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Night of the Living Dummy II was originally published in May 1995 (Spine #31). The series adaptation later aired on Friday, January 12, 1996 (runtime: 22 minutes).
Despite its iconic cavalcade of creepers, crawlers and creatures which almost always go bump in the night, there is one formidable foe who consistently stands atop the swollen hoard of Goosebumps scoundrels. He’s a wise-cracking, prank-prone and rather well dressed dummy who is far more intelligent than his empty wooden head might suggest, and with two books under his belt and a third on the way, it was only natural that Slappy the ventriloquist doll would finally make his way to the screen in 1996.
Having been traumatized by clips of Child’s Play (1988) at an early age, I was already predisposed to petrification by the hands of dolls big or small, so the thought of an otherworldly animated ventriloquist dummy had me in shivers well before I ever opened the book. Still, I was drawn to Slappy’s story, feeling that when contained to the page, I would be protected from it somehow in a way that wasn’t the case were I watching it play out on TV. Still, the thought failed to keep my nerves in check as I read about the evil dummy’s mischievous deeds and the poor kids being blamed for his actions. All the while I wondered how they might ever escape Slappy’s plans to enslave them, controlling their actions with the knowledge that no adult would ever believe a kid’s claim that the real culprit was a dummy all along.
It did not take long for Slappy to show up in the first season of Goosebumps, only three months into the series’ initial run. But rather than adapt his first printed outing with Night of the Living Dummy, a book that revolves around a dummy called Mr. Wood featuring Slappy as more of a supporting player, the show opted to use Night of the Living Dummy II to introduce the live action dummy to the world. The book puts and keeps Slappy at the forefront, serving as a far better establishing narrative for the dummy than the original might have to the unfamiliar, a choice that would ultimately help to codify the villain’s status in Goosebumps canon long term.
The episode would be one of the first and only that I questioned my resolve to watch. Could I handle it? Could I look on as a living dummy sprung to life in the night and worked his terrible will against a kid around my age, undermining not only her closest relationships’ belief in her but her belief in herself?
Of course, as I had every Friday night, still I found myself sitting squarely in front of the TV as the credits faded into a start and R.L. Stine unleashed his mass of pages into the blustery wind around him. As the title appeared in the trademark white Goosebumps font on the screen, I eyed the book of the same name sitting beside me, its lettering bathed in pink and green as though what had at one time been cute had skewed sickly and wrong. The cover featured Slappy, sitting lopsided at the edge of a bed beside two stuffed animals looking rather unnerved. His mouth hung open in a grin and his eyes stared forward, not dead, not alive but somewhere in between.
All too soon, I thought, those eyes would be on my screen. Alive. Really alive. And again I felt that jolt of excitement that only a show bringing my favorite books to life could conjure. I may have been afraid of Slappy, but out of the slew of iconic terrors the show had the ability to enlist, there was no denying that there was none other than this particular ventriloquist dummy that I was more excited to see made real.
And as I settled in with a mixture of anxiety, excitement and pride, it seemed that watching something scary was about a great deal more than being afraid. Goosebumps was the perfect institution to learn such a thing and there was no better teacher on staff to share the chilling curriculum than Mr. Stine and his trusty dummy.
Every Thursday night is family sharing night at the Kramers and Amy can’t stand it! She’s not talented like her older sister Sara, the great painter, and she’s not a goofball like her little brother Jed. The only thing she’s any good at is ventriloquism, but how can she perform with an old broken doll whose head keeps falling off?
Her parents tell Amy that she’s going to be a great storyteller, but all Amy wants is for her dad to buy her a new dummy so she can work on her act. It’s when he finally does bring home a new dummy that Amy gets everything she ever wanted… or so she thought.
His name is Slappy and he’s in good shape— aside from the old, moldy sandwich in his head. He has a card in his pocket marked with words in a strange language. Amy reads it aloud but can’t make sense of it. That’s when strange things start to happen.
A performance at family sharing night ends in Slappy’s cruel jokes at the expense of her family, despite Amy’s claims that she didn’t make him say anything. Sara’s room is destroyed, paint flung everywhere and only Amy seems to have been able to have perpetrated the crime. Slappy grips the hand of a small child at a birthday party so tightly that he nearly rips it off, despite Amy having no control over how the dummy’s hand moves.
Amy’s family is starting to wonder what’s wrong with their daughter, but how can she tell them the truth when no one will believe her wild stories about a dummy that’s come to life? Will Amy be able to prove that Slappy is alive or will she be taken away, only allowed to see her parents on visiting day lest she succumb to Slappy’s slavish will?
Night of the Living Dummy II was released several years into the Goosebumps run and solidified Slappy as the primary antagonist that he would go on to remain in so many subsequent books and series. Focusing on the destruction of trust and family, the book builds off the deep-rooted fears and insecurities that plague adolescence, positioning Slappy as not only one of the more viscerally frightening threats in the Goosebumps world, but one of the most diabolical. A key work in the series and the logical choice for adaptation, this was the book that helped launch Slappy to the iconic status he enjoys today.
Family sharing night opens both versions of Night of the Living Dummy II, providing viewers and readers alike a glimpse into the Kramer family dynamics that will be at play for the duration of the story. The show visualizes what is largely expressed as internal dialogue on the page, opening with Sara proudly displaying her latest painting, an act that closes the first chapter in the book. Next up is Jed who plays a homemade video cassette, taking full advantage of the medium and understandably forgoing his display of burping that the book references.
The video captures candid moments of his family at their most insecure, showcasing Mrs. Kramer cheating on her diet, Mr. Kramer donning his toupee, Sara obsessively putting on make-up in the bathroom (suggesting a vanity that is absent on the page) and Amy secretly borrowing her sister’s new sweater. Although not present in the book, the video succeeds in providing information that was doled out over several chapters in a quick, digestible way. Finally, it’s Amy’s turn to perform, so she retrieves her dummy Dennis.
In the book, Amy does a bit about Dennis being sick with termites and needing to call a carpenter instead of a doctor to much eye rolling from her siblings. The performance is interrupted when Dennis’ head falls off causing Amy to launch into the complaint that her dad needs to deliver on the new dummy that he promised he’d procure for her. Afterwards, they head to Sara’s room to see her new painting, which has been marred by a smiley face in the corner of the frame, Jed’s handiwork.
The episode instead streamlines the first five chapters, similarly showing Amy’s attempt at a show with Dennis, culminating with the dummy’s unintentional decapitation. Only this time when Amy complains that her father had promised to replace the doll, Mr. Kramer instructs her to look behind the couch. She pulls out a large carrying case and finds Slappy inside.
Much of what’s lost in skipping past the first four chapters is character work. Chapter two revolves around Jed’s decision to deface Sara’s painting and his subsequent punishment at the hands of their strict parents, while Amy secretly appreciates watching her vision-of-good sister being taken down a peg or two. Chapter three continues expanding the reach of Jed’s mischievousness while establishing the inherent eeriness of the ventriloquist doll, as Jed places Dennis in Amy’s window in the middle of the night to scare her.
In the fourth chapter, Amy’s best friend Margot enters the story, a character relegated to a much smaller role in the eventual episode. Pretty, popular and obsessed with The Beatles, Margot is a casualty of adaptation, as is her father who owns a large, popular entertainment spot in town and who wishes to employ Amy and her ventriloquist act in an excised subplot. It’s here on the page, after Amy is forced to turn down the offer to be paid to perform due to her malfunctioning dummy, that her father comes home with a gift.
In the show, Amy raises him from his box and finds the notecard established in the original Night of the Living Dummy, reading the strange words there without much thought, words that evoke the similarly cryptic chant employed to imbue the soul of a serial killer into a doll in Child’s Play:
The book spends more time examining the dummy— his eyes are blue instead of brown and his hair is brown instead of red on the page— and Amy finds an old moldy object inside of his head. Initially thought to be his brain, Amy and her father write the thing off as an old sandwich and throw it away. It’s then she finds the notecard and reads the words. After he winks at her, as opposed to furrowing his brow on the screen behind her back. Her father’s insistence that she imagined the action establishes how difficult the road to convincing others of Slappy’s actions will prove to be, something the screen handles far less overtly at first.
While the book further expands on Margot’s father’s offer for Amy to perform for children’s birthday parties and Jeb’s obsession with using the dummies to execute immature pranks, the show skips straight to the meat of Slappy’s dastardly designs. Jumping past a defining moment of Slappy’s ruthless cruelty from the book where the dummy mocks Amy’s family, Slappy makes his first move in the show.
A POV shot of a dripping paintbrush moves down the hallway and into Sara’s room. The next morning finds a stick figure family drawn onto the painting that Sara had shown off in the episode’s opening moments. This mirrors several events that happen in the book, although far less severe, being an amalgam of Slappy dumping cans of paint all over Sara’s carpet and writing Amy’s name all over Sara’s walls. In the book, all of this leads to a constantly intensifying and harrowing sense of tension between Amy and her family as they question her sanity.
Onscreen, it’s unclear whether Jed or Amy drew the figures and Amy walks away more frustrated than anything else, reacting with confusion when she finds paint on Slappy’s hands as she does in the book. It’s then that the book and show realign, ushering in another family sharing night with Mr. Kramer’s amateur guitar stylings. In line with the book’s claims that he loves singing old folk songs from the 60’s that his children are less than thrilled by, the ditty shown is an ineffectively rousing round of If You’re Happy and You Know it.
Although the show did not take the time to depict the extent of Amy’s practice and preparation, she takes a seat in front of her family with Slappy on her lap to perform her new routine all the same. Slappy’s deviation from Amy’s set plays out in largely the same way with some minor alterations. In both the book and the show, the dummy calls attention to Mrs. Kramer’s weight. In the show, however, he focuses on Mr. Kramer’s guitar playing, claiming that it sounds like “the cat got stuck in the dishwasher”. In the book Slappy makes fun of the man’s encroaching baldness with the line “is that your head or are you hatching an ostrich egg on your neck?” An odd shift, as the opening of the show retains Mr. Kramer’s insecurity regarding his thinning hair.
Ultimately, both scenes result in Amy’s claims that Slappy, not her, was the one responsible. In the show she packs the dummy away in frustration, smartly deciding to take some time away from Slappy. The book adds in other complications for Amy, chief among them her poor report card which looks all the worse compared to her siblings’ strong showing in the academic arena. This leads to Slappy’s first foray with the paints in the book, ruining Sara’s carpet and framing Amy for the deed. This results in a serious family meeting that has far more weight than anything in the show, wherein Amy stands her ground in her claim of innocence and those closest to her grow ever more desperate and concerned.
It’s after the events of family sharing night that the show introduces its version of Margot. She’s there to work on the science project mentioned in the book with her little sister Alicia in tow. Alicia is a stand-in for a little girl in the book that serves as the culmination to the excised plot line of Amy performing at Margot’s father’s party center. In the book, after the family meeting and feeling ostracized, Amy pours herself into her act, perfecting it for the upcoming party. Once there, Amy meets the birthday girl— Alicia— who is turning 3. She and Slappy shake hands, only Slappy does not let go. What begins as funny turns frightening as the little girl’s smile fades and turns to unwieldy sobs.
Amidst the screaming children and shouting mothers, Slappy cackles and eventually releases the girl’s hand. The parents threaten to sue Margot’s dad and he is forced to escort Amy out of the building. Amy runs home crying, more upset than she’s ever been. After confessing what happened to her mother, the two decide it’s time to put Slappy away for a while.
In the show, this is simplified to one interaction Amy has with Margot. While working on the poster for their science project, Alicia discovers Slappy. Amy shows her the dummy who makes a crude remark and grabs the little girl. She screams for him to stop and Mrs. Kramer hurries into the room. After he lets go, Amy again claims innocence and Margot calls her a liar. She leaves, shouting that she never wants to see Amy again and Mrs. Kramer confines Amy to her room.
It’s after this interaction in the show that the family sits down to have their serious discussion. While still feeling far less intense than it does in the book, the meeting still suggests that Amy may need psychiatric support and there’s a dawning somberness that accompanies the realization that Amy believes what she claims. The book pushes this further before letting it all come to a head, as after the disastrous events at the party, Slappy again defaces Sara’s room, writing Amy’s name across the walls in red paint. The ever deepening chasm between Amy and her family further expands on the page, bolstered by her indignation and isolation brought about by the disintegrating trust between her and those that she loves.
In the book, Amy decides it’s time to catch Slappy in the act, putting her on the offense. The show inserts an additional scene of Slappy mayhem first, offering what is Slappy’s most severe near-crime. Amy follows Slappy through the house and catches him as he holds her father’s guitar over her sleeping parents’ heads. Amy dives, knocking over the dummy and destroying the guitar. When her parents wake up and she tells her story about the terrible dummy, they draw a line in the sand: no more blaming the dummy. Something needs to be done about Amy.
In the book she also follows Slappy into the night. She watches as he heads for Sara’s room and readies a paintbrush to ruin a mural she had been working on. Amy tackles the dummy and wrestles away the brush just in time, but the commotion wakes up her sister who calls for her parents. Set to meet with a doctor, Amy decides then that she has to prove the truth and expose the evil doll. That’s when Slappy reveals himself to her completely.
The show, as before, jumps ahead some, picking up the morning following the guitar incident as Amy carries Slappy to what she hopes will be his final resting place. She does see Margot again on the way, but her old friend just ignores her, once more reminding that the loving, caring Margot on the page who Amy spends so much time talking on the phone with is simply not present here on the screen. As she does later in the book, Amy drops Slappy in the sewer, here in broad daylight as opposed to the shadows of night depicted in the text. Later at home, she finds small, muddy footprints leading to her room and is all too quickly reunited with the formidable dummy.
Both the show and the book allow Slappy time for his villainous monologue. The content is essentially the same: Amy is to be his slave. If she resists, he’ll keep destroying things, blaming Amy until eventually her family will only have access to her on “visiting days” at some hinted at asylum. From here the conclusion comes on very quickly in the show, deviating once again from the book which still has several chapters ahead.
In the book, Amy loses what little composure she has left and attacks Slappy. They fight, hitting one another hard, until Amy has the dummy firmly pegged to the floor. She throws him in the closet once more, in spite of his mounting threats, and slams the door. Sara enters the room just after, revealing that she’s known about Slappy since catching them in her room the night prior. She had seen the dummy enter that night and kept it secret for fear of being viewed as just as crazy as her sister. Bursting through the closet, the two girls apprehend him once more and run into the night to dispose of him, finally depositing him in a sewer some blocks away, in one of the elements of the finale that echoes the events of the show.
Of course, Slappy reappears the next morning all the same. The following night Amy again feigns sleep in an effort to follow the dummy and reveal the truth. She tracks him to Sara’s room once more, but this time another figure is waiting for him there— Dennis. Caught by surprise, Slappy stumbles and trips, breaking his head against an iron bedpost. A large, white worm slithers from the dummy’s head (perhaps an explanation as to what the “moldy sandwich” might’ve been) and vanishes into a crack in the wall. It’s then that Mr. and Mrs. Kramer come bursting out of the closet, apologizing for not believing their daughter and their plan to trick the dummy by having Jed dress up as Dennis comes to light.
Only Jed had overslept and it seemed that the thing who fought and defeated Slappy was not Amy’s little brother after all. In fact, it may well be that Slappy isn’t the only dummy those strange words brought to life.
The show wastes no time in reaching its end after Slappy’s monologue as the doll reveals himself to Sara and then chases the girls through the house. They fight and wind up in Jed’s room, where a small figure tackles Slappy, cracking his head open as it does on the page, this time against a fireplace. No white worm slithers out but instead a green gas escapes the fragments of Slappy’s skull, dissipating into the open air. Mr. and Mrs. Kramer hurry in, not having bore witness to Slappy’s animation or demise and the two girls inform them that Jed saved them.
Jed enters the room just after, asking what it was he was being given credit for accomplishing. That’s when Dennis turns up, laughing and saying that, “it’s good to be back in the family again!” Not merely suggested, but explicitly shown, this is how the show remedies the fact that the majority of Amy’s family never got to see Slappy in action. After this, they should have no problem believing in the goings on of dummies when no one’s watching.
The show ultimately lacks the narrative impact of the book, offering a markedly abbreviated version of events that feels less cohesive on the whole, but is still an undeniably entertaining affair that never drags. And, most importantly, both iterations establish Slappy as a ruthless entity not to be trifled with, an inexplicable force that isn’t killed but overcome, for a time.
An unsettling villain that wields manipulation as though it were a knife, deconstructing the worlds of his victims by preying on their worst fears and insecurities while feeding the expectations of those who should expect more of them but do not. Slappy the dummy had arrived and, broken head or not, he wasn’t going anywhere.
Amongst all the Lawn Gnomes, bloodthirsty blobs and swamp dwelling werewolves, one suit clad, grinning hunk of carefully carved wood and painted on features consistently emerges as the antagonist to beat in the extended universe of Goosebumps baddies. Slappy has risen the ranks of the pop culture zeitgeist and become synonymous with the franchise, replacing the series original mascot Curly the Skeleton in the eyes of the Goosebumps familiar and uninitiated alike. And rightfully so, considering how universally terrifying and entertaining just the visage of this particular devilish ventriloquist dummy has become over the past thirty years.
Breaking protocol and skipping past the first entry in the franchise, Night of the Living Dummy II served as a great springboard for Slappy to leave behind the page and launch wooden-head first into the real world. Although the creators opted to alter the dummy’s physical appearance from how he appears in the text (and in the eventual Goosebumps movies), Slappy appears just as formidably and oddly lifelike as he does in the book. It seemed my fears about whether or not my young, Child’s Play addled mind could handle the episode were not altogether unfounded, although I did manage to make it through the whole thing without shutting my eyes.
While the adaptation did excise a great deal of character work and story, what remains onscreen is a surprisingly accurate representation of the sorts of unnerving terrors that Slappy the dummy tends to unleash with such aplomb. It’s disappointing to lose Margot to what amounts to a walk-on cameo that largely goes unresolved and it would have been nice to maintain the high intensity stress of Amy’s dealings with her parents and their increasingly diminishing belief in their daughter and her sanity. Still, the dummy’s effect on Amy’s world is largely maintained and Slappy’s capabilities as a recurring franchise threat are made alarmingly clear.
More than anything, it’s his contemptible conduct that made Slappy such an effective villain in the eyes of a kid. Putting aside the inherent horror of a wooden doll gaining dastardly autonomy, Slappy preys on adolescent insecurities. He undermines his victim’s relationships with their family and friends and breaks down the trust which normally binds them. He changes how others perceive those he wishes to enslave and, by doing so, works to deconstruct his owner’s psyche, causing them to question their very sanity. As if the bobbing wooden limbs weren’t terrifying enough, Slappy is a master in psychological warfare.
When it came to Goosebumps and, more specifically, Night of the Living Dummy II, fear wasn’t just about the shadow of a creeping dummy in the hallway at night, but the anxiety of losing the faith of those you love and the high pressure terror that accompanies the unstable mind when its own sanity is in question. There is a reason Slappy sat and continues to sit atop the mountain of scary that comprises the Goosebumps empire and it has as much to do with how he looks as it does with how he makes his victims feel. Not just scared, but alone. Not just worried, but destitute. Not just sad, but defeated. That is, until they fight back.
As with all great terrors, Goosebumps or otherwise, Slappy’s lesson is not only rooted in what he was attempting to do but in how he failed to do it. For as manipulatable as humanity often is, people, even kids, are still in charge of their own destiny. Justice and truth are worth fighting for, even if a maniacal ventriloquist dummy stands in the way— Hell, especially then.
Scary school was in session that night and Slappy made his eerily educational debut with a masterclass in manipulation. And, in spite of my trepidation, the smile on my face throughout boded well for the future, as Slappy was just getting started.