‘Naked Theater & Uncensored Horror’ – The Late Stuart Gordon’s Memoir Being Published This Summer

Horror

The Ghost Next Door was originally published in August 1993 (Spine #10). The two-part series adaptation aired on Monday, September 28 & Tuesday, September 29, 1998 (runtime: 22 minutes and 22 minutes).

From whispers in the hallways and stories told at recess, when word of it first reached me as a kid, I felt like Goosebumps was less of a book series and more of a campfire story. Through rumor, it spread across the classrooms like wildfire, igniting imaginations and driving throngs of grade schoolers to the one place thought to be safe from the adolescent horde: the library.

While copies remained scarce, those of us dedicated enough to the cause stayed vigilant, watching the return bin between classes, hoping for a glimpse of the colorful, raised lettering that every kid in the school (and, as our logic would have it, the world) was talking about. So it was that I first found myself in possession of one of R.L. Stine’s already legendary tales.

The book was The Ghost Next Door, a story about a girl convinced that the new boy next door was as the title claimed. Far from the most terrifying story in the Goosebumps arsenal, The Ghost Next Door served as an ideal entry point for any kid enticed by the series’ eerie promise but repelled at the thought of outright terror. As I had fit that mold, the book welcomed me into the franchise with the perfect combination of hair-raising creepiness and otherworldly entertainment. From that book on, I was hooked.

It took five years before the story was produced for the screen, airing as one of the final episodes of the Goosebumps television series. While the episode maintains the primary twist from the page, it takes great liberties with what happens in between, leaning more on the fun side of haunting rather than the freaky. The end result, as is typically the case with episodes like these, is a far simpler tale that lands slighter than its source material.

By the time of the episode’s release, the original Goosebumps run had reached its conclusion with its sixty second entry and the show would retire only several months later. How fitting, in my experience at least, that the beginning and ending of these particular iterations of the franchise would be roughly bookended by the same tale. Although far from putting it to bed in my mind, seeing my first foray into the series realized onscreen did nothing but reinvigorate my fervor, suggesting that my love affair with Mr. Stine’s creation would, like the ghost on the page, never truly die.


The Story

Hannah’s summer isn’t going well; from a bad dream about being burned alive to all of her friends being away at camp, Hannah is at her wit’s end. That is, until she meets Danny, the new, cute boy next door. But, the weird thing is, she never noticed him move in, and he keeps disappearing. Then there’s the strange, dark shadow that’s been stalking her and whispering her name. Something’s not right and it seems to her that someone may not be as alive as they say they are.

The Ghost Next Door was released in August of 1993, landing as the tenth book in the Goosebumps line. Infused with more care and emotionality than most, it’s a story about a girl convinced that her neighbor is dead while ignoring all of the signs that she might be instead. Scary for a time and somewhat melancholy in its conclusion, the story proves the versatility of the series and is evidence that Goosebumps was capable of occupying every corner of genre storytelling.


The Adaptation

Both the book and the show begin with a dream. In the book Hannah is surrounded by fire, her closet, the wallpaper, even her mirror smolders under raging flame. The remainder of the first chapter depicts Hannah’s elation at being alive, spending the morning with her parents and six year old twin brothers in a great mood despite her talk of being stuck with them for the summer. The show realizes this sequence simply with the sounds of crackling and Hannah’s screams, leeching trauma from the event.

The episode excises Hannah’s family entirely, making for an incredibly different home dynamic. Hannah finds a note, remarking that her parents are out but brushes past it, providing a far more obvious clue as to what is actually going on in the story. This is further exemplified when Hannah calls the police after seeing a shrouded figure sneaking around outside and the operator can’t hear the girl’s words.

In both versions, Hannah heads outside and collides with Danny. In the book he hits her with his bike, saying he didn’t see her. They talk and discover that they’re neighbors, which perplexes them both as neither thought the other house was occupied. In the episode, something breaks her window and Hannah flees the house, bumping into Danny. Danny checks out the area, spooking Hannah and establishing a more playful relationship than the stilted one on the page.

Both the book and the episode are interspersed with letters to Hannah’s best friend that are never reciprocated, a point of contention for Hannah and an additional clue. Beyond that, the similarities between the thrust of the book and the episode become more scarce.

On the page, Hannah heads into town to mail one of her letters only to discover Danny with several other boys antagonizing the cruel town postmaster, Mr. Chesney. She leaves without being noticed and encounters a tall and slender figure that seems to be made entirely out of shadow. Seen in the opening moments of the episode, this entity chases her home, its twig-like figure riding on top of shadow, sliding toward her while whispering her name. The thing is a horrifying creation and far more effective on the page than the person shrouded in black that’s realized onscreen.

Days later, Hannah encounters Danny again in his backyard. She’s struck by a frightening premonition and subsequently watches as the boy falls off the roof of his garage. Miraculously, Danny is fine, but the experience makes her wary. She decides to further investigate and is caught looking in his window that night. The next day she follows him into town but is halted when her bike crashes into the intermittently appearing shadow creature.

Much of this is condensed in the episode or skipped over entirely. The day after their first encounter, Hannah sees Danny riding bikes with his friends and shouts a warning as Mr. Chesney’s mail truck nearly flattens him. More of a bumbling dope in the show than a maliciously hateful figure as depicted in the book, Mr. Chesney serves as a kind of comic foil to the kids’ antics rather than an active villain.

Similar to the book, Hannah decides to spy on Danny in the show. She turns up at his house and is found out almost immediately. She encounters the shadow figure again here too, but instead of whispering “Hannah” as it does on the page, it threatens her and jeers, a decision that serves to lessen the entity’s mysteriousness and scare-factor.

In the show she returns home and comments that she feels like an orphan in light of her parents’ continued absence. In true late 90’s fashion, she resorts to a rudimentary internet search engine, finding an article about a house fire that claimed an anonymous family in her town. Returning to Danny’s house, she finds his mother who does not react to Hannah while going about her chores. Hannah confronts Danny with this information who, in return, reveals that his mother is deaf. Hannah apologizes, satisfied that her neighbors are alive. Later Danny returns, telling Hannah that her house burned down three years prior. Hannah retreats and phases through Danny.

In the book, it takes much more trial and tribulation to arrive at Hannah’s truth. After revealing that Danny did not see the shadow figure that supposedly knocked Hannah off her bike, Hannah hurries off. She continues to write to her friend and spend time with her family at home, allowing for time to pass and for the story to feel more full of life, almost in spite of its subject matter. She becomes convinced that Danny is a ghost, even after Danny discovers that belief and makes a joke out of it. The same interaction with Danny’s mother occurs, although Hannah does not immediately confront him about it, and her spying reveals the bad social crowd Danny is falling in with.

Hannah watches as Danny and his cohorts steal ice cream cones from the local parlor. She follows them down the road and continues to spy as they loiter in front of Mr. Chesney’s house, the other boys daring Danny to dislodge and steal the postmaster’s handcrafted mailbox. At that moment, Hannah has another premonition, the shadow again descends and Mr. Chesney confronts the boys who have successfully broken his mailbox.

After escaping, Hannah confronts Danny, concerned about the trouble he might get into with those other boys while revealing her theory that he and his mother are ghosts. As in the show, Danny reveals his mother’s deafness and Hannah departs feeling sheepish. Again, she’s attacked by the shadow, this time it howling for her to stay away from Danny and donning a burning red eyed stare. The next morning, however, it’s Danny who turns up to accuse Hannah. Why didn’t the other kids from school know who she was, he wondered. He falls and Hannah attempts to help him up. Her hand moves right through him. The hand of a ghost.

After this reveal, the book and the show continue their separate paths. In the show, the truth allows Hannah to see her house as it truly is. A burnt shell, the insides charred and empty, Hannah wanders her house feeling alone. The shadow reveals itself here and, taking a completely different direction than the book, tells Hannah that it’s there to teach her how to be a ghost. Assuming a more comedic, adventurous tone, Hannah learns about basic haunting and how to move objects with her ghostly form, all while being told to avoid Danny as he is one of the living.

In the book, Hannah overhears a real estate agent showing off her family’s home, explaining to the potential buyers the tragedy that had occurred there five years before. The dreamlike summer days and the way time seemed to float by for Hannah suddenly came into sharp focus and there’s a sad sense of realization regarding the dream that opened the story. The book is laced with emotion that’s absent from the show and makes the twist feel more personal and intimate rather than existing for the sole purpose of surprise.

Within that cold realization, Hannah has another premonition about Danny. She follows him again, watching as he and his friends return to Mr. Chesney’s house. They remove Mr. Chesney’s mailbox this time and then break into his house. She follows and watches through a window as a strange orange light grows— a fire. The dark figure returns, warning her to stay away. Danny’s companion’s abandon Danny fearfully as the fire grows. Hannah musters her courage and grabs hold of the darkness, tugging at its face and revealing Danny’s visage beneath the shadow.

In the show, Danny reveals to his friends that Hannah is a ghost. Calling his bluff, they dare him to prove it. Danny returns to Hannah’s house to ask for her help but offends her and leaves. The shadow warns that Hannah should not interfere with Danny, that the only reason he can see her is that he’s destined to leave the land of the living by midnight.

At the same time, Danny’s friends dare him to stink bomb Mr. Chesney since the boy was unable to procure a ghost. Danny breaks into Mr. Chesney’s house and lights a match to ignite the bomb. Afraid, he drops the match which catches on the carpet and the house starts to burn. At the same time, Hannah realizes the shadow is attempting to kill and consume Danny, that her purpose for returning from the afterlife may be to save him.

On the page the darkness smiles with Danny’s face, revealing itself as Danny’s ghost. It explains that when Danny dies in the fire, it will be born and Danny will be sent to the shadow world from whence the entity came. Embracing her lack of a mortal coil, Hannah pushes out of the shadow’s grasp and heads into the flames. Encircling Danny, she moves him to safety. Twisting in the flames, the shadow figure vanishes as Danny tastes fresh air.

In the episode, Hannah has to rely on her ghost training to pick up a loose doorknob and get Danny out of the closet in which he had taken refuge. After realizing that she lacks the ghostly strength to lift him, she spots a piano and, like she had earlier in the episode, begins to play, attracting the attention of those watching outside. Mr. Chesney hurries back inside and carries Danny to safety, casting the shadow creature into nothingness.

Both versions conclude in a similar way. In the show, Danny realizes that he cannot see Hannah any longer. At the same moment, Hannah finally finds her family again. They’ve been waiting and assure her that she’s done a good job. That it’s time to come home. Danny raises his eyes to the sky and thanks his friend.

In the book, later on in the night, Danny recounts that it was Hannah who saved him. Despite this, he’s told that there is no Hannah, no girl next door and that the person he’s referring to died five years prior. It’s then that Hannah hears the voice of her mother from above, beckoning her back to her family. She floats upward, taking her last look down at the earth with tears on her cheeks, reminding Danny to remember her. Unsure if he can hear her, she simply hopes he might as she leaves the world behind.

While both versions take fairly different paths to get there, they both find their way from friendship and fear to heartbreak and sentimentality in a manner that differentiates The Ghost Next Door from any other entry in Goosebumps canon.


Final Thoughts

There’s a palpable excitement to the hurried, hushed reverence afforded to those things which fiercely capture the minds of the young. By the time I actually held a Goosebumps book in my hands, I was already a devotee, fully prepared to fall in love with whatever the page had to offer, even if it scared me a little to read it.

The Ghost Next Door inducted me into R.L. Stine’s universe of eeriness with humor, horror and heart, a surprisingly wistful anomaly in an otherwise spooky landscape. Hannah’s tale of trepidation regarding the mystery of her new neighbor traverses a complex emotional path that provided a window into the relatable terrors the Goosebumps series would have in store as well as the depth of character it was capable of exploring. While the book accomplishes its aims more thoroughly and with greater impact, the episode manages to repurpose Hannah’s journey in a fun and engaging way that still manages to resonate with a touch of emotion in the end.

By the time The Ghost Next Door hit my television screen, I was starting to put aside the things of my younger days and aging out of the books and toys on my shelf. After all, five years is a lifetime when you’re young. But even as I purged my room of those dusty and forgotten treasures I no longer saw any use for, my Goosebumps books remained untouched and I still tuned in for those final episodes.

For these were stories that didn’t treat kids like kids. Stories that refused to shy away from death, pain and terror, while still playing in a world of wonder, joy and love. Like The Ghost Next Door, these were stories that deserved to be whispered about near the swing sets, outside of classrooms and over sack lunches as kids waited patiently by the library return bin, hoping for a glimpse of that vibrantly hued, bumpy moniker that always sent a shiver down any self respecting grade-schooler’s spine.

Any and every Goosebumps reader should truly beware, for, if my experience is any indication, they’re not just in for a scare, they’re in for a lifetime of them.

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