Growing up, I had a complicated relationship with Goosebumps. I was a huge proponent of reading and loved reading every book written by R. L. Stine. There wasn’t one in my school library that I didn’t devour and if it wasn’t there, my mother bought it from me on our weekly trip to the mall. I was obsessed, to say the least. However, when it came to the television series that ran from 1995 to 1998, I was terrified. I could barely make it through the title sequence, let alone an entire episode. So when it was confirmed that a new Goosebumps series was in the works, I was filled with apprehension and elation.
The new take on the franchise follows in the shadows of two films from the mid-2010s, which were also vastly different from the book series and 90’s television series that predated it. Rob Letterman (Masters vs. Aliens, Detective Pikachu) and Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Neighbors) developed the series after Sony Picture’s announcement, with the former serving as the director of the 2015 film.
Together, the duo’s Goosebumps transitions from a serial approach taken by the book series and early show, to provide a more linear tale with elements that made the franchise so popular. Aimed at a slightly older audience, those who read the books at their peak, Goosebumps is ready to bring the thrills and chills back to your inner child once again. Ready to dive into everything you can expect from this new Disney+ series? Read on… if you dare.
[Review: light spoilers and impressions from Goosebumps are below!]
A scary story told in two decades
While most of the first eight episodes of the new Goosebumps series take place in 2023, the crux that impacts everything occurs decades before, in 1993. What that exactly is, is the mystery at the center of the show. One that bridges the story from episode to episode, building one cohesive narrative, instead of separate stories in each episode. The event in the past is the opener of the first episode before Goosebumps switches gears to the horrors taking place in 2023 and the teens at the center of the terrifying events.
Each one of the teens shares the spotlight at one point or another, but in the early episodes, it truly feels that Isaiah (Zack Morris) and Margot (Isa Briones) are the main characters on which the new Goosebumps was built. Isaiah is the star football player at his high school with what appears to be the perfect life. He’s great at his sport, has supportive friends who bend over backward for him, and has a girlfriend who’s enamored with his every move. He’s clearly typecast as the popular kid at school, which is the polar opposite of his best friend/neighbor Margot.
She’s moody, more artistic in nature, smart as all hell. Margot’s clearly the brains behind the operation, however, feels like the pariah of their high school for no easily identifiable reason. There’s a connection between Margot and Isaiah that goes back to their childhood. This connection doesn’t necessarily make sense anymore with there journey they’ve both taken in their respective high school careers, but the two remain true to their friendship regardless.
Margot doesn’t fit in with any of his other friends, such as James (Miles McKenna), the openly gay student at school, Isabella (Ana Yi Puig) the traditionally popular kid, and Lucas (Will Price), the daredevil outcast. Each one of the characters has a distinct, possibly stereotypical, personality, which works within the confines of Goosebumps, but would bring about conflict in any real high school setting.
Tying together the horror in this new take on R.L. Stine’s beloved children’s book series
What unites all these teenagers is a Halloween party at the old Biddle House and the supernatural forces that they unleash. The Biddle House isn’t a place that anyone should be, because of its ties to those pesky past events that haunt the entire town. But also, the house is now owned by Nathan Bratt (Justin Long), a new teacher at the very school these students attend. Upon entering the house, this group of teens set into motion things they don’t understand, taking with them into their individual story arc elements from the wider Goosebumps lore.
With little setup required for enjoyment, for which I was rather happy, the 2023 narrative takes off quickly, returning to 1993 in sprinkles as needed. It’s a positive for Goosebumps that they didn’t exposition dump at the beginning of episode one but instead allowed the story to evolve naturally, so that viewers are learning the info along with the teens. This approach allows for better integration into the experience, putting the audience into the shoes of these characters and feeling/experiencing as they do.
In a situation reminiscent of The Fear Street films on Netflix, also based on an R.L. Stine property, the past problem is directly related to the present through the teenager’s parents. All the adults harbor secrets, ones that have spelled trouble for their children. Working independently across time and scenarios, both groups attempt to do good and stop the world from whatever hell has been released. However, if they can or how they do is best left for the long journey, by consuming episode after episode as quickly as possible.
The essence of Goosebumps is still present
One aspect of this new Goosebumps series that I think worked so while was the structure of the story presentation. For those well-versed in the books and original television series, each one was its own story. Every book, each individual episode, focused on a specific story, with unique supernatural terrors special to that slice of the universe. As far as I can remember, with the exception of Slappy the ventriloquist doll, there wasn’t much that connected stories to each other.
However, the new Goosebumps takes that formula and flips it upside down. Instead, one continuous story is prioritized over the procedural style of yesteryears. This take gave the franchise a fresh feel, reinventing the brand that has been around for most of my life. That’s not something easy, but those behind Goosebumps seemed to have done a great job.
For those who are worried that such a change would ruin Goosebumps, fear not, as stated above, elements from the original stories are there, which provide all the nostalgic feelings you need. Take the names of each episode, each one shares the name of one of R.L. Stine’s novels, with pieces from those stories intertwined into the overarching narrative. You’ll see artifacts, such as the camera from Say Cheese and Die!, or the Mask from The Haunted Mask, but these stories aren’t one-for-one adaptations of the novels.
Again, this works because it breathes new life into Goosebumps, but also provides audiences with those core memories of reading the books growing up. It elevates the franchise from that for children, to one for teenagers and young adults. Sony Pictures and Disney+/Hulu knew exactly the target audience this series was for and did a good job building a ten-episode first season that reflects that.
The positives and negatives of the new Goosebumps series
I definitely enjoyed watching the first eight episodes of Goosebumps, but it works for me because I grew up reading the books. The series is to the Goosebumps books what Riverdale was to the Archie comics. It’s an attempt to take something specific that people grew up with and create a new version for them to enjoy. At most, these series are popcorn shows, ones for fans to enjoy, but they aren’t awe-inspiring or winning any awards.
The writing is good, but it isn’t exceptional and that’s totally okay. I didn’t expect much from a series based on children’s books and I was pleasantly surprised by what I got. Goosebumps took the essence of what makes the franchise great for children and ran with it. It’s a simple story, one that has plenty of twists and turns that most people will see coming from a mile away, but none of that ever took away from the pleasure I experienced from each episode. In fact, in most episodes, I was left on the edge of my seat and couldn’t wait to start the next one. So while the writing isn’t mindblowing, it was enough to keep me engaged and wanting more.
The biggest shocker of the entire series was how blown away I was by Justin Long. Typically comedic roles come to mind when I think of Long, but his part as Nathan in Goosebumps is far less comedic than his usual films. Justin Long has a creepy air to his part in this series, getting to flex his acting muscles and show just how much range he truly has. He’s the star of the show, stealing every scene he’s in, which was an unexpected delight.
The acting of the other main stars is good, however, some stand out more than others. Among the teens, Isa Briones is a star, with her performance as conflicted Margot being something wonderful to see. Zack Morris is also great as Isaiah, especially once he breaks the chain of his stereotypical jock character. The gang really comes together as the episodes progress, with the series allowing each and every one of the teenagers time in the spotlight. It’s during these moments that we see the most growth and where Goosebumps separates itself from the shadow of Riverdale and other shows in the genre.
Goosebumps also does a great job of blending the horror with the humor. There are plenty of parts where I laughed out loud, usually from meta-jokes about the franchise or horror films in general. The one-liners written for the teens are also hilarious and exactly what I would want from a series like that. However, there are parts where the horror hits you like a bump in the night. Even a few scenes made me look away. Not because these scenes were grotesque, but because an appropriate level of grossness is felt during them. The series feels like an entry-level horror show for younger individuals, who are maybe not quite ready for American Horror Story. And yet, it’s still completely approachable and enjoyable for older people, especially if you grew up reading the books that inspired it.
Final thoughts on Goosebumps, coming soon to Hulu & Disney+
Overall, Goosebumps was much better than I ever thought it would be. Letterman and Stoller took a big gamble by switching up the approach to the franchise, but it seems to have really worked. I hope that it’s received well by others because I would love to see more seasons from the world created by R.L. Stine. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s exciting and enjoyable enough to warrant a viewing this spooky season. I know I can’t wait to watch it again.
Goosebumps releases this Friday with five episodes dropping on Disney+ and Hulu. Let us know on social media @mycosmiccircus or in The Cosmic Circus Discord if you plan on watching this series and what you think of it!