R.L. Stine on Scaring Children and Teens

R.L. Stine is one of the most popular children’s authors in history, with more than 400 million books sold to date. In 2005, Stine concluded his beloved Fear Street series, assumedly for good. But, in a very Stine-like twist, Fear Street is back from the dead with the newly-released Party Games, just in time for the scariest month of the year. Stine took a small break from touring and terrifying children and teens to talk about Halloween, reviving the series, and what people may be surprised to know about him.

mental_floss: If you count every spin-off and miniseries in addition to the original series, Party Games is the 153rd Fear Street novel.

R.L. Stine: It is?! How is that possible? I thought there were like 80. Are you including the Sagas and Ghosts of Fear Street? I’m going to go take a nap! I can’t believe that.

Fear Street was the first horror series for young adults. Did you know that when you were writing the book?

Everyone said [a young adult horror series] couldn’t be done. There were a bunch of people writing teen horror when I started, but they were doing individual titles, and I was doing individual titles for Scholastic. I’d only been funny up to then. I was writing joke books and was the editor of a humor magazine for kids. I only wanted to be funny. And then this editor asked me if I would write a teen horror novel, and even though I had no idea what she was talking about, I wrote Blind Date. It was a number-one bestseller, and I thought, "Wait a minute—I’ve struck a chord here. I’ve found something kids like!"

A year later, [my editor] wanted another one, and so I wrote Twisted. And it was a number-one bestseller, too. But she only wanted one [book] a year, and I thought, "You know, forget this funny stuff. I’ve got to write these scary books. That’s what these kids want." Kids like to be scared, and I just sort of stumbled into this. I said to her, “It would be nice to do more than one a year—maybe we can do more if we can think of some way to do a series.”

But publishers didn’t want a series because you couldn’t have these horrible things happen to the same kids over and over. That would be ludicrous, right? So I don’t know how I came up with it, but this title just popped into my head. It was the first one I thought of: Fear Street. And I thought, "That would be a place where bad things happen. It’ll be a very normal, suburban town, but there’ll be this one street that’s cursed. People who go to Fear Street or people who move to Fear Street, terrible things would happen to them. And that would be a way to do a series." And that’s how it started, by basing it on the location and not the characters.

You’ve written hundreds of books. Do you worry you’ll run out of ways to scare people?

Stop! Don’t say that! No, no, no. So far I’ve been very lucky. Every time I need an idea, I get one. It may be the same idea six times, but at least I have one each time. You can do the same idea differently.

Are any of those ideas inspired by real events?

Yes, I’ve had a horrifying life. It’s all true. No, no, I make up everything. It’s all made up.

How close to reality do you let yourself get?

The older you get with the audience, the more I think has to be real. The more real you have to be, or they’re not going to buy it. I did a few adult novels and every detail has to be real, everything has to be researched or no one’s going to go along with your story. And so for teenagers it’s sort of in-between. You can get away with a lot of stuff that seems like fantasy, but it has to be much more real than the kids’ stuff.

Is there a scary storyline you’d never include in Fear Street?

Oh, yes. All sorts of things. I wouldn’t write about drugs or child abuse, ever. I don’t even talk about divorce that often. That’s the kind of reality that ruins a story. It’s better if the fears are less real.

I’ve decided that what separate Goosebumps from Fear Street are a haunted thousand-acre woods and hormones.

That’s it! And deaths. There’s not much death in Goosebumps, but there are a lot of deaths over on Fear Street. I kill off a lot of teenagers. It’s kind of my hobby. I was wondering why, recently; Why did I love killing teenagers so much back in the Fear Street days? And then I realized: I had one back at home. Teenagers are tough!

How many more new Fear Street titles are coming?

I’m signed up for six. I’ve written two and just started thinking about the third one. They’re not like monthly paperbacks anymore, like the old days. These are hardcovers, so they’ll come out more slowly, one or two a year.

I just signed on for three more Goosebumps, so I’m continuing both series. And we have a Goosebumps movie coming out in August, so there will be a whole bunch of Goosebumps books coming out next summer to go along with the movie.

Could you even imagine way back in 1992 that you’d still be writing Goosebumps in 2014?

22 years later? No! What series lasts 22 years? When the books first came out, they just sat there for three or four months and no one was buying them. They were a flop. And we thought, "Oh, well, that didn’t work." If it had been today, the bookstores would have taken them off the shelves. It would have failed. The books just didn’t move. But something happened, and I don’t know what or why, but all of a sudden they just took off. It’s this big mystery. There’s this secret network of kids telling kids about the books, and really, that’s what saved it. Just word of mouth. That’s how it happened. Kids just discovered it. It took off all at once.

Kids are great for starting trends. Does the volume of fan mail ever feel overwhelming?

I get a lot of mail. A lot. It’s very funny. I get wonderful mail. A couple of weeks ago I got a letter that said, “Dear R.L. Stine, You are my second-favorite author.” And that’s all it said! That was the whole letter. Talk about suspense!

Any memorable meetings with fans?

Someone had me sign a potato chip once. That’s the strangest thing that I’ve signed.

What are you doing for Halloween?

I love Halloween! I can’t tell you how many Halloween stories I’ve had to come up with, and I have to say it’s my favorite holiday. I think I’ve done every possible Halloween story you could do. The current one is Zombie Halloween, that’s the one that’s out now. And then I have one for next year called Trick or Trap .

When I was a kid down in Ohio, Halloween was three nights long. We used to go out all three nights. The first night was the UNICEF penny drive. We would go around and collect pennies in a little paper milk carton to send to UNICEF. And the next night would be Halloween Eve, and we’d go out trick-or-treating for candy, and the next day was Halloween and we’d go out again.

My family was very poor, and I wanted to be a vampire, or something really scary. But they came back from Kresge's, the dime store, with a costume for me...and it was a duck costume. A fuzzy duck costume, with the yellow tail, and it was awful. And they couldn’t afford to buy other costumes, so I had to be a duck every year! It was embarrassing. I used it in The Haunted Mask. The mother comes home with a costume for her daughter, and it’s a duck costume. She’s so miserable because she wants to scare the other kids.

You also just released The 12 Screams of Christmas, which is the newest Goosebumps book.

I’ve never done a Christmas book before. I’ve had this title for years—I love it, The 12 Screams of Christmas . I just love it, and I’ve written maybe four different stories that no one liked with that title, and so I kept reusing it until I got one that worked.

I hear revision is the harder part.

I’m struggling with that one now. I’m having to do a lot of revising. It’s hard to get the same energy up for revision as you have for writing, you know? It’s just harder. You get it done and you don’t really want to revisit it, and you don’t want to patch it up. It’s just hard.

And I have very tough editors. You know I’m married to my editor [Jane Waldhorn], and she’s a tough one. She’s like a hockey goalie—nothing gets past her. Nothing . She once handed a manuscript back to me and up at the top it said, “Psychotic ramblings.” That was the only comment on the manuscript!

I had no idea your wife was your editor. What else do most people not know about you?

People seem to think that I’m just into horror, or that if I’m interested in horror I can’t be interested in anything else. So they’re shocked when I say that I’m an opera fan. I go to the opera all the time. Or that I’m a fan of country music, I’m not supposed to be into that. Or that I like quaint British novels. Books by P.G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie and all that. That kind of thing is all wrong!

Tony Wilson
A Visit With Doctor Laser: New York’s Resident Holographer
Tony Wilson
Tony Wilson

On an unassuming street in Manhattan’s Kips Bay neighborhood, a man by the name of Dr. Laser toils away. His given name is Jason Sapan, but when you’re at the helm of the oldest (and possibly only) holography gallery-slash-laboratory in the world, a colorful moniker only seems appropriate.

Laser’s Holographic Studios has been in operation since the later 1970s. Before that it was used for making medical instruments, and before that, was the site of a blacksmith’s forge. As the doctor himself says, his business is a logical tenant in that line of succession: he, like those who came before, specializes in taking objects, making them glow red, and giving them shape. Of course his work is a little bit different. He gives shape to things that aren’t really there.

When you ask Dr. Laser to explain the nuts and bolts of holography, his eyes light up (they do that a lot, actually). "Well grasshopper…" he starts, and from there, you just do your best to keep up. In brief, "a hologram is a recording in light waves of the surface of an object," but the process of capturing that impression is, of course, a bit more complicated. Luckily, he’s up to the task: "I wanna trip people out," he says.

The studio itself is pretty much exactly what you’d hope for when seeking out a holographic hotspot—it feels a bit like a real-life wonder emporium, and Laser’s larger-than-life persona only adds to the effect. The walls are lined with various holograms—some from his work with clients like Goodyear, Tag Heuer, and IBM, along with portraits (the one of Andy Warhol, made in 1977, is his favorite) and other holography miscellanea. In the next room, a wall bears the signatures of former visitors like Isaac Asimov and Cher. Downstairs, a cluttered subterranean workspace leads into a dark lab where lasers and light shows abound. If you’re lucky, Dr. Laser might even queue up the Flock of Seagulls music video he was in, which—fun fact—was also the first music video on MTV to use screen credits.

Holographic Studios is open Monday through Friday from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., and tours are available if you want the full, personal experience. And if a trip to New York isn’t in the cards, fear not: you can secure a hologram of your very own in their online store.

All photos by Tony Wilson.

Surprise, Motherf@#&er: Erik King on 10 Years of Dexter

At first, Erik King wasn’t sure he liked being a meme. As the relentless Sergeant James Doakes, who was immediately suspicious of co-worker and closeted serial killer Dexter Morgan on Showtime’s Dexter, King’s boiling-point performance arrived just as the internet was discovering new ways to capture bits and pieces of film and television.

“It was weird,” King tells mental_floss. “I had never had a performance taken out of context before, so it took some getting used to. But I found it flattering.”

As Dexter celebrates its 10th anniversary, King took some time to talk with us about Doakes’s untimely death, how his father inspired the character, and the art of surprising serial killers with tirades of profanity.

Was the intensity of Doakes on the page from the beginning?

I think it was clear who Doakes was. The intensity was there, but the disdain came later. The more Dexter eluded Doakes, the more he got pissed off. My father was in federal law enforcement and I have a lot of family and friends who are cops, so I knew a lot of them.

Was there any of your dad in the character?

There’s a lot of him in Doakes. He passed away in 2011, but I used to joke with him all the time. “You know, this guy is you.” It’s exaggerated, but he didn’t suffer fools. If someone parked in front of his house, there might be a colorful word or two coming out of him. And it was a public street. [Laughs]

Doakes and Dexter were usually playing a pretty cerebral cat and mouse game, but it occasionally got physical. Michael C. Hall once said he was taken aback by how strong you were while shooting a fight scene. Do you remember that?

I’m surprised he would say that, actually. If he thought that, he never let on. Michael is taller than me, you know. I had to bring my A-game. Doakes had to come at him like a bowling ball, had to hold his own, because I knew what was gonna happen in the end. As an actor, he always brought it.

The great flaw of Doakes is that he was suspicious of Dexter from the outset, which probably didn’t help his chances of survival. When did you know he would be dying at the end of season two?

It was either four or six episodes in out of the 12. One of the producers very kindly called me, which doesn’t always happen. He said, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is, we’re writing some great stuff for you. The bad news is, you won’t be around much longer.” [Laughs] My first thought was how the rest of the cast would react, because I was and am good friends with them. I know the energy Erik King brings to the set and the energy Doakes brings, and I didn’t want to have it become, “Oh, what a shame.” So I kept it a secret for as long as I could.

Were you happy with the way he went out?

In order to maintain the integrity of who he was, he had to find out something [about Dexter]. It couldn’t have been eight or nine seasons of, “I’m watching you, motherf*cker.” That’s not going to work. Even though I wanted the character to hang around longer, I totally understood the choice.

Was there ever any discussion of Doakes surviving the cabin explosion?

Not with me. Once the cabin blew up and pieces were flying through the air, there was never a doubt in my mind.

Doakes had a way with words. How did you find out some of his choice profanity had become a meme?

I was at a gym in North Carolina trying to put some size back on when I was asked to return for season seven [in a flashback]. This guy comes up to me and says, “Did you see this website? They put Doakes in all these other movies.” You know, like Ghost—“surprise, motherf*cker.” Just little scenes. Someone would turn around and Doakes would be there.

As an actor, it was arresting to me, and kind of weird that Doakes had taken on a life of his own. Now it’s flattering. “French fries, motherf*cker,” all of that. I’ve seen it. [Laughs]

If that was weird, the Doakes bobblehead must have thrown you, too.

I have a couple of them. They have to send it to you for approval. “Does it look like you?” “Yeah, I guess it looks like me, kind of.”

What do you think would have happened to Doakes if he hadn’t crossed paths with Dexter?

Probably a police captain. The guy was really driven. He had a dogged determination. He and Dexter both. I always said they were like two pitbulls sniffing each other out. He keeps going until he finds what he’s looking for. And you see where it got him.


More from mental floss studios