Goosebumps: How directors use humour to reinvent horror stories for Disney+ series

Hollywood duo share secrets behind their TV adaptation of the children's books, and how it began with their supernatural connection

R L Stine's children's horror books have been adapted into a 10-part TV series. Photo: Hulu
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When director Rob Letterman was approached about rebooting the Goosebumps franchise, he could have been forgiven for turning the offer down.

After all, Letterman already directed the 2015 adaptation of R L Stine’s beloved children’s horror books, which earned strong reviews and was a success at the box office.

This time around though, producer Neal H Moritz wanted him to turn his skills to the small screen. And Letterman, the writer-director of Shark Tale and Pokemon Detective Pikachu, was immediately intrigued.

“It’s a bigger sandbox to play in. The runway is a lot longer,” Letterman tells The National. "You can live with the characters longer and in a deeper way. You can try a lot of different things.

"He just had one request. He wanted Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Neighbors and Platonic’s director Nicholas Stoller to develop the show for Disney+ with him."

Stoller adds: “I was thrilled when Rob called me." He says he instantly agreed to collaborate with Letterman because they share the same tone when it comes to their writing and directing.

“We love working together. We don’t see a separation in genre," Stoller says. "I primarily make comedies that are like dramas. But it’s the tone that I bring to them that makes them funny.

"I think it’s the same thing with horror and comedy. If I saw a ghost, my reaction would just be funny, but the experience for me wouldn’t be. It’s all about making it as honest and relatable as possible.”

Soon enough, the pair were discussing what they wanted to do with their adaptation. Rather than it being an anthology of horror stories, they wanted it to have one arcing story that was funny, scary and dramatic, as well as a coming-of-age tale.

Primarily though, the pair wanted to make sure they made something that didn’t speak down to children or teenagers and was instead respectful of their experiences. “We looked at a lot of John Hughes [director of Ferris Bueller's Day Off and The Breakfast Club] movies,” says Stoller. "We pitched it as Freaks & Geeks and My So-Called Life with horror."

This adaptation of Goosebumps follows five high school students who investigate the death of teenager Harold Biddle three decades earlier after they accidentally release supernatural forces. Along the way, they discover their parents’ own secrets from their teenage years, all while learning how to work together in order to recapture them.

One of the other main attractions to Goosebumps for Letterman and Stoller was the opportunity to dive into a number of horror sub-genres with each of its 10 episodes. “The show is really grounded, gritty and realistic," says Letterman. "But each episode has its own vibe."

Choosing what books to interpret was a challenge in itself. “We focused on the first 60 books and picked a body-horror one, a jump scare one, a sci-fi horror, a psychological one," says Stoller. "We also needed to make sure that it fit our story."

Letterman adds: “The first five episodes are really many origin stories for each of the characters and how they cross paths.

“But they come together by the end of episode five and then the back five episodes are really about them uncovering how it all had all started.”

An integral part of the process for the pair was the casting of Nathan Bratt, the new English teacher in town who buys the haunted house where Biddle died, only to become possessed by him. Justin Long is the actor tasked with portraying Bratt as he morphs from a regular teacher into a vengeful supernatural force.

Letterman and Stoller couldn’t be happier with the casting, particularly Long. They worked together shortly after his unexpected success with Barbarian, one of last year's most popular horror films.

“We were all giddy that we got him right after that,” says Letterman. "Justin can do everything ... funny, scary, charming, pathetic; and it’s a really physical performance. He goes from one emotion to the next in a split second. It’s very impressive."

The first five episodes of Goosebumps will be released on Disney+ on Friday; the final five will then be released weekly

Updated: October 12, 2023, 3:02 AM