Goosebumps: The Headless Ghost by R. L. Stine
In which a pair of best friends wander away from the group, a couple finds their place in the universe, and I make up the adjective "headfull."
One of the many reasons I love The Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland is the lore. There’s the Stretching room at the beginning, and after you board the Doom Buggy, you see the Endless Hallway. There’s a row of rattling doors. Madame Leota’s Seance Room. The Ballroom. The Bride’s Attic. The Graveyard. Each room’s lore is a puzzle piece for an overarching story known collectively as The Haunted Mansion.
That’s kind of the theme of this week’s book. A pair of best friends may be the protagonists, but the house is the real main character. It has secrets, history, and a cast of wacky characters. Just like The Haunted Mansion.
Stephanie and Duane haunt their neighborhood. No, they’re not the titular headless ghosts. They’re just some little jerks who run around at night throwing fake spiders and howling outside people’s windows.
And I love them.
They have such a great friendship based on mutual respect and similar senses of humor. He likes her costumes. She likes his jokes. This is the most balanced relationship I’ve seen so far in a Stine novel. But not everything is rosy.
Stephanie is growing tired of scaring everyone in the neighborhood. She needs a challenge. She needs a change of venue. She needs Hill House.
No, I’m not talking about either the Shirley Jackson house or the Netflix series. Neither one of those houses offer tours. This Hill House has guided tours. Stephanie and Duane have been on the house tour so many times that they have a favorite guide, Otto, and they have each stop memorized, including the story of the headless ghost.
Basically, a sea captain left his wife back at the house, but he never returned - at least - he never returned alive! See, he was lost at sea and his wife waited for him, but she gave up and left. He returned as a ghost and kept calling for his wife, but she never returned. Many years later, another family moved in with a son named Andrew. Andrew was a real jerk and he tormented the sea captain, so the sea captain pulled off Andrew’s head and hid it somewhere in the bowels of the house.
That was more gruesome than I expected in a Goosebumps book.
Anyway, Stephanie wants that head, and they’re willing to sneak away from the tour to get it.
And that’s exactly what the kids do. Eventually. The tour mostly consists of teenagers and the tour guide for the night is the aforementioned favorite, Otto. He brings them to the room that once belonged to a young girl named Hannah:
“After her brother was killed, Hannah went crazy,” Otto told us in a hushed voice. “All day long, for eighty years, she sat in her rocking chair over there in the corner. And she played with her dolls. She never left her room. Ever.”
He pointed to a worn rocking chair. “Hannah died there. An old lady surrounded by her dolls.”
That’s how I want to go - only with books. An old lady surrounded by her books. And her k-pop photo cards.
Duane sees a kid staring at them from the bottom of the stairs. Before Duane can confront the kid, Stephanie grabs his arm and leads him away from the group. It’s time to search for that head!
I didn’t think the chances were too good. How do you find a hundred-year-old head? And what if you do find it?
Duane has a point.
They enter the Green Room, which is so named because the wallpaper contains green vines. Clearly, the owners weren’t thinking about the resale value of the house, otherwise, they should have chosen a neutral color like white or beige. It’s like these people were thinking about living in the house instead of selling it in a few years at a 300% markup.
Anyway, the kids continue through the house and into Andrew’s room. The toys in the room are covered in dust, but Duane can make out something in the shadows. Wedged between the wall and the door is a sphere with two holes. They’ve done it! They’ve found the head!
Just kidding. It’s a bowling ball.
The kids sneak past a “NO VISITORS” sign and climb up to the third floor. They don’t find a ghost head, but they do find a bunch of cats. No furniture and all cats. And cobwebs. Grabby cobwebs.
Eventually, they hear voices. Raucous voices just beyond a door. Voices that indicate life - or, more appropriately - the afterlife. They open the door and find absolutely nothing. Well, that’s not true. They find disappointment. And then Otto finds them. Apparently, Otto and the other guide, Edna, have been looking for Duane and Stephanie. The kids lie and say they got lost, so Otto ushers them back to the tour group.
The kids go outside and hear a voice ask if they’ve found their head. Instead of a headless ghost, they find a headfull kid making a little joke. It’s the kid Duane saw at the bottom of the stairs. His name is Seth and he’s visiting from out of town. He also knows how to get the ghosts to emerge. Is it sympathetic vibrations with the assistance of Madame Leota? No. It’s coming back after Hill House closes for the night.
After closing, Stephanie and Duane meet up with Seth and they sneak into the house through the kitchen and find a dumbwaiter. Seth warns them that they shouldn’t play around with the archaic contraption. A boy named Jeremy once climbed into the dumbwaiter and he didn’t come back out. Well, most of him didn’t come back out.
“There were three covered bowls on the shelf. The kids lifted the lid off the first bowl. Inside was Jeremy’s heart, still beating.
“They opened the second bowl. Inside were Jeremy’s eyes, still staring in horror. And they opened the third bowl. And saw Jeremy’s teeth, still chattering.”
It’s like that game with the peeled grapes, but terrifying instead. This book is scarier than the other Goosebumps books, how did Stine get away with some of this stuff? Don’t get it twisted - I love it. I think most kids are tough and really love horror - I know I did. Even as an adult, I’m having a blast with this book.
And it’s about to get more treacherous for Stephanie and Duane. Seth has a confession. Seth isn’t Seth. Seth is actually Andrew, and he has some sinister intentions.
“I have to return this head, Duane,” he said calmly, coldly. “So I’m going to take yours.”
The kids run away as Andrew/Seth screams that he’s going to take their heads. They find a secret passage and escape down a long tunnel, descending farther into the bowels of the mansion. Andrew/Seth is on their trail, determined to get ahead of them.
After some running and, eventually, ladder-climbing, the kids find a hidden room. Within this hidden room, is the missing head. Andrew/Seth catches up, and Duane and Stephanie offer the head to their chaser. Andrew/Seth sees something behind the kids and screams. Duane and Stephanie turn around. It’s a figure that they can see through - and it’s missing its head!
The ghost turned to us - to Stephanie and me. And the lips moved in a silent “Thank you.”
And then the ghost leaves, presumably with a new look to show the other ghosts like he just dropped his life savings on a Burberry Peacoat. It looks great, but it was a lot of hassle.
Who is the ghost impersonator who chased them through a tunnel? Well, that’s Otto’s nephew, who is visiting, so Seth wasn’t lying about that part. And speaking of Otto, he finds the kids and he, once again, escorts them out of Hill House.
After a night of ghost hunting to make Zak Bagans jealous, Stephanie and Duane stop scaring kids in the neighborhood. Stephanie becomes a theater kid and Duane joins the basketball team, but they remain good friends.
The two have a wonderful scare-less winter, but something calls them back to Hill House. For old time's sake, the duo return to the house. Edna and Otto are working and the duo gives the kids the full tour. Maybe it wasn’t only the house that gave Stephanie and Duane joy - it was also their favorite tour guides who gave voices to the voiceless residents of the house.
They leave the house, this time on their own without needing an escort or anything. A police officer asks them what they’re doing in that abandoned house as Hill House went out of business three months ago.
In the soft light, I saw Otto and Edna. They floated in front of the window. I could see right through them, as if they were made of gauze.
This one was oddly beautiful. Goosebumps usually ends on an abrupt note, much like this essay series, with an added ludicrous twist. Not this book. This is about a house with a tome of stories contained within it. The house was beloved before it was an attraction, while it was an attraction, and after it ceased to be an attraction. Why else would the ghosts stay up on the third floor for eternity? Why else would Otto and Edna stay in the house? Why else would Stephanie and Duane take the tour again even though they’ve solved the mysteries of the house?
And frankly, I loved this book. Stephanie and Duane’s relationship is solid and even though they were terrorizing the neighborhood, it’s relatively innocent stuff. Howling outside of people’s windows is ranked innocuous on the litany of Stine pranks. There were also some genuinely scary stories about the house - both the psychological kind like the woman so depressed she lived in a single room filled with dolls for the rest of her life and the physical kind like the kid who climbed into a dumbwaiter.
Finally, the twist was sweet. Edna and Otto deserve to be in a place that makes them happy, and it seems that Hill House is that place. We should all be so lucky to find a place that we love and that will have us for eternity.
Especially since the Disney Cast Members always force me off the Haunted Mansion. Just let me stay in the Doom Buggy and bring me a two-dollar apple every couple of hours. That’s all I ask.
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