R.L. Stine doesn't believe in ghosts. Or vampires, sasquatches, wise-cracking demonic ventriloquist's dummies, or any of the other supernatural creatures who've crept through the pages of his mega-bestselling children's horror series, Goosebumps. And he's shocked that anyone else does. At his readings, Stine tells Bustle, he likes to tell a ghost story, then ask the audience if anyone there has ever had their own run-in with the undead. "And you can't believe how many hands go up," he marvels. "I say, 'No, not on television'... And their hands [stay up], all these kids who think they've seen ghosts. It's really amazing."
But that doesn't mean Stine hasn't had his own brushes with the unexplainable. One day, nearly 40 years ago — back when the master of tween terror worked as a humor writer, penning kids' jokes books and editing a young adult comedy magazine called Bananas — a coworker came into Stine's office at work, and asked him how old he was. "I said I was 38 ... and as I said it, I floated up and I could see myself from the ceiling saying it... I looked down on myself saying that I'm 38... And then I was back in myself and I just thought, 'What just happened?' Honestly I was kinda stunned."
Stine has never had an out-of-body experience since then. But decades later, his assessment of the experience wouldn't be out of place in one of his books, where horror and comedy often mixed in equal amounts: He says he left his body because, he says, "it was such a horrifying number to me. It was so horrible to be 38."
Stine, now 75, hasn't been 38 for a long time. He also hasn't been a comedy writer in nearly as long — not since his 1986 teen horror debut, Blind Date, became a bestseller and changed the course of his life. But to him, comedy and terror are more closely entwined than you think. "I never get scared. Horror doesn't scare me," says Stine. "I never get scared of movies, or a Stephen King book. I enjoy them, but I don't have that feeling." He notes this as we're seated in the distinctly unspooky library of his not-even-a-little-bit-eerie Manhattan apartment. All the scary stuff is sequestered down the hall in Stine's study, which is probably the only room in all of New York City that is simultaneously home to an enormous papier-mache cockroach, a jar labelled "Monster Blood," a dummy crafted to look like Stine, and multiple Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards. But in the library, shelves of gorgeously laid-out books and a built-in rolling ladder gives the place a vibe that's more Beauty and the Beast than Stay Out of the Basement!
"With Goosebumps, I don't really wanna scare anybody. So if a scene starts to get really intense, I always throw in something funny," he says. Stine's drive to make readers laugh even comes up in the series' infamous cliffhanger chapter endings: "the chapter endings in my book are all punchlines."
Not that the comedy always comes through to the series' devoted young readers, who might not yet be old enough to see the comedy inherent in a haunted mask or a cave inhabited by evil ghost children. "People say to me, 'Oh, after I read your book, I had to keep all the lights on and I had to lock the doors.' To me ... horror is funny. Horror always makes me laugh," he says.
Maybe that outlook holds the secret for Stine's astounding success. Growing up in Ohio, Stine was a regular patron at Saturday afternoon horror movie matinees, but he never thought about turning his own hand to horror. Instead, he was single-mindedly interested in writing humor, starting by publishing comedy 'zines for his friends while still in school, and later on, working his way up to editing Bananas for a decade. "That was my life's dream," says Stine. "When I finished Bananas, I just thought I'd coast the rest of my life. I had no idea."
Everything changed in 1985, over the course of what was supposed to be a very average lunch with an editor he knew. The editor showed up shaken; she had gotten into a big fight with a teen horror author she'd been working with. She told Stine she would never work with that particular author again — and that he could do just as good a job at writing teen horror. In short, "she gave me the title, and it was because she was angry at him."
She asked him to go home and write a book titled Blind Date. "I was at that point in my career where you say yes to everything. You're afraid to say no," Stine says. "So I said, 'Sure, no problem.'"
After running out to a bookstore to survey the teen thriller scene, Stine decided he wanted to make his book different — "younger and cleaner and not quite so vicious.'" Stine then spent three months working on Blind Date — "that's a long time for me to spend on a book" — and when it came out, it was an immediate bestseller. "I thought, 'Wait a minute. What's going on here?' I'd never been on that list with all my joke books."
When his novel about an evil group of sorority sisters, Twisted, topped the charts again the following year, he had a revelation: "I said, 'Wait a minute. Forget the funny stuff.' I've been scary ever since."
But despite all of that, as Stine tells it, he almost didn't write Goosebumps, the 26-year-long series that made him a household name, sold over 400 millions copies and spun off a TV show, a DisneyWorld attraction, and two movies — the second of which, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween, opens on Oct. 12. By the early '90s, Stine was successfully penning both stand-alone horror novels and his teen series, Fear Street, writing a book per month. But when his editors came to him with the idea that would become Goosebumps, his instinct was to pass. "My editors were saying, 'No one's ever tried a scary series for 7 to 12 year olds. We should try it.' And I said, 'No, I don't want to.' That's the kind of businessman I am, right?" He worried "it would screw up Fear Street. I had this teen audience and I didn't want them to start thinking that I was babyish."
But continuous hounding from his editors led Stine to agree that if he could think of a good title, he'd give it a shot. After seeing the phrase "Goosebumps Week" in a TV ad, he wrote the first four Goosebumps books, which went out to bookstores "and just sat there. Nothing. And I think if we had done it today, with computers and everything, they would have yanked them off the shelves. 'Cause they didn't sell."
Stine's audience, who were then mostly in their teens, didn't want to read fairly innocent stories about evil toys and haunted cameras, and younger readers didn't know who he was. But by the time the fourth book was released, word of mouth among kids caused sales to pick up. "Somehow kids discovered it," says Stine. "I had no idea how — some secret kids network. Kids would buy it and liked it and went to school and told other kids. There was no advertising." They just took off.
It's not surprising that the entire fate of Goosebumps hinged on the title, given that Stine's creative process lives and dies by titles; he often gets the title of a book and works backward from there. "I was walking our other dog in the park and they just popped into my head, those words: 'Say cheese and die.' I was like, 'Whoa, great title. What could it be?' What if there was an evil camera? What if some kids found the camera, and what if it took pictures of things, bad things, that happened in the future? That kind of thing. And that's kind of how I develop the stories."
But the books aren't just guided by creative instincts and fantasies about evil cameras. Stine also develops a detailed outline, including dialogue and plot-twist chapter ends, for every book. The outlines often run for 20 pages, and take a week to do — a serious time commitment for an author who writes 2,000 words a day like clockwork. "I hate outlining," says Stine. "But I can't work without it now."
The outlines are also where Stine's collaborators come in, including his wife, Jane, who is also his long-time editor. "I have a lot of editors, a lot, which is lucky in a way," reveals Stine. "But my outlines get rejected a lot. Sometimes I'll spend almost as much time on the outlines as on the book, because I have to do two or three versions." If the outline's approved, "I pretty much know the book's gonna be okay." And if his editors think the outline won't make for a good novel? "The sad thing is, they're always right. They're always right."
After Goosebumps was first published in 1992, Stine was working on that series and Fear Street simultaneously, writing a novel in one series or the other every two weeks. "Now I think, 'How did I do it?'" But the success of Goosebumps didn't hit him until he got stuck in a traffic jam on his way to a signing in Columbus, Ohio. "I'm really nervous I'm not gonna get to the store in time, and I look around and all these cars were... filled with kids. I caused the traffic jam. It was my traffic jam. And that's when I knew."
As the '90s marched on, Goosebumps mania was in full swing. In 1995, the Goosebumps TV show debuted as part of the Fox after-school line-up. Stine was so deluged with writing and press responsibilities, he didn't have time to be involved with the show; Jane reviewed the scripts, a role she would expand on later by becoming an executive producer on Stine-related shows The Nightmare Room and the Haunting Hour. He did, however, find time to visit the Goosebumps HorrorLand Fright Show at Disney World, which opened in 1997. The attraction, which included a live stage show as well as a mirror maze, thrilled Stine, a Disney fanatic who says he'd "would like to live in the park."
As the decade neared its end, things slowed for the series. The final title in the original series, Monster Blood IV, was released in late 1997; spin-off series, including Tales to Give You Goosebumps and the choose-your-own-adventure Give Yourself Goosebumps, wrapped their runs between 1997 and 2000. The Disney attraction closed in 1998, the same year the Goosebumps TV show stopped producing new episodes (though the reruns remained a children's TV staple for years to come). He decided to take a break from Goosebumps.
He began publishing the similarly themed Nightmare Room series in 2000, "which was an incredible bomb. We didn't sell 10 books. They were good, too. They were Goosebumps books, they were just called The Nightmare Room. And I always wondered why. What happened? Kids, they didn't want it. Made a nice TV show out of it and it only ran one season."
Stine found his answer while doing a signing event in Boston: a passing child refused a book, declaring "I don't wanna have nightmares." Then, says Stine, "I realized maybe that wasn't the best name."
In the years that followed, Stine worked on a few other series, including the comedic ghost books Mostly Ghostly and Rotten School, a full-on comedy about some very irritating children. But he never left Goosebumps behind completely. And when he got a call from Scholastic asking if he'd be interested in starting up the series again, he decided to give it a try, with the first-ever ongoing Goosebumps story: Goosebumps Horrorland in 2008. "It was very hard to write, I thought. But it was good...And then there we were and it got popular again. Kind of hard to believe, this old series."
The 2015 Goosebumps film, made the series' comeback even bigger, with Stine reporting that sales tripled in the aftermath of the film's release. "The power of the movies is amazing," says Stine. "I do talks all the time. I get huge audiences now, just because they think they're gonna see Jack Black." Black flew out in a blizzard to meet Stine and study his mannerisms, to play a "sinister version" of Stine. "And then when it came time to film, he played me like he was Orson Welles. I said, 'Jack, I don't talk like that. I'm from Ohio.'"
Stine pegs Goosebumps' original success to both the fact that people enjoy being scared when they know they're not actually in danger, and an "amazing bit of luck." Those two same factors have landed him back in the public eye 26 years in, appearing at readings where former Goosebumps readers bring their kids, who are now reading the books themselves. "It's actually wonderful," says Stine. "I always say, I get to scare so many generations. How lucky is that?"