Maybe it’s the skeletons barbecuing on the cover of Say Cheese and Die! Or the beady-eyed face of Slappy on Night of the Living Dummy. Or it might be the green hand reaching from the darkness on Stay Out of the Basement. If you’re an adult of a certain age, you probably remember the image on the front of the first Goosebumps book you gripped under the covers late at night when you were a kid, intentionally scaring the heck out of yourself.
This July marks 30 years since the publication of Welcome to Dead House, the first in R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, and the author, now 78 years old, is happy for his work to have become nostalgic. At the same time, he’s still churning out at least four Goosebumps books a year, with more than 180 books in the Goosebumps world to date. In the three decades since the series began, Goosebumps has become one of the best-selling children’s book series of all-time, with, according to publisher Scholastic, 350 million English language books in print, plus an additional 50 million international copies in print, translated to 32 languages.
Goosebumps wasn’t Stine’s first foray into writing horror for a young audience. In 1989, with The New Girl, Stine launched Fear Street, his series of slasher books for teens, the most recent of which, Drop Dead Gorgeous, was published in 2019. Netflix made a three-film series based on a handful of Fear Street plots in 2021. But Goosebumps remains Stine’s biggest success: the books, intended for a slightly younger, under 12 crowd, have inspired two feature films starring Jack Black as a more sinister version of the author himself, plus a television series, video games, toys, and more. The second ever hardcover in the Goosebumps series, Slappy, Beware—the origin story of Slappy the evil dummy, who has starred more than a dozen books over the years—is set to be published Sept. 20.
Ahead of the 30th anniversary of Goosebumps, Stine spoke to TIME about how he got his start in horror books for kids, balancing frights and humor, and why the series almost didn’t happen.
How do you feel about the 30th anniversary of the Goosebumps books—and what does it mean to you that the series has lasted this long?
I’m amazed. When we started out, I was very reluctant to do the series all together because I was doing the Fear Street books for teenagers, and I didn’t want to mess up the older audience. No one had ever done a scary series for [ages] seven to 11 before, and I just wasn’t sure it would work. That’s the kind of businessman I am: I didn’t want to do Goosebumps. I said, All right, if I can think of a good name, maybe we’ll do two or three. And now it’s 30 years later.
You’re still writing new Goosebumps stories—how do you keep coming up with ideas?
I don’t try to think of ideas anymore, because it’s too hard. I’ve done every story a human can write. What I do now is I just try to think of good titles. Fifth Grade Zombies. Okay, that’s a good title. What would that book be about?
What kind of things were you reading when you were your audience’s age?
I didn’t read books until I was nine or 10, but I was a real comic book freak. There were those scary EC comics when I was a kid—Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror—I loved those. I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and one day my mom dropped me off at the library. The librarian said, Bobby, I know you like comic books. I have something else you might like. And she took me to a shelf of Ray Bradbury’s stories. They were so wonderful. They were so imaginative and so well written and all had great twist endings. That librarian and Ray Bradbury turned me into a reader.
And then at nine you knew you wanted to be a writer?
It’s true. I found this typewriter, dragged it into my room, and I started writing little funny joke magazines and science fiction stories. I was a weird kid. I’d just be in my room typing all afternoon.
Did you write anything scary as a kid, or did that come later?
No, I never thought of being scary. I only wanted to be funny. It’s an embarrassing story because it wasn’t even my idea for me to write scary books. I was having lunch with my friend Jean Feiwel, who was a publisher at Scholastic, and she arrived angry. She’d had a fight with a guy who wrote teen horror novels and she said, I’m never working with him again. I bet you could write a good horror novel for teenagers. Go home and write a book called Blind Date. I didn’t know what she was talking about. What is a horror novel for teenagers? So I had to run to the bookstore and buy up a whole bunch of books by Lois Duncan and Christopher Pike and see. Then I wrote this book, Blind Date. It was a number one best seller. I thought, wait a minute, forget the funny stuff—kids like to be scared. I’ve been scary ever since.
With Goosebumps, you do combine humor with the scary stuff. How did you find that balance?
It didn’t take me very long. The first Goosebumps book I think is too scary. I didn’t have the right combination yet—it doesn’t have the humor. But by the second book, Stay out of the Basement, I got it. I just figured I don’t really want to scare these kids. So anytime a scene gets really intense, I throw in something funny. And of course there’s a punchline at the end of every chapter.
Has technology changed your approach? And are kids still scared of the same things now that they were when you started out, or are they harder to scare?
Technology ruins every mystery. In Fear Street, we do this plot where a girl’s getting terribly frightening phone calls. Now she looks at the phone. She sees who it is. So that plot is gone. Or five teenagers are trapped in a cabin and one of them’s a murderer, but they now they just call for help. For most books, I have to get rid of the phones—they lose them or run out of power. But you have to be very careful not to include too much technology. There are all these old Fear Street books with kids walking around with a Walkman. What’s a Walkman? As far as fears go, they never change: afraid of the dark or afraid something’s lurking under the bed, afraid of going down in the basement or afraid of being somewhere you’ve never been, getting lost.
Do you think kids are more resilient than adults when it comes to devouring scary stories?
Kids always know if they can take it or not. They’re very smart in that way. I have two nephews. When they were six or seven, one of them loved Goosebumps. He just thought it was hilarious. And the other one wouldn’t go near it. He knew it was too scary for him. I would send him a book and I’d say, Sam, I think you’ll like this one. It’s not too scary. And he would call me up and say, Uncle Bob, you know where this book is going? Right in the garbage.
Wow, harsh! But you do try to keep things relegated to the supernatural. Why don’t you put real-life horrors in Goosebumps?
That’s my one rule. The kids have to know it’s a fantasy, that it could never happen. The real world is a scary place for kids, and I try to keep out as much of it as I can. I don’t have divorce or drug problems or anything really serious. No one ever dies in a Goosebumps book. If they’re a ghost, they died like a hundred years ago. When you’re writing for teenagers or adults, it has to be the exact opposite. They’re not going to buy it unless they can believe every detail.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.