I grew up during a particularly good time for horror.
The early-to-mid-90s saw a strong run from Are You Afraid of the Dark?, the Canadian television show that drew a spirited following of kids in the US. Years before YA was a legitimate category, RL Stine and Christopher Pike (who remains criminally underrated) divided the world of spooky teen lit between them. Indeed, Stine’s teen series Fear Street and middle-grade aimed Goosebumps made him, for a time, the bestselling writer in the world.
(Also worth noting: when I was a boy, you could still go trick-or-treating without your parents).
It’s easy enough to dismiss such works as contrived, gutless and overburdened by cliches. As we get older, there is definitely a compulsion to show off our superiority by snubbing the very works books and movies and TV shows that so delighted us in our youth. But there is more to Stine and Pike and the showrunners of Are You Afraid than people often give them credit for.
In many ways, Stine alone is a compendium of horror tropes and themes. Consider how many classic ideas Stine synthesized in Goosebumps alone:
- Haunted houses
- Demon dolls
- Possessed cameras
- Mad scientist experiments gone wrong
- Masks that change the wearer
The list goes on and on. And Stine, perhaps more than any other writer, was responsible for delivering these genre elements to a whole new generation. At their height, Goosebumps was selling a stunning four million copies per month. This kind of pace is so staggering, it’s truly hard to grasp. Four million copies in a year would make someone one of the bestselling writers of a decade. Stine was selling 60 million a year.
Are You Afraid of the Dark? served a similar purpose, though on television. Once a week, kids all over America and Canada tuned in for those fabled and spine-tingling words: “Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society, I call this story…”
Monsters, ghouls, vampires, mad scientists, time warps and run-amok arcade games crossed the screens in millions of living rooms, darkening and disturbing the dreams of a generation. I can clearly remember staying up to midnight on particular Friday during a Are You Afraid of the Dark? marathon. By the time I went to sleep, I’d turned on every light in the house (to my mother’s chagrin, who came home after a night out with her girlfriends to find her son doing his best to run up the power bill to new heights).
It’s interesting to contrast the horror tales of the mid-90s to the stories offered to kids today. JK Rowling forever altered the landscape of teen literature, birthing an entirely new marketing category and blowing the doors off what was possible to write for young people. The effect has been tremendous, both in the publishing world and in film and television.
The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, The Fault in Our Stars, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, The Knife of Never Letting Go…
None of these works would have been possible when I was growing up. And while they are each fantastical in their own way, all of these works are gritty in their realism and honest portrayal of the brutalities and difficulties of the world.
Which is a significant difference between the works written for kids today and the works composed for kids twenty-five years ago. Goosebumps and Are You Afraid are nothing if not idyllic in their neatly wrapped-up endings and never-quite-truly-dangerous horrors.
All the more bizarre then that today there is no significant horror author/showrunner producing spooky stories for the new generation.
Has the integration of so much reality into modern YA fiction somehow edged out the kind of gleeful creepiness that so pervaded the books and shows of my youth? Have so many weighty themes–teen suicide, the gay experience, drug abuse, etc.–simply diffused any interest in the make-believe terrors of knife-wielding teen maniacs and flesh-eating teen zombies?
Hard to say.
I doubt the new Goosebumps movie will change anything. But it certainly will cash in on the nostalgia factor for the moviegoers of my generation, who were once weaned on the eerie delights of old-fashioned terrors.
Stories to Haunt Your Dreams
“It’s Goosebumps for grown-ups and kids who have lax parental supervision. There are passages that will rewind themselves in your brain through the night and haunt your dreams for days. If you enjoy being creeped the F out. Buy this. Just do it. Now.”
— Janice Lynn, Amazon Reviewer
If you’re looking for some creepy stories to ring your nostalgia bell, check out the tales in my collections The Other Side of the Door: Dark Stories and Stranger Calls: Dark Tales, both available now in ebook and paperback.
Read “The Waters and the Wild” Now FREE at Catapult.co
Surgeon General’s Warning
The stories in these collections may cause an array of symptoms, including: weight loss from abnormal levels of anxiety, teeth grinding, unfounded paranoia while surfing social media, irrational fear of friends and loved ones, unexplained death.
Do not read while operating heavy machinery.