Goosebumps, the new movie based on R.L. Stine’s best-selling children’s series, has finally dethroned The Martian at the top of the box office, just in time for Halloween. Slate spoke to the author about the difference between scaring kids and grown-ups, the state of YA literature post-Twilight and The Hunger Games, and what it’s like being played by Jack Black.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Thank you so much for taking the time.
No, my pleasure. That’s what I do these days is talk about myself. My poor wife. … Just day and night, talk about myself. But this movie is crazy, I’ve never done so much publicity in my life. You don’t get it for books, you know?
Do you like it or are you tired of it?
Oh I hate talking about myself (laughs). I hate it.
OK, I’ll try not to ask you specifically about yourself. I was curious about your thoughts on the state of children’s literature in general. You’ve been a fixture for so long and you’ve published Goosebumps for so long. Have you noticed any big changes since you started writing?
When I started out in the late ‘60s in children’s publishing, it wasn’t such a huge business. When you went to a publisher it was in the back corner, you know, it was just a little thing, there wasn’t much going on. And now, there are billions of dollars in children’s books, and it’s the cash cow for a lot of publishers. The children’s books make all the money. So they’re selling a lot more. And I think the books are much better. When you look at the young adult novels, those are really good books. And people say, gee, why are adults reading YA literature? It’s because they’re good.
What books are you thinking of specifically when you say that?
The Miss Peregrine books, you know those? And the first Hunger Games book is just a great book. And the Harry Potter series, and the Lemony Snicket stuff, and the John Green things, they’re wonderfully written, they’re wonderful.
Several of those stories have the same funny ghoulishness that Goosebumps did. Any thoughts on the fantasy books in particular?
There’s a lot of fantasy now and paranormal now. And the dystopian stuff. You know, 90 percent of them are dystopian, which I don’t really get. I don’t really understand why young people like the dystopian novels. I don’t know, I don’t write them, and I don’t get the appeal.
It doesn’t seem that far afield from being interested in the paranormal.
Yeah, except the world is ruined, everything is destroyed, and you have to make your way … I don’t know why that’s enjoyable. Obviously they love it, I mean those books are still very strong. There was one really good one called Monument 14 by Emmy Laybourne, and I think all these kids are trapped in a Wal-Mart and the rest of the world is gone.
You prefer to write about things that are less bleak.
I don’t do bleak.
You do scary, but it’s a winking scary.
Goosebumps is mostly a tease. There are as many fake scares in Goosebumps as there are real scares. And there’s always a funny chapter, it sort of adds to the puzzle, and the funny stuff is so that it doesn’t get too intense. Fear Street is more serious. I’ve just brought back Fear Street. I didn’t do it for 20 years—I thought maybe I’d killed off enough teenagers. But I guess you never can kill off enough, right?
They keep reduplicating.
Yeah, so I brought back Fear Street and the new one is called The Lost Girl, and it has the most gruesome scene I’ve ever written.
Yeah, involving horses. It’s really, I should be ashamed…
I’m intrigued now. We’ll tease that in the interview, with “read on for an exclusive excerpt from Fear Street involving horses.” So when you write these books, how much are you writing with readers in mind and how much are you writing just because you want to?
I always write with an audience in mind. And I love writing, after all this time I look forward to getting up in the morning and sitting down and doing my 2,000 words a day. You can ask my wife, it’s the only thing I’m good at. But I never write for myself. I always hate it when some author comes to school and speaks to the kids and says, “Write from your heart, write what you know.” I’ve never written a single word from my heart. I write to entertain people! I think that’s deadly advice from authors to kids.
It’s less about self-expression for you.
Mainly my books are a reading motivation to get kids to read. That’s why I keep them simple, the language is simple, you know, so they can master them easily.
Do you see yourself as writing children’s horror? Is that the genre you’d pick to describe your work?
Yes it is, and you know, horror for me, I think it’s funny. Horror always makes me laugh. I don’t really want to scare kids, especially with Goosebumps. The older stuff you can make pretty scary, but with Goosebumps I always make sure they know that it’s a fantasy, that it’s crazy. They have to know that it could never really happen.
Is the difference between horror for kids and horror for adults that there’s a fantastical element?
Stine: I think they’re opposites. When I write for kids, I want them to know it’s not real. When you write for teenagers, and I’ve done a few adult books, every detail has to be real or they’re not going to go along with it, they’re not going to accept it.
There’s a great line in the Goosebumps movie where Jack Black’s character says: “Every story has three parts: The beginning, the middle, and the twist.”
I think that’s my favorite line in the film.
I could hear the author of Goosebumps saying that. It made me wonder how involved you were in shaping the plot and the dialogue of the film.
Not at all.
No, they don’t want to hear from the author. I wouldn’t even know about the film if I weren’t a character in it.
Were you happy with how it turned out?
Yeah. I like it better every time I see it. Jane and I went to see it in 3D the other night and I’d never seen it in 3D. The three teenage leads are so real and they’re funny and they’re sweet, and I just think they’re the best thing in the film.
What kind of input did you give for your own character?
None at all. Jack [Black] and I had lunch, I’d never met him, and finally he said, “Well, I’ll be a sinister version of you.” And I said, “Sounds good.” There’ve been some articles saying I told him not to make it too scary, but I never said that.
In the movie, the R.L. Stine character creates monsters out of loneliness and anger.
It’s not true at all! That’s Hollywood. You know they had to put that in a movie. That’s not my favorite part.
Yeah, they gave you a sad, meaningful character arc.
That’s just movie stuff.
Was there anything about Jack Black’s performance that got you particularly right?
No. No, it’s not me at all! He decided to play me as Orson Wells, that was his decision. I said, “Jack, I’m from Ohio, I don’t sound anything like that! What was that accent?”
Watching the movie must have been such a strange experience.
Yes, I mean, I’m very happy with it. I’m not complaining at all. I love it, he’s funny. He didn’t capture me and he didn’t try.
Do you really write all your books on a treasured Smith Corona typewriter?
No, nothing is true.
Your monsters don’t actually come to life?
Yes and no (laughs). No, they don’t.
They sort of do! They’re in a movie now.
Well, this is the problem, you know? All these years, that’s why there was no Goosebumps movie, because no one could decide which book to use. Finally they got this idea to put all the monsters in one book. But as for individual stories, I’m very proud of The Haunted Mask. It’s a Halloween book: A girl puts a mask on and it won’t come off.
There’s something very elemental about that fear of becoming the thing that might destroy you, of turning into your own worst nightmare.
Yeah, it’s one of the better ones. It’s the only Goosebumps book that was inspired by a true thing that actually happened.
My son was little, and it was Halloween time, and I’m watching him from the doorway and he’s trying on a green rubber Frankenstein mask. He pulled it down over his head and he couldn’t get it off. I’m watching from the doorway and I think, what a great idea for a story. I should’ve helped him, right? I should’ve helped him get out of the mask (laughs).
You told him to hold the pose!
He’s never read a Goosebumps book. He does it just to make me nuts.
Maybe he’s just telling you he hasn’t read one …
No, that’s what nice people say, but no. He bragged about it in the New York Times. I met Kurt Vonnegut’s daughter, Lily. She was a big Goosebumps fan. But she wouldn’t read her dad for anything, and he was Kurt Vonnegut!
There’s so much great visual imagery in Goosebumps—all the monsters—that makes them translate really well to film.
I’m not that visual, is the thing. And with Goosebumps, there actually aren’t that many monsters. It’s a boy turning invisible or kids suddenly growing hair all over their bodies. There’s an evil camera that’s taking horrible pictures.
There’s a house on haunted hill …
I’m most comfortable just setting up scenes that are slightly creepy.