If you grew up loving horror any time in the last few decades, odds are you grew up reading books written by R.L. Stine. The children’s author extraordinaire has written hundreds of books through his Goosebumps and Fear Street banners, inspired TV shows, and of course, the delightful family adventure film Goosebumps. Just in time for Halloween, Sony’s sequel Goosebumps: Haunted Halloween is now in theaters starring Wendi McLendon-Covey, Madison Iseman, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Caleel Harris, Chris Parnell, Ken Jeong, and of course, Jack Black as R.L. Stine for a new spooky adventure ripped from the pages of Stine’s celebrated books.
With the film now in theaters, I recently hopped on the phone for a chat with Stine to talk about the legacy of Goosebumps and the new film adaptation. He discussed the trick to the Goosebumps brand horror, getting the endings right, why he still outlines every story, why his books endure across generations, and a whole lot more.
Hi there, it’s lovely to talk to you. I, like a lot of people in my generation, grew up a huge fan of your books.
STINE: Thank you.
And I went on to make a career out of writing about horror, so I think you influenced me a little bit.
STINE: Well, nice. In a good way.
STINE: Nice. Nice. Were you a ’90s kid?
Yes, I was.
STINE: Yeah, we like the ’90s.
It was a good time. But you haven’t really slowed down much at all. What do you still love about writing, and especially writing horror?
STINE: I know. Why? Why do I like it so much? I started when I was nine. I was this weird kid, in my room typing. I’d be in typing, writing little joke magazines, and writing stories for hours. I don’t know why I liked it so much. My mother would be at the door. She’d say, “What’s wrong with you? Go outside and play. Go outside.” Horrible advice, right? But no, I just like it, I still do it. I wrote 2000 words this morning on a new Goosebumps book. We just signed on to do six more Goosebumps.
STINE: It’s a lot of fun. I get to scare a lot of generations, right?
Yeah, that’s something I wanted to ask you about, actually, because your books have endured despite massive changes in culture and publishing over the last few decades. What do you think is the hook that sticks with all these generations?
STINE: I guess it’s horror. I think people like to be scared. And people always say, “Well, how have kids changed? How have things changed?”, since I’ve been doing this. The kids don’t really change. The only thing that’s changed is the technology. That always changes. But the fears never change. Being afraid of the dark, or being afraid of being lost somewhere, or something’s waiting for you. That never changes. That’s the same as when I was a kid. That never changes. And I think that helps explain the longevity of Goosebumps. 26 years is a long time for a series, right?
It’s a really long time. It’s kind of amazing What do you think is the essence of the Goosebumps brand of horror that’s made it so durable?
STINE: The essence, gee. Is the teasingness of it, I think. The twists and the surprises. There’s always one part, place in a Goosebumps book where it totally turns around. And the reader says, “Oh my god, I didn’t know that. I was totally fooled.” I think they like that.
There’s also, there’s that quality a lot in your endings, too. A lot of times, your endings feel like a zinger or a punchline almost.
STINE: And every chapter ending.
What is your approach to nailing the right ending? Because you deal in so many sub-genres. How do you know you’ve got the right ending for a werewolf book, or a ghost book, or whatever it may be?
STINE: That’s a good question. It actually, it has to be a happy ending. They absolutely insist on happy endings to these books. And then there can be like a little twist, something that throws it off a little bit. But they all have to be happy. Once I wrote a Fear Street that didn’t have a happy ending. You know, the teenage series? And in the end of the Fear Street book, the good girl gets carried off as a murderer, and the murderer … I wrote this just for fun for me, and it had an unhappy ending and kids hated it. They turned on me immediately. And I started getting mail. “Dear RL, you moron. How could you write that? You idiot. Are you going to write a sequel to finish the story?”
In every school I went, some kid would raise their hand and say, “That book you wrote, why did you do that?” I never did it again.
It feels like that’s the total opposite of writing horror for adults. You’re supposed to sort of leave them down.
STINE: That’s right. That’s right. It is the opposite. But they want to have, I mean … The reason they’re comfortable with these books is that they know what they’re gonna get. It’s like getting on a roller coaster, and you’re gonna have a lot of twists and turns, and you’re gonna laugh, and you’re gonna scream. And then it lets you off okay. I think they need that.
When it comes to your writing, you’ve spoken about how you’re big into outlining and planning. I’m curious, how’d you get started on that practice and why do you stick to it all these years later?
STINE: I can’t work without an outline now. I have to know what’s happening. Before I write the book, I have to know everything that’s gonna happen in the book. And the actual truth is that the outline was required by my editors. They wanted to approve the outline before I wrote the book. And that’s how it got started. It wasn’t really, the outlines weren’t really for me. They were to get a story approved so then I could write. And that’s really how it started. A lot of times, and even recently, I have a Goosebumps coming out about robotics called It’s Alive! It’s Alive!. And they hated, they totally rejected the outline. I think I had to do three different outlines before they liked the story. So, I’m still doing it.
And that’s the main reason it happened. Now I just, it makes writing so much easier if you’ve already done all the work. It makes it so much more fun and you never get writer’s block, ’cause you know everything.
Right. Do you ever get surprised when you’re writing the scene and make a tweak to the outline? Or do you always stick exactly to it?
STINE: Sometimes. Sometimes you think of something you think is better. But I rely on them a lot.
What do you like reading right now? What’s keeping you hooked to the page?
STINE: I read mysteries and thrillers. I’m in the International Thriller Writers, this group of, we all get together, like 400 thriller writers every summer. And I read Michael Conley, and Lee Child, and Harlan Coben. And all those people. And I like old British mysteries. I read a lot of that. I love Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell. People like that.
Of course. Obviously I’m talking to you today, though you have many things going on, because there is the new film. Just to sort of-
STINE: Yeah, I know. It’s open now. I wonder if anyone’s going.
Well, I should think so. It’s the season.
STINE: I don’t know. You never know.
That is true, you never know. It’s one of those cool things, though, where my generation, I don’t personally have kids, but I’m sure that the parents my age are excited to take their kids to explore Goosebumps.
STINE: The first Goosebumps movie was the number one film one week, and it’s actually, the reason is it was the 25 and the 30 year olds and the … bringing their kids. The 30 year olds were coming, you’re gonna go for nostalgia. I’m nostalgia, right? And they bring their kids. So, we had two totally different audiences who came to the first film. I hope it happens again.
Yeah. This one’s kind of fun, too, ’cause it’s got the Halloween theme going on. I’m curious, do you, as this horror icon, do you get into the holiday of Halloween? Do you have traditions that you love?
STINE: I’m always working on Halloween. I’m always out talking, right? If I am home, I have a skeleton in my apartment, of course. I bring out the skeleton. And we give away candy and books.
Oh books, that’s nice.
STINE: Yeah, that’s good. It’s a nice thing. But I’m usually gone. I’m gonna be running around. I’m gonna be in Vancouver and Toronto this time. This is my book month. And then November, November comes, everyone just forgets about me. It’s great.
Anyway, I’m very pleased. I think the new movie is a really good kids film, and especially the second half really takes off. When Slappy brings everything to life and it’s all flying around and attacking, buzzing, I just thought they did a great job with that.
Was there a particular monster or creature you were excited to see them bring to life in this one?
STINE: Well, my favorite scene is the gummy bear scene. Who would think? That’s just wonderful. These adorable little gummy bears turning into monsters. I love that. And of course the giant balloon spider. That’s a great character. That’s really good.
Do you find that you have a set of characters that — obviously Slappy — but other than that, which characters or stories are people most excited to talk to you about?
STINE: No, it’s mostly Slappy. I think that’s one of my big failings is that I haven’t created a whole crew of other monsters. ‘Cause everyone just likes Slappy.
I think your crew is too big. You’ve just created too many characters.
STINE: I wish, if they do another movie, I wish they would do the haunted mask.
STINE: I’m very proud of that one. And I think it’s very creepy. There are a lot of masks in the new movie, but the haunted mask isn’t in it. You know, where the mask sticks to your face? It becomes part of you and turns you evil. I would love to see them use that.