Backseat driving is a common response to terrifying media. The hecklers at movie theatres, the high roading horror haters and critics of the scary genre in general, trade in the currency of phrases like, “Well, the characters always just make the stupidest decisions,” and, “I’d never do that.”
To feel safe while watching a horror film, playing a scary game or reading a bone chilling story, all it takes are some mental acrobatics: an audience member learns the mistake a character has made, then inserts herself into the narrative with privileged situational knowledge, making her immune to whatever otherworldly perils she’d like to distance herself from. The special information can be complex, like knowing specific details of the plot or the tropes of the horror genre, or it can be simple: characters in a horror movie are at a disadvantage by simply being unaware they they are in a horror movie at all.
To do claim this knowledge is to invoke the occult, that which is hidden, in order to gain power. By appropriating the infromation that is inaccessible to a suffering protagonist, we can place ourselves above the character on screen and hurl self-righteous condescension upon them. But if we were in their same situation, things would be a little more complicated.
In R.L. Stine’s choose your own adventure series of books for spooktacular youngsters, Give Yourself Goosebumps, removal from the narrative is impossible. Readers are directly addressed by the series’ second person narrative and told what they are doing in the moment of its happening. Like life, your amount of input on your situation is limited; Stine’s interactive stories go so far as to give you a new family and assume you have a 90’s era grossout-loving, too-cool-for-school (or bratty siblings) outsider attitude.
The books put you in the driver’s seat and let you make all the turns you want - you might not like the choices given to you or the car you’re driving, but whenever you end up at the bottom of a pre-historic tar pit or on display in an otherworldly zoo for aliens, you can’t say, “Well, I wouldn’t have done that,” because you made the mistake that landed you in this literary hell. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, and no choices you make can change the fact that one day you’re going to die and the R.L. Stine of your life’s narrative will have something hilarious and gloating to say about it.
Underlying any interactive media is an element hidden from the audience, but it is never more apparent than with choose your own adventure books. An unsuccessful readthrough of Stine’s Trapped in Batwing Hall can reach a deadly conclusion in fewer than ten pages of reading in a 137 page book. After death, you, the deceased protagonist, hold in your hands the hidden realities of better choices made by luckier versions of yourself - the material implication that your Goosebumps avatar could survive if only you knew how to navigate the pages you haven’t yet read. There must be a good ending, or, failing that, there must be a way of knowing not to embark on a futile and fatal journey in the first place. The knowledge of survival is hidden, occulted, in the book that killed you.
In this way, the Give Yourself Goosebumps series mirrors life. We are aware of a reality outside of us, one that is only ever partially knowable, and because of our narrow subjective perspective, and elements we can’t control, we believe that there are good choices and bad choices. When we look back on mistakes we’ve made, we play backseat driver to our own personal horror film. “Don’t go in there,” you yell at the projection screen of your worst memories. “You’ll turn out just like me: filled with regret, guilt and embarrassment.”
In video games, the dominant form of interactive media, a learning process is set in place so this hidden path to success is revealed through a repetition we can’t access in real life. If you fail and die in a game, usually you are allowed to retry with the hidden knowledge of what not to do. After enough fatal trial and error, you play through the game-world’s present tense with information that is initially hidden from players experiencing the game for the first time. Through death and rebirth you have gained knowledge of the occult, and it has positioned you in a higher status than your pixelated enemies.
In Give Yourself Goosebumps this is also the case, but only to a certain extent, and that’s where the real horror begins. When reading through Stine’s interactive books it is possible to cheat, marking your place on page 70 of Diary of a Mad Mummy, for instance, while checking pages 93 and 83 for signs of mortal danger (Watch out! On page 93 you die in a tar pit!). But this sort of cultish behaviour can only go so far - sometimes the mistake you made was three or four choices back, and you only have so many fingers for marking pages. The right path is knowable, but it is something you need to learn. Only, sometimes it’s not.
The trouble in learning from your fatal mistakes in Give Yourself Goosebumps lies in a strange characteristic of some of Stine’s books: the entire nature of the universe can change depending on unrelated choices. Most notably in my own experience, this horrific nature of the Goosebumps reality manifests itself in The Deadly Experiments of Dr. Eeek, in which the base nature of the eponymous evil genius changes depending on how you end up meeting him. Encountering the mad doctor one way has him wearing a convincing rubber mask, while in another encounter there is no mask, it’s just that crazy jambone’s real face.
This Dr. Eeek conundrum illustrates a specific horror when contemplating the occult. To call reality hidden, implies that it can also be revealed. But what if that is not the true nature of human existence? Re-reading Dr. Eeek under the assumption, based on past readings, that he is wearing a mask, seems like useful hidden information, but that privileged knowledge is only actually true in a reality where you die at his hands.
Whether it’s written in your tea leaves, in the stars or on the next page of Tic Tock You’re Dead!, there is always a chance that what’s hidden cannot be uncovered, and attempts to reveal the occult will only lead to mystic foolery and an otherwise avoidable, possibly horrific mistake.
The occulted information can stay hidden because, as much as our subjective experience on this mortal plane may suggest the contrary, not everything in life is made for human understanding. Some things, are just unknowable. Some mistakes are just permanent. Some terrible fates are just inevitable and lie in wait ON PAGE 82 of Beware of the Purple Peanut Butter.