Goosebumps: The Modern Fairy Tale
Once upon a time, fairy tales weren't really fairy tales - they were "magic tales," and were not necessarily told to children (Zipes, et al, 175). Their main purpose was to entertain, but they had a hidden agenda: they were "wish fulfillment for listeners, [reflecting] their desire to improve their lot, [compensate] for their misery, and [help to] preserve and celebrate rituals within their community" (Zipes, et al, 175). As the years passed and the fairy tales changed from oral to written entertainment, they began to be aimed at children. Morals and messages were inserted into the tales, often becoming the the main emphasis, forcing the entertainment into the background. The twentieth century was when the current fairy tales came to fruition. These tales were written for children, and meant to both entertain and teach, with the teaching often encoded so that while the children may enjoy them and understand them, they may never fully realize what they had learned. The motifs and themes in these stories are the same as in the original wonder tales, but the stories themselves have been updated and changed. The Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine is an example of fairy tales that have been co-opted to become more palatable to the modern world and modern children. R.L. Stine even admits to this, saying that his book Night of the Living Dummy was inspired by his reading of the original Italian version of Pinocchio (Goosebumps at AllExperts).
While some may consider the Goosebumps series a horror series, and therefore not part of the fairy tale realm, the Goosebumps books fit firmly into the fairy tale genre. The world they are set in is imaginary - maybe not as much as the original fairy tale worlds that people think of, but it is clear that the tales are not occurring in the common world we inhabit. In Why I'm Afraid of Bees, the main character is going to "swap bodies" with another boy, and instead is accidentally swapped with a bee. The story explains this magic as "science," but science without any scientific background. Further, when the boy finally manages to communicate with the "scientist" who made the switch, she simply tells him that she'll think about it and leaves him to fend for himself. Clearly, these actions and abilities don't belong to the common world of today. The happy endings that fairy tales also require are found in the three Goosebumps books selected at random for this paper. All the books end after the main character has solved the problem and righted the wrongs that occurred. While one of the three, Stay Out of the Basement, includes a line meant to be chilling and imply that everything is not right in the world yet, the reader is left with a sense that the heroine will be able to solve the problem again now that she has already triumphed.
Looking at the books one by one, it is possible to see the numerous fairy tale motifs that exist within the plots and characters.
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The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb
The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb involves a twelve year old boy, Gabriel, who is left in the care of his uncle, Ben, and his cousin, Sari, when his parents need to travel for business. The departure of the parents is a typical fairy tale motif - abandonment. Gabriel has been taken to Egypt to be part of his parents' trip, but when the chance for a sale comes up, they choose the business over their son and leave him with the uncle and cousin. His cousin, Sari, is an example of loathing at first sight (Feimer). Sari is a few months older than Gabriel, but she is self-confident and her father's confidant. Gabriel wants to be like her, but she is always able to humiliate him or help him in such as a way as to make him feel foolish. By the end of the story, however, they have come to understand each other and work together to solve the problem. Gabriel is the questing character in the story. While staying with his uncle, Ben, Gabriel encounters a dangerous situation that involves the pyramid Ben is excavating. Gabriel wants to solve the problem to prove his worth to his uncle. The quest ends after Gabriel first journeys to the underworld and uses a dues ex machina (Feimer). The journey to the underworld is both physical and metaphoric - while exploring the pyramid, Gabriel falls through the floor of a room and discovers himself in the room where mummies were made. It is while in this room that he encounters the villain - one of his uncle's helpers is attempting to carry out the curse of the mummy that they have disturbed, and the helper attempts to kill Gabriel and his uncle and cousin, who have come to find him and help him. Gabriel uses a mummy's hand that he purchased at a garage sale back in the United States - he isn't sure what it will do, but he was told it was "the Summoner," a spirit that would bring help or evil to its bearer. When he presents the Summoner to the evil helper, the helper believes it to be the hand of the desecrated mummy, and he flees. Gabriel is then the hero, having delivered both his cousin and uncle from danger and resolving the quest. The story's happy ending occurs when his parents come back home from their trip, something that could only occur after Gabriel had achieved his quest, according to the belief of fairy tales where it would be his reward for success.
Stay Out of the Basement
Stay Out of the Basement is another fairy tale, this one focused around the concept of the parent being replaced by a bad or evil look-like. Margaret is a twelve year old girl with a ten year old brother, Casey. Her father has recently been fired from his job and has since become extremely pre-occupied with working on his experiments involving plants in the basement. The father who once called her "Princess" and spent time with her has become withdrawn and does not seem to want to have any involvement with her or her brother. As is necessary in any fairy tale, the mother leaves, in this case, called away to help a sick relative, leaving the children with only the father, a father who doesn't seem to care for them. As the story progresses, the children are forced to take matters into their own hands, trying to investigate what is happening to the father they once loved. Their mother is unable to help them - she doesn't believe what they tell her or she is not available to them since she is at the hospital in another state. Just like the grandmother in Little Red Riding Hood being replaced by a wolf, the children discover that their father has been replaced by a plant that has taken over his form. Their real father is locked in the basement closet. Margaret takes matters into her own hands, rescuing the father from his confinement, but then becomes confused as to which is the real father and which is the plant, who resembles the father in all ways, but contains green fluid in the place of blood. In the final scene in the basement, Margaret is the only one able to tell which is her true father - he calls her Princess. She gives her real father the axe, and like the woodsman, he cuts down the fake father. The end of the story feels as if it cannot be real, but is instead occurring in a dream-state (Bettelheim, 57). The father receives his job back, Margaret is hailed as the hero, and everything is fixed. There is only one long-term effect - a flower in the garden attempts to talk to Margaret in the final sentence. This line, however, is not as much chilling as a reminder that Margaret will have more work before her to help fix the problems that her father has created with his experiments. The quest is not truly over.
Why I'm Afraid of Bees
The third and final book, Why I'm Afraid of Bees, is possibly the most fairy tale of the three. The main character, Gary Lutz (rhymes with Klutz, which describes the character perfectly), is an unhappy twelve year old boy who is afraid of the bees in his next door neighbor's beehive. Of course, Gary is actually afraid of everything - from his younger sister, Krissy, to her cat, Claus (which may have been used as a form of the word claws, as Claus likes to sink his claws into Gary's legs). The beginning of the tale sets up Gary in a typical fairy tale world - his neighbor makes fun of him, his sister makes fun of him, he has no friends, he is beaten up by bullies, and his parents, while present in physical form, are divorced from him on any other level, not even noticing when he is beaten up. Gary checks into a bulletin board on his computer for help with a computer game and finds a service offering him a chance to "Take a Vacation From Yourself" (21). The address for this service is given as "Roach Street," an amusing allusion to Kafka's Metamorphosis, and foreshadowing as to what will happen to Gary. Gary visits the service, located in office 2-B, a double meaning again, showing both Gary's choice "to be" someone else and his upcoming metamorphosis into a bee. He is greeted by Ms. Karmen (a name strikingly similar to "Karma"). He becomes afraid after talking to her, but when she calls a week later, he has decided to go through with the change. She acts as a fairy godmother, using her machines instead of a wand, and goes to his house while no one is home to "swap" him with another boy, but a bee gets into the machinery, and he is instead swapped with the bee. The other boy is inhabiting his body, however, and he is not able to let anyone know that he's trapped. He is forced to solve problems by himself, questing to regain the identity he was trying to avoid. He manages to talk to Ms. Karmen after solving the problem of speaking loudly enough to be heard, but she is unable and unwilling to help him, and the new owner of his body is happy where he is and unwilling to swap back. Gary finally fights his way back into his body, and once there, is happy with himself and more confident. While he still claims to be afraid of bees, he is no longer afraid of anything else, completing his quest by becoming comfortable both in his body and life.
In all three books, "evil is as omnipresent as virtue," one of the conditions that Bruce Bettelheim, author of The Uses of Enchantment, believes must be present in fairy tales (9). Further, none of the figures are ambivalent; another condition that Bettelheim claims must be true in fairy tales. Any major character in the story can be classified as good or evil. Each of the Goosebumps books examined shows that while the books do seem to fit into the horror genre at first glance, the genre is really just the shell that they chose to assume in order to present their message to their modern audience. Fairy tales have always changed over time in order to reach their audience, and Goosebumps is one of those changes. Regardless of the vehicle being used, the messages are still present, and the motifs of old are still used.
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.
Feimer, Joel N., Ph.D. "Common Literary Motifs Found in Fairy Tales." Online posting. 10 Sept. 2006. Introductions to Fairy Tales: ENGL515-YHA. <http://pipe.mercy.edu/cp/school/webctNull>
Goosebumps at AllExperts. 28 Oct. 2006. <http://experts.about.com/e/g/go/goosebumps.htm>
Stine, R.L. Goosebumps: Curse of the Mummy's Tomb. New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1993.
---. Goosebumps: Stay Out of the Basement. New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1992.
---. Goosebumps: Why I'm Afraid of Bees. New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1994.
Zipes, Jack, Lissa Paul, Lynne Vallone, Peter Hunt, and Gillian Avery, eds. The Norton Anthology of Children's Literature: The Traditions in English. New York: W.W. Norton, Inc., 2005.
© 2012 Katherine Sanger