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Welcome to Camp Nightmare was originally published in July 1993 (Spine #9). The series adaptation aired on Friday, November 17, 1995 (runtime: 22 minutes x 2).

One of the many reasons why Goosebumps so effortlessly endures is that the series has always concerned itself with the universal truths and experiences of childhood. From Halloween masks to amusement parks to the untold terrors of piano lessons, R.L. Stine embraced those experiences and preoccupations which so surround the world of his youthful readership.

Given such proclivities, it only made sense that approximately one year after the first Goosebumps book Welcome to Dead House hit the shelves, like so many kid-friendly franchises often do, Goosebumps went to camp. And while this summertime adolescent escape traded in all of the staples familiar to its ilk, like canoe excursions, woodsy hikes, campfire songs and crabby counselors one generation removed, this particular camp was appropriately twisted by shady intentions and ever darkening goings-on.

An early favorite in Goosebumps canon, the book was quickly adapted for the screen, airing as the fifth and sixth episodes of the long running show. Hitting the small screen mere weeks after the series premiered, the episode was about as faithful to the page as the show ever got, adhering closely to the narrative and iconography that made the book so chillingly fun and effective.

As with the greatest tales the series has to offer, Welcome to Camp Nightmare ushers its adolescent passengers off to adventure carting all of their luggage, snacks and neuroses along for the ride. Whether it be Tim Jacobus’ eerie cover of an illuminated tent and shadowy creature or Mr. Stine’s uncanny ability to mine the ways in which adults might underestimate their young charges, the entry fits the mold of its chosen subgenre while squarely aligning with the Goosebumps formula. The story stands as one of the best examples of that which provides the series its immense staying power, both on the page and the screen.

The Story

Billy is on his way to Camp Nightmoon. He wants to be excited, but he’s a worrier. Of course, it doesn’t help that the second his group gets off the bus, they’re attacked by furry creatures with sharp nails and teeth. Or that kids start to get hurt and disappear once they finally arrive at camp. Billy writes letters to his parents but never receives a response and there’s definitely something going on at the ominous “Forbidden Bunk”. Camp Nightmoon is becoming Camp Nightmare and Billy’s running out of time (and campers) to stop it.

Welcome to Camp Nightmare was released in July of 1993, landing as the ninth book in the Goosebumps series. Lining stands in the heat of the summer, its story about a sleep away camp with untrustworthy counselors, snake infested cabins and woodland beasts prowling campgrounds in the cool night air was the perfect reading material for kids who were camp bound themselves or wishing they could be. A seminal work in R.L. Stine’s vast collection, Welcome to Camp Nightmare is frightening and fun right up until its surprising conclusion.

The Adaptation

On both the page and the screen, Billy begins his journey to Camp Nightmoon on a bus. The first four chapters are condensed to one breezy scene in the show, wherein the bus stops abruptly and the driver carelessly tosses out the kids and their stuff before abandoning them in the wilderness. Throughout this sequence, a POV shot moves swiftly through the woods, culminating in a growling, roaring, unseen threat that is frightened away when Uncle Al, the camp director, fires a gun exerting a burst of flame. He tells the frightened campers that the creature was Sabre, a thing that won’t bother them if they don’t bother it, before informing them of the mile hike to camp.

The book spends this time introducing and fleshing out the characters. Billy meets Mike, chubby and meek, and Jay, a boisterous clown. He also meets Dawn and Dori who are on their way to the girls camp. Instead of Sabre, they’re attacked by a gang of small creatures that resemble wolves or wildcats. Quickly moving, the things are covered in spotty red fur. Equipped with long, silvery nails, they snap their jaws violently, revealing two rows of long, dagger like teeth. As in the show, Uncle Al appears and fires a gun to frighten them off. With no talk of Sabre, Uncle Al boards the kids onto a second bus and takes them to camp.

The hike in the show flows a bit better than this second bus ride and provides a bit of character time that was missing from the opening. It’s here that Billy meets Dawn and they discuss their parents’ occupations; Billy’s are scientists who travel a great deal, something discussed on the bus in the book. It’s also on this hike where Uncle Al lays out the camp rules (something that doesn’t happen for another chapter in the book): No sneaking out, no going to the girls’ camp, lights out at 9, write home to parents everyday and stay clear of the Forbidden Bunk. They actually pass the dilapidated Forbidden Bunk which sits mere feet away from their home cabin in the show, further enticing the campers to explore its secrets.

On the page, Billy moves into his cabin along with Mike and Jay as well as a boy named Colin. This same scene occurs in the show after the hike. In both versions they encounter snakes in the bunk. In the book, Jay pushes Mike forward, sensing his fear, and Mike trips, falling into the snakes and getting bit. In the show, Billy is distracted by a message about Sabre written on the wall, only to be startled when Mike gets bitten by the snake. The remainder of the scene plays out the same: they capture the snakes in a sheet, throw them into the woods and meet up with their counselor Larry. Having hurried off to find the camp nurse, Larry inquires about Mike only to laugh in the kids’ faces at the thought of the camp having a nurse at all.

Both versions continue to follow the same trajectory, finding the campers at a fire later that night. This is where Uncle Al lays out the camp rules on the page, mirroring what was said on the hike. In this version, the Forbidden Bunk is not near the other cabins. Its isolation provides a sense of danger and less forgiving peril that the episode lacks, especially with talk of bears roaming at night. On the screen, Billy tends to Mike and his wounded hand, causing Uncle Al to reprimand Billy for interrupting the campfire songs. Still, moments later Uncle Al commends Billy for looking out for his friend. Al then appears to tend to Mike’s snake bite, showing empathy that is not present on the page.

In the book, Jay insists on sneaking into the Forbidden Bunk. Larry overhears and warns them about Sabre for the first time in the text. As cryptically discussed as it is in the show, Sabre is said to be a creature that will tear you to shreds and rip out your heart if it finds you.

The next morning Mike is inexplicably missing in the television adaptation. In the book Mike remains while the state of his hand worsens. The kids in the bunk play a game called Scratch Ball, a sport mirroring baseball. Larry belts Colin with the ball in a rage, knocking Colin out cold. The same thing happens in the show, this time in front of Uncle Al who writes it off as an accident. In the book, Mike leaves with Colin when he’s carted away for aid. Colin eventually returns, Mike does not.

In both versions, Billy is convinced that something is wrong at camp but no one believes him. Both the show and the book transition into what’s referred to as “Survival Night” on screen or “Tent Night” on the page. Regardless, it means the kids will be sleeping outside. Seeing the event as an opportunity to sneak into the Forbidden Bunk, Jay and a boy named Roger creep off into the night. Colin and Billy stay behind, Collin because he’s not well and Billy because he’s not interested in breaking the rules.

In the show, Billy awakens to animal roars in the night. He leaves his tent to investigate and discovers Jay. He’s terrified and claims that Sabre tore Roger to pieces. In the book, Billy and Colin sneak back to their bunk because it’s too uncomfortable in the tent. Once inside, they hear the strange noises and terrified screams heard earlier on screen. In the show, the boys retrieve Colin and hurry back to their bunk, slamming the door. It bursts open almost immediately, concluding the first episode of the two part special. The second part opens as Larry enters the cabin, scolding them for leaving their tent and refusing to believe their stories, despite further POV camera work expressly revealing that Sabre is indeed roaming the grounds.

In the book, the kids wait up all night but never see or hear anything. The next day no one believes their story and they soon discover that there is no record of Roger being at camp. Scared and confused, Billy watches the other kids have fun, envious of their state of mind. That’s when Dawn sneaks up and grabs him from behind. She escaped the girls camp with her friend Dori and swam over. Similar things are happening on her side and she proposes an escape. They agree to meet back up at a coordinated time and Billy hurries off to tell the others, stopping after spotting a payphone which turns out to be a prop. That’s when Uncle Al corners him.

While Billy does eventually connect with Dawn in the show, it happens later in the story onscreen. Instead of the rendezvous in the woods, Billy immediately finds the payphone prop and encounters Uncle Al. The scenes play out similarly. Al accuses him of being homesick, albeit with more of an attitude in the television episode than on the page, and informs him that campers are not allowed to call home. Al recommends writing a letter instead. On the page, Al informs Billy of an upcoming canoe trip. However, the trip is at odds with a hike that Al has planned with Billy’s bunkmates, which itself conflicts with an impromptu tennis tournament Billy’s supposed to compete in. Confused, Billy breaks away from Uncle Al and heads to the office to mail his letter. Instead of providing comfort, the trip only causes him more stress as he finds a mailbag filled with unsent camper correspondence.

The next several chapters follow Billy as he further attempts to explain his grievances to Larry who obviously doesn’t believe or care. He meets new bunkmates who have now replaced Jay and Colin after they did not return from their hike. Larry takes them on an evening canoe trip and falls into the raging stream. Billy dives in after him, getting pulled by the current and losing sight of the canoe. He pulls Larry’s unconscious body from the water and revives him, hiking back to camp and once again encountering Uncle Al. Instead of being grateful, Al is furious about his missing canoe and unconcerned with the boys who are missing along with it.

The television version condenses much of this while keeping the story beats mostly intact. After the encounter with Uncle Al at the faux payphone, Billy heads to the water for a canoe trip, this time with Jay and Colin. Uninterested in appropriately fitting them for life jackets, Larry rushes the boys out on the water. Jay and Colin fall out of the vessel within seconds, disappearing beneath the shallow waves. Larry hurries off, muttering that he was never there and leaving Billy alone. Billy attempts to help but is terrorized by Sabre, director Ron Oliver making smart use of a dolly zoom on Billy as he’s confronted.

The camera work and editing in the third act of this story really speaks to Oliver’s horror roots. Following the Hitchcock homage, Billy prepares for battle with some tight close ups. His shoes lace up and a baseball bat slaps his hand, evoking Sam Raimi’s kinetic preparation montages. It helps too that so much revolves around derelict cabins in the woods. Billy’s distracted when he encounters a letter blowing in the wind and follows it to the Forbidden Bunk. Inside he finds their unsent mail, some from years ago. Dawn’s there too, in this version without her friend. The encounter mirrors the one that occurred in the woods in the book earlier on. He agrees to meet up with her after dark and exits to find the campers congregated around Uncle Al.

In the book, Billy wakes up the morning following his canoe excursion to a special hike planned by Uncle Al. Plotting his escape, Billy stops when Uncle Al points a rifle at him. Al hands rifles to all of the kids assembled and informs them that two girls have gone missing from the other camp and if spotted, the kids should aim carefully and ensure they do not escape. Billy protests, refusing to kill anyone and Al reveals that the weapons are loaded with tranquilizers, not bullets. The exchange gets heated and Billy refuses Uncle Al’s demands, raising the rifle at Al and pulling the trigger.

In the show, Billy emerges from the Forbidden Cabin and Al accosts him. Al demands to know where Billy’s been and commands him to get in line. Al hands out crossbows instead of rifles in the television version, otherwise explaining the same scenario to the campers as he did on the page. As in the book, Billy fights back and fires his crossbow at Al.

Both conclude in almost the exact same way. Nothing happens when Billy pulls the trigger, instead Al laughs and shouts that Billy passed. He invites everyone out and slowly all the missing campers emerge from the woods, including Dawn (and on the page Dori) as well as Billy’s parents. He’s told he’s been in a government testing facility, that his parents wanted to take him on a dangerous expedition and he needed to pass some tests. When to follow orders, bravery and when not to follow orders, chief among them. The biggest difference here is that the screen spends more time on Sabre, revealing the creature to be an animatronic controlled by a counselor.

The story concludes with the destination they’ll be traveling to revealed as a planet called Earth. Both versions claim it’s a very far away locale with unpredictable inhabitants, although in the televised version the planet is clearly visible in the sky above them, suggesting a lack of forethought in design. Still, the twist is silly and strange, reminiscent of the kind of Twilight Zone mentality R.L. Stine’s work often adopts while staying true to the spooky otherworldliness that Goosebumps embodies so well.

Final Thoughts

For over thirty years Goosebumps has elicited shrieks, shocks and scares from kids of all ages, forging a legacy of nostalgic spookiness the likes of which is rarely seen in genre fiction intended for a younger crowd. It’s a legacy comprised of Tim Jacobus’ essential artwork, R.L. Stine’s penchant for horror storytelling and, of course, the series’ adherence to crafting believable peer characters in all too relatable situations for its young readers to engage with.

Welcome to Camp Nightmare epitomizes this series strength, pitting Billy, a world weary pre-teen, against a summer camp filled with fun activities and disastrous dangers at every turn. It’s a story with multiple facets of fear, be it monsters lurking in the woods or apathy reigning from those professing to protect, and it remains so until its fittingly strange conclusion. The television version maintains the tone and thrust of the story, altering the sequence of events and removing some narrative beats, resulting in a, at times, more fluid retelling even if it does lose some of the book’s flair for intensity and character work.

The Goosebumps books would go on to tackle many facets of juvenile life, traversing haunted schools, ghost pets and even those creepy lawn gnomes you sometimes see in your neighbor’s garden. What might sound like a bit of stretch or a leap in the average suspension of disbelief was just another day in the world of Goosebumps. That’s the thing R.L. Stine has always understood about his audience: a kid won’t raise their eyebrows at a camp set on an alien world so long as a suspicious adult is running it. To them, that tracks, and I suspect it always will.

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