an illustration of red-eyed monsters clawing at a child reading a book by flashlight
Tim McDonagh

The Everlasting Joy of Terrifying Children

Pop-horror writers like R. L. Stine see fear and storytelling the way the Victorians did.

In childhood, when the hours unravel slowly and answers to questions are often unsatisfying, literature is a rejoinder for restlessness. For the generation of readers that devoured R. L. Stine’s serialized horror, the witching hour meant binge-reading campy paperbacks with titles such as One Evil Summer, The Wrong Number, Bad Dreams, and Truth or Dare.

Stine accomplished something that is still rare now, but was radical in a pre-Hogwarts world. He made kids read obsessively, in part by making reading a social activity. “I never get tired of it when parents come up to me and say, ‘My kid never read a book in his life until he found yours. I caught him reading with a flashlight under the covers,’” Stine told me in an interview. “I still hear that all the time. It’s so wonderful.”

For a stretch in the 1990s, when Stine’s Fear Street and Goosebumps series had exploded in popularity, the author was writing at least a book a month. Debates raged about whether pulp-horror stories were too scary for young readers. Libraries and homerooms were overrun with his work. His name stayed perched high on the New York Times best-seller list for what seemed like an eternity.

These books were everywhere.

“Adults underestimate the extent to which little kids like what’s in immediate proximity to them,” Rebecca Onion, who writes about how children’s culture is made, said. But wildly popular books tend to occupy a different cultural space than other fads such as slime or slap bracelets. And Stine had clearly made something that wormed its way deeply into kid culture. The Fear Street stories featured middle-class suburban teens who, in addition to navigating the ordinary drama of high school, were terrorized by malevolent spirits—with all the upbeat dialogue and simple plot lines of, say, Saved by the Bell, only with characters whose fingers get mangled by a haunted garbage disposal. Stine’s Goosebumps series, aimed at a slightly younger readership, featured its own parade of monsters, living dolls, and dark magic. (Goosebumps eventually became a hit television show, and has been twice adapted to film—the most recent iteration came out this month.)

To Stine, the success of his books was simple. “There was always a rule for kids’ books that every protagonist had to learn and grow,” he said. “I always thought: Adults are allowed to read anything they want. Adults don’t have to have characters learn and grow. Adults can read all kinds of trash and no one criticizes them. Why do kids have to have that? I thought it would be great to write a bunch of kids’ books where no one learns and no one grows.”

The stories had another quality that resonated with the age in which they appeared. They were easily digestible—episodic in a way that captivated readers who’d been raised on comic books and Saturday-morning cartoons. Stine’s work was deeply of its moment this way. Echoes of other 20th-century storytelling legends appear in his work, too; Rod Serling and Ray Bradbury both come to mind. But Stine’s stories are also a throwback to an even earlier age of children’s literature.

It is often said that the Victorians invented childhood. If they did, it was through labor laws that protected children, and because of dramatic technological and economic shifts that placed new cultural privilege on the individual. But the Victorians also reinvented children’s literature, sweeping away the previous century’s didactic spelling books and etiquette guides and replacing them with stories written for the sheer pleasure of reading.

“The reasons for this sudden rise of children’s literature have never been fully explained,” wrote M. O. Grenby, a professor of 18th-century studies in the School of English at Newcastle University, in an article for the British Library. Yet by the mid-19th century, fairy tales were all around, and they didn’t force lessons the way earlier children’s literature had. The ubiquity of literary fantasy set off a panic about what stories devoid of piousness would do to the young reader. But the defenders of the genre were unmoved, including Charles Dickens, who wrote for Household Words magazine in 1853 that fairy tales weren’t just worthwhile, but also essential in a utilitarian age. “It is a matter of grave importance that fairy tales should be respected,” Dickens wrote. “A nation without fancy, without some romance, never did, never can, never will, hold a great place under the sun.”

And so literary fancy and romance blossomed, to the immeasurable joy of readers everywhere, through works such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888), and J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy (1911). “The secret garden of children’s fantasy reached its zenith in late Victorian literature,” wrote Gary Cross in his book, The Cute and the Cool: Wondrous Innocence and Modern American Children’s Culture. “A new acceptance of fantasy in children’s literature emerged fully after 1860, paralleling a critique of industrial society.”

But soon the culture would change again, and the emotional values of Victorian-era stories, in which characters frequently had to summon courage to overcome fear, were discarded in favor of inherently fearless protagonists, such as superheroes. This shift would eventually sanitize the darkest elements of classic fairy-tale stories—such as the original ending of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” which ends with the heartbroken mermaid dissolving into sea-foam. “This was a standard feature of the Walt Disney approach in cartoons of fairy tales and modern children’s books,” wrote Peter N. Stearns and Timothy Haggerty in a 1991 essay for The American Historical Review. “In Disney’s [short film] Three Little Pigs, the first two little pigs were not in fact eaten, and the cartoon Cinderella ... was kind enough to invite her stepsisters to her palace later instead of having them put to death.”

This shift—toward avoidance of fear, and away from fright as a moral challenge—was also what helped turn fantasy and horror into subcultures, and paved the way for writers such as Bradbury, and eventually Stine, to find vast audiences in search of something different.

Bradbury, whom Stine credits with prompting his own love of reading, was himself inspired by 19th-century writers, specifically Herman Melville. But Bradbury was also fascinated by how children view the world, and spoke frequently in interviews about the perspective that people lose as they leave childhood behind. “I’m a magician,” he once said. “My stories are really descriptions of that changing state, sometimes moving back and forth between past and present.”

Time is famously malleable in Bradbury’s work. “The Black Ferris,” his 1948 story that eventually inspired Something Wicked This Way Comes, features a carnival worker who uses a supernatural Ferris wheel to alter his age and appearance. Incidentally, the story is one that Stine cites as a favorite, and it was adapted by the EC Comics version of Tales From the Crypt, another one of Stine’s major inspirations. Jack Finney, who wrote dozens of paranormal thrillers, was another hero. “Finney was obsessed with time travel,” Stine said. “Every book he wrote was about time travel. He once said if he could just go back to 1880, for 30 seconds, just to smell the air, what it sounded like, just for less than a minute, he would just do it. He had this yearning that came through in the books. I always thought it was wonderful.

“I’m weird, though,” Stine continued. He chuckled as he described some of the scenes in his books that most disturbed young readers—the things that people still mention when they meet him—such as the aforementioned garbage disposal, or the scene in Silent Night where someone hides a needle in the protagonist’s lipstick and she slices her lips. “Horror doesn’t scare me at all,” Stine said. “I think horror is funny. It always makes me laugh.”

Stine’s scaremongering is palatable to young readers, he told me, because his stories aren’t ultimately tragedies. “I think that’s a really big part of it,” he said. “Every single Fear Street has a happy ending.” Having just reread the first in a trilogy of Fear Street novels called 99 Fear Street, about a family that unknowingly moves into an evil house, I gently corrected him. That story ends—spoiler alert—with one child forever stuck in the wall, another dead, a father who is blind, and a mother who has lost her mind. Stine dissolved into laughter. “That’s horrible,” he said. “Who would write a thing like that for kids?”

While Stine may be weird, as he says, the relationship between horror and humor is something like the old formula comedy equals tragedy plus time. Think about it this way: “If you sneak up behind someone and you go, ‘Boo!,’ first they gasp, and then they laugh,” Stine said. “If you go up on a roller coaster, it’s the same. You hear people screaming and laughing at the same time.”

Stine, who always writes his endings first and outlines every chapter, wants his books to feel the same way—thrilling and surprising, but not traumatizing. “I talked once to a child psychologist in L.A., and he told me he had a patient, this girl, who came every week, and all she did was recite Fear Street plots to him,” Stine said. “And he thought this was her way of dealing with all her fears, going through these books. You’re having all of these horrible things happen, but you’re still safe in your room, reading.”

Dickens, in his defense of fantasy, wrote that “the world is too much with us, early and late,” and implored his critics to “leave this precious old escape from it alone.” Horror is an escape, of course, but it is also a kind of homecoming for a small child—an affirmation that goblins and mayhem aren’t merely relegated to the dark corners of imagination, but that they occupy entire worlds that can be visited and inhabited.

“The one thing I’ve learned about kids is they’re smart,” Stine said. “They’re very smart. They know what they’re doing.”

Strange literary lands are, to the young reader, a tacit acknowledgment of what children already feel so viscerally: that the otherworldly is, in fact, always at hand, if just out of sight. That the fullness of the universe is right there, if you are brave enough to search for it, at the end of the darkened hallway, under the bed, through the looking glass, or straight on till morning.