There are certain cultural artifacts that induce Proustian flashbacks in millennials—Saved by the Bell, Michael Jordan, Nickelodeon—transporting recession-plagued 20-somethings back to the halcyon ’90s. Goosebumps, author R.L. Stine’s wildly popular series of children’s horror books, is another.
Aimed at kids ages 7–12, and initially priced at a modest $3.99 a copy, Goosebumps was a phenomenon. Huddled under the covers with flashlights, children ravenously consumed Stine’s 120-page tales. Many had entire bookshelves devoted to the series.
According to Stine’s publisher, Scholastic, more than 350 million Goosebumps books have been sold worldwide, making it one of the bestselling series of all-time. At its height in 1996, Goosebumps sold 4 million books a month, with Stine writing a book a month. The series became an industry unto itself—selling scores of merchandise and spawning a popular TV show that aired on the Fox Kids Network. Forbes estimated that in 1996–97 Stine pulled in $41 million, making him one of America’s highest-paid writers.
To mark the series’ 20th anniversary (the first book, Goosebumps: Welcome to Dead House, was published in July 1992), I visited Stine at his spacious New York apartment to talk about the books’ legacy.
“One magazine called me ‘a training bra for Stephen King.’ I didn’t really like that,” says Stine, with a chuckle. “You don’t want to be called a training bra.” While his books give readers the chills, Stine, 68, clad in a black polo shirt and New Balance sneakers, is a paragon of equanimity.
“I do like a lot of things that a lot of adults would scoff at,” he says. “SpongeBob SquarePants, Looney Tunes. It’s my job, too, to keep up with pop culture and what the kids are into ’cause you don’t want to sound like an old man trying to write for kids. I spend a lot of my time spying on them.”
One way he likes to spy on his readers is via Twitter, where Stine is known for his macabre tweets. “I love Twitter because that’s my Goosebumps audience from the ’90s—they’re all in their 20s and 30s,” he says. “All day long I get these messages from people saying ‘I would never be a librarian ...’ or ‘I wouldn’t be a writer if it wasn’t for you,’ and it’s wonderful.”
Stine grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and describes himself as “a very fearful kid.” He used to be afraid something was lurking in the garage and was absolutely terrified of a casket-shaped meat freezer in the family’s basement. For 20 years, Stine contributed to everything from G.I. Joe to The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show before he finally hit big with his first horror novel, Blind Date, in 1986. Unlike The Hunger Games, the Goosebumps series is entirely devoid of adult content, including corporal violence. “These books are to scare kids and that’s it,” he explains. “There are no real problems; there’s not even divorce. My rule is they have to know it is a creepy fantasy and couldn’t really happen.”
Sales of Goosebumps declined right after Halloween ’97, and the original 62-book series ended thereafter. “It just tanked,” says Stine. “I think it was just everywhere; you could buy it in gas stations, and people had enough. Every fad goes up, up, up, then they get tired of it and move onto something else.”
In 2000 Stine stopped writing the Goosebumps books altogether, but due to renewed fan interest and their children, Stine relaunched the series in 2008. “As far as my audience goes, I think they are exactly the same because we all have the same fears: fear of the dark, fear of something under the bed, something hiding in the closest,” he says. “That never changes.”