Welcome to Dead House was originally published in July 1992 (Spine #1). The series adaptation aired on Sunday, June 29, 1997 (runtime: 22 minutes and 22 minutes).
Before there were dummies, creatures lurking beneath the sink and everything eating blobs, there was a house. Derelict and towering, the structure came bathed in moody blue, accented only by the fiery otherworldly glow emanating from its open front door and neighboring window. Inside a shadowy figure looms, an ominous welcome party for what would be the first ever entrant in R.L. Stine’s decades spanning series.
For with Welcome to Dead House, Goosebumps was born.
Having already penned countless tales of terror and entries into his slightly more adult horror anthology Fear Street, the advent of Goosebumps expanded R.L. Stine’s oeuvre to invite the whole of adolescence into the spooky and the strange with open arms. Still, despite their intended age groups, the early titles in the Goosebumps canon come with slightly sharper edges, headier stakes and not so subtle grotesqueries that would become sanded down as the years went on.
Being the first to don the dripping, bumpy title, Welcome to Dead House is perhaps the best example of the series’ darker tendencies. While constructed utilizing all the hallmarks of a great Goosebumps outing, it’s a story unafraid to delve into unflinching moments of terror, loss and monstrousness that may only be hinted at in future installments. Such an approach ensured that the book would not only be the first foray into the series but one of the best and most effective.
It took several years for the story to make the leap to the screen, arriving as a one hour primetime special midway through the show’s second season. A notably different adaptation, the episode simplified the premise, keeping the action to a limited number of locations and undercutting the scope and small-town politics on the page.
Goosebumps would go on to inspire generation after generation of young minds to dip their toes ever deeper into the bubbling bog of churning horror in dozens of forms and formats, but such a legacy would evaporate into a ghostly mist if not for the book that started it all. Bringing that to life on screen came with a great deal of responsibility, toeing the line between fun and scary in a more visceral way than kids may have been used to seeing on their televisions. All in all, despite its flaws, the episode delivers one of the show’s more memorable and disturbing turns, befitting the equal parts fun and frightening 123 pages that started it all.
Amanda and her brother Josh are moving and they’re not happy about it. Their family may have inherited a big, old house in Dark Falls, but it’s gross and falling apart. The town is gloomy and deserted. And, worse yet, Amanda keeps seeing someone in her room and hearing voices at night. The neighborhood kids seem nice enough, but they’re always disappearing just as the sun emerges in the afternoon. Even their family dog Petey is miserable, barking at nothing and always running off. Something’s wrong in Dark Falls and if Amanda’s not careful, her whole family might be making it their permanent resting place.
Welcome to Dead House was released in July of 1992, kicking off the Goosebumps franchise with an atmospheric story about two kids who can’t find their footing in a new town (that also happens to be inhabited by the undead). It’s a striking and engaging beginning to what would become an essential series in the genre landscape, catering to a demographic that had been woefully underserved in the scary department.
Amanda and Josh hate their new house, that much is clear on both the page and the screen. In the book, the Benson family spends the first few chapters checking out the strange house that they’ve inherited from a great-uncle they had never met. They meet Mr. Dawes the real estate agent and explore Dark Falls, a dead looking place covered in dried leaves, weeds and hidden in the shadows of giant, gnarled trees.
Although pleased with the spaciousness of the place and the prospect of mapping out her new room, Amanda’s initial concerns are confirmed when she sees a strange boy in her doorway. She hurries downstairs to tell Josh but finds both he and their dog have gone missing. The family drives around the empty town, passing by the closed school and finds the missing family members in a nearby cemetery. After finalizing things with Mr. Dawes at his office, they drive home. Weeks pass and soon it’s time for Amanda to say goodbye to her best friend Kathy and make the move to Dark Falls for good.
This is where the episode begins, as the Bensons make the drive to move into their new home, which, incidentally, they purchased for a good price rather than inherited mysteriously. In lieu of the character development afforded to the siblings on the page, the two simply bicker for a few moments on screen, alluding to Amanda’s sour attitude and Josh’s sense of snappy, selfish adolescence. Onscreen, the family passes abandoned buildings and empty mills, providing a backdrop of class disparity that the book lacks, aided by Mr. Benson’s comments that the town had lost a lot of jobs recently.
Upon arrival, the book and the episode sync up for a moment, as Amanda spots a boy in her bedroom window. On the page, the moment resonates more strongly as he matches the boy she saw in her doorway, but the effect is the same regardless. The house in the episode is far more ramshackle than the one in the book. As opposed to freshly painted walls, the living quarters onscreen are marred and stained with a sense of abandonment.
On the page, Amanda runs up to confront the boy only to find no one there. In the episode, she looks out the window and sees a face behind her in the darkness which turns out to be Mr. Dawes. The Dawes in the episode is not the kindly, handsome man from the book, rather an odd, uneasy character who invites mistrust. This is made all the more evident when the episode makes its largest deviation, introducing an heirloom family wreath hung in the living room. Absent from the book, this wreath draws particular ire from Mr. Dawes whose discomfort in the face of the wreath drives him from the house in a hurry.
The next several chapters in the book follow Amanda as she navigates the house, hearing strange whispers and giggling from empty rooms and seeing more shadowy figures in the darkness. Torn between whether her brother is messing with her or whether the house is actually haunted, she dreams of her family as dead and skeletal, not all that dissimilar from the dream in the later Goosebumps book Say Cheese and Die!. In the dream, her rotting family gnaws hungrily on human bones. Josh has a dream too, about two mean boys in his room ridiculing him. Most of this is omitted on the screen, with the exception of Amanda’s run-in with a girl in the hallway and some strange noises.
Here the book and the screen align once more as Amanda, Josh and Petey set out on the streets of Dark Falls to explore. In both versions, the streets are empty and shaded. In the episode, they encounter a pale, silent man who watches them from the shadows of his garage. Kids begin to emerge from the bushes, converging on them threateningly. Petey barks and the kids form a circle around them. Finally, one emerges and introduces himself as Ray, a boy who used to live in their house. A girl named Karen introduces herself as well. Josh asks if they want to play baseball but Ray declines and the town’s kids disperse.
In the book, the Benson kids also meet Ray. However, instead of cryptic and intimidating, he’s kind and engaging. Amanda does recognize him as the boy in her house, but he laughs it off as a joke admitting that he did used to live there. They go to the park with Ray and meet a group of kids already playing there. Amanda meets a nice girl named Karen and things seem to be going well. Then, suddenly the kids form a circle around Amanda and Josh. Amanda knows that something has changed as they close in.
It’s only when Mr. Dawes approaches that the circle disbands. Instead of disappearing, the kids make their way to the field and play baseball, leading Amanda to believe that her concerns were merely in her head. Still, similar to the screen, when the sun appears, the game ends and the kids hurry home. On the page, the Benson’s continue to hang out with the kids at the playground over the next few weeks, never seeing them for very long.
The episode continues to deviate ever further from the page, providing Amanda with another vision of a girl in her room, warning her to get out. Amanda never trusts the kids or the town as she does in the book, culminating in Petey’s discovery of an old newspaper in her closet. The headline reads, “ACCIDENT AT CHEMICAL FACTORY KILLS WORKERS”. Mr. Benson calls Mr. Dawes, concerned about the potential for pollution in the area, but Dawes assuages his fears. Karen arrives and comments on the family’s wreath, saying it gives her a “creepy” feeling. That’s when they realize that Petey has gone missing.
Petey goes missing in the book as well. After searching all day, Josh wakes Amanda in the middle of the night to accompany him to the graveyard, recalling Petey’s earlier fixation. On their way, they encounter Ray who warns them off and pleads for them to turn back. They press on and arrive at the graveyard, finding Petey and discovering a hidden meeting place in the process. But Petey was different, unresponsive and sour smelling. That’s when they discover the gravestones.
Name after name of the kids they’d met at the park, including Karen and Ray. Worse yet, these people died as children, so they couldn’t be grandparents or elder relatives. Apologetically, Ray reveals that dogs are killed first and that the Benson’s demise wasn’t supposed to arrive for another few weeks. The people of Dark Falls are the undead, they require fresh blood and Ray’s job is to watch— that’s why the Benson’s were invited to the house, or, the “Dead House” as they refer to it.
In the episode, Amanda and Josh venture into the woods to look for Petey. They quickly stumble upon a group of people meeting amongst an overgrown cemetery. Pale and sickly, their skin peeling from their faces and appendages, the townspeople discuss their need to feed and how dangerous it is to be meeting in the daytime. They discover the Benson kids and, like in the book, Ray exposes the truth of the situation. A chase ensues with some fairly effective zombie iconography, including gnawing jaws snapping at Amanda’s flesh and countless hands desperately reaching and grabbing through iron gates that would be enough to petrify any younger, wide eyed viewer. Finally Amanda and Josh arrive at home, where their parents are entertaining Karen’s parents.
On the page, Ray descends on Amanda, floating over her, only to be halted by Josh’s flashlight. Under the beam, Ray’s skin melts off his face, sagging and contorting away from his skull. His eyeballs drop from their sockets and his body falls, cracking against a gravestone and splattering what’s left of him on the ground in what is easily one of the Goosebumps series’ most gruesome moments. Amanda and Josh hurry home but their parents are out. The neighborhood kids begin to appear, closing in on them once more, saying they too used to live in the house and are now dead there.
The two climaxes, while similar in nature, arrive at their destinations in very different ways. On the screen, Karen’s parents corroborate Amanda and Josh’s story, explaining that after the accident at the plant those contaminated became the walking dead, requiring the flesh of the living to survive. They convince the Benson’s that the wreath is cursed, so they burn it, which only further enables the undead who are encircling the house. The wreath had been protecting them and was the only reason the Benson’s were still alive.
The Bensons hurry upstairs to the attic as the undead burst through walls and floorboards. Amanda pulls boards off of windows and unleashes the sunlight, turning the creatures to smoke and dust. The family escapes as Mr. Dawes hurries after them shouting that they can refinance. As they drive away, they spot Petey and pick him up. They mention he smells bad and then the dog turns gray, barking menacingly as the episode ends.
In the book, Mr. Dawes arrives and the malicious kids disappear. He hurries Amanda and Josh into his car to help them escape. They arrive at the cemetery, where the Benson’s parents are apparently waiting. Mr. Dawes recoils a bit as Josh reveals his flashlight but they continue on. Josh sees Petey and chases after him, unaware that Petey is one of the undead. That’s when they find Mr. Dawes’ gravestone, dropping the flashlight and breaking it. Mr. Dawes tells them that Dark Falls was once a normal town, before a yellow gas escaped from the factory and killed the entire populace. He assures the children that it doesn’t hurt to die.
Josh slams the broken flashlight against Mr. Dawes, breaking his skin and exposing gray skull. The Benson kids escape, hiding as the town assembles in the meeting space. Their parents are bound on the stage, awaiting their fate. Dawn passes and Amanda realizes the large, dead tree at the edge of the meeting space is providing the only shade. Amanda and Josh push at the base of the dead tree. Angry voices and footsteps sound. The tree falls regardless, flooding the space with sunlight.
Their skin melts away, their bones collapse and their hair falls to the ground. Amanda catches a glimpse of Karen who casts her a look of regret and thanks as the town crumbles. The Bensons hurry home and pack up the car, meeting a red station wagon as they leave. A family emerges and Amanda mentions she used to live in what appears to be their new house. She spots a figure emerging from the house with a clipboard, he looks like Mr. Dawes. Amanda slams the door and the Bensons speed away.
Despite their differences, both versions take their leave with the undead just as restless and just as hungry as they were at the start.
Nothing in Welcome to Dead House may have the pithy wit of a sarcastic ventriloquist dummy or the bulbous mass of a gelatinous creature capable of inconceivable consumption, but its unnerving atmosphere, disquieting imagery and gory goings on make for one of Goosebumps’ most important and memorable tomes.
By starting with the tropes and expectations laid at the feet of every classic haunted house story and infusing it with flesh eating zombies, R.L. Stine kicks Goosebumps off with horrifying flair. The book provides the familiar entry point of relatable kids in a relatable situation that the books are so well known for, while refusing to pull any punches— after all, not even the family dog is safe.
The episode of the iconic TV series, helmed by returning Goosebumps director William Fruet, captures the atmosphere of the town as it’s presented on the page, adding in a touch of socio-economic commentary. Both versions play with superstition and the trust fostered by friends and family in different ways, the book exploring relationships more completely while the TV show embraces the presence and importance of an heirloom wreath, all the while mining their scares from a predatory external force more than willing to take advantage.
Ultimately, the book lands as a series high, establishing a standard of quality, fear and fun that all of the books that followed would strive to achieve. On the screen, the story struggles to capture the same level of scares and energy, but valiantly builds its world with the means available to it, standing as an entertaining and, at times, even harrowing supplement. It may not be the first title that comes up whenever the subject of Goosebumps arises, but there are few covers, stories and images in the R.L. Stine canon that conjure the best of what it has to offer than those found inside the cold, towering walls of what the residents of Dark Falls so lovingly refer to as the Dead House.