Episodes 1-5 of Goosebumps tell an unfocused, meandering story, failing to deliver on thrills and bearing little resemblance to the book series.
For certain millennials, an introduction to the horror genre came from either catching Are You Scared of the Dark on television, reading “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” under the blankets after bedtime, or finding “Goosebumps” books at the school library. Goosebumps, the long-running series written by R.L. Stine was a global phenomenon. As of October 2022, over 400 million copies have been sold, making it the second highest-selling book series of all time. The success spawned an anthology television series, feature films, video games, and comic books. The latest iteration of the property comes in the form of a television show for the Disney Plus and Hulu streaming services, created by Rob Letterman (Goosebumps (2015), Pokémon Detective Pikachu) and Nicholas Stoller (Bros, Neighbors, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and starring Justin Long, fresh off the success of Barbarian.
Those coming to Goosebumps for the childhood nostalgia factor, or hoping to introduce their own children to the property, are going to be rather disappointed. This ain’t your grandma’s Goosebumps. In fact, within episodes 1-5, the show bears little resemblance to the book series it shares a name with, both in tone and content. R.L. Stine’s kitschy, humorous metaphors for tween anxieties have been transformed into a dour teen soap opera. Like the CW’s Riverdale and Nancy Drew, Goosebumps takes a pre-existing children’s media property, sticks hot twenty-somethings in as the teen characters, and pumps it full of self-seriousness, but Goosebumps lacks Riverdale’s flair for winking camp or Nancy Drew’s surprisingly effective shots at horror set pieces.
Nearly every community has a “murder house,” a building that teens swear is haunted and dare each other to visit late at night. In the small town of Port Lawrence, that is a house in which teen Harold Biddle died in a freak fire in the early 1990s. Goosebumps is concerned with what happened to Harold and the tragedy’s repercussions still rippling decades later. The Biddle house, abandoned and surrounded by a thick wood, has become the go-to place for partying. After a Halloween blow-out at the Biddle house, four disparate teens- golden boy Quarterback Isaiah (Zack Morris), goofy best friend James (Miles McKenna), introverted daughter of the high school Guidance Counselor Jane (Isa Briones), sardonic outcast Isabella (Ana Yi Ping), and daredevil Lucas (Will Price)- find themselves in possession of different objects from the house, such as a polaroid camera and a mask.
When things start getting supernatural, the teens form a sort of Breakfast Club in order to figure out what’s happening. At the same time, the teen’s parents are also reckoning with their own culpability in what happened to Harold Biddle, perhaps Nightmare on Elm Street-style. Like the groundbreaking, supernatural mystery Twin Peaks, the seemingly separate investigations of the teens and adults will eventually converge and inform one another. None of this has any basis in R.L. Stine’s books.
A significant problem with the Goosebumps series is found within the premise. The story of four teens investigating a single mystery is not a television show, but a movie. There is a distinct beginning, middle, and end to the mystery of Harold Biddle. Not every mystery is “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” and strong enough to sustain itself for the length of a television season. In order for a season long mystery to work the audience needs to care about the detective and the surrounding characters and worry for their safety. The actors of Goosebumps are game, but the character writing is flat and derivative of a hundred different teen soap operas. While watching Goosebumps, one can feel it stretching itself like saltwater taffy in order to fill the 8 episode order.
Episodes 1-5 are all exposition: character introductions, establishment of relationships, backstories, flashbacks- stuff that movies have been able to cover in half an hour or less. Goosebumps is a show that often gets lost in itself, getting so distracted by characters tearily delivering monologues or vaguely alluding to past events that they forget that the driving force of the show should be “What Happened to Harold Biddle?” Goosebumps is a show without any sense of focus and forward propulsion. If Goosebumps could not have been sold as a movie, perhaps a 3 episode miniseries would have allowed for stronger, more economical storytelling.
The thudding pacing also does not do the horror elements any favor. Even by Goosebumps kid-friendly standards, it is simply not scary. A gray color palette is mistaken for atmosphere, and more energy is spent creating suspense as to whether an illicit affair will be discovered than if any of the characters are in danger. Any scares feel over before they begin. They are built out of surprise, making the audience jump rather than dread what will happen to the characters next.
I am not someone who believes that an adaptation cannot take liberties, but as I watched the episodes I could find very little of R.L. Stine’s stories, either in spirit or content. I couldn’t stop questioning why this was a Goosebumps property, not an original series. Did someone in a boardroom say, “Let’s take another piece of children’s media and Riverdale it” and the dart landed on Goosebumps? Is this how the writers truly see the Goosebumps books? Was it an original script that could only get sold if it was attached to pre-existing property? Only Rob Letterman and Nicholas Stoller can know for sure.
Still, Goosebumps has the goods somewhere inside. The actors are appealing, and hopefully now that the show has gotten over the exposition hump it can build up some momentum. It just needs to find focus in the storytelling, tighten its belt, and remember to scare the audience.
Episodes 1-5 of Goosebumps will be available to watch on Disney Plus on October 13, 2023.