Parents, You Choose the Scare
Happy almost Halloween, folks! To get you in the mood, I’m doing a review of that campy classic, Goosebumps, which this year turns twenty years old! I call for a Goosebumps margarita party next year. Who’s with me? For more on the series, see the official Goosebumps website.
THE DEFENDANT: Goosebumps (series), R. L. Stine
THE VERDICT: Goosebumps books are no stranger to the ALA’s Most Frequently Challenged Books List, coming in at #15 in the 90s and #94 in the 00s.
THE CHARGES: Some school districts took issue with the content of individual books, some with the entire series. The reasons for banning the books vary from them being too frightening for children to dealing with complex relationships or teenage conflicts to their alleged satanic/occult content. Some have even gone so far as to accuse Goosebumps of being a gateway drug to “more graphic and perverse books“. You know how it is, you’re at a sleepover, someone starts passing around the Goosebumps, next thing you know you’re strung out on Stephen King and smuggling Anne Rice novels across the border in exchange for some primo uncut Poe.
THE REVIEW: There is no denying the popularity of Goosebumps. The long-running series was nothing short of a phenomenon (and is still being published today). It dominated the best-seller lists, was translated into numerous languages, and sparked multiple spin-offs and a similarly long-running television show (also still in production today).
Nearly every child of the 90s remembers the books, whether they eagerly devoured them at home or borrowed beat-up copies from the dusty bookshelves in the back of the classroom. Goosebumps was a fixture in many a school library and in the early 90s served as Scholastic’s cash cow. It was even the best-selling children’s series of all time, until dethroned by a young Mr. Potter.
However, Goosebumps is one of those things that matters more as a shared cultural experience than for its literary merits. It, like The Boxcar Children and The Baby-Sitters Club, or Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys before them, was a staple of our childhood. The books are familiar and serve as a way to connect with strangers over a collective rite of passage. These are the memories that we hold on to and have in common.
Goosebumps is no grand literary achievement. The books are formulaic and campy. Yet they know what they are and there is no shame in that. There has always been a place for pulp fiction and penny dreadfuls. Long have adults and children alike sought the titillating entertainment of a scary story full of the bizarre, the thrilling, and the spooky.
These books are so popular because they are fun. Many parents rejoiced in that, as it got their children to willingly, even enthusiastically, read. Perhaps the series encouraged literacy, yet even if those children did not go on to have a lifelong love of reading, fun has its own merit.
THE DEFENSE: Beyond a mistrust of giant, tropical flora and a love-hate relationship with choose-your-own-adventure books, I can promise that Goosebumps did not scar me for life or hook me on the occult. These books may not be literary gems, but they are harmless camp. Banning them from schools does nothing but limit access to popular books in an age when getting kids to read may be the biggest challenge parents and teachers face. Literacy ftw!
Maybe a kid will get a nightmare or two. Guess what? They’re kids. That’s what they do. That’s what humans do.
The enduring popularity of horror, be it ghost story told around the fire or big-budget thriller, proves that humans love to be scared. We ride roller coasters; we go on haunted walking tours; we read Dracula; and we flock to such tourist meccas as Salem, Whitechapel, or Transylvania. The desire, the need, to be scared is part of the universal human experience. It has been with us since first we conjured demons and phantoms around the fire and it shows no signs of going anywhere.
Kids are going to try and scare each other or themselves, whether they read a scary book, terrify each other via masks or creepy cardboard cutouts at sleepovers, or sneak a peek at an R-rated movie. Besides, in the age of 24 hour news, BitTorrent, and smart phones, I promise kids are exposed to scarier things than Goosebumps on a regular basis. To all the parents out there: if the worst thing you catch your kid doing is reading Goosebumps under the covers with a flashlight, I’d say you’re doing alright.