R.L. Stine’s massively successful book series GOOSEBUMPS became a multimedia juggernaut in the 1990s, with a successful TV series and all kinds of video games and other merchandise. It continues to go strong to this day, with a successful 2015 film that’s soon getting a sequel, and new books being released regularly, currently under the title GOOSEBUMPS: SLAPPYWORLD.
It’s not even Stine’s only popular book series; his more teen-centric horror series FEAR STREET has existed in some form or another since 1989 (predating GOOSEBUMPS by three years), with Stine recently having written new novels for it starting in 2014.
And then there’s THE NIGHTMARE ROOM. For whatever reason, it appears to be the redheaded stepchild in Stine’s résumé. A look at the long list of the author’s books on his website fails to list any of the titles, and there’s no mention of its short-lived TV counterpart, which aired for one season on Kids’ WB from 2001 to 2002. Oddly enough, the website for the series still stands, in all of its early 2000’s glory.
As a kid, I remember being insanely excited for THE NIGHTMARE ROOM. The GOOSEBUMPS TV show had ended its final season, and Stine’s then-last Goosebumps book series, GOOSEBUMPS 2000, seemed to have wrapped as well. From the point of view of a monster kid who was absolutely obsessed with anything with R.L. Stine’s name on it, THE NIGHTMARE ROOM seemed to be a little darker, a little scarier; it looked like it could be a good bridge between the child-friendly monster fun of GOOSEBUMPS and the mature YA scares of FEAR STREET.
With that in mind, I’m going to be examining the TV series.
THE NIGHTMARE ROOM’s opening credits certainly feel more intense than that of GOOSEBUMPS’. While GOOSEBUMPS boasts a now iconic instrumental theme, there was always a fun, goofy vibe beneath the layers of green slime and monster montages. THE NIGHTMARE ROOM isn’t interested in any kind of ghoulish laughs; it opens on a shot of a young boy lying in bed, sleeping restlessly in the dark. What follows is a succession of close ups on all sorts of spooky imagery: Halloween masks, silhouettes of wolves howling at a full moon, and the piercing eyes of a mad author as he types away frantically at his typewriter, possessed. A voiceover from James Avery (yes, the same man who voiced Shredder and played Uncle Phil) warns us about a world that exists only in the dark, and that we can’t fall asleep, lest we find ourselves in…you guessed it, THE NIGHTMARE ROOM.
The show had some episodes that did actually manage to unnerve me pretty badly as a kid, and viewing them again as an adult, I can see why. The show’s first episode, appropriately adapted from the debut book of the series, is “Don’t Forget Me,” a story about a young girl Danielle (played by Amanda Bynes) whose sense of reality begins to unravel when, after a game of hypnosis with her brother goes wrong, she discovers that her brother has disappeared, and nobody else remembers him. Soon enough, she begins to see visions of her brother, urging her not to forget him. But that’s just the beginning of Danielle’s problems, because soon her parents and friends stop being able to remember her too. As she fights to keep herself from disappearing, she begins to suspect that the house her family has just moved into might be the cause of her (alarmingly literal) existential crisis…
The fear of being forgotten is something Stine’s tackled before, specifically in the GOOSEBUMPS tale “A Night in Terror Tower.” Stine has mentioned that as a child, his family moved around a lot, and this caused him to always feel like a bit of an outsider. Judging by his consistent use of characters being new in town, and in some stories, being forgotten due to some supernatural occurrence, it’s clear that these fears of feeling lost and without an identity continue to be a source of dark inspiration for him. “Don’t Forget Me” is pretty damn effective at evoking the feelings of helplessness and desperation that its premise offers.
Another notable episode, “Scareful What You Wish For,” focuses on the potential terrors of sentient childhood toys. When newly teenaged Dylan (Shia Labeouf) begins packing away his old toys, he comes across a doll that he used to play with all the time as a kid, but simply tosses it into another cardboard box. Shortly after, he starts being followed around by a child dressed exactly like the doll, and his friends become the victims of bizarre and increasingly hazardous “accidents.” It becomes clear that Dylan’s past is literally haunting him, and won’t stop until he turns around and faces it. I won’t spoil the ending for any curious folk willing to track the episode down and watch it, but let’s just say that it was frightening enough to scare the living hell out of me and my little brother, who developed a fear of dolls for some time after that (ironically, one of his favorite horror franchises these days is the CHILD’S PLAY series).
Though THE NIGHTMARE ROOM only had a total run of thirteen episodes, it features quite a few eerie teleplays worth a replay. “Full Moon Halloween” is a fun and suspenseful story about a kid who lures his friends to his house with invitations to a Halloween party, only for it to end up being a test to see who among them is a werewolf. Not just any werewolf, mind you. This one’s been terrorizing their town, and has recently attacked the host’s brother. As the night goes on and the challenges grow more dangerous, the viewer is kept guessing as to just who in the group could be the lycanthrope.
There’s also “Locker 13”, a story of a superstitious kid assigned to a locker with that famous unlucky number, who soon begins to experience premonitions of the bad luck that’s to befall him, and “Four Eyes” which basically plays like a kid’s version of THEY LIVE, right down to the conceit of a kid who can see aliens with his special glasses. Not only are the stories genuinely scary, but eagle-eyed genre fans will be able to spot numerous familiar faces, such as Angus Scrimm (PHANTASM), David Carradine (KILL BILL), Ken Foree (DAWN OF THE DEAD) and John C. McGinley (CRAZY AS HELL, STAN AGAINST EVIL).
While THE NIGHTMARE ROOM might not be the scariest kids show around (that title still goes to ARE YOUR AFRAID OF THE DARK?), it certainly holds up as a markedly darker entity, something that was certainly trying to provide some real scares for its young audience. Both the show and its literary source were an earnest attempt at darker stuff, and I’m honestly a bit stumped as to why both ended so quickly and seem to have been forgotten even quicker.
Though the show was briefly in reruns on Chiller and has been partially released on DVD (only eight of its thirteen episodes were ever put to disc), it has gotten no official digital release, and is currently best viewed on unofficial YouTube postings. If you’ve got a taste for some under-the-radar nostalgic horror, this writer recommends spending a little time hanging out in THE NIGHTMARE ROOM.
Just don’t let that door lock behind you…