Judging a Book by its Cover: Goosebumps

SEAN MURPHY

The cover of a Goosebumps book invites the kind of intuitive parental judgement likely to disturb the peace of the home and invite unfavourable comparisons with what "everybody else" is allowed to read.


Goosebumps is prominently embossed on the top of each in dripping, gooseflesh letters above menacing pictures: a red eyed mummy, a headsman, assorted monsters, and other suitably eerie scenes or creatures, all painted in striking colours. Titles suited to the horror genre, like “Welcome to Camp Nightmare” , “The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight” and “One Day at Horrorland” , appear in white block capitals at the bottom. But is it fair to judge a book by its cover? The answer to that question begins with a closer look at the series.

What is consumed by the mind nourishes the soul. As a consequence, most parents would like to see their children not just reading, but reading good literature. Opinions differ widely, however, about what qualifies as a good book, and even on what qualifies as an acceptable book.

Left to their own, of course, children are more inclined to enjoy than to analyse. When father suggests Charlotte's Web, but Junior wants Garfield, it is unlikely that there will be much discussion about literary merit. If the goal is simply to encourage Junior as he learns to read, father may pay for Garfield. But if Junior is already reading well, he may have to save his allowance if he wants to add to his Garfield collection. Such compromises do little to develop a taste for literature, but at least contribute to peace at home. And the literary horizons of a child who reads much and reads widely will not be diminished by Garfield.

Of greater concern for parents is the possibility that books offered to their children will nourish attitudes or beliefs harmful to the formation of a virtuous character. When parents conclude that this is the case, the “you want it — you buy it” compromise is not possible. Children learning to exercise their freedom of choice must learn that some choices ought not to be made. The difficulty, however, is to explain why a particular book or series is an unacceptable choice, particularly if it is among those in a catalogue implicitly approved by a school or teacher. The difficulty increases exponentially when the proscribed book is being read by “everybody in the whole world” (i.e., Grade 4). And it is almost impossible to explain objections grounded in parental intuition, however objectively justified that intuition may be.

GOOSEBUMPS(by R.L. Stine)

When it comes to popularity, Goosebumps, a paperback series published by Scholastic Inc., can hardly be outdone. According to Publishers Weekly, Goosebumps books are the #1, all-time best-selling book series for children, with at least 62 titles and 200 million copies in print. Scholastic distributes millions of copies from this popular series right to the classrooms in hundreds of public and Catholic schools across the land.

The cover of a Goosebumps book invites the kind of intuitive parental judgement likely to disturb the peace of the home and invite unfavourable comparisons with what “everybody else” is allowed to read. Goosebumps is prominently embossed on the top of each in dripping, gooseflesh letters above menacing pictures: a red eyed mummy, a headsman, assorted monsters, and other suitably eerie scenes or creatures, all painted in striking colours. Titles suited to the horror genre, like “Welcome to Camp Nightmare” , “The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight” and “One Day at Horrorland” , appear in white block capitals at the bottom. But is it fair to judge a book by its cover? The answer to that question begins with a closer look at the series.

STRUCTURE

In addition to the similarity of cover design, the structural uniformity of Goosebumps books is noteworthy. Of 21 books surveyed, [1] the average length is 125 pages. 13 of the 21 are between 120 and 129 pages long. Chapters almost all run for about four pages, none more than six. Publication dates indicate that the author has churned out at least 10 books in some years; in 1993 he was writing one a month. [2] Such a rate of production provides a steady income, but it is not conducive to good writing. It is not surprising to find the series padded by sequels (Monster Blood I, II, and III) and variations on themes from old movies. [3] There is even a replay of a scene from the film, The Exorcist, when Mr. Wood, a demonic ventriloquist's dummy, spews a putrid green, liquid “...like pea soup... up out of (his) open mouth like water rushing from a fire hose” . [4]

QUALITY OF WRITING

Doubts about the quality of Stine's writing are confirmed by the appearance of identical expressions in one book after another, sometimes within the same book. “I opened my mouth to scream — but no sound came out,” [5] is only occasionally varied by formulations like, “I opened my mouth to cry out — but my voice choked in my throat,” [6] or, “He opened his mouth to scream. But the scream was trapped inside him as the heavy green gunk splatted over his face.” [7]

Time and again characters’ voices “trail off” .[8] In The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb the narrator describes how his sneakers “thudded loudly over the sandy floor”, [9] and later, refreshed by new adjectives, how they “thudded loudly over the shiny marble floor.” [10] Perhaps the Egyptian taxi driver who “tossed back his head, opened his mouth, and started to laugh” [11] found work in a later book as the counsellor at Camp Nightmare, who, presumably without opening his mouth, “tossed back his head and started to laugh”. [12]

This summary suffices to establish Goosebumps as junk food on structural and stylistic grounds, and a “you want it-you buy it” approach by parents. As junk food, the risk it presents varies with the age, knowledge and moral maturity of the reader, and is especially impacted by his reading habits. A bit of junk food now and then is of little concern if the child's literary diet is otherwise healthy. Too much junk food, however, is harmful, if for no other reason than it dulls the appetite for nourishing food. In this respect, it is important to note that each Goosebumps book is intended to lead the reader to others, and that Goosebumps is an introduction to other series by the same author, notably Fear Street. (Goosebumps is to Fear Street what a garter snake is to a cobra).

However, bad writing alone does not justify the imposition of a parental ban. The better way to deal with bad writing is to give the child well written books, or to read good literature aloud. The critical issue is whether or not Goosebumps encourages the malformation of a child's character. If, from a literary viewpoint, Goosebumps is a waste of trees, is it reasonable, from a moral perspective, to consider it toxic waste? This can only be addressed by going beyond structure and the technical aspects of writing.

SPITEFULNESS, HATRED, JEALOUSY, AND ANGER

The principal sub-plot in the series is adolescent conflict in which the first person narrator is the protagonist. Siblings, cousins or classmates are the main enemies. Conflicts range from the shallow slapstick (Evan vs. Conan the Barbarian [13]) to the cruel and bitter (Kris vs. Lindy [14], Judith and Anna vs. Samantha [15]).

Characters readily admit to teasing and name-calling. One, aware of his father's sensitivity, tries to tease him about his weight as often as he can. [16] Another laughs as his brother runs away screaming, a wormy corncob down his back. [17] Others excuse themselves by blaming the victim and claiming some kind of mindless compulsion. “Eddie is such a wimp” , explains Sue. “Sometimes I can't help myself. I have to give him a hard time.” [18] Later, having frightened and stuck out her tongue at him, she excuses herself with the comment, “My brother doesn't always bring out the best in me.” [19]

NERDS AND “A” STUDENTS

Goosebumps hardly encourages children to value intelligence or talent or to develop their athletic or academic abilities. On the contrary: the pursuit of excellence is more likely to become an excuse for jealousy and suspicion. Intelligence, industry and personal gifts or talents are always associated with unlikeable characters, ‘the enemy’ . Stine parodies the precocious science whiz in the character of Kermit, despised by his cousin as “such a nerd” [20] with a twisted, bucktooth grin. [21] Sari, described as stuck-up, a braggart and showoff, loves to make fun of Gabe and get him into trouble. “Of course she gets straight A's. And she's a champion skier and tennis player.” [22]

Courtney, the girl who always wants to be first in line, the show-off, the girl who likes to play mean tricks, is seen working with her friend in their notebooks. “They both had to be perfect students in every way,” complains Eddie. [23]

EVIL OVERWHELMS EVIL

Fear is the main emotion described in Goosebumps, but Stine is actually much more effective in describing jealousy, hatred, humiliation, and self-loathing, the emotions driving the main characters. Judith and Anna delight in tormenting Samantha, tripping her, calling her names, snickering and smirking. “And I had to stand there and take it. Good old Samantha, the class klutz. The class idiot.” [24]

Of course, this inspires anger and hatred [25] and a burning desire to get back at the enemy. [26] “If I had three wishes...I know what they would be: Destroy Judith! Destroy Judith! Destroy Judith!” [27]

Such attitudes and emotions are never truly overcome in Goosebumps, nor is it ever suggested that they ought to be. Instead, they are overwhelmed by a greater threat or fear. The children would still like to scare Courtney, but encountering the mud monsters has made them too frightened to try. [28] Bickering characters forget their differences when they are pursued by the Lord High Executioner [29] or frightened by possessed dummies. [30] The bonding of inmates at Camp Nightmare precludes the nasty skirmishing found in other books; their comradeship is explained by the common menace they face from the camp. [31] In Goosebumps, good does not overcome evil; a greater evil overcomes evil. This is not a lesson conducive to the formation of a virtuous character. The fact that this kind of baleful influence is also felt from other media and cultural sources does not make the series more attractive.

PRELIMINARIES TO JUDGEMENT

It must first be said that the series cannot be condemned simply because the stories involve ghosts, magic, violence or frightening or shocking subject matter. Such things are found not only in many folk and fairy tales, legends and classical myths, but in sacred scripture. C.S. Lewis defends this aspect of fairy tales against reformers who would conceal from a child the truth “that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil.” [32]

It is also important to distinguish between fact and truth. Even pure fiction uses or at least assumes a certain number of facts. Goosebumps takes for granted the effects of gravity and the wetness of water, and Stine occasionally introduces factual historical details when it suits his purpose. [33]Any work of fiction may be described as truthful in part, though in this respect it is more helpful to use the word ‘accurate’ .

On the other hand, many completely fictitious stories are highly moral because, though the details are invented and even fanciful, the author tells the whole truth about man. “Truth” denotes reality; it is what really exists. In addition to material reality (village, villager) and abstract reality (justice, ‘the poor’ ), Catholicism recognizes a third: the supernatural. Man's participation in supernatural life, his relationship with God, and the existence of good and evil are aspects of the whole truth about man. In particular, man is created in the image of the God Who is love. [34] The Holy Trinity is a “communion of persons” , a relationship more intimate than a community. We are meant to act as He does, to imitate in our lives the life of the Blessed Trinity. [35]

“Since we are made in God's likeness, we are made to love as he did and does... Only when we mirror the love of the Trinity in our love do we fulfil ourselves as God created us. Only then is life meaningful.” [36]

To love is thus man's fundamental vocation. [37] “Man cannot live without love,” writes the Holy Father. “He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it.” [38]

THE DIVINE PRESENCE IN LITERATURE

A book is good to the degree that it is faithful to the whole truth about man, even if, in the nature of things, it can deal only with aspects of it. Great literature sings “of the harmony of the world, of the beauty and ugliness of the human contribution to it.” [39]

“. . . look into it and you will see — not yourself- but for one second, the Inaccessible, whither no man can ride, no man can fly. And only the soul gives a groan...those works of art which have scooped up the truth and presented it to us as a living force — they take hold of us, compel us, and nobody ever, not even in ages to come, will appear to refute them.” [40]

Great literature affirms the image of God in man and the presence and goodness of God in creation, even when God is not mentioned. And it is no more necessary to express the Divine Presence by pleasant subjects and happy endings than it is to portray daylight by painting the sun as a yellow disc at the top of a picture.

Indeed: as the presence of the sun in a painting is best suggested by both light and shadow, the splendour of truth shines forth more clearly in a book that faithfully reflects both “the beauty and ugliness” of the human condition. Great literature accurately portrays greed, hatred, anger, lust and other vices, with all their implications. [41] In this way it can “penetrate and illumine the deepest recesses of the human spirit” and reveal man more completely to himself. [42] Thus, the word made print imitates the Word made flesh “who fully discloses man to himself and unfolds his noble calling. . . .” [43]

If an author lacks the understanding, the skill or even the desire to convey the whole truth about man, he is entitled to be merely entertaining, thus lightening “the burden of daily problems” . [44] He is entitled to write badly, to write nonsense, to be boring, to be ordinary. He has a right to remain silent. But he has no right to lead others astray by disfiguring the truth about man or by destroying their capacity to receive or to enjoy it. He need not write well, but he has at least an obligation to do no harm.

PRACTICAL AETHEISM IN LITERATURE

Some books are written as if God does not exist, or (more often) as if His laws are of no importance. The most obvious examples of this are pornographic or violent materials, which tell the biggest and most direct lies about the nature of man and his relationship with God and his neighbour. But many publications and productions communicate the same kind of falsehoods more effectively, because the falsehoods are disguised or made to seem as if they are ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ , or even enjoyable or desirable. A person immersed in this kind of material easily loses his bearings — his sense of reality.

GOOSEBUMPS: LIFE ON THE EDGE

Stine subjects the reader to a constant barrage of jealousy, spitefulness, anger, hatred and vengefulness, relying primarily upon such nasty aspects of human behaviour to bring his characters to life and delineate their relationships. But he is ‘non-judgemental’ in portraying such visceral passions, so his stories are unredeemed by any sense of wrongness. In effect, what Stine's characters propose to the reader is the normality of vice and the irrelevance of virtue.

Obviously, then, the moral outlook encouraged by Goosebumps is seriously at odds with the traditional notion that children should be led to “feel pleasure and pain at proper objects”, [45] and to develop the firm and stable habit of choosing good and avoiding evil. The series also militates against the development of a child's vocation to love, and is, for that reason, opposed to the child's essential nature. There are, however, less obvious issues.

In Goosebumps, the reader's principal experience of good is surviving the menace of the moment. Now, this kind of experience — the thrill — is short-lived. Stine must therefore jolt the reader with one thrill after another in order to keep his interest, thus developing a dependency on this kind of stimulation. Experience in other media suggests that, as the reader becomes accustomed to the ‘rush’ obtained from Goosebumps, he will seek more thrilling material to achieve the same effect. This is like a progression from soft core to hard core pornography, and from ‘softer’ to ‘harder’ drugs. Certainly, the books are marketed in a way that appears to anticipate progressive dependency.

At the same time, the pleasure of the thrill is qualitatively different from the subtler kinds of pleasures available in ordinary, day-to-day life. The risk, then, is that in encouraging progressive dependency on the thrill of survival, Goosebumps not only prevents the development a taste for good literature, but dulls the taste for the pleasures of simple existence. For the thrill seeker, not only Black Beauty is bo-ring; so is summer vacation.

Finally, since the good of survival is one that can be enjoyed only at the brink of destruction, the evil of annihilation or injury becomes the necessary precondition for the reader's experience of good. “If you aren't living on the edge,” so the slogan goes, “you aren't living.”

Yet the first and abiding good is not the good of survival, but the good of existence, the good of being. Man is made in the image of absolute being. God expressed His absolute and unimaginable fullness of being when He said to Moses, “I AM WHO AM” (Exodus 3:14).

Evil, far from being a precondition for good, is merely parasitic. It cannot exist at all except as “the nothingness or privation” that mars a pre-existing good. [46] Yet, in Goosebumps, human character and relationships are animated by privation (petty vice), and the experience of good depends upon the nothingness of annihilation. This is a world consistent with what Donald De Marco terms the Moral Theology of the Devil:” The Devil wants to get us to act as though the nothingness he holds out for us is infinitely more enchanting and satisfying than the incarnate reality that God has created.” [47]

GOOSEBUMPS: JUNK FOOD OR POISON

In questions of morality and the formation of character one cannot rely only upon a weighing of foreseeable consequences to determine the morality of a choice. They may lessen the gravity of evil, but cannot make an evil choice good. Moreover, it is impossible to foresee and evaluate all the good and evil consequences of a moral choice. [48] Similarly, the suitability of Goosebumps cannot be decided purely on the basis of foreseeable consequences. Rather than waiting for evil consequences to become apparent (when it may be too late for effective countermeasures), it is best to adopt the premise that what is contrary to the nature of man is contrary to his good. One avoids or minimizes exposure to such things, even if harmful consequences cannot be immediately observed or measured with certainty.

JUDGING A BOOK BY ITS COVER

On the balance, then, there are several reasons to support a parental ban of Goosebumps, though few of them will be appreciated by their children. The centrality of vice and neutralization of virtue in the series are not conducive to the formation of a virtuous character. The light of love cannot be seen; even the shadows of love are absent. The books foster a progressive dependency on the thrill of survival, even as they diminish the capacity to enjoy the simple goods of life. Ultimately, the nothingness of evil is made more substantial than the goodness of the God Who Is.

Judging by the covers, this conclusion can be extended to other books by R.L. Stine, notably the Fear Street series. Parents are entitled to judge Stine's books by their covers because that is exactly what both Stine and his publishers want them to do. The covers are a marketing device designed to attract children with the promise of a certain kind of story, similar to all of the other stories in the series. If the publisher relies on the covers to convince people to buy the books, parents may rely on the covers to boycott them.

A boycott is not censorship. Stine can write Goosebumps and similar books, and Scholastic Inc. can market them. Both can pursue their own financial self-interest. Parents, on the other hand, are free to use their money and their influence for the good of their children. They do not owe Stine a living, and they do not owe Scholastic their patronage.

ENDNOTES

  1. Stine, R.L., Goosebumps Series. New York: Scholastic Inc. Back to text
    #5- The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb, 1993
    #6- Let's Get Invisible, 1993
    #7- Night of the Living Dummy, 1993
    #8- The Girl Who Cried Monster, 1993
    #9- Welcome to Camp Nightmare, 1993
    #10- The Ghost Next Door, 1993
    #11- The Haunted Mask, 1993
    #12- Be Careful What You Wish For, 1993
    #13- Piano Lessons Can be Murder, 1993
    #14- The Werewolf of Fever Swamp, 1993
    #15- You Can't Scare Me, 1994
    #16- One Day at Horrorland, 1994
    #17- Why I'm Afraid of Bees, 1994
    #18- Monster Blood II, 1994
    #19- Deep Trouble, 1994
    #20- The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight, 1994
    #21- Go Eat Worms, 1994<
    #23- Return of the Mummy, 1994
    #24- Phantom of the Auditorium, 1994
    #27- A Night in Terror Tower, 1995
    #29- Monster Blood III, 1995
  2. #9, “About the Author” Back to text
  3. #5, #23 Back to text
  4. #7, P. 93 Back to text
  5. #5, P.17, 81; #15, P.7; # 20, P.43; # 23, P.100 Back to text
  6. #23, P.16 Back to text
  7. #29, P.3 Back to text
  8. #23, P.70; #9, P.27, 86; #20, P.108 Back to text
  9. #5, P.39 Back to text
  10. #5, P. 53 Back to text
  11. #5, P. 68 Back to text
  12. #9, P. 32 Back to text
  13. #29, P.8 Back to text
  14. #7, P.32 Back to text
  15. #12, P.2-4 Back to text
  16. #5, P.3 Back to text
  17. #20, P.20 Back to text
  18. #27, P.15, 23 Back to text
  19. #27, P.16 Back to text
  20. #29, P.5 Back to text
  21. #29, P.24 Back to text
  22. #23, P.10, 11, 46 Back to text
  23. #15, P.20 Back to text
  24. #12, P.4 Back to text
  25. #5, P.44; #12, P.4 Back to text
  26. #5, P.44; #7, P.78; #12, P.120; #15, P. 18; #23, P.75 Back to text
  27. #12, P.12 Back to text
  28. #15, P.120 Back to text
  29. #27 Back to text
  30. #7 Back to text
  31. #9 Back to text
  32. Lewis, C.S., On Three Ways of Writing for Children, in Of OtherWorlds: Essays & Stories, Walter Hooper Ed., New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975, P 31-32 Back to text
  33. Such as the more gruesome details about the Egyptian mummification process. #5- P.55-56 Back to text
  34. Vatican Council II (1966) Gaudium et Spes, 12,14
    Catechism of the Catholic Church, 355, 362-365 Back to text
  35. The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality: Guidelines for Education Within the Family. Pontifical Council for the Family (1995), 28
    Back to text
  36. Hogan, Richard M., and LeVoir, John M., Covenant of Love: Pope John Paul II on Sexuality, Marriage and Family in the Modern World.(2nd Ed.) San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992. P. 73 Back to text
  37. John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio (1981), 11
    Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2331
    The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality: Guidelines for Education Within the Family. Pontifical Council for the Family (1995), 8 Back to text
  38. John Paul II (1979) Redemptor Hominis, 10 Back to text
  39. Solzhenitsyn, Alexander, Nobel Lecture in Literature, 1970. In Labedz, Leopold, Solzhenitsyn: A Documentary Record. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1972, P. 306 Back to text
  40. Ibid, P. 307 Back to text
  41. Pontifical Council for the Instruments of Social Communication (1971) Communio et Progressio, 17 Back to text
  42. Pontifical Council for the Instruments of Social Communication (1971) Communio et Progressio, 55 Back to text
  43. Vatican Council II (1965) Gaudium et Spes, 22. John Paul II (1993) Veritatis Splendor, 2 Back to text
  44. Pontifical Council for the Instruments of Social Communication (1971) Communio et Progressio, 52 Back to text
  45. Aristotle, Ethics, II.III.2, II.III.8 Back to text
  46. De Marco, Donald, The Incarnation in a Divided World. Front Royal, Virginia: Christendom Press, 1988, P. 70 Back to text
  47. Ibid Back to text
  48. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor (1993), 77
    Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1754 Back to text

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Murphy, Sean. “Judging a Book by its Cover: Goosebumps.” Unpublished ariticle.

THE AUTHOR

Sean Murphy is the administrator of the Protection of Conscience Project. He sits on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.


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