Goosebumps: the secrets of a scarily successful literary phenomenon

Goosebumps: the secrets of a scarily successful literary phenomenon

Massimiliano Santolin Published on 10/21/2019

People love horror.

There are countless examples of books, films and TV series that prove how much we enjoy seeking anything from a small thrill to genuine terror. The recent successes of Hill House on Netflix and IT at the cinema are a reminder that scary entertainment is back in a big way, with a long tradition to draw on.

However, today we’re not going to discuss giants of the genre like H.P. Lovecraft or Stephen King. Instead we want to look back at a true literary institution that frightened and entertained entire generations of young readers. So set the time machine dial for 1992, slip on a pair of comfy All Stars and dive into the nostalgic (and fluorescent green) world of Goosebumps!

A horror series for early readers

The Goosebumps series of books filled up the bedrooms of children all over the world, and it is still today recognised as one of the biggest children’s literary success stories of all time – the 400 million+ copies sold speak for themselves! The books starred young teenagers, who went on adventures where they took on evil masks, talking dummies, mad scientists, living scarecrows… the list goes on. The astronomical sales figures even took Goosebumps into the 2003 Guinness Book of Records as the best-selling series of children’s books ever.


However, the author R.L. Stine, who was entrusted with the project, initially had his doubts about the success of the operation. At the time, during the early 1990s, Stine was already writing children’s books with a dark side – the Fear Street series – but this new project involved laying the groundwork for a series of books in the horror genre for the youngest of readers, an innovative and unprecedented gamble. Nevertheless, the author took on the challenge with enthusiasm and dedication.

“Controlled” scares: combining horror and humour

But why was this series so popular among young readers? One factor was undoubtedly the expert blend of the horror genre with humour. The stories are short and simple, packed with plot twists and set in situations that oscillate between fear and comedy. The stars of the tales have adventures that stray outside the realms of reality, catapulting them into grotesque and hair-raising situations, but without ever putting them in real danger.

R. L. Stine’s signature – Source:

This state of “controlled fright”, with a reassuring happy ending guaranteed, clearly satisfied the demands of young readers. It got them used to reading with bated breath, but without ever having to explore the darker and more tragic horror seen in the adult form of the genre. The stories were addictive: having read the first, it was impossible to suppress the desire to explore the other tragicomic and scary adventures.

R.L. Stine and the Goosebumps craze

It’s hard to believe now, but the first few months after the publication of the first Goosebumps were a flop. The books remained on the shelves, and nobody bought them! Nowadays there would be a high risk of the plug being pulled on the whole operation, but the pace of life was less frenetic in the 1990s, and the books were given time. Luckily, after four months, Goosebumps was unexpectedly “discovered” by children, and a media storm began that massively drove up sales.

Indeed, it was not lavish promotion that saw Stine’s short novels achieve greatness, nor social media (which did not yet exist), but rather simple word of mouth between children, who discovered the books, adored them and devoured them. After a false start, Goosebumps books invaded America’s bookshops and spread all over the world, providing children with horror stories that were not too frightening.

The anatomy of a Goosebumps book

But what did the Goosebumps books look like?

It’s worth taking a closer look, particularly as the unique appearance of these books played a part in their resounding success.

The covers

The covers were very well thought through – colourful, with the title of the series in an embossed and translucent font, as if written in blood. The instant visual appeal of the books made them very difficult to resist.

Some covers of “Piccoli Brividi”. Books published by Mondadori in Italy. All rights reserved. Source:

The illustrations

The illustrations were also particularly inspired. Although they followed the plot of the book, they were designed to stimulate children’s imagination without revealing too many fundamental details. The equivalent of a trailer or teaser for an episode from a TV series.

All rights reserved. Source:

The titles

And the titles worked their magic too! Night of the Living Dummy, The Girl Who Cried Monster, Let’s Get Invisible, The Cuckoo Clock of Doom, Ghost Camp, Why I’m Afraid of Bees. These are just some of the highly effective titles; they identify the key theme of the plot and pique the reader’s interest, but retain an air of mystery that encourages you to delve inside.

Some covers of “Piccoli Brividi”. Books published by Mondadori in Italy. All rights reserved. Source:

The fluorescent stickers

But Goosebumps is also synonymous with fluorescent stickers! The final page of each book was packed with horror-themed fluorescent stickers, perfect for sticking onto exercise books, school diaries, rucksacks, furniture… you name it. The scary fluorescent stickers, stuck all over the place, helped to increase the series’ renown in an organic way; a highly effective piece of indirect marketing.

All rights reserved. Source: 

The scares…continue!

The series has undergone several makeovers during its 25-year-plus lifespan, but it is still in print worldwide. There are a huge number of titles: 62 in the Goosebumps collection, as well as various extra volumes and numerous spin-offs. The entire ecosystem of R.L. Stine publications tied to the brand easily exceeds 100 volumes.

This monster enterprise (in more ways than one!) has also made it onto the small and big screen, inspiring a TV series that aired from 1995 to 1998 and two successful films that came to cinemas in 2015 and 2018. It seems the author has never tired of giving goosebumps to young readers all over the world.

Now over to you! Halloween is fast approaching, the perfect time to draw inspiration from the characters in the series and design a few horrible masks, dust off a few of the original books and let yourself be carried away by memories and the endless appeal of a scary story!


All the rights of the images referring to the series of books “Goosebumps” included in the article belong to the legitimate owners, in the respective countries of publication.