Spooky season is upon us, and with it comes a veritable avalanche of new frights for those who seek to be scared. One such new release is the re-imagining of the Goosebumps series from Disney + and Hulu. Goosebumps and author R.L. Stine have seen a resurgence in the last few years, although neither ever dropped out of sight. A movie based on the world of the series was released in 2015, followed by a sequel in 2018, and Netflix did an excellent job of creating a trilogy of movies based on Stine’s Fear Street series. Now, it’s time for a new spin on the classic series.
Reader Beware, There’s Spoilers in Here.
The original Goosebumps series debuted in 1995, ran for 74 episodes, and featured stand-alone stories based on the books, with the first story brought to the screen was The Haunted Mask. With titles like Say Cheese and Die, The Blob that Ate Everyone, and Night of The Living Dummy, the show wasn’t terrifying, but it was an imaginative, campy thrill ride that captured the imaginations of young teens and pre-teens worldwide. Let us not forget that Goosebumps also gave us one of the greatest memes of all time.
With its iconic theme and opening credits, the show endeared itself to audiences and entered the pantheon of gateway horror alongside the other big 90s spookfest Are You Afraid of The Dark? The Midnight Society came first and paved the way for the Goosebumps series, but it was also frequently considerably darker in tone than the campier book-based show. Are You Afraid of The Dark? also got a limited series revival in 2019. People want gateway horror but don’t want to come up with new ideas, it would seem. This does make sense because banking on an established name/brand does guarantee interest, but does it work?
The new series takes a different approach than the original. Where the 90s had stand-alone stories based on books, the new series takes a more cohesive and linear approach. The show focuses on five teenagers bearing the brunt of a malevolent spirit’s revenge. The trouble begins when the new English teacher (played by my favorite modern Scream King Justin Long), Mr. Bratt, moves into the long-abandoned Biddle house on the edge of town. The house has been abandoned since the 90s after teenager Harold Biddle (Ben Cockell) died in a fire in the basement.
Bratt is a distant relative of the Biddle family and inherited the house. The day before he moves in, he pops in to check on how things are getting the house ready. While there, he tries to open the jammed basement door, cuts his hand open, and his blood unlocks the door, releasing Harold Biddle’s spirit. Of course, Bratt doesn’t know that because he is immediately whisked off to get stitches in his hand. This leaves the house open for the local teens to have one last party for Halloween. None of them could predict the consequences of this one last rager.
The night of the party affects the five main teens in different and terrifying ways. Superstar Quarterback Isaiah (Zack Morris) finds an old Polaroid camera in the basement, but the pictures it takes predict horrible things for their subjects. Almost invisible AV club member Isabella (Ana Yi Ping) finds a mask that gives her the confidence to stop being a doormat with monstrous side effects. Queer rich kid James (Miles McKenna) cracks his head on a cuckoo clock and finds himself stuck in a time loop of the party, which results in some murderous clones. Finally, insane, stunt-obsessed daredevil Lucas (Will Price) finds some worms in the house and takes them home. Then he eats one, and things get really weird.
The fifth teen of the group is Margot (Isa Briones), and she doesn’t come away with any haunted objects or weird invertebrates. Instead, she is in the middle of everything, trying to make sense of everything. Alongside the teen’s cursed adventures, Mr. Bratt is possessed by the spirit of Harold Biddle and begins acting like an absolute weirdo at every possible turn. The possession also leads to a new hairstyle for him, which can only be described as “Emo Curtains.” I am a big fan of this.
The references will not be lost for fans of the original series and the books. The evil camera comes from Say Cheese and Die, the mask is from The Haunted Mask, the clock is from The Cuckoo Clock of Doom, and the worms are from Go Eat Worms! While the plots of some stories have been altered from the originals, the essence remains the same.
The homages to Say Cheese and Die and The Haunted Mask remain pretty faithful to the original beats of the stories. The photos with the camera predict horrible things like Isaiah’s girlfriend being attacked, Margot having a potentially deadly allergic reaction to nuts, and Isaiah breaking his arm during the season’s most important football game. The mask in Isabella’s story isn’t as green and monstrous as the original, but the effect is the same. She puts on the mask and gradually becomes more and more aggressive before finally transforming into a gross goblin ghoul.
The stories revolving around the cuckoo clock and worms take a little more license with the source material. In the book, the clock keeps taking the main character back in time in increments, but he can stop it before he blinks out of existence. However, in the process, he erases his mean sister from existence. There are no clones involved. Especially not clones that explode into yellow goop that smells like watermelon Jolly Ranchers, which is what happens in the new show with James.
In Lucas’ story, he eats a worm, and about a million worms crawl inside him when he is asleep. The presence of the worms means he can no longer feel pain. This is a blessing and a curse for a kid obsessed with doing Jackass-style stunts. In the book, worms take revenge on a worm-obsessed kid before culminating in a giant mother worm trying to eat him. No supernatural healing is involved. However, the episode does culminate with a mass of worms rising and chasing Lucas, Margot, and Lucas’ mom, Nora.
The first five episodes of the series tell each teenager’s terrifying tale, starting at the Halloween party, with the fifth episode ramping up with the full reveal of Biddle to the teens and the reason these things are happening to them but no one else in town. It’s the age-old Freddy Krueger plot – the parents’ sins are being revisited on the kids. This is made clear very early because as soon as weird things happen, all their parents become very conspiratorial and begin denying things.
Now for a small, very niche sidenote. Lucas’ plot is literally the plot of the film Hot Rod. Hot Rod is a comedy from The Lonely Island that stars Andy Samberg as Rod, a man-child obsessed with doing stunts to live up to his dead dad’s legacy. This is literally what Lucas is doing in the new Goosebumps show. His dad died doing a dangerous motorbike jump, and his way of staying connected to and honoring him is to relentlessly annoy everyone by doing numerous dangerous stunts. It’s exactly the same. EXACTLY THE SAME. Apart from the worms.
The series is also building to the appearance of Slappy, the ventriloquist dummy. Unfortunately, this isn’t a spoiler because they have used him in the promotional materials for the show. It would have been a much greater surprise to discover that Slappy is imminent instead of immediately seeing him on the streaming page for the show. Granted, Slappy seems to have become the Goosebumps mascot over the years, so it makes sense that he would be appearing. He has basically become the Satan of the Goosebumps universe. Is anything weird in your town? It’s always down to Slappy’s shenanigans.
Slappy has yet to fully appear in the show, as only the first five episodes are currently available, with the remaining five streaming weekly. At first, this seems like a strange release schedule for the show, but it does allow viewers to binge the backstory before the back half of the series and the real confrontation seemingly begin.
Is the thread that ties the story together a little trite? Yes. It’s a very “been there done that” horror plot. However, it has upgraded the source material in an appealing way to older teens and those of us with enduring fondness for the franchise. There are enough references in it that fans will have fun pointing at them and saying, “I understood that reference!” the darker tone lends itself to a slightly older audience and the more sophisticated younger viewers. The linear story following the same cast also makes the story much more impactful. You become attached to the characters, whereas in the twenty-minute 90s episodes, it was more about the goofs and ghouls.
A lot of kids want horror. It’s something that kids gravitate to for the thrill of being scared, and with the availability of media now, it’s easier than it’s ever been for kids to get access to horror content. The idea of the creepy misfit who watches horror movies is becoming less and less prevalent as kids have access to so much more beyond just Nickelodeon and Disney. Even Disney Plus has a pretty decent selection of horror films and thrillers. Sure, you can put parental locks on, but kids are smart and can figure out ways around that. Plus, the sheer amount of horror on YouTube is enough to scar a generation hundreds of times.
The new Goosebumps, so far, has enough to keep viewers invested. The cast excels in making the main characters likable. Are they the same archetypes in every teen movie and TV show? Yes. Jock, Nerd, Weirdo, Gay, and Best friend of the popular jock that is in love with him. It’s incorporating elements of the original in an updated way and doing it pretty well. The darker tone lends itself well to the aging up of the intended audience, and Justin Long steals every scene he’s in. The scene when he goes to the school after being possessed is a particularly good display of his comedy skills as well.
Five episodes remain, Slappy is on his way, and there are still some mysteries to uncover (although I’m reasonably sure I can deduce the gist of it). The question is, can the remainder of the series live up to the quality of the first half? More importantly, is there more of Justin Long being a weird, possessed emo teenager? All these questions will be answered over the next five weeks, starting this week with The Night of The Living Dummy.