“Goosebumps” – Creators of Disney Series on Breathing New Life into R.L. Stine’s Universe [Interview]


The monstrous Goosebumps handle has dripped and oozed its green-tinged ichor for the past three decades, seeping into the imaginations of the countless kids who dared traverse the pages of R.L. Stine’s paperback terrors. In time the words on the page leapt onto the screen and eventually into theaters, transforming playfully frightful prose into equally gleeful and similarly spooky visual splendor, solidifying the multi-generational Goosebumps legacy firmly in the gateway horror zeitgeist.

And now Goosebumps is back again. A departure from its anthology television roots and infused with more menace and horror than ever before, the series emerges ready to delight and terrify a new audience of adolescent thrill-seekers. Following a group of five teenagers as they navigate inherited trauma, haunted objects and one quite infamous ventriloquist dummy, this fresh iteration of R.L. Stine’s classic world of fun and fear is an engaging, long-form tale unlike any Goosebumps story that’s come before.

In the wake of the new show’s finale, Bloody Disgusting caught up with the series’ creators Rob Letterman and Nicholas Stoller along with executive producer Hilary Winston to discuss their history with Goosebumps and R.L. Stine, the way their plans for the show evolved during production and the thrill of finally unearthing Slappy the Dummy’s mystical backstory.

“My kids read them,” Nick Stoller reflects, “I’m a little too old to have read them when I was a kid, but I did read Stephen King. I was obsessed with Stephen King… and I loved horror. But I really came to Goosebumps through my children.”

“Yeah, same for me,” Rob Letterman remarks. “Goosebumps had been floating around Hollywood for many years. A lot of people were trying to do something with it. Spielberg was trying to do something, Tim Burton… it had a presence in Hollywood. My deep dive happened on the movie. So it came late to me but I did all the homework.”

“I loved working on it, but I especially loved meeting R.L. Stine,” Letterman continues. “He’s a cool guy. He’s so nice. He’s so funny to talk to because really he just wanted to do comedy. He’s a comedy guy!”

“Yeah,” Hilary Winston agrees, “when I was talking to the people at Scholastic, they were saying that he was the joke book writer when they had the idea of doing kids’ horror comedy. His roots come from comedy and he brought that to horror. They’re really closely tied, you know. The same instincts. A [comedic] button to a scene versus a scare to a scene are so similar.”

Goosebumps has long been known for its expert balance of comedy and horror, the 2015 film also helmed by Rob Letterman serving as a prime example of that tonal tightrope walk. The creatives involved made it a priority to maintain that sensibility while evolving beyond the candy-colored stylistic flourish and aesthetic with which Goosebumps has long been associated.

You have to be true to the source material and the source material is funny,” Stoller remarks. “It’s funny and it’s light and it’s really fun. Rob and I were developing it and when Hilary came onboard we just wanted it to be a blast. Whenever something is super serious I feel it’s a little bit dishonest in some way… one of my favorite movies is The Shining. It’s terrifying but it’s also very funny and super weird and it’s not just dead serious.”

The show pulls back from the meta-approach that made the Jack Black starring film so hilarious and narratively engaging, however the structure still snuck in the kind of self-referential storytelling techniques that have permeated the Goosebumps brand over the years.

“I mean, that’s always been a thing,” Letterman says, “sneaking in that meta concept of reading [the books]. You know the ‘Reader Beware’ and ‘Give Yourself Goosebumps’… choosing your own story… I was tying into that with Margot using the scrapbook and making the choice to dive into any particular story point. We had a lot of those big ideas brewing in the writers room the whole time.”

The latter half of the season is full of surprises, including a startling narrative pivot in episode eight. Serving as a conclusion to a large portion of the season’s story, the remaining two episodes delve into new territory that adds context and depth to what’s come before while setting up what the future might well bring. When asked about the plan behind this decision, Letterman, Stoller and Winston respond with candid charm.

“Um, plan?” Letterman remarks as the three of them laugh.

“No, that really wasn’t the plan,” Letterman continues. “The plan was to sort of, you know, stretch that out to episode ten and we had all kinds of thoughts about that. But… what we didn’t want to do is just tread water. We didn’t want to hold back story just to stretch it out over multiple episodes.”

“Which is a big problem with peak TV!” Stoller remarks as the three laugh in unison once more.

“By design each episode is kind of a mini-movie and that story engine has to turn,” Letterman continues. “So, in order to deliver on that, it did lead us to that spot in episode eight. We saw it coming. In our heads, the finale was always a two-parter. Episode nine is really the reset and set up to make you comfortable so that we can throw all this stuff back at you as an audience member. It also played on the idea of R.L. Stine always having a twist at the end of his books.”

“And, you know, the parent story was just not the end of the story,” Winston reflects. “Harold Biddle was this sweet kid who had this horrible thing happen and it was a part of the legacy of his family… We wrapped up the parent story but that idea of evil still kind of lingering was still there. We wanted to make sure that we didn’t do what a lot of shows do and end without answering any of the big, tough questions. We challenged ourselves to answer those tough questions.”

One of those tough questions revolved around one of the most recognizable and iconic villains to ever grace the pages of Goosebumps’ hallowed tomes: Slappy the dummy. While Slappy has made many appearances in stories, TV episodes and feature films over the years, his origins have never been entirely clear— until now.

“Let’s look at who Slappy really is,” Winston says. “How Slappy came into being.”

“One of the things that’s fun is getting to do that origin stuff,” Stoller reflects. “You don’t get to do that in comedy… I love knowing the origin of horror, fantasy and sci-fi stuff.”

“The backstory evolved around after Episode 5,” Letterman says. “We started putting brain power into it. We knew the runway was going to be what it was… and diving into the Goosebumps canon we started noticing that there were threads of Slappy’s mythology… contradictory [threads]… and we were like, ‘wait a minute, there’s all these cool ideas… how can we glue them together?’”

“[Slappy] wasn’t just the devil, you know?” Winston remarks. “We wanted to make him a more complex character in Kanduu. Kanduu is not really wrong about how he sees the world… it’s bad in practice, his idea, but it’s not necessarily wrong on paper. We really wanted to make Slappy not just an obvious evil for evil’s sake character.”

With Slappy’s backstory revealed and a cave containing the secret incantations that have the power to bring all of the old, forgotten horrors of the world back into being, this new Goosebumps show is poised to unleash more of Stine’s uncanny world of supernatural horrors than ever before. It’s clear that a delivery method for future stories and further book infusions was at the top of the creators’ minds while developing the season’s final components.

“Once we made the choice to go back and do the mythology and see where it started— at least for Slappy— and found the Kanduu character in those later books… we wanted to expand on that,” Letterman recalls. “It was the themes… the thing that Kanduu says, which Hilary just said, isn’t wrong. You know, you kind of need horrors. Otherwise mankind will create their own… the cave was a way to say, ‘Okay— where does all this stuff blossom from?’ It was building mythology that connected all the dots of every episode.”

Considering the fun, thrills and world-class production design, performances and creature effects that this first season of Goosebumps had to offer, one can only hope that Rob Letterman, Nicholas Stoller and Hilary Winston get to continue exploring, mining and redefining R.L. Stine’s 30 year old series in subsequent seasons. The three seemed to agree, although Rob crossed his fingers as he did so.

“I’m superstitious,” Letterman says, “I don’t want to jinx anything.”

We here at Bloody Disgusting are crossing our fingers too, Rob. Whatever it takes to see what spooky, strange and surreal horrors await as Goosebumps seeps ever forward across the page, the screen and imaginations the world over.

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