Goosebumps #22: Ghost Beach
Ghost Beach was almost as creepy as I remembered it being. It did a great job of making the beach scary, built an excellent atmosphere, and delivered some truly spooky scenes. That being said, the overall concept ended up being half-baked. Jerry and Terri were two strong main characters, but almost every other character had really unclear and contradictory motives. I was reminded of Welcome to Dead House, where I was left wanting a better explanation behind the creepy town and its people. It frustrating because with another round or two of edits I think this could have been one of the best books in the series. It had all the right elements, but it fell apart when it came to actually making any sense. These issues clearly didn’t bother me when I was a child, so maybe it’s less of a problem than I am making it out to be, but I stand by my rating. Ghost Beach falls frustratingly short of the book it could have been.
ERMAHGERD #22: Ghost Beach. Photo by Yours Truly with assistance by Dierre Taylor.
Observations & Spoilers
Jerry and Terri are the fantastically named brother and sister protagonists. They get invited to spend the summer with their distant elderly cousins Brad and Agatha out on the beach. They meet some weird kids who tell them about a ghost in a cave on the beach. Of course, Terri and Jerry are interested, but the three local kids definitely aren’t telling them everything. Brad and Agatha warn them to stay away from the cave. You’ll never guess what happens next.
They didn’t listen. One night they end up sneaking into the cave one night and see a creepy ghost man lighting candles. They barely escape with their lives. When they tell the local kids about it, the locals try and enlist Terri and Jerry’s help of trapping him in the cave. Because ghosts can’t move through rock because of science. It’s just a fact. Ghosts can’t move through rocks and are scared of dogs, dummies are hellbent on world domination, and middle schoolers frequently make terrible decisions. These are all undisputed Goosebumps facts.
Jerry and Terri get caught trying to trap the ghost in the cave. He turns out to not be a ghost, but a distant relative of theirs. He tells them the story of their distant relatives all dying and starving in their first winter after settling in the new town. The local kids turn out to be ghosts, Harrison says they’re evil and he wants to kill them. He then calls a dog from out of nowhere to trap the kids in the cave with him. It collapses, but Terri and Jerry escape. They run home to Brad and Agatha and tell them everything. Then the dog follows them home, and his aggressive barking informs the kids that… wait for it… Brad and Agatha are ghosts too.
The ending definitely seems to imply that Brad and Agatha might be willing to kill the kids to keep their secret. One of the better ominous endings in the series. Ghost Beach was one of my favorites as a kid, though I didn’t remember anything specific about it. It was creepy and unsettling, and apparently, those were my favorite kind. See The Ghost Next Door and Welcome to Dead House for similar examples. Unfortunately, Ghost Beach fell short in explaining itself and its characters. It left me wanting more.
I’ll start with Harrison, the ghost who turned out to be a distant cousin and an occult scholar. Harrison’s logic and planning skills were severely lacking. How does living in a cave and lighting candles at night to kill the ghosts make any sense? Sure, ghosts can’t pass through rock. But does he ever leave for food? Where was he keeping the dog? He studied the occult, why was he so scared of the ghost kids? Wouldn’t he be more fascinated by them? Could he have been driven mad by something they did to him? What evil did they do aside from planning on making Terri and Jerry their forever friends? If I ever meet R.L. Stine in person I promise to frantically ask him all of these.
Then there’s the issue of those local ghost kids. Did they like Terri and Jerry so much that they wanted them to stay forever? It was never entirely clear what they wanted beyond trapping Harrison and maybe having Terri and Jerry “join” them. Maybe being child ghosts for 300+ years had driven them mad? And that just begs the question of why Brad and Agatha didn’t warn Jerry and Terri about them. It would seem that Brad and Agatha are content being ghosts and like having their living relatives visit them, but the local ghost children seem to be a serious threat to all of that. So it struck me as odd that they didn’t even have some sort of contingency plan for protecting Terri and Jerry from the troublemakers of their ghost commune.
Like Welcome to Dead House, the community and culture of this creepy ghost town was lacking. Give me bizarre rituals and rules, and give the ghosts people motivations that actually make sense! I also want to take a moment to appreciate how a dog aggressively barking at someone is treated as scientific proof of ghostdom in Goosebumps books. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been some pretty dumb dogs in my day. But I digress. Ghost Beach got more right than it got wrong, and what it got right were my favorite elements of horror. I only wish the rest of it held up under scrutiny.
For the scoring of each book, I decided to rate them based on five criteria worth 2 points each. I then split that in two to give it a rating out of 5 stars. Those criteria are Concept (the overall idea), Execution (the mechanics of storytelling), Character (the protagonists, antagonists, and villains), Scare Factor (from a childhood standpoint), and Originality (subversion and reliance on genre tropes). Based on GoodReads aggregate ratings, Ghost Beach is ranked 12th of 62, placing it in the top tier of the series.
I wanted to give this the full points but the concept was only partially formed. It left too many questions, and not the kind you want to be left with. It didn’t need to explain everything, but what it’s lacking deprived the story of having more depth.
On one hand, this was paced nicely and created a spooky atmosphere from the jump. On the other, it had a lot of characters showing up in ways and places that didn’t make much sense.
I liked Terri and Jerry a lot, I thought they were some of the better protagonists in this series. I even liked the other mysterious characters at the onset, but their motives were bizarre or missing altogether.
Scare Factor: 2/2
This had some great atmosphere and some of the best creepy scenes in the Goosebumps series so far. Not to mention that knife-twist ending. This one terrified me as a kid, and on that level, it really holds up.
RL Stine made the beach scary. And not in the teen slasher way typical in the Fear Street and Point Horror books. There was also a really interesting concept about the Sadler family. I just wish it had been fleshed out better.
TV Adaptation – Bullet Review
• The show has no sense of atmosphere. Comparing the opening credits of Goosebumps to Are You Afraid of the Dark shows a big part of how this show really missed the mark on that front.
• The first graveyard rubbing Terri does is of Harrison Sadler, so we’re already contradicting the book a bit.
• Poor Nat got eliminated. Only 2 ghost siblings in this version. It was a wise choice, though.
• Brad and Agatha have even less clear motives than in the book. It was like they actively decided to come up with really bad cover stories.
• Jerry trips a lot. Don’t remember that in the book.
• The cave sure was way less cool than what the book describes. Such are the perils of on-location filming permits with a shoestring budget.
• Their first encounter with Harrison was way less creepy.
• The dog was a bit less contrived than in the book. You can hear it barking in the background.
• Ghost politics. Who’s telling the truth!?
• Where did the ghosts get photos of Jerry and Terri for their headstones? While we’re at it, who made the headstones on the book?
• That CGI lightning aged wonderfully.
• Would Brad and Agatha speak strangely and have unplaceable accents? You’d think they would. Some Ye Olde English mixed with modern slang.
• I liked the implication that they were going to eat the dog at the end, and not murder Jerry and Terri. But also couldn’t they have just said “we’re allergic to dogs, don’t let it in?” You would think ghosts who’ve survived for 300 years without detection would have better cover stories figured out.
Don’t miss the next post in my Goosebumps blog series:
Goosebumps #23: Return of the Mummy
Coming in January 2021.
Also, be sure to check out the latest from the Pulp Horror blog series:
Richie Tankersley Cusick’s The Locker.