Words || Angela Heathcote
For years of my childhood I couldn’t sleep with an empty chair in my room. I was so scared that I’d wake up in the middle of the night and see Slappy from the Goosebumps series staring at me that I’d either remove the furniture or pile it with clothing. The book covers for Night of the Living Dummy walked a fine line between creepy yet age appropriate, although my parents – whose bed I’d crawl into on various nights of the week – would argue otherwise. The fear of ventriloquist dolls has followed me into adulthood, and while it no longer keeps me up at night, if anyone was to ask me what my biggest fear in life is, despite war, famine and crime, I’d still say ventriloquist dolls. Eventually I graduated to the likes of Chucky and that abusively scary movie Dead Silence, so now I can look back on characters like Slappy with childhood affection.
For this reason, like many of you I assume, I was apprehensive about the movie adaption of Goosebumps. I couldn’t imagine how they could possibly capture the books in a way that would communicate to a whole new generation of kids how good it really was to grow up in the era of Goosebumps. There was no possible way that the film could measure up to the cheesiness of the TV series with its musical formula of eerie synth, evil golden retriever barking, and DUN DUN DUN DUN DUN, as well as that one time R.L. Stine did the opening segment for The Haunted Mask, and was as creepy as you imagined him to be. But even the most die-hard Goosebumps fan shouldn’t let nostalgia cloud their judgment. The film was a great homage to each and every Goosebumps character, which at first seemed like an impossible task.
Since then, I’ve made an effort to re-read the books and by the almighty hand of Netflix, I’ve even managed to re-watch episodes from the original TV series. While the soft-core horror of the plotlines ceases to freak me out as much as it used to, the covers of the Goosebumps series have had long-term ramifications.
I decided to contact Tim Jacobus, the illustrator behind the original covers. The encounter was much like one of those ‘facing your fears’ moments that are so typical of a Goosebumps finale. I called him late one Sunday night – Jacobus now lives in New York and in order for us to conduct our interview at an appropriate time, we take advantage of his early rising and my aptitude for late nights.
At first it’s dark and painfully quiet in the 2SER studio where I’m recording the interview. This isn’t the most ridiculous time I’ve interviewed someone either – the earliest ever being at 4 am Sydney time, 10 am LA time. I’d usually down two coffees and make the greatest attempts to sound lively and engaged, but Jacobus mentions it right off the bat.
Like a concerned father, he asks: ‘Did you have to come into school today? Because you wouldn’t be at school on a Sunday, right?’ I’m immediately at ease with his casual demeanour and courtesy, which is totally contradictory to what I’d conjured up in my head over the previous week. My imagination had led to me to believe that I’d be interviewing a man with a dark phone presence who would seek to exacerbate my childhood fears of Slappy.
Rather, he assures me that the horror stuff came well after he first began drawing. ‘When I first started drawing it was very cartoon oriented. I had characters that I drew on a regular basis. The horror stuff really evolved later on. There was an availability of a lot of mystery books when I first started doing book covers … They always had a little eerie theme to them and I started to affirm it with the colours and try to get that darker theme but they really weren’t horror … I did maybe two horror things before Goosebumps but when Goosebumps came along it just clicked.’
The affirmation of colour is what Jacobus believes was the deciding factor between him and just another artist. Limes, violets and bubble-gum pinks and blues were totemic of the Goosebumps series, and in all honesty, probably half the reason most of us picked up the books in the first place. Not to mention, the use of these colours relaxed the publishers who, Jacobus says, were concerned that the books may just be too scary.
‘The thing that I saw in it was the humour that R.L. Stine puts in all his stuff. That really appealed to me so I tried to keep everything not only scary but try to make it a little bit funny. The thing that I was really experimenting with was the use of colour … my colours were way, way more vivid. When they saw I was using purples and blues and oranges that are not specifically horror colours, I think they liked that and they took the edge off of it.’
My eight-year-old self would say otherwise. I was curious as to how exactly Jacobus worked to blend scary and age appropriate.
‘Well there are things you just don’t do. You never saw anybody hurt, there was no blood – you saw blood but it was monsters’ blood and it was always green which is more of a goo than anything. You tried not to show anyone in horrible jeopardy… you know there were just a couple of minor rules. But you just don’t want to do anything horrific. Something that you might put on a Stephen King adult book is not what you put on an R.L. Stine book.’
This is despite the long time joke that Goosebumps is a ‘literary training bra’ for any Stephen King fan – a line which Stine himself has recited in countless interviews.
The horrific imaginings that made the Goosebumps covers what they were often materialised with merely a few sentences from the book. ‘I would get a fax and it would have maybe a page of material, sometimes only a paragraph, sometimes just a couple of lines. But it was always enough, what he wrote was always very vivid and as soon as I read it I knew … there was no question about what we were going to do.’
With this kind of freedom Jacobus was able to insert himself into his artwork in various ways, many of which took me by surprise. Remember how every now and again a pair of Converse sneakers would appear on the cover? Think Say Cheese and Die or The Haunted Mask II. Well, a very long time ago Jacobus’ mum gave him a little speech about how some day he was going to have to get a job and start wearing proper shoes rather than Converse. In defiance, Jacobus assures me that he’s wearing a pair as we speak.
‘Every time a book came out I would buy a copy for my mum and she would look at them and say ‘Oh it’s a great new cover’ and every time she would see the sneakers she would roll her eyes and say, “And there’s those stinking old sneakers,” so the real reason those sneakers are on all those books covers it’s because it bugs my mum.’
And what better way to stick it to your parents than by immortalising your smelly shoes?
When I quiz Jacobus on his favourite cover he finds it hard to pick one. He dips in and out of various themes and what exactly he liked about them, emphasising that it fluctuates and usually has something to do with a time or a place. As he drifts off, I prepare to ask my next question, but he cuts through.
‘The whole Slappy series were fun. I can’t remember which number off the top of my head, I think it was Night of the Living Dummy III where there’s a whole group of dummies in the attic and they all had different faces and different personalities. That was fun.’
It’s funny that he mentions Night of the Living Dummy, because those three books are the onesthat scared the shit out of me as a kid. They were the stuff of my childhood nightmares, and while I love those books now, it took me a while to come to terms with them. When I tell Jacobus this, he laughs, almost maniacally, and I’m satisfied that I was given the chance to open up to the man behind the cover.
So does Jacobus get sick of weird 20-something-year-olds, calling him up and annoying him about Goosebumps on a regular basis?
Absolutely not. Considering that kids who grew up, or were born in the nineties are addicted to reliving their childhoods, Jacobus is happy to oblige.
‘The thing that I find astounding is when Goosebumps was out kids would write me letters, and I’d write them back and they’d say which one was their favourite cover. They were around 12 years old. But then time goes on and I’m still getting letters from the same kids, except they’re no longer 12 years old, they’re 30, and they still remember specific books, specific covers and want to talk about it, and it’s still something I appreciate all these years later.’