Discover more from Rereading My Childhood by Amy A. Cowan
Goosebumps: The Haunted Mask by R. L. Stine
In which I lament the death of Trick-or-Treating, friends are non-friends, and there is running - just running.
The year 2020 was tough on everyone for many different reasons. One of the biggest casualties for me was Halloween. Sure, the pop-up stores in vacant K-Marts still managed to appear without warning, but their merchandise was lacking. The costumes and the pop culture apparel were dusty. The decorations were from last year. The displays were noticeably absent. And who could blame them? 2020’s Halloween was nonexistent for those of us who wanted to be responsible and keep others safe. Sure, we knew people who still went to Halloween parties because their kids were whining only to catch Covid. (I say “knew” because I’m not going back to my waxer who did exactly that. She told me after I said I was afraid of getting Covid and that’s why I was basically Robin Williams in Jumanji.) Most of us didn’t buy candy, we didn’t decorate our lawns, and we kept our porch lights off. We lost something.
This year’s Halloween might not be the same as our halcyon days before the pandemic, especially if those anti-vaxxers keep holding us back, but there might be some sense of normalcy for the spooky time of year. At least, that’s what I hope. Trick-or-treating has been on the decline, but maybe I can fall into a nostalgia trip with a rereading of a classic Goosebumps book: The Haunted Mask. So let’s remember a time when kids wandered around on the night of October 31st without parents. A time when you wore a terrible mask that obstructed your view and neighbors gave out homemade cookies that may or may not have meth in them.
Our protagonist, Carly Beth, is a real scaredy-cat. For some reason, that seems to bother her friends, Chuck, Steve, and Sabrina. They put a worm in her sandwich. She gets scared, which is understandable, both for her and the worm, and her “friends” make fun of her. For not wanting to eat a worm. How unreasonable of her not to want to eat a worm in her PB&J. Right away we have a Goosebumps trope — terrible non-friends. Our schools are overcrowded. You’d think kids could find friends who are actually nice, but I digress.
Carly Beth goes home humiliated and she’s greeted with a plaster-of-Paris bust of herself, which also scares her.
“It’s just creepy, that’s all,” Carly Beth said. She forced herself to look away from the replica of herself, and saw that her mother’s smile had faded.
Mrs. Caldwell looked hurt. “Don’t you like it?”
“Yeah. Sure. It’s really good, Mom,” Carly Beth answered quickly. “But, I mean, why on earth did you make it?”
“Because I love you,” Mrs. Caldwell replied curtly. “Why else? Honestly, Carly Beth, you have the strangest reactions to things. I worked really hard on this sculpture. I thought-”
“I’m sorry, Mom. I like it. Really, I do,” Carly Beth insisted. “It was just a surprise, that’s all. It’s great. It looks just like me. I-I had a bad day, that’s all.”
Carly Beth took another long look at the sculpture. Its brown eyes — her brown eyes — stared back at her. The brown hair shimmered in the afternoon sunlight through the window.
It smiled at me! Carly Beth thought, her mouth dropped open. I saw it! I just saw it smile!
No. It had to be a trick of the light.
Guilt trip much, Mom? Also, weird thing to do, Mom. But it is sweet that she thought of her daughter. It’s like British candy — weird and sweet.
Carly Beth goes up to her room to inspect her duck costume for Halloween, but it springs into motion! It’s alive!
But don’t worry. It’s just her little brother, Noah, who also reminds her that she’s a scaredy-cat and then asks for her costume. Cool family, Carly Beth. Do you also have a father who likes to pretend to murder you every night? An uncle who leaves threatening notes in your mailbox?
The next day is the school’s Science Fair and everyone is buzzing about Martin Goodman’s project since he’s the school genius. He built a computer from scratch, which is, apparently, impressive. I’ve built a computer or two in my lifetime. It’s really a matter of buying the parts online and making sure to wear shoes so you don’t fry the motherboard with static electricity. And using the thermal paste properly. And not pressing down too hard on the CPU. Maybe it’s more complicated than I originally thought, but a Science Fair is for science and experiments. What is the variable for building a computer? “I tested building a computer and my variable was not building a computer. Building a computer allowed me to play The 7th Guest, and not building a computer made me play Candyland with my little brother. I came to the conclusion that I should build a computer and lock my little brother in the closet.”
Carly Beth and Sabrina built a model of the solar system. What is with these Science Fair projects? I thought they had to follow the Scientific Method? Which step in the Scientific Method is “go to Michaels and buy balls and paint?”
Anyway, Steve yells, “Where is my tarantula?” and sends the auditorium into a panic. Guess who thinks a tarantula is on them? Additionally, guess who pinched the aforementioned person to make them think that a tarantula is on them? Did you answer “Carly Beth” and “Carly Beth’s terrible friends?” Then you’ve won the book.
Not only do Carly Beth’s terrible friends laugh, but the other kids as well as the teachers laugh at her. What is with this town? Carly Beth should pack her bags and move away the second she graduates and never look back. This is why I have no sympathy when people lament about how small towns are dying. Small towns are filled with teachers who will willingly laugh at their students, homophobes, people afraid of minorities, men who keep women in their basements, and cults. I guess some of those are worse than others.
Carly Beth finally decides to give them a “good scare” and she needs a scarier costume than a duck.
She decides to go to the Halloween store that is open late on Halloween. To her surprise, they are not open! Did they advertise that they’re open late on Halloween and then close at six? It doesn’t matter, because this is a Goosebumps book, and she’s going to get into that store to further the plot no matter what.
The shop owner allows her in, but somehow he gets distracted and Carly Beth wanders into the back room, where she finds the perfect mask.
It had a bulging, bald head. Its skin was a putrid yellow-green. Its enormous, sunken eyes were an eerie orange and seemed to glow. It had a broad, flat nose, smashed in like a skeleton’s nose. The dark-lipped mouth gaped wide, revealing jagged animal fangs.
The shopkeeper returns and says that those masks aren’t for sale. However, Carly Beth promises to promote his shop on her internet TV show, so the shop owner gives her the mask and she rushes home to scare her brother Spencer, er, her little brother, who is named Noah. Excuse me. I think I’m getting some properties mixed up.
Carly Beth is finally ready for Halloween. She dons on her new mask and takes the bust her mother made and secures it to a broomstick. As she is heading over to her friend/bully-enabler Sabrina’s house, she spots Chuck and Steve. It’s time for revenge! She hides behind a bush and jumps out to scare them!
But it’s not Chuck and Steve. It’s just some random kids. Their mother runs over and says that Carly Beth should be ashamed of herself for scaring children on a holiday centered around scaring people. Carly Beth growls at the mother in a deep voice that is certainly not Carly Beth’s, prompting the mother to go full Karen and ask for Carly Beth’s manager/parents.
I’ll chew her to bits! I’ll tear her skin off of her bones! Furious thoughts raged through Carly Beth’s mind.
She clenched her muscles, crouched low, and prepared to pounce.
“Let’s go, Mom.”
“Yeah. Let’s go. She’s crazy!”
Yeah. I’m crazy. Crazy, crazy, CRAZY. The word repeated, roaring through Carly Beth’s mind. The mask grew hotter, tighter.
The woman gave Carly Beth one last cold stare. Then she turned and led the two boys down the driveway.
Carly Beth started after them, panting loudly. She had a strong urge to chase after them — to really scare them!
But a loud cry made her stop and spin around.
Sabrina stood on the front stoop, leaning on the storm door, her mouth open in a wide O of surprise. “Who’s there?” she cried, squinting into the darkness.
Carly Beth says that it’s her and she and Sabrina gush over the scariness of the mask before leaving to trick-or-treat. As they’re walking down the street, Sabrina asks how the mask is so warm and if Carly Beth is sweating underneath it. Carly Beth freaks out, yells at Sabrina, and wraps her hands around her friend’s throat.
Carly Beth quickly pulls away and pretends that it’s a joke. Again, Stine and his “great” jokes that involve assault. Don’t go to a stand-up show if this guy is the host.
It’s not long until Carly Beth unleashes her inner demon again. However, this time, she runs away from Sabrina and goes full feral animal on the neighborhood. She scares kids and steals their candy. She runs around while waving the bust of her head around. Finally, she sees the actual Chuck and Steve and decides to mix it up a bit.
Carly Beth waved the broomstick. She pointed up to the head. “That’s Carly Beth’s head,” she told them. Her voice was a deep, throaty rasp.
“Huh?” Both boys gazed up at it uncertainly.
“That’s Carly Beth’s head,” she repeated slowly, waving it toward them. The painted eyes of the sculpted face appeared to glare down at them. “Poor Carly Beth didn’t want to give up her head tonight. But I took it anyway.”
And all three of them saw the lips move. And heard the dry, crackling sound.
All three of them saw the dark lips squeeze together, then part.
All three of them saw the bobbing head form the silent words: “Help me. Help me.”
Carly Beth hurls the bust to the ground. I would too! However, unlike me, Carly Beth runs off to continue her night of unleashed Halloween chaos and candy thievery.
Eventually, Sabrina finds her and the girls go back to Sabrina’s house. Carly Beth scared Chuck and Steve and she got to wreak havoc on this town. It’s time to take off the mask and settle in for the night.
But Carly Beth can’t get the mask off. There is no line where the mask starts. The mask has become Carly Beth’s face! Instead of running around town, Carly Beth runs to the store where she bought the mask. To her surprise, it’s closed! The store that was closed earlier that day is still closed! The audacity of some places!
Once again, the owner is there anyway. But he can’t take off the mask! The only way to remove the mask is through “a symbol of love.”
Carly Beth figures out that the bust her mother made is a true act of love, but she threw the bust on the ground when it started talking. Luckily, the bust is still near the place she threw it, but not before we have pages of Carly Beth running.
The mask comes off and Carly Beth goes home. Our protagonist spends the whole book wishing she was someone else and literally puts on a mask to become this new person. When that new person is a monster who causes distress and chaos, she finally learns that she doesn’t need to be a new person. What she needs is what she already has — the love of a parent who does nice things like turn you into art.
Then her brother puts on the mask and it’s like, great, now the mother has to make another bust.
The Haunted Mask is a classic for a good reason. The R. L. Stine formula works well here. We have a troubled kid with terrible friends and a way for them to overcome the defect that society (or their terrible friends) has placed on them. The kid has a little adventure. They finally learn that just because society says that a personality trait is a defect, that doesn’t mean that it is actually a defect or that is the only facet of life. And then a silly twist at the end.
While The Haunted Mask is a great Goosebumps book, it does have some problems. Carly Beth doesn’t embrace her timid nature, and her timid nature doesn’t help her in any way, and Sabrina, Chuck, and Steve aren’t admonished for treating their friend poorly. It’s also a bit repetitive. There are pages and pages of running. There’s a lot of running. Running to scare kids. Running to get candy. Running to find talking plaster-of-Paris busts. Clearly, the Stine formula isn’t the only reason why this book is a classic.
The other reason is the striking artwork on the cover by Tim Jacobus. The book covers are usually fantastic, but The Haunted Mask is something special. It’s memorable and scary. There are little details like the stream of saliva and the way the skin sits on the bones in the forehead that makes the mask look alive. It’s an unforgettable image, especially for a child wandering through the Scholastic Book Fair. This is truly one of my favorite Goosebumps book covers and it works in concert with the story to create something iconic.
I don’t know what Halloween will look like this year, but I hope it’s better than last year’s. Those of us who tried to look out for others and love spooky stuff deserve an outlet, whether that be a costume party or a good old Haunted House. Whatever you do, get the vaccine, stay safe, and have a Merry Christmas! Because that’s when this one is coming out.
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