.
But then.... weird things start to happen. Things that could only be explained if one of the dummies was... alive. But that's impossible. Right?
When I was a kid, it would have been the big shocker moments that got me. The moment when the dummy talks for the first time. Or when he spews out green gunk all over the school. Or the cliffhanger at the end.
But reading as an adult and as a writer, I was struck by the more subtle ways Stine teases his audience — the way he describes the sound of a rusty swing-set, or writes of a triangle of lamplight surrounded by darkness. R.L. Stine manages to make everyday, ordinary things feel not quite right.
Of course, with a book titled Night of the Living Dummy you can guess that the dummy is going to come alive. But Stine sets it up perfectly so that even if it doesn't surprise you, you can't help but feel your stomach squirm. As I read, I found myself biting my lip and shouting "No! Don't!" in my head.
It was also interesting how the book is infused with kid logic. You feel like if the girls could just get their parents to believe them about what's happening, everything will be solved. Even though I know firsthand that being an adult does not mean you're equipped to deal with an evil ventriloquist dummy, I found myself utterly disappointed every time their mom refused to listen to them.
The night I read this book, I dreamt of rotten odors and strange objects skittering around my room. These weren't the type of nightmares that forced me to jolt awake screaming in the middle of the night; instead, these were nightmares that left me shaking with anxiety and drenched in sweat.
As a kid, when you have a nightmare, you get to run to your parents' room and tell them all about it. You get to cuddle in the arms of your favorite people. You get to feel safe. But as an adult, all I could do was stare up at my ceiling and remind myself that it isn't real. It's just a story.
Even as an adult, R.L. Stine still has me questioning everything I know about reality.