All the things I would have shielded my younger self from, they crop up in books, too. And they are not the monsters with the glowing eyes.
This isScaring Children, a column by A. E. Osworth that explores children’s horror media from the nineties and early aughts through the lens of queer adulthood.
I told you about this before, but remember? I was a girl-child once, with a whole girlhood (in its way) that I loved (in my way). I had hair so long I would accidentally sit on it when I squeezed into the tiny kindergarten chairs; my head would fling back haplessly and I would readjust so I could once again move my neck. I wore only dresses—I refused to wear pants until the fourth grade. Floral Laura Ashley dresses replete with lace, solid tights, white shoes with buckles; this did not keep me from standing in the creek by my house. And at the Scholastic Book Fair, I stumbled upon a purple book with a green tent and a pair of glowing, red eyes—the suggestion that a monster resides inside the tent.
Did you have the Scholastic Book Fair? It was—and I say this without exaggeration—my favorite week of school. I loved books. I wanted that book with the red eyes so, so badly.
I can’t remember if I was sent with money in a tiny envelope, the same as my lunch money, enough for one book. I can’t remember the volunteer-Mom-cashier’s face when she told me that girls my age can’t read those yet, that they were too difficult and too scary. I can’t remember my own face either, my outward response to this woman who, frankly, did not understand my reading level (advanced). But my kindergarten photo conjures an image of how I might have looked.
I don’t remember what book I got instead; I’m sure it was fine. I’m sure it was pink and age appropriate. I’m sure it looked like it should belong to the girl in the photo. I’m even sure I loved it, whatever it was. I loved books, after all.
What I do remember: Asking “so when can I read this?” while holding up the Goosebumps title. I’d never heard of such a thing, Goosebumps. But the boys with backwards ball caps bought them, the older boys, and I wanted to not be told no.
And the answer, after a quick traded glance with my teacher: “Fourth grade.”
I remember blithely following the rule. Maybe I protested a little—sometimes I could be counted on to tell an adult when a rule was stupid. But not often. I was, largely, obedient, accepting always that children were meant to follow rules, even the ones that they thought were useless. The ones I thought were useless: well-meaning ones, meant to protect innocence.
Alyssa Greene, a Boston-based writer, and Andy Crow, an assistant professor of English at Boston College, are the hosts of Say Podcast and Die, a Goosebumps read-along podcast for adults that they both describe as an English class parody. They critically examine what we got from the series as children. I spoke with the two hosts over Zoom and asked them about their history with Goosebumps, and about why it might still be so popular today.
Crow recalls the Doomslide, a slide that goes on forever, giving them “their first taste of existential dread outside of church.” Greene remembers that the encouragement to read meant that she could consume all the Goosebumps she wanted, regardless of whether the adults in her life found horror to be an appropriate pastime, and that in horror she found freedom that was lacking from her experience of childhood.
“Goosebumps was […] letting us think about things that were much scarier than a lot of children’s literature was willing to talk about, whether that’s the very first book, Welcome to Dead House, where you have skeletons’ faces melting off of them, or in the Ghost Next Door, where the main character is a twelve-year-old who died in a fire and has to confront the fact that she’s dead,” says Crow. “Horror sometimes has a didactic or ethical function. It has this element of letting you realize in a safe, contained way that the universe is chaotic and random. It’s not a lesson in that you can apply it; it’s a fact of life it lets you encounter.”
Reflecting on my own experience, I asked the two hosts what makes it okay for adults to give Goosebumps to children. I asked it exactly that way. And a flash of something crossed both their faces as they glanced at each other, something adjacent to the knowing, conspiratorial glance between the parent volunteer and my kindergarten teacher.
“What?” I asked or maybe I didn’t, maybe I just felt that what? deep in my soul.
“I think something that’s interesting about your framing is what makes it fine to give to a kid, as in what makes it fine for the adult to pass it on, as opposed to what makes it appropriate for the child,” Greene answered. “I think we really lose the fact that the world is scary for kids; kids are capable of a lot of emotional complexity that we don’t give them credit for, and a lot of media—especially for young kids—doesn’t enable them to experience. […] I think the real key there is what makes adults decide it’s okay for children, versus what makes it okay for children.”
“We don’t actually give children stories based on what’s too scary.” Crow adds. “A lot of stories for children are terrifying. We were just talking the other day about the Velveteen Rabbit. And it’s not only upsetting because a child almost dies and their toy, essentially, dies. But it’s also a horrible story because you are forever responsible for this toy’s death and you’re haunted by it!”
Greene is nodding along to Crow as if Crow is singing their favorite song; I am a little bit sweating from embarrassment. My framing did to children what adults did to me.
“Or—I was even listening to this podcast episode talking about an episode of The Andy Griffith Show, where Ron Howard kills a bird and, as punishment, his father makes him listen to its babies dying out in the nest, chirping, waiting for their mother to come back.”
I can see myself in the Zoom camera; I look horrified, both at the strange pedagogy of this parenting choice and the portrayal of dying birds.
Crow continues.: “No one’s like, oh, we shouldn’t show that to kids! It’s The Andy Griffith Show! I feel like that’s much scarier than any Goosebumps book. We determine what’s okay for a kid to watch by what has a kid as the central character.”
“And what are the norms of the mainstream culture that’s deciding that?” Greene jumped in. “Because the idea of a child or children’s literature is still really new. Nineteenth century at the earliest.”
I think so hard about scaring children. Until this point, I have mostly asked what it means to be scared without considering what it means to be a child. The concept of childhood is relatively recent. In 1960, French historian Philippe Ariès argued in his L’Enfant et la vie familiale sous l'ancien regime that childhood as a concept evolved between the years 1500 and 1800. In the Middle Ages, children were imagined as miniature adults, school was unnecessary for the majority of them, and after the age of seven they participated in adult life and chores—and even then that was based on size and coordination.
There was no period of innocence that needed protecting; the idea of getting too invested in the presence of this small person was an alien concept, given the mortality rate. Before children were children, children died all the time. Before children were children, their worlds were as scary as that of the adults, because it was the same one.
I was, largely, obedient, accepting always that children were meant to follow rules, even the ones that they thought were useless.
Ariès has his critics, among them Adrian Wilson, whose article, “The Infancy of the History of Childhood: An Appraisal of Philippe Ariès” was published in the February 1980 edition of History and Theory. Wilson gathers a good many quotes from those critics, which range in severity from Natalie Zemon Davis’s characterization of the book as deploying “a lack of clarity" and is “sometimes based on inadequate evidence,” to Lloyd deMause’s assertion that one of Ariès’s arguments “runs counter to all the evidence.” Which is, essentially, the closest an academic will ever come to saying “this is total bullshit.”
Personally, my biggest problem with relying entirely on Ariès to define the history of childhood as a concept is that he wrote about France, which is just one specific place. There are humans under the age of seven in all sorts of other places. In some of those places, the history he wrote is still the present; in other places, the history he wrote is part of a linear progression that never happened because, culturally, the concept of a child is far different. Since the 1960s and the 1980s, David Lancy’s work has diversified the notion of childhood in the academy to expand outside the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) societies. There are as many takes on childhood as there are distinct cultures in the world.
As Greene said when we spoke, what are the dominant culture’s childhood norms? We can go as macro as a nation and as micro as a family structure when we think about dominant—especially in regard to a kindergartener whose world was very small.
What childhood meant in my world: a near-religious devotion to the twin ideals of obedience and innocence. I want to go back in time and protest my own innocence and obedience, both. Because I see the marks of those values cut into my adulthood, too. I wish for the child I was to steal the book, to tell the adults to go fuck themselves, literally anything except follow the rule. What made me do it? Perhaps it was this: No matter what I said, how I protested, no one was going to let me walk out of there with that Goosebumps book. As a child, I understood what power I had, and mostly that was an understanding of all the power I didn’t have. I have to have compassion for that girl who thought if she just obeyed hard enough, everyone would love her.
It would be some years before I’d figure out the ways I could game it out, what rules I could ignore by virtue of following most of them. The hissy fit would have done me no good until I figured that out. So I waited. And I wanted. And on the first day of my fourth grade Scholastic Book Fair, I walked into the library and bought a stack of Goosebumps books. And as soon as I could have them, my mother started reading them to my brother at bedtime. Bedtime! Precisely when we weren’t supposed to do anything scary at all!
My younger brother.
By three years.
It was the Scholastic Book Unfair.
My brother and I would go on to read a truly astounding amount of Goosebumps books, together and apart. I never happened upon the one I’d once tried to buy, so I never even read the story from which the well-meaning adults wanted to protect me.
2021 sees me looking up the forbidden book by the cover. I find an Imgur collection of high-resolution Goosebumps cover images, only the classics, the covers as they would have looked when I was five. I have such a clear memory of a monster in the dark of the green tent, but none of these covers match, exactly, the image I have in my head.
One comes close, close enough that I must assume I remember it wrong: The eyes are not red. Rather, they glow like a cat’s. And they remain squarely outside the tent, a large hand peeling the flap back to look inside. It’s actually much less scary than I remember; my mind had elevated the horror in its long-wanting. It costs less than four dollars to read it immediately on my iPad, so I buy my inner child the fucking book.
The first pages separate the girls and the boys on a bus to camp. The girls whisper to each other and look quietly at the boys. And the boys? “The boys were a lot louder than the girls, cracking jokes, laughing, making funny noises, shouting out dumb things. It was a long bus ride, but we were having a good time.”
Even my inner child, the echo of me who feels much differently about gender, rolls her eyes—but from the position of always following the rules, and then watching others break them with little consequence. My adult self is so disappointed, that this is what I would have gotten. Reification of the gender binary, something that actually did me harm well into my adulthood.
But I keep reading anyhow. I’ve waited twenty-eight years for this book. What R.L. Stine considers scary for a child is deeply rooted in the WEIRD—a camp with no nurse, for example, or whether a camp counselor pelted a child with a ball to the head on purpose. Ariès’s notion of childhood is all over this one; horror is dependent on cultural norm to define what risk is, what falls outside average and why it’s terrifying to break from what is expected.
Over and over again, our protagonist, a kid named Billy, says things that reify the WEIRD cultural norms, particularly around childhood, gender innocence and agency: “I did as he instructed. I saw that I had no choice.” And I think back to my kindergarten self—they shouldn’t have stopped me buying that book. They should’ve offered it to me with a bow on top. The penultimate scene in the book sees the camp director asking the boys camp to hunt two runaways from the girls’ camp with tranquilizer-dart guns. To which Billy says no, he will do no such thing. He makes to escape the camp director.
However, as with all Goosebumps books, there’s a twist. It turns out that Billy’s parents are field scientists and they want to take Billy with them on their next expedition, which is to a very dangerous place—and that place is Earth. They needed to test Billy at a government testing facility, which is what the camp secretly is. Among what they needed to test him for—that he knew when to follow rules and when not to follow them. The thin line between obedience and accidentally hunting girls.
“Earth?!” says Billy. “It sounds pretty weird. But it could never be as dangerous or exciting as Camp Nightmoon!”
And the thing is—it won’t be weird. Everything about Camp Nightmare is horrifying because the cultures are the same, the binaries are the same. It’s a veneer overtop what is, essentially, the argument that even in outer space there’s no escaping the WEIRD values.
In my imagined time travel, there would be so many things from which I would like to protect myself. Books never make the list. But all the things I would have shielded my younger self from, they crop up in books, too. And they are not the monsters with the glowing eyes. They are the real things, generated by the world of adults, part of society that no one ever thought, would think, to protect me from because they were considered appropriate. Appropriate for children and, especially, desirable socialization for me.
And if I had never been expected to be a girl, would I have wound up quite where I am?
A. E. Osworth is part-time Faculty at The New School, where they teach undergraduates the art of digital storytelling. Their novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, about a game developer dealing with harassment (and narrated collectively by a fictional subreddit) was long listed for The Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. They have an eight-year freelancing career and you can find their work on Autostraddle, Guernica, Quartz, Electric Lit, Paper Darts, Mashable, and drDoctor, among others.