by R.L. Stine
The Babysitter remains one of R.L. Stine’s most notorious books outside of his Goosebumps and Fear Street titles, and rightly so. Jenny was a relatable and endearing protagonist. Stine did an excellent job with the pacing, slowly building the tension with some genuinely unnerving scenes. On the downside, I had some problems with the motives of the villain and there was some really shoddy police work that was presented as exceptional. I was also baffled by one particular action of Jenny’s mother, which I’ll save for the full review below because of spoilers. I’ll just say that sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between bad/oblivious parenting and things that were still considered OK in the late 1980s. Overall, I really enjoyed this one in spite of its flaws.
Observations & Spoilers:
The Babysitter tells the story of Jenny, who takes a twice-a-week gig babysitting babysitting Donny on the far side of town. It’s in a creepy old house and there’s been a prowler going around beating up babysitters, but Jenny needs the money and she genuinely likes the Donny. Donny’s father, Mr. Hagan, is very anxious and overbearing but his intentions seem good. But of course the creepy instances start on the first night, and then gradually escalate from there. First, there’s the neighbor, Willers, who stops by to “check on things.” Then there’s a phone call of someone breathing, followed almost immediately by a threatening call that warns Jenny that “company’s coming.”
At first, Jenny suspects that it’s Chuck, a practical joker from school who has a crush on her. Her suspicions are all-but-confirmed when she finds out that her mom, of all people, gave Chuck the address and phone number to the Hagan’s house. Seriously, what the fuck, Mom? Did moms just do shit like that back in the 80s? Would they have seen no potential problem with telling a strange boy from school where to find their daughter while she was babysitting alone? Or was this just particularly oblivious parenting? This would never fly in a book today, but I’m not sure it would have even worked in 1989.
After the phone calls, things escalate. Chuck has a good alibi, and Jenny wants to believe him. He confesses to the first phone call but knows nothing about the threats. He just got nervous and couldn’t talk. Believable considering the awkwardness of high school romance. But then Jenny gets a threatening note in her bag, which Chuck could have easily placed. She also catches Willer’s poking around the yard again, and after a second threatening phone call she decides to call the police. She’s given a number for a detective. Finally, Jenny is approached by Willers at the bus stop and runs from him. That’s when the Hagans tell her they have no neighbor named Willers. Scared for her safety, that night Jenny invites her friends over to keep her company and thus one of Mr. Hagan’s cardinal rules. So of course they all get caught.
Jenny’s friends leave, and Mr. Hagan insists on driving Jenny home. When she’s getting her coat from the closet, she accidentally stumbles on a collection of newspaper clippings about the babysitter prowler. Among them is an article about the accidental death of Donny’s sister, who died while in the care of a babysitter. She tries to cover up the fact that she saw the clippings, but she suspects that Mr. Hagan knew, and despite her better judgment she gets in the car with him. As Mr. Hagan takes a turn going away from Jenny’s house, Jenny finally realizes that her suspicions were all true. There’s a life lesson in these pages: when someone creeps you the fuck out, trust your gut and get the fuck away from them.
Mr. Hagan reveals himself to be completely unhinged. He was the one who made all the calls. He was the one going around beating up babysitters. And now Jenny knows too much so he needs to kill her. This is where Mr. Hagan’s motivations descend into some really bizarre villain logic. After the death of his daughter, he blamed the babysitter. But instead of seeking revenge on that babysitter, he starts a crusade against the entire profession? It would have made way more sense if Jenny had been the babysitter when his daughter had died and Mr. Hagan wanted to get her back. The fact that he was unhinged was believable; the degree to which he was unhinged was not.
The climax leads to a showdown in the rock quarry, where Mr. Hagan plans to throw Jenny to her death. But he is thwarted by Willers, who was secretly Detective Ferris investigating the babysitter prowler. Mr. Hagan is shot and falls over the edge, Jenny is brought home safe, and Chuck is cleared of all suspicions. But no one ever addresses the really shoddy police work on behalf of Detective Ferris. He’s treated as a hero because he saves Jenny just in time, but it was his own negligence that allowed her to end up at the rock quarry in the first place. Had he just identified himself and given Jenny his card on that first night, the two might have solved it together. It probably would not have been a good horror story, but I’m not just going to overlook the shitty detective being written as a hero.
The Babysitter was published in 1989, which is the same year as the first three Fear Street books. It felt like it could easily have been set in Shadyside along with them. Luckily for us, it’s also a quadrilogy and I’m going to read them all. You can look forward to my review of The Babysitter II next September.
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).
The prowler going around beating up babysitters was a bit of an eye-roller, but Jenny’s narrative was sound and compelling.
Even though I didn’t like the ending as it was written, I really like the way this story was structured and the tension was built to lead up to that final scene at the quarry.
Jenny was really well done, and Stine did a good job at casting other people as suspects so we didn’t guess it was Mr. Hagan outright. Mr. Hagan was a tad too unhinged for believability, but at least he didn’t fully descend into caricature villain land.
Scare Factor: 2/2
The creepy phone calls, the isolated old house, the neighbor lurking around outside, the threatening notes. I love the way Stine used genuinely scary things for a teenager in Jenny’s situation and gradually escalated it throughout the book.
This is pretty by-the-numbers for a horror story, and I didn’t love the ending even though I enjoyed the rest of it.
There are no adaptations of The Babysitter, but it’s been confirmed that one is in development from Lookout Entertainment!
Don’t miss the next post in the Pulp Horror blog series:
Richie Tankersley Cusick’s The Locker