Immunization Through Fear: Banning R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps
For our second-annual Banned Books Month, PEN America once again reached out to PEN members, supporters, and staff—writers and editors of all backgrounds and genres—who sent us their reflections on the banned books that matter most to them. Today’s piece comes from Alissa Nutting, author of Tampa. To find out more about how you can get involved with Banned Books Month, click here.
Fear is at the heart of Goosebumps, a series that acts in the same way that immunizations do, and it’s just as mandatory for children’s health. It gives them a small dose of scary and lets them produce needed antibodies towards fear, book after book, so that they slowly become less affected. Between 1990 and 1999, books in the Goosebumps children’s series made the top twenty list of most-challenged books; between 2000 and 2009 they made the top hundred. The objections came from parents who felt the books were too frightening for kids and/or contained satanic and occult themes. Both charges seem rather ridiculous with titles like Go Eat Worms!, The Cuckoo Clock of Doom, and It Came from Beneath the Sink.
That is not to say that frightening things don’t happen in Goosebumps books. In Say Cheese and Die!, children have to make an escape from a mad scientist who wants to hold them hostage so they don’t spill his secrets. After they make a run for it, the main character Greg reflects on this: “Forever, Greg thought. Dr. Fredericks wanted to keep Shari and me down there [in the basement] forever” (132).
Dr. Fredericks didn’t wish to sadistically torture them or sexually assault them—the obvious place that adults’ minds go when they hear that a man wants to keep a child in his basement forever. He just didn’t want them to blab. We know, however, that in real life, the situation wouldn’t be so benign.
Kids know it too. They do. Even if they somehow never catch a soundbite from the evening news or a summary from an informed peer (children talk amongst themselves about these horrible things—they realize that it’s taboo, discouraged information, a subject their parents are so uncomfortable with that many wish to avoid it entirely, making it all the more vital for them to depend upon one another for enlightenment), even if they’re sheltered in the most comprehensive, maximal way, this fact is still implicit in our warnings to them: “Never talk to strangers!” The obvious question to this directive is Why?, and children are smart enough to realize this means that some adults are a threat to their safety and well-being. This realization, however well-accepted by the child, inevitably causes fear. And how do children reconcile the terror of knowing that some adults would do awful things to them if given the chance?
The challenges to Goosebumps by protective parents imply that fear is a bad thing—that the books, and fear in general, are not appropriate for children. Obviously too much fear, like too much of anything, can be detrimental. But one’s relationship to fear—what makes one afraid, and how afraid, and how one deals with being afraid—is a necessary balancing skill that needs to be self-calibrated over time, and Goosebumps help children do that perfectly. The series never goes too heavy or serious; the child protagonists never die, and the threats are almost always supernatural events that couldn’t actually happen. There is never any profane language, and children can count on and predict the plot structures in a way that is reassuring. They can move through the text at their own pace; they can close the book and stop reading at any time if things begin to feel too intense for them. And since kids are usually allowed to self-select books, children who aren’t ready to read them or don’t want to read them likely won’t: at Johnsonville Elementary School in Blaine, Minnesota (one school where the books were challenged) the principal defended the series by stating that while his eleven-year-old son reads them furiously, his ten-year-old daughter chooses not to touch them. She knows that for her, they would not be a positive experience. Kids can choose.
For the children who do read them, the books display a management of fear in the characters. They’re not immune to it—the children in these books cry and scream and have normal reactions to frightening circumstances. But they also learn to control their fear enough to act and move past trauma in a productive way. Why I’m Afraid of Bees begins with such an acknowledgement: “If you’re afraid of bees I have to warn you—there are a lot of bees in this story. In fact, there are hundreds. Up until last month, I was afraid of bees. And when you read this story, you’ll see why.” Here, the shame that often accompanies children displaying fear (comments such as, “Don’t be a scaredy-cat!” or “You’re such a baby!”) is removed; the protagonist acknowledges he was afraid, and knows that this was normal and called-for in the situation. He also hints that he was able to overcome this fear, reassuring young readers that the story will ultimately turn out okay even if it gets a little scary.
The same cannot be said about the real world: life can seem unkind, devastating, too painful to bear. Illness, death, disaster, cruelty—these are a cold reality no matter how much we want them not to be. Goosebumps doesn’t introduce children to fear; every child who reads his or her first Goosebumps book has already been terrified by something or someone no matter how perfect a life they’ve lived. After all, fear is also a very healthy force for good that helps children accomplish goals, stay safe, and think about the consequences of decisions.
I assert that the original Goosebumps series and all the subsequent spin-offs are so popular (over 300 million sold, making Stine the second most best-selling children’s author of all-time; J.K. Rowling is the first) because they respect children enough to confirm what they already know: that the world is not always safe. That at times they will be misunderstood. That even well-intentioned adults can inevitably fail children without meaning to (in Night of the Living Dummy II, the child protagonist Amy laments of her mother, “She thinks I’m crazy, I realized. She thinks I’m totally messed up”).
Goosebumps affirms that bad things can happen to children by no fault of their own, and when they do, children themselves can be a powerful agent by attempting to think of the best possible solution, even when all the options have undesirable aspects (usually in Goosebumps, the story is resolved due to the wisdom and action of the child protagonist, often working in cooperation with other children). Kids love these books because fear is diffused within their pages. It lets them ultimately cuddle up to being afraid; it is fear rendered in a gentle, stuffed plushie form that helps readers to have more confidence the next time they’re truly afraid in life. They’ve felt the lion’s breath and are now better able to withstand its claws, to understand that though things seem awful at present, happier shores may eventually appear.