This ICHF was written by Cerothenull, who you can find at https://cerothenull.tumblr.com/. I may have made a few touch ups and notes here and there, but the bulk of this entry is their work!
Image borrowed from http://villains.wikia.com/wiki/Slappy_the_Dummy_(2015_film)
As a kid who grew up during the 90’s it was nearly impossible to ignore the immensely popular series of horror fiction aimed at kids, R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps. While it wasn’t my first foray into the horror genre I’m sure it was a formative experience for many younger folks just as much as it was for me. With their colorful and evocative covers and titles that were at times ominous, amusing, or both it was no wonder they gained the attention of younger folks with a bent for the macabre. They introduced stories of a wide range of subjects with a plethora of frightening, intimidating, or downright ridiculous monsters and menaces that often stole the show. Sometimes the threat wasn’t even a creature, but rather cursed or anomalous objects and locations that attracted or caused misfortune for the children protagonists.
I distinctly remember sitting in 1st or 2nd grade at one of those glorious book-fairs while one of the teachers was pointing out various books and series to select. I hadn’t read a Goosebumps book by that point but I knew about them as the “spooky books” with the cool covers. The teacher went on this small rant about Goosebumps, saying they and horror stories weren’t really appropriate for kids, comparing it to drinking spoiled milk. I don’t know what the heck you were talking about, old teacher of mine, but it certainly didn’t stop me from diving headlong into Goosebumps.
I can recall many times spent with my nose crammed in a Goosebumps book, often reading through one within the day. It is easy now to see they had an influence on my tastes and writing habits.
Much like The Twilight Zone, the Goosebumps books loved to use the “twist” in order to draw in the audience one last time, typically on the last page or so that would leave a young me yearning to see what happened next. This would actually lead to multiple creatures or cursed objects or locations to become recurring characters as they return from their previous appearance to torment a new child or group of kids.
It was one of these recurring characters that became something of Goosebumps mascot. The only one in a Goosebumps story that actually caused genuine fear in me as a kid.
And their name was Slappy the Dummy.
First appearing in Night of the Living Dummy the haunted ventriloquist doll eventually went on to have more appearances in other books, video games, tv shows, and even as the main antagonist in the Goosebumps movie.
Amusingly, in his first appearance he wasn’t the antagonist. It was actually another cursed ventriloquist dummy, Slappy only revealing his true nature in the closing twist of the book after the protagonist sisters destroyed the initial dummy.
Possessed by the spirit of an ancient evil sorcerer who created him from wood carved from a coffin he typically appears as a mundane dummy. That is until his unlucky owners read an incantation from a card found on his person, reanimating him for a new round of mischief and evil. From there he would proclaim the child (and typically their similarly aware siblings) as his “slaves”. Why a possessed dummy requires child slaves isn’t necessarily explained I always viewed it as Slappy just doing the most evil thing he could, just because he could.
In hindsight and rereading I’ve come to find that for the most part those children that Slappy targets to be his “slaves” are nearly all girls. Now this adds a new level of menace to him, giving him a predatory bent that I didn’t notice or catch as a kid but now I know is an all too real threat for children, particularly girls, this day and age.
Of interesting note is the same incantation that would raise him from his slumber is quite capable of animating other ventriloquist dummies, Slappy more than once being defeated by another dummy (or mob of them).
I always found it kind of interesting and darkly amusing another semi-famous evil “possessed” ventriloquist dummy, Scarface from the Batman comics, was similarly carved from the wood of a prisons gallows struck by lightning. Must be something about the inherent ritualistic or supernatural properties of objects associated with death and morbidity.
What threat could a ventriloquist dummy possibly present you ask? He isn’t a knife-wielding slasher like Chucky, or a tommy-gun toting old-timey gangster like the aforementioned Scarface. He’s just a wooden ventriloquist dummy in a childrens book.
On a base threat level Slappy is shown to have a surprising strength despite his wooden form. However, it’s his cruelty, cunning, and trickery that make him a significant foe for the young protagonists. A master at mischief one of his favored tactics to torment those who awoke him is to cause horrible messes or commit petty and cruel pranks that are inevitably blamed on the protagonists. His pranks are almost always incredibly cruel and just plain petty, Slappy getting his kicks from seeing his targets hurting.
Evil and sadistic Slappy took immense delight in the pain and suffering he caused, the twisted dummy thriving on misfortune and manipulating his victims to his whims. Foul-mouthed, as much as one can be in a childrens book series, he always had creative insults for the kids who earned his attention.
So full of evil he was, embracing it the way characters like Skeletor or Cobra Commander did, that during a story where he was cursed to commit good deeds or else fall asleep forever he was so completely bitter and angry about it. So angry that it would get the better of him, ruining his attempts at selfish altruism just because being Good felt so Bad.
R.L. Stine has been on record saying that it was his own childhood fear of Pinocchio that inspired the evil Slappy. He took a silly premise of an evil talking ventriloquist dummy and made him into what I consider to be an enduring villain who could easily stand alongside characters like Chucky, Jason, or Pinhead, even if his origins and plots are less gruesome and gory.
If I had to place Slappy on the Four Horror quadrants, I’d have to say he fits firmly in the Gothic Horror region. A malevolent spirit haunting an inanimate object who relishes in cursing and hurting the innocent around them, just for the sake of it? Slappy certainly feels like he fits there for me.
One of the scarier parts of Slappy I’ve come to realize, and it applies to many Goosebumps stories as well, is that it wasn’t that he was a possessed living Dummy, it was that no one else would ever believe that he was. No parent would ever believe their child when they said the destruction of the house was actually the old ratty dummy, just the child acting out and blaming it on an inanimate object. Slappy would work to break the trust between guardian and child, or even trying to split apart siblings.
I think this was one of the things that resonated so much with kids who read Goosebumps. How so many of the protagonists in R.L. Stines books discover some horrifying threat, something that should be much too big a problem for them to handle. And when they approach the adults, they are ignored or dismissed as childish imagination or attention-seeking. Much like in movies or stories like It or The Gate, it is up to the children who must handle these threats because no one else will believe them or do anything about it.
In these books children were presented with danger and challenges and through their own wit and cunning they were capable of turning the situation to their favor or even outsmarting the monster. The intelligence of the reader was never insulted, instead accepting and even embracing that young people can handle intense themes and that they can feel conviction, fear, and bravery just as intensely as adults can. Much like K.A. Applegates Animorphs series, Goosebumps knew it’s audience was stronger than other adults would give them credit for.
The world is full of menaces, many of them presenting a real and significant threat, and sometimes you will not be believed by those in power when you try to bring it to light. That sometimes those who are supposed to protect you, can’t or won’t believe you so it is up to you to deal with these threats. Sometimes alone, but often with the help of friends or family.
They taught that evil is oftentimes someone who is merely just petty and delights in cruelty for the sake of cruelty. That sometimes what terrifies one person can be ridiculous to another and that it still doesn’t lessen or cheapen what the first feels and endures.
R.L. Stine understood this about children and young people. That they need to see themselves as the heroes standing against the evils that threaten them and those they care about. With a veritable menagerie of horrors and curses he wrote stories that kept many a young person occupied with his villains and evils. And it was one villain, an evil living ventriloquist dummy with a silly name, that became one of the most enduring images of the Goosebumps series.
Slappy the Dummy, for all his ridiculous concept, his horrible jokes and puns, all his cruelty and sheer love of being Evil and Bad, is a villain and monster that inspired his audience to understand, and even appreciate Horror. His books and the rest of the Goosebumps series, including tv and movie adaptations, helped introduce Horror as a genre to a whole generation of kids who grew to love and embrace it.
Editor’s Note: To this day I’m still baffled how I managed to not get into Goosebumps when I was a kid. I was their target audience in their heyday. It’s really weird.