George Romero's Goosebumps

George Romero's Goosebumps script.

In 1992, R.L. Stine debuted Welcome to Dead House, the first Goosebumps book. It was creepy, it was spooky, and it was MASSIVELY popular, introducing countless young readers to the horror genre and spawning a series that would sell hundreds of millions of copies around the world. For a stretch in the 1990s, Stine was the best-selling writer in America, aided in no small part by his incredible productivity, publishing dozens of books in that span. TV quickly pounced on it, with an ongoing series premiering in 1995. But it was until 2015 that it hit the big screen. In the wake of the Goosebumps' initial sucess, George Romero was one of the filmmakers who explored the possibility of a feature film adaptation. That effort seemed to have eventually started moving forward with Tim Burton, but, according to Stine, the project was delayed by Burton's aborted Superman project and eventually abandoned. The exact timeline of the production and Romero's place within it is unclear, but Fox at one point placed a Goosebumps movie on their tentative release schedule for Halloween 1996.  (It seems unlikely that Burton's film would have used anything substantial from Romero's script. It would not have been uncommon for the studio to commission multiple scripts over the course of a few years, as Universal did with The Mummy, for which scripts were written and/or revised by Romero, John Sayles, Mick Garris, and Alan Ormsby, among others, resulting in a complicated arbitration process to determine the credited writers for the 1999 film.) The eventual Goosebumps film, written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, takes a meta-approach, with Jack Black playing "R.L. Stine" in a town plagued by a host of monsters from his books. Romero's script was a far more straightforward adaptation of Welcome to Dead House, albeit one with a very distinct take on the story. 

The Stine book is set in a town called Dark Falls whose inhabitants are, secretly, the living dead. When the Benson family moves in, young Josh and Amanda discover that a flashlight beam is sufficient to crumble the town’s residents into dust. Every year, the town must feed on the blood of a new family to sustain their undead existence. Romero retains the basic scenario and all of the major character names but tweaks the story in revealing ways. In the Stine book, the zombification comes, a la Return of the Living Dead, because of a mysterious gas that escapes from a local factory. Romero makes the capitalistic origins more emphatic: the town patriarch, the wealthy Foster Devries, has in death possessed the town. The state of living death experienced by the residents stemmed from a supernatural power that Devries has now shared with/imposed on the town.

There were a handful of horror scenarios that Romero returned to repeatedly over the years but which never made their way into a finished film: bigfeet, golems, Frankenstein's monsters, etc. His version of Goosebumps picks up an idea that he had developed for years in a project called Apartment Living that came very close to production in the late 1980s, and which he would return to again: a house that is alive, and which feeds off of its inhabitants. Here, it's more accurate to say the house is undead, as it is possessed by Devries’ spirit. Devries/the house feeds off its inhabitants, sucking out their energy until they die, after which they are revived to join the rest of the undead in the town. The energy harvested from the inhabitants sustains the residents for another year. And escaping the town means defeating De Vries and his toadies, his loyal former employees who still do his bidding in exchange for this new form of wages. As town leader Compton Dawes tells Josh:

Those who give life to the house… give life to Foster Devries. Somehow… he continues to exist… within the very walls of the home he cherished. And, being a man who honors his obligations… he pays those who have served him… by giving them… immortality.

To which Josh responds, “By turning them into walking corpses… like you!"

Romero re-imagines Dark Falls as the ultimate company town, in which the townspeople are wholly reliant on their boss for their continued undead existence, but the scope of their new “eternal lives” are highly circumscribed, limited entirely to what Devries allows. That means remaining within the city limits and feeding him a new family every year. Unlike in the Stine version, the threat here is not that the inhabitants will simply kill them and drain their blood, but that they will be forced to join the town and “live” according to the requirements of the town. That means a loss of independence, no possibility for self-determination. There is a growing rift in the town, the children increasingly resentful of their parents but still, reluctantly, obedient. The disagreement is articulated in terms of the “future.” Dawes tries to lure Josh into joining them willingly by promising him a “bright future.” But after Josh has vanquished Devries and Dawes, Dawes’ daughter Karen appears along with the other undead children to apologize to him. “We saw you as… a threat to us…” she says, “because… that’s the way… our parents saw you. We shouldn’t have believed them.” Josh sees that they have begun to fade away and gets emotional, yelling “WHAT’S HAPPENING? WHERE ARE YOU GOING?” to which Karen responds:

Into the future. We just wanted to thank you, Joshua. For giving us that future. For giving us back… our lives. We’ll never forget you. Never.

The “future” that Josh has granted them seems to be, simply, death. Or, at least, freedom from the living death that has trapped them in their bland, limited existence in Dark Falls. The divide about the “future” between generations is one that seems to hinge on the question of what sort of existence is worthwhile. Dawes has embraced a future in which, as long as the town continues to follow the rules laid down by his boss, and as long as they find another family to victimize, they can continue living in their uncanny stasis. Romero’s nightmarish scenario here involves not being killed and eaten but, rather, essentially having an awful, soul-killing job. Living in Dark Falls means living a fundamentally compromised and circumscribed existence, one that forces you to contribute to the predatory, parasitic system by finding further victims. The freedom to die and enter whatever this film’s version of the afterlife is freedom from being stuck working for their boss. 

Romero liked to talk about his Dead movies as taking stock of and analyzing America every decade or so. This wasn't a sequel to Night, Dawn, and Day, but it was a zombie movie. And in this return to zombies, Romero a truly hellish nightmare: being stuck in an awful job with an overbearing boss for all eternity. In its way, the script seems just as incisive and insightful about 1990s America as its sorta predecessors did about their time, capturing something visceral about the growing demands on workers made by employers and the dangerous precarity lying just underneath the surface of all that apparent prosperity.