Brian: Welcome everyone to Review the World's Guide to Goosebumps! Over the course of the next several months we'll be jaunting through the world of R.L. Stine's Goosebumps television series. Examining all 74 episodes. Joining me on this journey is my pal Toby of Tobyblog!
Toby: Brian, I am super thrilled you invited me to work on this joint project with you. Not only am I a big fan of Review the World, but I also love what you and Sean Balenger have been doing on your Decades of Cinema podcast, and there were quite a few times I wish I could have joined in on the discussion there. This is the first time, I believe, we have collaborated on anything outside of the various reviews we’ve done when you’ve been in town, so this is a real privilege.
Brian: Before we delve into our analysis which will take the form of a series of ongoing conversations between Toby and myself I'd like to give a little context on this endeavor. With the Goosebumps movie coming out in mid-October and Halloween shortly thereafter this seemed like a perfect project to tackle. I wanted to partner up with someone to explore this show and got to thinking Toby would be an interesting choice as unlike myself he's a complete novice and newbie to the Goosebumps world. I thought it'd be cool to get a non-fan's take on the material seeing it with fresh eyes. I knew Toby liked several other horror anthology series' like Monsters, Tales from the Dark Side, The Ray Bradbury Theater, etc. and generally had an inkling towards the macabre like being an unabashed Halloween lover and so forth. I'm glad he'll be joining me as we encounter monsters, mummies, mutants, werewolves, evil puppets and lawn gnomes, and so much more!
Toby: As you mentioned, Brian, this is my first real exposure to the world of R. L. Stine. I definitely knew of the book series back in the nineties — it having the reputation of being an introduction, or a gateway if you will, to the horror genre for kids. The first book was published in 1992, which was the year I graduated high school, and the TV series debuted in 1995, so it hit its peak of popularity toward the tail end of my college career, so it’s easy to understand how I missed it. I remember R. L. Stine as being the most popular children’s author by a stretch until the arrival of J. K. Rowling (is there magic in that two initial/last name formula?) with the Harry Potter series.
Brian: Now myself I'm a hardcore Goosebumps fanatic dating way back toward the series' heyday initially with the books themselves. If memory serves my first foray into Goosebumps was a box set that contained four books, I believe the first four of the original series' 62 titles, from a book fair or mail-in order form. I was immediately hooked upon starting Welcome to the Dead House. And while I always skewed a little older than the books' intended target audience I had a deep affection for them. When the TV show launched in the Fall of '95 you better believe I was there planted in-front of the TV. I especially recall the first half-dozen or so episodes, I want to say they aired around 4 or 4:30PM, as I'd race home after school and anxiously kill time until they'd start. It was the type of thrill and high great serial television can give you -- similar to today's audiences being so deeply invested in shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and The Walking Dead. Immediately after each episode I'd play it back in my head while simultaneously wondering what the next one would be and beginning the countdown toward it. You have to remember, this was before DVRs, and the Internet, as a fan there were no easy ways to stay on-top of something like this, you either caught its initial broadcast or you missed it. I don't think I ever consciously gave up on the series but as it drew to an end in late-'98 I was a pretty busy high schooler and don't recall seeing much of its final season at the time. But I never grew out of Goosebumps entirely. Years later through inter-library loan services I was able to fill blindspots in my Goosebumps fandom, going back and reading many of the books from the follow-up series' like Goosebumps 2000. And even in recent years I've kept up with latest iterations Goosebumps HorrorLand and now Goosebumps Most Wanted. I'm excited to relive the television adaptation of all of these great, spooky stories once again. Let's get started!
Episodes #1 & 2: The Haunted Mask - (Originally aired: Part I & Part II 10/27/95)
Brian: The Haunted Mask is right up there alongside Slappy the Dummy I'd wager as one of the series' most iconic emblems. While appearing as the 11th Goosebumps book I can see why they'd chose it as a starting point for the TV series. Toby, before we start breaking down the plot, and getting deeper into the story, I'd like to know your initial thoughts? Both of The Haunted Mask itself but also as an introduction to this beloved franchise?
Toby: I have no familiarity with Goosebumps, but I am a lover of TV anthologies, as you've mentioned; Tales From the Darkside, Amazing Stories, and The Ray Bradbury Theater probably being my favorites. The anthology form offers some advantages over serials, in that each episode, at least theoretically, presents a self-contained story-world, with rules all its own and ever-new opportunities for surprise and exploration. So one of the things I look forward to doing as we step through the series is to look at the whole in light of other successful TV anthologies, and maybe draw some comparisons.
Like The Ray Bradbury Theater, every episode in the series is adapted from the short story works of a single author. When that happens you often find common or recurring themes between the episodes, and I'm going to be on the lookout for those.
Since this is a horror anthology, I am going to be concerned with how well the individual episodes work as horror stories, allowing for the fact that the Goosebumps books are targeted toward young kids. I have a theory about scares and it goes something like this — scares can be classified according to their "existential" or "imminent" nature, and also according to degree; each having a greater and lesser quality. Imminent scares involve the feeling of some immediate threat. They get the heart pumping and adrenaline flowing. They involve a play on the physical fear response — what is known as the "fight or flight" response. The lesser imminent scares are what I call "frights" and involve things like simple jump scares and loud music. I would expect the vast majority of scares in the series to be of this nature. The greater imminent scares are what I call "terrors" and would invoke the threat of imminent death or pain. These kinds of scares of the stock and trade of modern horror movies. I would be very surprised if anything in the series approached this level. Existential scares involve a shock to the worldview of the viewer; they upset the notions we have we have about how the universe is governed. They usually involve no threat of immediate personal danger; but the overwhelming sense they invoke is one of dread. You cannot run away from these scares, because they define in a sense the world in which you exist. The lesser form here is what I call "unease". It manifests through an unshakeable feeling that something is "not right" with some entity in the drama, in a way that disturbs and threatens. The greater form I define as true "horror", and is always philosophical in nature. The surest sign that this level has been achieved in a work of fiction is when you can't stop thinking about it, and it might even change your outlook, ideas, or personality for a while. Or permanently! I don't expect to find much in the way of existential scares in Goosebumps, but I'm certainly going to be on the lookout for any signs of them.
Another aspect of my analysis will be to look for messages, meanings, or hidden interpretations. A lot of times these are completely subconscious and relate to common themes.
All of these criteria will help to answer the ultimate question — is this any good? Is it best remembered as a beloved series for kids, or are there moments where the series "breaks out", as it were, and shows signs of greatness of thought? Does it grow with the reader? Is it open to evolving interpretation?
Questions for Brian -
1. Books or TV series? Which would you save from a fire?
2. Do kids need a gateway to horror?
Brian: Let's talk about Kathryn Long who plays our protagonist Carly Beth Caldwell. In my mind she always resembled a sort of junior, pre-teen Helen Hunt. And I think she was pretty good in this. I was expecting a relatively short response back but you've given me a lot to sift through and unpack! The books versus TV show debate I'll hold off on until we get deeper into this project. Kids don't necessarily "need" a gateway to horror, I was exposed, for better or worse, to stuff like A Nightmare on Elm St. at a fairly young age, but I do think youth-aimed horror, especially in the format of television series' like Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Tales from the Cryptkeeper are positive things. They give those young, and young at heart, a thrill or chill, without taking them into some of the murkier depths of the genre or forcing them to encounter some of its harsher elements like extreme violence and terror. Back to this first episode, let's start with a quick plot synopsis of sorts then I'll give my personal feelings.
Carly Beth gets picked on a lot by her classmates and friends for being easily scared. To combat this reputation she seeks out a terrifying Halloween costume to turn the tables and become the one dishing out scares. She succeeds when she nabs the titular Haunted Mask from a creepy costume shop. It instantly gives her power and confidence, but while it effectively frightens others we find its also having a bad effect on Carly herself, by becoming stuck on her head and taking over her personality and actions.
One of the things I noticed right away was that I've probably seen this particular two-parter more so than any other series' other episodes. As someone who watches a ton of movies and other assorted media I rarely make time to revisit things so the familiarity was initially a tad disappointing. But then it freed me up to notice things like background detail a lot more than I may have as a first-time viewer. Our story takes place during Halloween time as you mentioned and I loved a lot of the set and production design using all of these neat Halloween decorations throughout.
I mentioned before Long's performance as Carly Beth. I think she's best in the earlier scenes playing the picked on and put upon girl that's genuinely upset and frustrated. Her evil acting behind the mask may dip into campier territory. There's a small moment that I found one of the more human and endearing -- something younger me wouldn't have recognized as poignant. It's the scene between Carly and her mother in their living room. This was the closest these two episodes got to real human interaction and less melodrama. Carly's mom had noticed Carly pointing out something duck-related at the mall so somewhat misguidedly makes her daughter a duck costume for Halloween. It's the mom's misreading of the situation, and Carly not wanting to hurt her mom's feelings, and the intimacy of this small scene in this living room which feels lived in and real, that stuck out as nice moment I'll remember more than some of the more trotted out set pieces.
As I swing it back over to you, what were some of this episode's most effective chilling moments? Did you buy the arc of Carly Beth's character? As a newcomer to Goosebumps what were your initial thoughts after -- did the show seem immature or more childish than you'd expected, or was it clever or better written than you'd guessed? What did you think of the odd little costume shop, its proprietor, and the evil mask itself? We'll be seeing the Haunted Mask make a return in the series' second season.
Toby: For a series opener I thought it set the tone pretty well, particularly through the use of traditional Halloween imagery. I’ve always loved scenes of trick-or-treaters and the actual trick-or-treating event — the standout examples from my childhood being E.T., Mr. Mom, and Halloween 3. It’s a magic experience for kids, but maybe even more so for parents. The night setting and the Halloween tropes both thrill and spook, so it sucked me in right from the beginning. I have to say, though, my take on Carly was the exact opposite of yours — I found her unconvincing as the timid nerd, but mildly unsettling in the mask. Of the two friends, I thought Sabrina was the better actress by far, which really made me curious to see how well Long pulled off the role of the vampire daughter in Forever Knight. Your comparison to Helen Hunt’s facial features is spot on. I think it’s something in the brow and nose, combined with the aryan looks. Did you know Long is a dance instructor these days? I didn’t get a real sense of grace or poise out of Carly Beth, so that kind of surprised me.
I guess I didn’t buy the relationship between Carly and her somewhat disinterested Mom. The fact that she went through the trouble to *make* Carly Beth a professional-looking full size duck costume for Halloween was about the most unbelievable part of the show. Then, to show her gratitude and appreciation, Carly Beth rips it up without a thought in a toddler’s fit!
Sabrina. Now she knew the score. She had a kind heart, but I don’t believe for a second she didn’t set Carly Beth up for that scare in the pumpkin patch. Are you to tell me that those boys were stalking Carly Beth all evening, figured out she was headed to the pumpkin patch, raced there ahead of her, either grabbed some prearranged jack-o-lantern costumes on the way, or better yet arrived there in time to carve up two jack-o-lanterns to *use* as costumes, then buried themselves in the underbrush to wait for Carly Beth? And how would they know where she was going to walk? No way! It was a setup. Sabrina was sick of her friend’s simpering affectations, and wanted to shaker her up a bit; “man her up”, as it were. Well, it backfired.
Also, the boys didn’t like Carly Beth, that was obvious. You might pick on a girl you liked. Yank on her pony tail. Do all sorts of obnoxious things, but you would NEVER stick a worm in her sandwich, not if you were hoping for a chance. They deserved what they got.
As for the costume shop and its weird proprietor, described in the credits as the “Tall Thin Man”, I’m still perplexed. He was some kind of antisocial freak who for some reason ran a storefront where he’d be forced to interact with people all the time. He must have had some really bizarre deformity or injury that he needed to hide with his magic masks, but his “flaws of character” always wound up perverting the masks somehow, which he then — again, for unknown reasons — preserved in the back of his shop. They took on a life of their own, somehow, each manifesting some different and horrible aspect of the Tall Thin Mans presumably very shitty psyche. Our girl picks one of the scariest ones, and becomes filled with the desire to intimidate and dominate others. Was she drawn to that mask because those were the qualities she sensed it would foster? That’s my theory.
And here’s where this episode gets deep. Carly Beth’s desire to seek revenge on her tormentors through threats and violence is an all too real motivation for many, many kids. What we are seeing here is the same dynamic at play behind school shootings like Columbine, and frankly most of the others. Out of genuine fear and obvious self-loathing she inflates the insults against her out of all proportion (this is nothing more than just kids being kids, after all — she should and could have just shrugged off the boys as immature jerks); and the punishment, she feels, must match the crime. There was nothing visually gruesome about her carrying around and burying the model of her head (made by her unbelievably industrious mother), but it felt uncomfortable to me because of the heavy symbolism involved — of disassociation and suicide, something that reinforces the allusion to teen violence and school shootings.
I was impressed that in the inaugural episode I was able to find some deep allegory. Really makes me wonder how they’ll pick up this story again in part 2.
Brian: I'm glad you enjoyed it! The chill of the nighttime Halloween air and mood were spot-on for this one and as such a good choice for a series premiere. Sabrina seemed a bit aloof and her character too thinly scripted to me which is unsurprising given this was the Carly Beth show. I do think the "creepy costume/antique/magic store"is a trope that saw a lot of mileage not just by Stine but also frequently on series' like Are You Afraid of the Dark? yet it always worked for me. I should also say I loved the design of the mask itself. I'd love to put it on the next time I visit my Grandpa in the nursing home and make him spill his mashed potatoes or beets.
Toby: Some Misc. Notes ...
At the same time she was filming this series star Kathryn Long (Carly Beth) also appeared in the late-night Canadian vampire series Forever Knight as Divia, the wicked vampiric daughter of series regular Lacroix. The storyline was a good bit darker than Goosebumps, and involved a backstory about her character being murdered by her father after an attempt to force an incestuous relationship.
IMDB lists the part of Carly Beth as played by Kathryn Long. The part of Sabrina her best friend is listed as played by Kathryn Short. Kathryn Short is listed as an alternate name of actress Kathryn Long. MIND BLOWN
Similar to The Ray Bradbury Theater, the show is introduced by the somewhat mild mannered and physically unremarkable author. This show aired three years after The Ray Bradbury Theater went off the air.
It begins with a Halloween episode, as did Tales From the Darkside (1983).
Colin Fox, who played the Tall Thin Man, has been working as an actor since 1969. He was cast as Ming the Merciless in A Christmas Story (1983) in scenes that were ultimately cut, and did voice work on several episodes of the old "Excuse Me Princess" Legend of Zelda TV series (1989).
The Haunted Mask is the only Goosebumps book I've ever owned. I bought it as trading swag for my signature geocache, which happened to be dedicated to the Review the World blog. After several months and a number of finds, it was never traded out or picked up by anyone. It was still in the cache when I retrieved it with the intent of moving it to a different location after I received a few negative comments to the effect that the original spot, located near a condemned old bridge and often used as a dumping grounds, was becoming too creepy for young kids.
Episode #3: The Cuckoo Clock of Doom - (Originally aired: 11/3/95)
Brian: Alright, Toby, this should be a fun one (I hope). I recall quite enjoying the book version of Cuckoo Clock and recall vividly watching the original broadcast of its television adaptation. The story's narrative gimmick which we'll get to I've always found reminiscent to some of the twists you'd expect from The Twilight Zone. This time I'll kick it over to you to give us a 'lil slimy synopsis and begin our discussion.
Toby: Twelve year old Michael Webster has a couple of big problems in his life: his girly haircut and his incorrigible little sister, who takes delight in humiliating him at every opportunity, and who, very likely, would ruin any chances he ever had for reproducing himself. When dad, Jack-in-the-Beanstalk-like, comes home with a prize magical grandfather clock, Michael sees his chance to get even with sister Tara by framing her for breaking the cuckoo. Foolish Michael soon discovers that the clock has real magical power when he find himself slipping backwards through time whenever he falls asleep. Caught in a legitimately fearful scenario, Michael must figure out how to escape his parents and make his way back to the old antique shop where his dad bought the clock, in a desperate attempt to fix the cuckoo and set his timeline right again, as every failed attempt means that he sees himself becoming younger and younger…
Brian, you’re right that this story is reminiscent of others we’ve seen in the genre, notable the Burgess Meredith episode on The Twilight Zone, with its similar conceit that time is not only measured, but also controlled, by a special clock. Whereas the twist in that episode focused on a tragic irony for Meredith’s bookworm character, the Goosebumps episode is all about sheer suspense, as Michael literally races against time to fix his situation before he’s blinked out of existence.
I thought the episode worked well from that standpoint, and generated a lot of suspense. Especially as Michael found himself shifted back to infancy, I wondered how exactly he’d ever manage to escape the inevitable.
Little Tara Webster was a bad seed, hateful and two-dimensional. Rather than chalking that up to bad writing or child acting, though, I think it was intentional, as it highlighted the central moral question of the episode — did Michael kill his sister? For after fixing the cuckoo and returning himself to his proper time, Michael discovers that an accident in the antique store wiped out the events of the year 1988, the year his sister was born. He is now an only child. Michael’s attitude and spoken intentions to rescue his sister are left ambiguous.
So Brian, this reminded me of an episode of Tales From The Darkside called Word Processor Of The Gods, based on a short story by Stephen King. The main character in that story, a writer, discovers he has the ability to make whatever he writes come true. In the end he uses that power to change his life by eliminating his own horrible family and replacing them with better characters. What Michael did by comparison was not intentional, but does his reticence to do anything about it amount to the same moral action?
Then back to age 6! I loved the idea of a 12 year old Michael trapped in his 6 year old self. As the hired clown at his party creates balloon animals teenage Michael is stuck inside his younger self completely disinterested in the kiddy stuff while also struggling to devise a plan to return to the present day. I loved Michael ditching out and running to the antique shop, the shot of him running down the busy street seemed impressively cinematic for a show which usually has the safe and innocuous feel of closed sets. Then he reverts back to his newborn self! Pretty ambitious to pull off in a 20 min. show. As he's laying flat in his crib (no bumpers or unnecessary bedding methinks, safety first, 'natch) looking up at his mobile (wish they made Goosebumps mobiles for babies, love to see Slappy, the Haunted Mask, a Horror from HorrorLand, etc. rotating to a lullaby rendition of the irresistibly catchy Goosebumps TV theme) you can still hear the thoughts of his teenage self in disbelief at his predicament.
I think given the brief running time of these shows they did a swell job on this tale. Now I'll be right back -- I've got to run down to my local antique shop there was a clock down there I wanted to take a look at.
Toby: Some Misc. Notes ...
Star John White, who played Michael Webster, also appeared in junior horror anthologies Are You Afraid Of The Dark and Tales From the Cryptkeeper. He returned to Goosebumps in The Haunted Mask II. His only movie credits are in some direct-to-video American Pie spinoffs.
Kristen Bone, who played little sister Tara, had a bit part in Mean Girls and now does voiceovers for animated series Franklin and Rolie Polie Olie. She also appeared in Tales From the Cryptkeeper.
Episode #4: The Girl Who Cried Monster - (Originally aired: 11/0/95)
Toby: We come now to what has to be my favorite of the shows so far, if only because this one has enough bonafide scares and monster effects to rank it up there with more adult anthologies. This could have been an episode of Monsters without any changes to the screenplay.
Our girl Lucy Dark (a name with Bradburian allusions) is morbidly fascinated with monsters, and with scaring the crap out of her little brother with talk of same. Her parents don’t believe her, not because she’s like that kid in that fable, but because you can tell that the whole monsters bit is really played out.
One day after loitering past closing time at a town library that looks vaguely like a remodeled Castle Frankenstein, she discovers one of the least creepy things about the local librarian — that he is in fact a monster. What kind of monster, you ask? Good question. One with eye stalks. He ate spiders, but apparently also little girls, because after discovering Lucy he chases her down the street threatening to eat her. After calming down and changing back to human mode, the show ratchets up the creep level several notches as the perv-y librarian proceeds to stalk Lucy, even showing up at her doorstep and trying to lure her out of the house. Mom and Dad show up and will hear none of it, of course, going so far as to invite the little fiend to supper. Joke’s on him, though, because in a shocking surprise twist, Mom and Dad turn out to be monsters, too — the really badass kind who eat other monsters.
This was pure cheesy fun and didn’t demand a lot of thought. The implied ultra-violence at the end of the episode saves it, I thought, because the my mind was reeling trying to imagine what that scene would have looked like had they portrayed it realistically. The out-of-context violence provides shock, a technique that Bradbury used in more than a few episodes of The Ray Bradbury Theater.
Brian: Yeah, I was originally ready to disagree slightly with you Toby, but by the time this tale finished it'd won me over with its uncanny airy and light take on quite grim subject matter. I thought you came down a bit harshly on 'ol Carly Beth before, and I started off thinking Lucy came off a bit smug, I mean who takes a giant dump on classic literature? Her inability to appreciate Black Beauty aside the real winner of this episode is the creepy librarian Mr. Mortman. Holy cow. Eugene Lipinski. I firmly believe this was one of the best castings of the entire series. Guy was perfect. Utterly eldritch. Her escaping the darkened corridors of the library and out into the sun-lit neighborhood all the while to eerie screams of "Lucy!" Goosebumps books were known for their twisted twist endings and this serves as a terrific example of that. A great way to finish this first foray into the series!
We hope you've enjoyed this as much as we did watching and discussing the episodes! Next time we're tackling five episodes! Witness the horrors of summer camp, deadly dramaturgy, piano lessons, and mummies!