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For this Phantom Limbs, we’ll be uncovering George A. Romero’s Goosebumps, a feature film adaptation of the popular line of children’s horror novels written by R.L. Stine. Based on that series’ first book, Welcome to Dead House, Romero’s film would have expanded upon Stine’s tale while tweaking its central threat, all while keeping the scares family friendly. While the film sadly went unproduced (and the book would go on to be adapted for the Goosebumps television series in the late 90s), Romero nevertheless penned a full screenplay for the project, which more than illustrates his approach for an “all ages” horror film.
In researching this article, your writer paid a visit to the George A. Romero Archival Collection at the University of Pittsburgh Library System, which houses numerous works from the late horror legend, including produced and unproduced screenplays, treatments, artwork, correspondence, props, posters and more!
Learn more about the collection at https://romero.library.pitt.edu/
To have been produced by 20th Century Fox’s Fox Family film division, George A. Romero’s Goosebumps began with Fox Family’s vice president Kevin Bannerman, who considered Romero for the job of bringing Stine’s popular book series to the screen. From a letter from Romero to Bannerman dated September 9th, 1995 (available in the aforementioned Archival Collection), one can glean that Bannerman suggested a number of Stine novels for Romero to read, which led the filmmaker to zero in on Welcome to Dead House, the first of Stine’s Goosebumps series.
It’s fascinating to this fan to read Romero’s letter, which reveals that the director wanted to make films for younger audiences, and that he’d been a fan of Goosebumps, even having read a number of them for his then 12 year old son before his connection to the film project. It’s also a bit sad, given that Romero realizes that “those with checkbooks” only recognize him as a maker of “the hard stuff”. Romero might very well have made a wonderful horror film for kids, if he’d only been given the chance.
Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be. Still, even though we didn’t get the film, Romero did pen a “rough outline” for his adaptation which reads as a lengthy, complete screenplay (clocking in at a hefty 124 pages).
So what story did his screenplay tell?
Opening in a Pittsburgh mall’s video arcade, we’re quickly introduced to JOSH BENSON (14 years old), who has just been tricked by his best friend HUEY DILL into getting locked inside of a motion simulated video game called “Get Kracken!”. Featuring slugs, worms, maggots (and a Kracken, of course), the video game gravely intones that the player is undead, and must find their way through their own grave by digging under the ground beneath them. This alone would recall Romero’s own zombies, but the writer goes one step further by having the game’s voice spout a spooky “They’re coming to get you!” as a fun nod to Night of the Living Dead.
A claustrophobe, Josh is terrified by his predicament. His twelve year-old sister AMANDA tries to free her brother, then rips into Huey when she fails. Eventually, the game ends and the video game pod releases a relieved Josh.
Elsewhere, we meet Josh and Amanda’s parents – BECKY and JACK. After glimpsing a beautiful Victorian house in the window of a closed real estate office, the two are greeted by COMPTON DAWES, whose face is described as “exceedingly pale, it resembles a grinning skull, hovering like a moon in some dark night.” Dawes invites the couple inside, surprising them with an all-too affordable price for the house of their dreams. Having wanted to move to the country for some time, the couple agree to visit the house in the upstate town of Dark Falls, even as Compton warns them that the house has fallen into disrepair since the photograph was taken.
Though Josh and Amanda are adamant about not leaving the city, their parents buy the house anyway. Before long, the family packs up their pet terrier PETEY (“Brat dog. He’s been to three obedience schools. Flunked out of every one.”) and sets off into a rainstorm to move into their new home in the small town of Dark Falls (population 72). At first glance, the house appears more than a little creepy and ominous, looking the worse for wear. Josh is even certain that he notices the bricks in the house’s chimney moving around.
Dawes appears at their doorstep to welcome the family, startling Becky and Jack just before the chimney collapses and destroys the family’s Ford Explorer. Dawes offers to pay for the repairs, and has the demolished vehicle towed away. The family is left effectively stranded at their new home.
Later, Josh believes he sees the home’s “eyebrow window” wink at him. After Amanda wins a contest that sees her claiming the largest front bedroom for herself (the one with the eyebrow window), Josh uses his “snake light” to explore the room, revealing a wallpaper bearing a repeat print of human ears. Freaked out by this reveal, Amanda insists on taking another bedroom, sticking her brother with the creepiest room in the house.
Once the rainstorm stops, Josh and Amanda explore Dark Falls, happening across a birthday party in the park being thrown for the “sleepy and bored” JUNIOR (10 years old). While the birthday boy doesn’t care to have these newcomers at his party, his “heavily made up mom” MRS. BLACK (30s) insists that they stay for the unwrapping of Junior’s present, which turns out to be a clown named UNCLE SPUNKY. Spunky performs magic tricks for the kids before losing his head, which is promptly pushed into the river by Petey (where it melts). Spunky’s real head pops back up over his collar, delighting his audience.
Josh and Amanda move to the river, retrieving the head prop. Looking it over, the kids find that it runs on batteries. Petey then races away, with his owners chasing after him.
Back at their home, Becky and Jack are inundated by the neighborhood women, led by one ENID COSGROVE and her friend MARTHA. Curiously, the women insist on the moving men placing a piece of furniture into a specific location in the home before offering to prepare a meal for the family as a way to welcome them to the neighborhood. Becky and Jack are grateful, but can’t help but note how “at home” the two seem to be in their house.
Petey is eventually found by Amanda and Josh in the arms of the pretty KAREN, a girl of Josh’s age who tells him that she used to live in his house. As they talk, Petey is nabbed by neighborhood bully RAY THURSTON, who pretends to eat the dog behind a grave, much to the horror of his owners. Town Sheriff CLOTE arrives, chasing Ray away. He introduces himself to Amanda and Josh, who then return home.
That night, Josh feels a breeze come through his closed windows of his bedroom, just before DAWES reappears, telling the boy that the house always seems to know what a person needs just before he leaves for the evening. The party downstairs breaks up, with the neighborhood women cleaning up and leaving (save for Enid, who falls asleep on the couch).
Later, Josh peers through his window, seeing Karen staring at him from behind her own bedroom window across the street. He goes to bed, only to be disturbed by voices and footsteps in the hallway. He goes to investigate, only to discover a puddle of blood at his door. He opens the door, only to find Uncle Spunky’s melted clown head dangling just outside of his room – a prank carried out by Ray and company, who are in Josh’s house. Karen is there as well, apologizing and swearing that she was only there to keep the bullies from seeing out their prank. Strangely, Ray and company somehow manage to escape the house without going through the front door. Unable to sleep in his own room, Josh grabs a sleeping pack and heads out onto the house’s widow’s walk on the roof. There, he could swear that the house itself was snoring.
The next morning, Josh is unable to rouse his sleeping parents. He goes downstairs and is met by a now bald Enid, whose wig has been stolen by Petey. Josh retrieves her wig, but refuses the breakfast she makes for he and Amanda. He wonders if the dinner that she prepared the night before possibly drugged his parents.
Jack and Becky eventually wake up, finding themselves being stared at through their bedroom window by handyman PICKENS. Jack races outside to confront the man, but finds him making repairs to the home. Pickens slips and falls from the ladder, losing his arm in the process. Fortunately, he is able to reattach the appendage, as it’s only a prosthesis. Pickens, as it turns out, also used to live in the home when he was once the town mortician. Jack is impressed with the work that Pickens has already carried out, but is curious about the man’s aversion to water when the home’s plumbing erupts in the basement.
At school, Josh and Amanda wind up in the class of English teacher MRS. ELLSWORTH, surrounded by the kids they met yesterday. Josh takes the opportunity to drop the melted clown head onto Ray’s desk. As Ellsworth reads to the kids from the biography of Dark Falls founder FOSTER DEVRIES, Karen reveals to Josh that Dawes is her father, “and even she finds him creepy.” She warns him that he needs to leave town immediately while he still can.
Outside, it begins raining again, leading Josh to notice how afraid of water the people in town appear to be. School Principal MONTGOMERY takes Josh and Amanda aside, stalling them. When they leave his office, they see that all of the other children have vanished. Seeing an open door, Josh grabs Amanda and heads through it, taking the children into the school’s basement. There, they find a series of tunnels lined with the local townspeople.
Josh and Amanda are careful not to be noticed as they move through the tunnels, realizing that they’re named after the city streets they run parallel with, even boasting names on doors which lead into the various townspeople’s homes. Josh surmises that the townsfolk use the tunnels to avoid the rain.
Josh finds the door to his own home, the name on its door revealing that the house used to belong to Ray’s family. He moves inside, into his home’s basement, where he finds Jack asleep in the middle of the flooded basement and wakes him up.
Josh lays out his theory to his family about the townspeople being afraid of the rain, and the drugged food. Enid overhears Josh and mocks the boy, before the family chases her from their home. The older neighbor initially cowers on the front porch, before walking into the rain and collapsing.
By the time the ambulance the family called arrives, Enid is partially melted, leaving behind an artificial eye in the gutter. Sheriff Clote arrives and tries to feel out just how much Josh knows, but the boy is careful not to say. Later, after his family nods off in the kitchen, Josh breaks into Pickens Mortuary, finding Enid in a terrible state – but still alive. Pickens awakens from inside of a coffin and tries to grab Josh, but both of his arms fall off in the process.
Josh races home, only to find the house has sealed itself up, its doors and windows having vanished. Ray and his fellow bullies arrive, leading Josh to slug Ray, whose face cracks under the blow. Karen charges up in a vintage Cadillac, drives Josh to Sheriff Clote’s office at the edge of town, and tells him to never come back.
At Clote’s, the Sheriff pricks Josh’s finger to see if he bleeds, confirming that he’s not “one of them – the living dead”. When Clote is himself revealed to be one of the townsfolk, Josh realizes that he and his family are the only living people left in town. He confronts Dawes, who explains that the house has been draining the life force from his family since the moment they arrived – hence their constantly being sleepy, and the house looking better and better. He tells Josh that once a year, on May 14th, the house must take a life to replenish itself, a sacrifice given for Dark Falls founder Foster Devries, who passed away on that date but continues to live on within the very fabric of his former home. In return for these sacrifices, Devries grants those who give their lives the gift of immortality. In fact, all of the townsfolk who currently populate Dark Falls had at one time lived in that house. Josh sees that it’s 11:25pm – he has just over a half hour to save his family before midnight strikes.
Dawes orders his minions to put Josh and Petey in an open grave in the cemetery, which is then covered by a steel grate to prevent their escape. Once there, Josh and Petey dig their way through the grave into a nearby tunnel. They race to their home, finding Pickens placing their name on the tunnel door that leads into the house. Water from the flooded basement spills out, dissolving the handyman/former mortician where he stands.
Josh races into the home and wakes up his family. With the previous exits sealed shut, he ushers his family into the basement, only to find the tunnel door now sealed up with mud. The boy starts digging into the dirt walls of the basement, barely escaping. The rest of his family cannot fit through, finding themselves attacked by tentacled roots.
Josh soon uncovers Foster Devries, who begins to get out of his coffin. Josh hears rushing water, realizing that the flooding is being caused by the nearby Copperhead River, which threatens to break through the walls of the tunnel. Josh makes his way into the tunnel and up into a hardware store, where he’s confronted by Dawes and his goons. He lights a torch, triggering the sprinkler system and melting all but Dawes, who escapes.
The boy grabs a pickax, then heads back into the tunnel. There, Dawes arrives. Josh swings his pickaxe into the muddy tunnel wall, loosing a torrent of river water. Devries reaches out from his coffin, grabbing holding of Dawes’ arm just before the two are washed away. Josh and Petey escape the tunnels, heading up into Dawes’ house, where they are confronted by the man’s vicious German Shepherd. Petey lifts his leg and pees on the larger dog’s legs, melting them off. Before he leaves the house, Josh glimpses a tintype photo of Karen which reveals that she had died in 1915.
The river begins to flood the tunnels, eroding the foundation of the house, which begins to collapse into its basement. Josh and Amanda work together to remove bricks from around the basement windows, freeing their parents just in time. The house collapses completely, vanishing into the river below.
Afterwards, it appears as though the townsfolk of Dark Falls have all vanished. The family walks out of town, finding their way to a small roadside motel, all of their belongings gone. That night, as his family sleeps, Josh is awakened by a knock at his motel room door. Outside – Karen, Ray and all of the children of Dark Falls stand just outside, there to thank Josh for releasing their spirits before they dissipate.
On a country highway, TWO PATROLMEN find Devries’ coffin. Inside, the skeletons of both Devries and Dawes are found. The officers assume the coffin washed up from the waterfall underneath the town – a falls which gave the town its name.
As the story concludes, Josh’s family wakes up the next day, not remembering anything that occurred after they first visited the house. As Jack wonders what happened to the family car, Josh studies Petey, wondering if he’s forgotten as well.
“It doesn’t matter,” the script ends. “He’s happy to be scratched…and to be loved.”
It’s a shame genre fans young and old were denied this film, which would have found a legendary filmmaker tackling lighter fare for younger audiences. Worse still that this film would have seen Romero tackling the living dead yet again, albeit in a wildly different form from the zombies he’s known for. In fact, Romero’s take on the Dark Falls living dead is somewhat different from those presented in Stine’s novel, which were far more traditional than the feature script’s prosthetic-limbed, water soluble ghouls. It’s interesting to consider that Romero may have wanted to get away from being the “Living Dead guy”, if only for this children’s film.
In any case, we’re left without what might have been a turning point in Romero’s career. Had he made a successful kids film for a major studio in the mid-90s, who knows what the rest of his filmography might have looked like. Nevertheless, at least we have his screenplay, which can be viewed and read in the University of Pittsburgh Library System, which house this treasure and many, many more. Make that visit when you can, and let us know in the comments section what you think of Romero’s Goosebumps adaptation.
Very special thanks to Horror Studies Collection Coordinator Benjamin Rubin for his assistance with the research necessary for this article.
Goosebumps, George A. Romero Archival Collection, 1962-2017, SC.2019.03, Archives & Special Collections, University of Pittsburgh Library System
Goosebumps correspondence, George A. Romero Archival Collection, 1962-2017, SC.2019.03, Archives & Special Collections, University of Pittsburgh Library System