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‘Goosebumps’ Is All Grown Up: How the Disney+ Adaptation Is Reimagining R.L. Stine’s Books for Older Teens

Executive producers Pavun Shetty and Conor Welch, and Ayo Davis, president of Disney Branded Television, share their approach to broadening the appeal and audience of the beloved franchise.

Within the first five minutes of Disney+‘s new Goosebumps adaptation, it’s clear that viewers are no longer in R.L. Stine’s creepy, scary version of middle-grade horror.

Developed by Rob Letterman and Nicholas Stoller, the show is one of the first real steps into the teen arena for both Disney+ and the book series. The new 10 episode horror comedy focuses on five high schoolers who find themselves in the possession of cursed or haunted items after one fateful night at a house party, the very place a young man died in a horrible and mystery fire years earlier.

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A modern, Breakfast Club-esque ensemble that leans into suspense as much as laughs, this Goosebumps is an effort to not only serialize, but age-up its storytelling tonally — a creative move that repositions the franchise closer to Stine’s successful young adult horror series Fear Street, which was adapted in 2021 as a film trilogy by Netflix to generally positive acclaim.

“When Rob and Nick came in and set out to develop this show, they wanted to approach it as a new and contemporary version — a fresh take, interweaving the five most popular books of the franchise into a well-crafted narrative with suspense and humor,” says Ayo Davis, president of Disney Branded Television.

The series is some of the first evidence of an evolution for the streamer, which upon its initial launch shied from older teen or young adult fair on its platform. (The platform notably moved its Love, Simon spin-off Love, Victor to Hulu and, later, its anticipated Lizzie McGuire continuation starring Hilary Duff ultimately stalled.)

Now, Disney+ seemingly presents an opportunity for the company, known for producing series that “play in the sandbox with preschoolers” and “with those kids six to 11,” according to Davis, to finally get into the business of identifying and creating content for families and teens with a show she says is squarely aimed at 12 and up.

“We’ve had a focus on kids and families, mostly through the Disney Channel and Disney Jr., but a few years back as we expanded, we took on creating content for Disney+ as well and that’s what really fits into that family and co-viewing space,” Davis tells The Hollywood Reporter. “But to really lean into that co-viewing experience is a newer area for us, so we thought Goosebumps was a perfect opportunity to broaden with the audience for that title.”

While certainly a new area for Disney’s TV programming, the decision to use Goosebumps as a toe-dip isn’t out of left field. The series is based on well-known book IP, making it a logical move for a company that through its original library, high-profile studio acquisitions and Hyperion publishing arm is familiar with how to make and reach generations of brand fans.

“The great excitement and pleasure of being at the Walt Disney Company is they have built their legacy on canon characters in IP. It’s an ecosystem that works, especially for kids and families,” Davis explains. “Goosebumps is kind of a perfect example — along with Percy [Jackson And The Olympians] — of our core strategy. We know we have to constantly generate our library and constantly create new IP, but we want to ensure that we’re mining IP that’s beloved by people across the world.”

It’s also aligned with the TV unit’s history of holiday programming — most notably Freeform’s “31 Nights of Halloween” and “25 Days of Christmas” blocks. “One of our core strategies is event-tizing holidays — whether it’s Christmas, Halloween — and Goosebumps has so many elements that lent itself to that,” Davis says.

Ahead of the show’s Oct. 13 premiere and New York Comic Con panel, THR spoke with Goosebumps executive producers Pavun Shetty and Conor Welch about the creative approach to the show and what fans can expect from this new chapter of a storytelling classic.

This is really unlike any Goosebumps thing we’ve seen in terms of tone and core audience. What was behind the decision to distinguish it from the middle-grade adaptations already out there?

CONOR WELCH That was a part of every one of our conversations. We grew up reading the books and wanted to honor those original stories, but do an updated version that felt more contemporary, more grounded. And, at the same time, a little bit scarier with a little bit edgier jokes. From the very beginning, we wanted to take real issues that teenagers deal with — the awkward, messy, tricky stuff and real issues their parents deal with — and put those together and throw the crazy stuff on top of it. That was the secret sauce. In developing the show. It was to have authentic issues, but then all the crazy scary stuff from the stories and do a real genre mashup that way.

PAVUN SHETTY There has been a television series. There’s obviously a giant book series that almost everyone I know has read. There were two movies to precede it. So we didn’t want to just tread on the same territory. It was important to us to really elevate it to make it feel really premium. The books that I grew up with always felt a little scarier than I expected. It always felt like, “Ooh, should I be reading this?” I think our intention with this series was for some of the younger viewers to feel the same way, but never to take advantage of that. The jokes would never be inappropriate, the scares would never get gory, but they would be titillating in a way that’s like, “Wait, should I be invited to this party? Let’s keep watching.”

From the music cues to the jokes, this is really aged up. How did you think about where the line was in terms of doing a young adult show that has a younger subset to your audience?

WELCH That was a tricky line to toe, but in early meetings with R.L. Stein, who was involved as a godfather to this project, he made it clear that he never talked down to his readers. That he always treated them like adults. Like they deserve to be here. They deserve to be scared like their parents do. So that was really the prism through which we were trying to tell our stories. That these characters should feel real, they should feel sophisticated, they should never feel pandering. Then we also wanted the adults to feel grounded with real adult issues. We tried to pepper it with things that adults would like that kids might not get, and things that kids would that adults hopefully wouldn’t push against. We hopefully got a lot of things in the purple of that Venn diagram that are exciting to everyone. But yes, it was always a tonal question of, “Where is that line? Is this edgy or too edgy? OK, let’s step back. Is this scary or too scary? Oh, we can push a little more.” That was always front and center — making sure that that tone was consistent and never overstepped into inappropriate.

SHETTY I think people look at remakes and reboots, especially with iconic IP, with the degree of cynicism always, as they should because there’s a lot of different reasons these things are made. So I’m glad you felt a little bit whiplash in the first couple minutes of the show. We wanted people to be surprised when they watched. We wanted it to subvert expectations of people who read the original books and watched the original series about what they felt like they were going to see. We want you to feel a little off your footing. There are a lot of different genres in here. There’s a lot of different horror genres in here. The characters are dealing with real emotional issues at the same time they’re being chased by monsters, and putting all those things together should be a little bit unsettling — and I think that’s the idea behind everything.

WELCH Surprise was the element that we hoped would lead our storytelling. We hoped that tension that you thought was going to lead to a scare would actually lead to a joke. We hope that build up that you thought would lead to a punch line would actually lead to a jump scare. We hoped that you thought that Isaiah (Zack Morris) was a jock from a John Hughes movie, but actually, he is an empathetic, kind, open-hearted person. So at every turn, we wanted to subvert expectation and to surprise an audience so that it didn’t feel like just another Goosebumps because people like Goosebumps.

Isa Briones, Will Price, Miles McKenna, Zach Morris, and Ana Yi Puig in Goosebumps
Isa Briones, Will Price, Miles McKenna, Zack Morris and Ana Yi Puig in Goosebumps. Courtesy of Disney+

A few titles come to mind when talking about the tone and approach: Scooby-Doo, The Breakfast Club, Riverdale and Marvel’s Runaways. Runaways in particular because of its dual focus on the parent and teen cast. Why did you want to have a parent storyline featured so prominently?

WELCH The books obviously center on kids, so it was important to us not to deviate too far from that format. But as a 40-year-old storyteller myself, who loved the books 30 years ago when they came out, I wanted to do a version of the show — I think we all did — that we would want to watch and that we would love, and that we would be proud to tell our friends to come check out. I think central to that is including adult characters that are dynamic and interesting, and going through some of the real issues that adults go through. Whether it’s financial woes, secrets that they’re keeping or communication with their kids, and making that compelling and interesting, and hopefully surprising. In some of the shows that you mentioned, the deep fear of the kids is: “Why don’t my parents believe me? How do I get my parents to believe me? This is really happening to me.” In our show, there is some of that. But there’s also: “Do I believe my parents? What are they hiding from me? Why aren’t they being truthful to me?” So hopefully, that plays on fears, insecurities and tensions that both adults and kids can really relate to.

SHETTY It’s real life. It wasn’t just an attempt to get adult viewers. Kids today are dealing with the sins of their parents climate change alone. You have to rely on yourself, and you can’t rely on your parents anymore. In our show, these kids are at the center of a haunted mystery that literally started because of something their parents did when they were in high school. It’s a Pandora’s Box their parents opened up and tried to stuff away. Their parents tried to pretend like it’s not a real issue, which is very true of real life. Now these kids have to solve for things that their parents did. We intentionally set the show in a setting where it’s a small town that’s relatable — the kids went to the exact same high school as their parents. So we’re seeing this high school in different times, and while the issues are kind of timeless, our kids are having to pick up the pieces that their parents left behind.

This is the most serialized Goosebumps has ever been. Why did you make the decision to adapt as an oingoing story versus adapt each individual story?

WELCH I think the most compelling premium shows to me these days are the ones that keep you on the edge of your seat. When the credits roll after an episode, you’re desperate to watch the next to find out what happens. That’s something that’s impossible to do with an anthology series where you start from scratch with each episode. The books, obviously, were that. The original television series, obviously, was that. The movies themselves are pretty standalone. But we wanted to create a group of characters and do a deep dive into those dynamics, watch them evolve, watch them grow and deal with real issues over a longer period of time than we could have captured in a 45-minute episode and then had to start again.

The architecture of our first season is that each of our five main characters — the teenagers — are the center of each of the first five episodes and are haunted by a totem from one of the five more popular books. They all find these totems and overlap at a Halloween party at the abandoned Biddle house. These kids who otherwise wouldn’t have hung out together, would have sat at the same lunch table, realize that there’s some overlap in what’s happening to them and then by the middle of the season, have to get together and figure out what’s going on so that they can save themselves and basically save the town. It felt much more compelling to us to be able to dive deeper into character arcs, into character dynamics and into this mystery if we strung it out over an entire 10 episode season.

SHETTY I’ll just add that the reason those books were picked is twofold. One because they could find all the items in a haunted house, which is where the central mystery takes place. But also those specific books really tie into the issues that our characters are going through. In the second episode, we’re following a girl named Isabella who is a total wallflower. She’s actually an internet troll, which is the only way she gets noticed at all. She finds a mask which is from the book The Haunted Mask that gives her confidence and it makes her seen for the first time. But at the same time, it actually turns her into an actual troll. So these books that we chose are inherent to the issues that the characters are going through, and that’s how they grow. They’re dealing with these individual horrors, but then they come together and realize that they can actually help each other more as a group than acting as individuals.

Each of those initial five episodes is preying on a different kind of fear people might have. While one episode might not scare you, another easily could. How did tapping into your audiences diverse fears play into the books you chose?

WELCH Over the number of books that R.L. Stine has written, he’s covered literally every fear zone possible. He’s touched every subgenre of what could be scary, so it was really exciting to pick and choose from them and make sure that we were covering the spectrum. That we had something that hopefully will horrify everybody out there in a compelling way. For me, Go Eat Worms was always just viscerally creepy. I haven’t looked at spaghetti the same way since. There’s something about under your skin creatures that just will forever horrify me. It was really exciting to be able to take the DNA of that, and then expand and elevate it into what turns out to be a giant monster in a really fun episode of our series. The short answer is that we were hoping to check all of the scare boxes to get everybody along the way.

You’ve got a pretty diverse cast here. Were you already thinking you wanted a more diverse core group of characters to explore modern teen experiences, or did that happen during the casting process?

SHETTY It’s a little bit of both. The truth is that high school now is very different than high school when I went there. Different groups mingle. People have friends with very diverse people. So our North star was for it to feel authentic. First and foremost, it had to feel real and that’s what’s going on right now. So we read hundreds of people for these roles. We obviously had original ideas of what the characters would be, but once we saw the best people for each individual role, we really let them bring a lot of the personality to the characters and then we wrote around them. That was the way we made everything feel a little bit more authentic. You can’t fit all these actors into certain characters on the page without letting them bring what they have themselves to it. So that inclusion was always a super important thing, but it’s real and we wanted it to feel as real as possible.

WELCH We wanted these stories to be authentic and organic and nuanced. That just necessitates a group of people who are themselves authentic, organic and nuanced. We wanted to deal with complicated things. We wanted our cast to be interesting and complicated. They brought a lot of themselves to the rolls and helped us make sure that this didn’t feel like a teenage show made by grownups. That it felt actually organic to their experience. So there was a lot of creative back and forth with them, frankly, to make sure that we weren’t going old Boomer on them. That it felt like this is actually their experience and something that they would be entertained and compelled by because it felt like what they deal with.

You mentioned earlier that R.L. Stine was involved in the process of making this show. He’s a pretty busy guy, so how deep was his involvement?

SHETTY We wouldn’t have done the show had he not given us his blessing. My company Original Film did the movies, too, and so Rob Letterman, who directed the first movie, created this show and directed the first episode and he’s got a long history with R.L. Stein. We also partnered with Scholastic who gave us access to everything, so we always were considering what he thought. Growing up, we saw his name on every book that we read. Those words, the book titles, and R.L. Stine’s name were sort of ingrained in our minds. He gave us a blessing, he would read scripts, and then he would watch cuts. So he really was involved and it was thrilling to see that he actually liked the episodes we put forward. You’re right. He’s super busy, and he has a new Goosebumps series coming out that’s a little bit more adult than the original. He’s just got a ton of ideas. So we wanted to honor what he had done but also do a new version that he liked, and I don’t think you can do that without having him help.

Goosebumps began streaming on Disney+ Oct. 13.

Interview edited for length and clarity.