21 Bone-Chilling Secrets About R.L. Stine

David Livingston, Getty Images
David Livingston, Getty Images

As told to Jen Doll. 

The bestselling author of the Goosebumps and Fear Street book series terrified you as a kid. Now, on the occasion of his birthday, he shares how he's made scary stories his life's work

1. ALL I EVER WANTED TO BE WAS A WRITER.

I started when I was 9. I’d be in my room writing little joke magazines, and I would bring them to school. I was a shy, fearful kid, and it was my way of getting attention. People always ask, “Did you have any teachers who encouraged you?” and the right answer is, “Yes, I did.” But I didn’t. They begged me to stop!

2. THESE DAYS, I READ THE PAPER AND GET TO WORK AT ABOUT 9:30 EVERY MORNING IN MY APARTMENT.

It’s the world’s best commute. I write 2000 words and usually finish by 2:30 p.m. I walk the dog, go to the gym, and take a nap. That’s it. It’s a full life.

3. The challenge is coming up with new ideas.
I’ve done every scary thing you can possibly do. I met Stephen King at the Edgar Awards and he said, “You’ve taken every single amusement park plot and haven’t left any for anyone else.”

4. I’m lucky.
When I need a new idea, I get one. But it’s mysterious to me. People say, “R.L. Stine has the formula.” I wish I knew the formula. I don’t think there is one.

5. About every Goosebumps book has to take place in some kid’s backyard, or the kitchen, or the basement.
It’s scarier for kids if it starts in their own house or neighborhood. Some writers make a mistake; they want to do something creepy, so they pick a huge dark castle in Europe, but kids don’t relate to that.

6. I don’t get scared.
I watched this horror movie, It Follows. It just made me laugh; they all do. I think horror is funny. That’s the combination kids like: books that are funny and scary at the same time, but not too scary.

7. I don’t read much horror.
A few Stephen King books are absolutely brilliant. I think Misery is the best book ever written about writers and editors. Pet Sematary, I’ve stolen that plot about six times. I had to—it’s just so good.

8. I’ve read every PG Wodehouse novel, he’s my hero really.
All of the Jeeves and Wooster books are just amazing. There’s one so brilliant you can’t believe it, so hilarious, called Right Ho Jeeves, it’s the best of them all. He made it look so easy you know. He was sort of the Shakespeare of comedy, Wodehouse.

9. One of my earliest influences were the EC Comic books.
I just loved those comics. They were beautifully drawn, but they had this great combination of being really disgusting, really horrifying and horrible, and they all had funny endings. That was very influential on me, that combination.

10. I try to find good horror movies.
The Shining is my all-time favorite. I like Evil Dead 2, it’s totally crazy, and Cabin in the Woods is probably the most recent horror film that I thought was really good. What makes a horror movie good is that it surprises you.

11. Planning a book is the only time I get stuck.
I can do a Goosebumps outline, which is 25 to 30 chapters, in three or four days. But if it’s not going well, it might take me two weeks. My editor is my wife, Jane, and I never get a book through without revising. It’s the main thing we fight about—plots.

12. In the early days, Jane and I collaborated on funny books for kids.
But we work so differently. I go in order, starting in the beginning, and Jane would write something in the middle, then write an ending, then go back. We fought about it, and she locked me in a closet and left the apartment. Then we decided not to collaborate.

13. After college, I went to New York and worked for a year on a soft drink magazine, and then I became assistant editor of Junior Scholastic.
It was 1968. I wrote history and geography articles and news stories, and then they gave me my own magazine, Search. It was a history-current affairs magazine for junior high kids, but written at a fifth-grade level. That’s how I learned about reading levels. I learned all the vocabulary lists for fourth and fifth grade, and that’s how I keep Goosebumps easy to read.

14. I did that for four years, and then we did Bananas, which was my life’s goal: my own humor magazine.
I was 30, I did it for 10 years, and I had the best time. When the magazine folded, I thought, “God, I’m never going to shave again, never get dressed.”

15. I was doing everything just to make a living.
I was writing Bazooka Joe comics and jokes for bubble gum. I did Rocky and Bullwinkle and Mighty Mouse coloring books. That was a great job because it’s one sentence per page. Then, I was having lunch with Jean Feiwel, the editorial director at Scholastic at the time. She’d just had a fight with a YA horror writer and said, “I’m never working with him again. You could write a good teen horror novel. How about it?” I hadn’t read any teen horror novels, but I didn’t say no to anything in those days. I ran to the bookstore and bought a bunch of horror books.

16. Fear Street sold like crazy: 80 million books.
Jane’s business partner at Parachute Press, Joan, said, “Let’s try to do middle-grade horror for 7- to 12-year- olds.” I refused. But she kept after me. I finally agreed that if I could think of a good name, I’d write a few books. Well, I was reading TV Guide, and there was an ad on the bottom of the page that said, “It’s Goosebumps Week on channel 11.” The name was just staring at me!

17. I think I made Halloween more popular.
Don’t laugh. Seriously, it wasn’t a big family thing. It wasn’t until after the Goosebumps show. I honestly think we made Halloween more of a big deal. Everyone was thinking about scary stuff and all of those kids who were 10 in the early 1990s, that entire generation, they were all reading scary books. Those were the days.

18. I don’t know if people’s fears over the years change at all.
Technology has done a lot to ruin horror. Cell phones. Computers aren’t scary. You can’t do a scary book about a hacker. I don’t know if there are new areas, because we all have the same old fashioned fears, like 500 years ago. The biggest fear is being someplace unknown, and being threatened in some way in a place you’ve never been before.

19. I’ve always said, “Yes,” to everything and it always worked out.
When I did my commencement speech at Ohio State, that was my one bit of advice: “Say yes to everything.” I just want to keep going.

20. I recently went back to writing Fear Street, and the new one [out September 29] is the best.
It’s called The Lost Girl. It has the most gruesome scene I’ve ever written. It’s disgusting. It involves horses eating a man. I should be ashamed, but I’m so proud of that scene.

21. I think I’m totally normal, don’t you?
Horror guys aren’t sick at all.

This interview, which has been condensed and edited, originally ran in 2015.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 Facts About Real Genius On Its 35th Anniversary

Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

In an era where nerd is a nickname given by and to people who have pretty much any passing interest in popular culture, it’s hard to imagine the way old-school nerds—people with serious and socially-debilitating obsessions—were once ostracized. Computers, progressive rock, and role-playing games (among a handful of other 1970s- early '80s developments) created a path from which far too many of the lonely, awkward, and conventionally undateable would never return. But in the 1980s, movies transformed these oddballs into underdogs and antiheroes, pitting them against attractive, moneyed, successful adversaries for the fate of handsome boys and pretty girls, cushy jobs, and first-place trophies.

The 1985 film Real Genius ranked first among equals from that decade for its stellar cast, sensitive direction, and genuine nerd bona fides. Perhaps fittingly, it sometimes feels overshadowed, and even forgotten, next to broader, bawdier (and certainly now, more problematic) films from the era like Revenge of the Nerds and Weird Science. But director Martha Coolidge delivered a classic slobs-versus-snobs adventure that manages to view the academically gifted and socially maladjusted with a greater degree of understanding and compassion while still delivering plenty of good-natured humor.

As the movie commemorates its 35th anniversary, we're looking back at the little details and painstaking efforts that make it such an enduring portrait not just of ‘80s comedy, but of nerdom itself.

1. Producer Brian Grazer wanted Valley Girl director Martha Coolidge to direct Real Genius. She wasn’t sure she wanted to.

Following the commercial success of 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds, there was an influx of bawdy scripts that played upon the same idea, and Real Genius was one of them. In 2011, Coolidge told Kickin’ It Old School that the original script for Real Genius "had a lot of penis and scatological jokes," and she wasn't interested in directing a raunchy Nerds knock-off. So producer Brian Grazer enlisted PJ Torokvei (SCTV) and writing partners Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz (Splash, City Slickers) to refine the original screenplay, and then gave Coolidge herself an opportunity to polish it before production started. “Brian's original goal, and mine, was to make a film that focused on nerds as heroes," Coolidge said. "It was ahead of its time."

2. Martha Coolidge’s priority was getting the science in Real Genius right—or at least as right as possible.

In the film, ambitious professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) recruits high-achieving students at the fictional Pacific Technical University (inspired by Caltech) to design and build a laser capable of hitting a human-sized target from space. Coolidge researched the subject thoroughly, working with academic, scientific, and military technicians to ensure that as many of the script and story's elements were correct. Moreover, she ensured that the dialogue would hold up to some scrutiny, even if building a laser of the film’s dimensions wasn’t realistic (and still isn’t today).

3. One element of Real Genius that Martha Coolidge didn’t base on real events turned out to be truer than expected.

From the beginning, the idea that students were actively being exploited by their teacher to develop government technology was always fictional. But Coolidge learned that art and life share more in common than she knew at the time. “I have had so many letters since I made Real Genius from people who said, 'Yes, I was involved in a program and I didn’t realize I was developing weapons,'" she told Uproxx in 2015. “So it was a good guess and turned out to be quite accurate.”

4. Val Kilmer walked into his Real Genius audition already in character—and it nearly cost him the role.

After playing the lead in Top Secret!, Val Kilmer was firmly on Hollywood’s radar. But when he met Grazer at his audition for Real Genius, Kilmer decided to have some fun at the expense of the guy who would decide whether or not he’d get the part. "The character wasn't polite," Kilmer recalled to Entertainment Weekly in 1995. "So when I shook Grazer's hand and he said, 'Hi, I'm the producer,' I said, 'I'm sorry. You look like you're 12 years old. I like to work with men.'"

5. The filmmakers briefly considered using an actual “real genius” to star in Real Genius.

Among the performers considered to play Mitch, the wunderkind student who sets the movie’s story in motion, was a true genius who graduated college at 14 and was starting law school. Late in the casting process, they found their Mitch in Gabriel Jarrett, who becomes the third generation of overachievers (after Kilmer’s Chris and Jon Gries’s Lazlo Hollyfeld) whose talent Hathaway uses to further his own professional goals.

6. Real Genius's female lead inadvertently created a legacy for her character that would continue in animated form.

Michelle Meyrink, Gabriel Jarret, Val Kilmer, and Mark Kamiyama in Real Genius (1985).Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Michelle Meyrink was a staple of a number of ‘80s comedies, including Revenge of the Nerds. Playing Jordan in Real Genius, she claims to “never sleep” and offers a delightful portrait of high-functioning attention-deficit disorder with a chipper, erratic personality. Disney’s Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers co-creator Tad Stones has confirmed that her character went on to inspire the character of Gadget Hackwrench.

7. A Real Genius subplot, where a computer programmer is gaming a Frito-Lay contest, was based on real events.

In the film, Jon Gries (Napoleon Dynamite) plays Lazlo Hollyfeld, a reclusive genius from before Chris and Mitch’s time who lives in a bunker beneath their dorm creating entries to a contest with no restrictions where he eventually wins more than 30 percent of the prizes. In 1969, students from Caltech tried a similar tactic with Frito-Lay to game the odds. But in 1975, three computer programmers used an IBM to generate 1.2 million entries in a contest for McDonald’s, where they received 20 percent of the prizes (and a lot of complaints from customers) for their effort.

8. One of Real Genius's cast members went on to write another tribute to nerds a decade later.

Dean Devlin, who co-wrote Stargate and Independence Day with Roland Emmerich, plays Milton, another student at Pacific Tech who experiences a memorable meltdown in the rush up to finals.

9. The popcorn gag that ends Real Genius isn’t really possible, but they used real popcorn to simulate it.

At the end of the film, Chris and Mitch build a giant Jiffy Pop pack that the laser unleashes after they redirect its targeting system. The resulting popcorn fills Professor Hathaway’s house as an act of revenge. MythBusters took pains to recreate this gag in a number of ways, but quickly discovered that it wouldn’t work; even at scale, the popcorn just burns in the heat of a laser.

To pull off the scene in the film, Coolidge said that the production had people popping corn for six weeks of filming in order to get enough for the finale. After that, they had to build a house that they could manipulate with hydraulics so that the popcorn would “explode” out of every doorway and window.

10. Real Genius was the first movie to be promoted on the internet.

A week before Real Genius opened, promoters set up a press conference at a computer store in Westwood, California. Coolidge and members of the cast appeared to field questions from press from across the country—connected via CompuServe. Though the experience was evidently marred by technical problems (this was the mid-1980s, after all), the event marked the debut of what became the online roundtable junket.