Night of the Living Dummy
© 1993 by Parachute Press. Cover Art by Tim Jacobus.
Night of the Living Dummy is one of the best-remembered and most iconic books of the Goosebumps series. It does not live up to its hype. The twin protagonists of the story are straight-up awful. It might have been a spot-on characterization of preadolescent twin sibling rivalry, but it sure made them impossible to empathize with. There is an inherent creepiness to ventriloquist dummies, but the book did little to build on that premise. Mr. Wood came off as more cartoonishly evil than I would have hoped. To cap it off, the twist ending felt cheap, and I usually love Stine’s twist endings. All in all, this one was a real letdown.
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Ermahgerd #7: Night of the Living Dummy.
© 2019 by Daniel Stalter. All rights reserved.
Photo by Daniel Stalter.
Observations & Spoilers
An early tell that the Powell family was going to be terrible was that their dog’s name was Barky. Who names their dog Barky? Assholes name their dog Barky. Lo and behold, Kris and Lindy turned out to be assholes.
When Lindy finds a ventriloquist dummy in a dumpster, Kris quickly becomes jealous of her sister and the dummy Slappy. This level of sibling rivalry is understandable. The twin’s parents only made things worse by buying Kris her own dummy, Mr. Wood. Lindy is rightfully mad that Kris won’t let her have her own thing, and so she stages a series of elaborate pranks to make Kris believe that Mr. Wood has come to life. This takes up a full two-thirds of the book. The pranks just felt like a waste of time.
It isn’t until Kris finds a small piece of paper in Mr. Wood’s jacket and reads aloud the incantation written on it, that things start to get interesting. First Mr. Wood gets Kris in trouble by insulting their next-door neighbors. Mr. Wood ups his game by spewing some kind of foul-smelling green liquid all over a bunch of parents at Kris’ recital. This was a fun scene, but things kind of petered out after that.
Privately Mr. Wood tells Kris and Lindy he’s going to make them their slaves… then doesn’t really do all that much except to try and run away from them. They seem to tackle him easily, which means he’s not particularly strong. He plays dead in front of Mr. And Mrs. Powell, so it’s not clear if he intends to make them slaves as well. Beyond speaking putrid green liquid, he doesn’t seem to have any magic powers. Eventually, he is crushed underneath some construction equipment during an anti-climatic chase scene.
What are the motivations of a puppet brought to life by a magic spell? Mr. Wood clearly wants to turn children into slaves, but it’s not clear how or to what end. It would have been creepier if Mr. Wood was somehow able to start exerting control over Kris and Lindy, much like a human controls a dummy. That could have given it an extra creepy little twist. The idea of some deranged doll controlling what you can say and do is pretty scary. Unfortunately, nothing like that ever happened. It was almost as if Mr. Wood expected people to become his slaves by the mere act of telling them “You will be my slaves!”
Another take could have been for Mr. Wood to befriend Kris by taking her side in the sibling rivalry, which goes great for Kris until she loses control of the situation. That would have made for some interesting themes and twists. In the end, Stine finally brings the famed Slappy to life. The twist ending is a signature element of the Goosebumps series. Some of them are fun, some terrifying. This one just felt kind of cheap and predictable. I really hope the sequels are better.
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 strength of the overall idea
Execution: the mechanics of storytelling
Character: the protagonists, antagonists, and villains
Intent: does it succeed in being the kind of book it wants to be?
Originality: subversion and reliance on genre tropes
The concept for a good scary story was there, it just got lost in the execution. Even the awful twins could have been made more bearable if so much of the book hadn’t been spent on one of them pranking the other.
The first two-thirds of the book is wasted on the twins being awful to one another; Mr. Wood doesn’t even come to life until the book is nearly over. I felt like the whole subplot Lindy’s elaborate prank should have been scrapped and replaced with some legit creepy dummy scenes.
The twins were awful, but in a way that felt deliberate and believable. Mr. Wood could have been a lot more interesting if he had better motives and tactics. It wasn’t clear why he was evil and wanted to make the children his slaves, nor was it clear what his powers were beyond spewing putrid green liquid from his mouth. I think the story would have been much stronger if he were subtle and deranged as opposed to cartoonishly evil.
Dummies are creepy in and of themselves, and ventriloquism is outright bizarre when you think about it for long enough. Still, I don’t think that the book did anything to build on this so I’m docking 1 point. Maybe instead of having the Dummy simply demand that the kids be his slaves, he could have exhibited powers of actual control over them. Now that would have been scary.
I’ll give it 1 point for being one of the most iconic Goosebumps books and playing off of the creepiness of ventriloquism. Aside from that, there are obvious comparisons that one could draw to the Child’s Play and Puppet Master movies, among others.
TV Adaptation – Bullet Review
There’s no TV adaptation for this one, but there are episodes for both sequels.
It will be a few years before I get to posting about them, though.
Don’t miss the next blog in this series:
Goosebumps #8: The Girl Who Cried Monster
Also, be sure to check out the latest from my Fear Street blog series:
Fear Street Super Chiller #2: Silent Night