The Headless Ghost
© 1995 by Parachute Press. Cover Art by Tim Jacobus.
I enjoyed the way that The Headless Ghost shook up the tried and true Goosebumps format ever so slightly. Getting the background on Hill House and the Twin Terrors helped define the two main characters right out of the gate. There were some great ghost stories woven into the plot. The atmosphere is foreboding. Some of the visuals were among the goriest since Welcome to Dead House. The ending felt rushed, especially when you consider how short of a Goosebumps book this was. I got the sense the book had so many short chapters because it otherwise would have clocked in at under 100 pages. Where it succeeded in being creepy, The Headless Ghost stuck pretty close to familiar ghost tropes. It would have benefitted from leaning a bit more into its weirder elements, and I really wish it had. I also wish it had done more to weave the disparate ghost stories together. Shortcomings aside, The Headless Ghost managed to be one of the stronger and more enjoyable books in the series so far.
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Observations & Spoilers
Duane and Stephanie are the Twin Terrors. They are not really twins, just besties. But their favorite hobby is to sneak out of their houses at night and play weird pranks on their neighbors. They howl like werewolves and peek into the bedrooms of their classmates while wearing creepy masks. They have discovered at a very young age that creeping out their peers can be fun as hell. Besides, it’s not like there is all that much else to do in Wheeler Falls.
Duane and Stephanie also enjoy tours of Hill House, the only tourist destination of sorts in their small town. Their favorite tour guide is Otto, an old man who seems to really enjoy his job of scaring children. Rumor has it the house was built by an old sea captain who got lost at sea. Eventually, his wife left the house he built for them and now his ghosts still haunts the place. Years later the house was purchased by the Craw family. They had a son named Andrew who was a notorious asshole. Played lots of pranks and caused lots of trouble. Not unlike our homegrown Twin Terrors. The story goes that Andrew wandered into a hidden room and the sea captain stole his head so he could never leave. Now Andrew’s ghost is cursed to wander the halls of Hill House in search of his missing head.
Stephanie decides she is bored of their regular Twin Terror shenanigans one night after throwing fake spiders into the window of a kid they knew. She wants her and Duane to go back to Hill House and search for Andrew’s missing head. Duane protests but eventually relents because Stephanie is a bully. The next night they sneak off from the tour group while Otto is talking about all the other horrible fates met by members of the Craw family after Andrew’s demise. Duane notices a boy watching him and Stephanie. He’s creeped out by it but Stephanie shrugs it off. They explore some of the rooms that are not on the tour. They hear loud voices coming from a room that turns out to be empty. Then Otto catches them and sends them home. I thought you were the cool tour guide, Otto.
Outside they are confronted by the boy from the tour group. He tells them his name is Seth, and that he knows how they can see a real ghost in Hill House. He claims the real ghost hide from the tour groups and only comes out late at night. Stephanie and Duane agree to meet him back there the next night. They sneak into Hill House through a back entrance. Seth leads them into the kitchen and tells them a ghost story about the house that they had never heard before. A long time ago the dumb waiter was deemed to be haunted after meals kept disappearing from it. Then some buys visiting the house decided to play in it. A boy named Jeremy got stuck in between walls. When they finally got the dumb waited back down, they found his eyes, beating heart, and chattering teeth presented on a dinner platter.
Then Seth locks them in the kitchen and reveals that he is actually the ghost of Andrew. He needs to find a new head because he has to return the one he is using. He has set his sights on taking Duanes. When Andrew moves to attack, the three kids stumble into a hidden tunnel behind a fake wall. Duane and Stephanie run for it with Andrew in hot pursuit. They think they hit a dead end and try to climb up the wall. The wall gives way and reveals another hidden room. Inside the hidden room, they find Andrew’s missing head. Then the real spirit of Andrew appears; his is notably not the boy who has been chasing them. The ghost grabs ahold of his head and thanks Stephanie and Duane before disappearing again. OK, so one mystery is solved. But who the fuck is this kid Seth?
Turns out Seth is Otto’s nephew. He also likes playing pranks. Otto finds them and somehow doesn’t comment on the wall they destroyed. The kids try to tell him they saw a real ghost. Otto doesn’t believe them. Duane and Stephanie leave and decide to turn over a new leaf. They leave behind their whole Twin Terror routine. A few months later they decided to go on one last tour of Hill House. Otto and Edna are happy to see them. When they leave, they are stopped by the police. The officer wants to know what they were doing in Hill House. They explain that they were just taking the tour. Only… Hill House went out of business months ago. Meaning, Otto and Edna were also ghosts? It’s not clear, but that’s how the book ends.
So far as Stine’s twist endings go, this was a weak one. Does that mean Seth was also a ghost? Or was he a real boy who occasionally visited his ghost uncle? Do ghosts need a steady income to run a successful business? Is that why they closed down after Andrew’s head was found? All of these are very important questions that we may never know the answer to. There is no sequel to this one. I guess it will just have to be another one of life’s mysteries. Fun side story; for my senior art show in high school we had to make up an award for ourselves and design the trophy for it. I glued a bunch of headless dolls to a plank of wood and awarded myself “most headless.” So in a way, The Headless Ghost speaks to me on a deeper, spiritual level.
Overall, this was a fairly strong showing for a Goosebumps book. I wish the ending could have been drawn out a bit more. This was easily one of the shortest Goosebumps books and had room to move. More of a backstory on the creeper Seth would have been nice. I also wish the various ghost stories weaved together a bit more cohesively. Andrew’s connection to the sea captain was weak; as was the story behind the missing head. The dumb waiter story was great and would have been even better if it had been tied to something in the present. This is one of those rare instants where the show actually made some improvements by having Seth be the kid who got stuck in the dumb waiter. My bullet review for that is below. It’s notable here because There are very few instances of the show improving on the books.
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)
I’m wavering here. The concept was solid. I think I just wanted more real ghostly things instead of one scene at the end. That said, I was entertained and it holds up relatively well to scrutiny.
I liked the initial change in formatting that gave us the history of Hill House and the Twin Terrors before diving into the narrative. That said, I think the discovery of the head in the hidden room felt a bit rushed. More could have been done to tie the disparate ghost stories together.
I enjoyed the Twin Terrors. It was emblematic of the wild shit weird kids get into. I think the way that we got their history immediately gave them more depth than a typical Goosebumps book. Otto was also great, and even Seth was a little weirdo. A book full of weirdos gets full points from me.
This book delivered on atmosphere and places its characters in a genuinely creepy setting. There were threats of decapitation and a bowl full of chattering teeth on a dumb waiter. Not the scariest in the series, but it delivered where it needed to.
All told, this was a smattering of familiar haunted house tropes. But I think Stine’s unique blend of horror and comedy, plus its stronger-than-usual characters, helped elevate it to something better.
TV Adaptation – Bullet Review
• I’m going to have to find a new way to watch these now that Goosebumps is no longer on Netflix.
• This was one of the stronger TV adaptations.
• The kid playing Andrew needs some fucking chapstick. Seriously hard to look at.
• The twin terror aspect was really downplayed, which made sense given the time constraints but was still a bit of a bummer.
• The dynamic between Stephanie and Duane was also off, with Stephanie being much more of a bully and Duane being a doormat.
• The show did a better job than the book of tying all the different ghost stories together.
• Seth would have been perfectly cast if he were playing the same role as he did in the book, but I’m not sure tall and skinny is what I’d have gone for in casting the ice-creaming-eating kid who dies in the dumb waiter.
• I was a little bummed about the change in Otto as well. Having him be the sea captain did make more sense. I just liked him as the ghostly tour guide who enjoyed telling ghost stories to tourists.
• I did enjoy Andrew’s head yelling at his body to come to pick him up, even if it made no sense that he has stuck in the dumb waiter.
• The whole captain painting Stephanie as a ghost thing was a bit anti-climactic. Her ghost origin should have been a repercussion of her role as a twin terror.
• It helped that this was such a short book; much easier to squeeze it into a 24-minute episode.
Don’t miss the next post in my Goosebumps blog series:
Goosebumps #38: The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena
Also, be sure to check out the latest from the Pulp Horror blog series:
RL Stine’s The Beast