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The Goosebumps Generation
On the phenomenon of Nineties Children's Horror.
A happy Easter to all of my Catholic and Protestant friends (and a solemn Great Friday to our Orthodox brothers). So far, the Davises have spent all of Holy Week and the Octave of Easter fighting off a record-breaking cold. Please pray for us.
On Monday, while the girls all napped, I had a strange urge to rewatch Goosebumps, the “children’s anthology horror television series based on R. L. Stine’s best-selling book series of the same name.” The show premiered in 1995, when I was two years old. It remained on the air until 2001, when I was eight.
Apparently, the “children’s anthology horror” was a staple in the Nineties. I’ve also been rewatching Are You Afraid of the Dark?, which premiered in 1992, and which I liked even more than Goosebumps.
And this is only the beginning of a wider movement I’m calling Nineties Children’s Horror, or NCH. From television (Courage the Cowardly Dog) to books (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) to video games (Nightmare Ned), NCH flourished in every medium. And I gobbled it up. All of it.
Now, for as long as I can remember, I’ve had these vague fears gnawing at the back of my mind. It’s a sort of metaphysical dread. Existence is incomprehensible; at the same time, the cosmos is basically hostile. There are powerful forces at work all around us. Those forces mean to do us harm—and, in the end, they’ll have their way. Eternal misery, of one sort or another, is probably the lot of all mankind.
There’s absolutely no reason why I should think any of this. My childhood was idyllically happy, and I grew up firmly rooted in a conservative Protestant milieu. In fact, it has proven the number-one obstacle to my Christian faith. I’ve experienced God’s grace in my life; I’m blessed to find arguments for Christianity overwhelmingly convincing. Yet I’ve never been able to shake this metaphysical dread.
It wasn’t until this week, when I began to reacquaint myself with Nineties Children’s Horror, did I start wondering if, maybe—just maybe—all that NCH gave me a warped view of reality.
For instance, my favorite episode of Goosebumps is called “One Day in Horroland”. It begins with a middle-class family driving along the road when, suddenly, their station wagon is attacked by a fire-demon. The demon is pointing them in the direction of a theme park called Horrorland. Immediately forgetting the demon, they all decide that this Horrorland sounds like a great place to spend their family vacation. So, they all high-five and head off down the road… to Horrorland.
Obviously, forgetting the demon is a pretty big plot-hole. As the episode goes on, another one opens up: you can’t help wondering, “If these monsters are so powerful, why are they hiding in a theme park? Why not… you know, take over?” But if this horror is working on you at a subconscious level, you might come away with the assumption that we’re always just one wrong turn away from encountering some unspeakable, earth-shattering evil.
Is it possible that other Millennials are fighting the same inclinations? Could this explain—at least in part—why so few of my generation are willing to embrace Christianity? Is it just too optimistic?
Really, you might go so far as to say that Nineties Children’s Horror is just Christianity, except with only the Bad Guys. Take the Christian cosmology; now subtract the Trinity, the angels, the saints, etc. What are you left with? Demons: powerful—though by no means omnipotent—creatures who apparently exist only to antagonize humanity.
Again, looking back on my own life, I’m not surprised that I got caught up in the occult when I was in my early teens. Just imagine you’ve internalized this idea that the universe is infested with these powerful, malevolent entities. What can you do but suck up to them—scratch their back, hoping they’ll scratch yours? Anyway, what have you got to lose?
When I was a young journalist, I had a particular loathing for the kinds of conservatives who wrote articles for publications like The Imaginative Conservative, the gist of which seemed to be: “If only we all read more Tolkien, none of this would be a problem.” Yet the older I get, the more I agree with them.
Really, what we’ve been talking about throughout this article is the imagination. It’s how art (broadly speaking) informs, not only your “worldview,” but your expectations about reality. What are your basic assumptions about how the universe works?
In the old days, fear played a huge part in shaping our imagination. We were told stories about the monsters which lurked in the deep woods: places that stood outside the boundaries of civilization. Today, fear still plays a pretty big part in shaping our imagination. But the tales I was raised on—the Nineties Children’s Horror—told us to fear everything, because monsters lurked everywhere.
Those lessons stay with you… for better or worse.
Anyway. As I said, I’m now firmly in The Imaginative Conservative’s camp. We’re fighting a war, not just for hearts and minds, but for imaginations. And it can’t be only academics and schoolteachers who are fighting this fight.
Every parent, every grandparent, every aunt and uncle has a duty to ensure that the children in their families are being formed by good books. Young people deserve to know the truth: There is order in the universe. The world is full of good and true and beautiful things. Yes, there are evil beings at work in the cosmos—creatures more powerful and more sinister than the human mind can fathom. But, in the end, Light will triumph over darkness. It always has; it always will.
Speaking of Tolkien, I’ll never forget the experience of reading Lord of the Rings for the first time. I was twenty-six years old, and I hid in my bedroom for a week devouring the whole trilogy. I could feel my imagination healing itself.
That probably sounds like a cliche, if you’ve never had that experience yourself. But if you have, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s like having your innocense restored. You know what it means to hope—not to wish for the good, but to expect the good. “All shall be well,” you sigh, “and all manner of things shall be well.”