One Day at Horrorland was originally published in February 1994 (Spine #16). The series adaptation aired on Saturday October 25 & Saturday November 1, 1997 (runtime: 22 minutes).
My eyes glossed over as they watched the trees thin through the car window and give way to seemingly endless stretches of farmland. We had only been driving for a few hours but already I was drifting into the boorish mindlessness that only seemed to settle in on the longest, most meandering family road trips. Still, there was hope on the horizon, the promise of fun, excitement and an escape from the mundane.
After all, what kid doesn’t love an amusement park?
My backpack sat open by my side, creating an all too necessary barrier between my younger brother and I in the backseat. Inside I could just make out the familiar blue-green font bubbling up from the soft purple background and suddenly remembered that I didn’t have to sit in a perpetual state of wait— I had Goosebumps to keep me company.
And what better R.L. Stine foray into the unknown to usher me into the throngs of a fun-filled family vacation than One Day at Horrorland, a tale that’s as much about the untapped desire to be thrilled as entertainment as it is about the dangers inherent in seeking out such terror. I removed the book, locking eyes with the giant Horrorland Horror pictured there, gripping the bleeding sign of the ominous amusement park with its massive claws as I warily read the promise (or, perhaps, threat) scribed below the park’s moniker, “WHERE NIGHTMARES COME TO LIFE!”
One of the series’ most iconic and oft-referenced works, be it in games, merchandise or franchise imagery, it was adapted for the screen in the TV show’s third season, airing in two parts over several weeks. An ambitious undertaking, the episode transposes the creatures described on the page with energy and a sense of amusing wonderment, fully embracing the campier implications of the rubbery-looking beasts as opposed to the more unsettling aspects of the words on the page.
And yet this particular story offers one of the series’ most noticeable divergences from the source material, dramatically altering the last act and omitting some of the page’s most harrowing moments. However, the two ultimately work as complimentary variations of the other, the show in particular expanding the mythology presented in the book and leaning heavier into the world of televised entertainment that it and its subject matter so embody.
As my eyes moved from the flat fields to the ever changing words on the pages of R.L. Stine’s dark vision of family fun, I couldn’t help but think what an adventure losing our own way might be. About how my heart might skip a beat were my own family to come upon the large sign and accompanying horror as the words, “WELCOME TO HORRORLAND” swept into view. About my own undeniable curiosity that might draw me to a place where monsters might turn for their own demented version of what we humans refer to as fun.
Like most kids, I loved amusement parks, but, as R.L. Stine so clearly understood, even the best destinations could use a few horrors thrown in here and there for good measure.
The Morris family is lost. Their destination, Zoo Gardens, is nowhere to be found and their only option for a fun-filled day out seems to be an unsettling place called Horrorland. Ran by self-proclaimed “Horrors”, the park workers are garbed in strange, monstrous costumes and although they offer free admission and seem friendly enough, their elusive ways do nothing to assuage the strange feeling that something at the park just isn’t right.
From the explosion of the family car to the increasingly dangerous and terrifying nature of the park attractions, it becomes quickly clear that the place is not all that it seems. And if the Morris family isn’t careful, their visit to Horrorland might become a permanent stay.
One Day at Horrorland hit shelves ahead of vacation season in February of 1994, a year and a half after the series’ debut. With a Tim Jacobus cover touting a sinister and forbidding landscape of overgrown vegetation, craggy trees and a theme park beckoning in the distant dusk as a red eyed beast glares forward in wait, the story deals in the sort of iconography that invites curiosity, excitement and shivers in equal measure. Emerging as one of the series’ most recognized and lauded efforts, One Day at Horrorland is essential Goosebumps fare and crucial summer reading (and viewing) for any burgeoning horror fiend.
The book and the episode open in largely the same manner, with the Morris family hopelessly lost on their way to Zoo Gardens. While the show gets almost immediately to the park’s disturbing sign, a green monster materialized in the sky and flanked by large fireballs flying toward the family car, the book takes its time getting to know the characters. The parents fight, the kids play “alphabet” with road signs, Luke pinches his sister and, most notably, an additional character is present, Clay, Lizzy’s brother Luke’s nervous friend.
In the episode, the Morris’ pull right into the parking lot and a monster is seen rising up from a sewer beneath the car and placing something underneath it. Failing to notice, the Morris family approaches the ticket counter and meets one of the park’s Horrors. Wearing a red and white striped shirt with blue and white suspenders and a blue bowtie with white stars, the Horror is green and horned with an expression locked in a snarled glare of wrinkled, pocked coarseness reminiscent of a particularly impressive Halloween mask.
“You’re our guest today!” It announces in a demeanor that stands in direct contrast to its appearance, “admission is free! Have a scary day!” Another Horror passes by carrying a severed head and remarks, “First time at Horrorland?” The head in its arms warns, “Stay off the guillotine ride!” To which the Horror responds, “She likes to stick her neck out where it doesn’t belong.” The Horror and the head walk off arguing as Lizzy and Luke comment on the impressive effects and marvel at the potential of the signs that lay before them, like “Vampire Village” or “The House of Mirrors”.
In the book, the Morris family has a much less pleasant introduction to the park, as when they approach the ticket booth, their car explodes in the empty parking lot. Dumbfounded, terrified and angry, the family gawks at the smoldering cinders of their vehicle until finally mustering the strength to ask the ticket taker for access to a phone— one thing Horrorland doesn’t seem to have.
Despite Mr. Morris’ misgivings on the page, the kids convince him to let them spend some time in the park while he attempts to figure out the situation with his car. While they pass a Horror carrying a head on the page, there’s no interaction with it as there is onscreen, honing in on the spooky in lieu of the silly. Instead Lizzy, Luke and Clay immediately find themselves face to face with a wolf in “Werewolf Village” before escaping and labeling it no more than an impressive animatronic and winding up at an attraction called the “Doom Slide”.
With the question, “Will you be the one to slide forever?”, the ride sits atop a tall, purple mountain, with numbered sliding boards spread across a wide platform. Other kids can be seen mounting the boards as Horrors assist and warn them to be careful not to pick the “doom slide”. Lightning fast and plunging into a seemingly endless darkness, the slide terrifies and exhilarates Lizzy and Luke, however leaves them both feeling disturbed when Clay never emerges from the slide’s exit. A passing Horror suggests that, perhaps, Clay chose the wrong slide.
The show excises the “Doom Slide” entirely, rather skipping to “The House of Mirrors” which doesn’t come into play for several more chapters in the book. Budgetary constraints and an apparent desire to streamline this portion of the story lead Lizzy and her brother to a carnivalesque mirror house, complete with exaggerated imagery and the typical maze of reflections to get lost within. As the mirrors begin to close in on Lizzy and Luke disappears, the show juxtaposes their adventure with their parents attempting to buy “Monster Punch” from a Horror who squirts their drink into a novelty cup from his finger and remarks how odd it is that they would let their kids explore the park on their own.
After falling into a strange vortex both Lizzy and Luke find themselves back outside and safe while their parents overhear cheering from inside a closed door nearby as another family is ushered inside, much to their clear dismay. Deciding that they just want to get the kids and leave, the Morris’ set out to find Lizzy and Luke who have just decided to try one last ride. They climb into coffin river boats as a Horror settles them and tells them to enjoy the ride, because it may be their last!
While the coffins do come into play on the page, it is not until much later. The book opts instead to spend far more time in the park, exploring its many facets and strange locations through the eyes of Lizzy and Luke. Following their exit from the “Doom Slide” the two decide to climb back up the ramp and attempt to slide down the number that Clay chose in the hopes of exiting wherever it was that Clay got out. Terrified that the warnings might possibly be true, the two settled in on the tenth slide and kicked off. Longer and darker than before, they plummet into silent nothingness as hot, damp air gives way to sticky, itchy cobwebs until finally they see towering, blazing flames before them creating a thick curtain of black smoke.
Colliding with the explosive heat, Lizzy imagines herself burning up only to find her and her brother landing safely through a shoot and onto soft grass. It’s there they find Clay and a sign that says “Welcome to Doom — population 0 humans” and signs that say “no pinching”. Ignoring a warning from one of the Horrors telling them to escape as fast as they can, the reunited trio sets off toward a sign that says “House of Mirrors”.
This sequence plays out much the same way it does on screen, with Lizzy becoming progressively more lost in the maze of mirrors until the reflections begin to close in on her. There’s a palpable sense of rising fear in the book as the rides move from being fun to frightening that is somewhat lost in the televised version, given how few rides are actually featured. Like on the screen, eventually Lizzy, Luke and Clay fall through a shoot and find themselves back outside. They continue to see other park visitors around them, children crying and some hurrying by, again providing the park a sense of liveliness that the show’s lack of extras is missing.
They pass through a “Bat Barn” where shadowy shapes flutter against them in the darkness and hurry past a place called “Alligator Pond” without thinking twice. They hurry back to the plaza, which lies in the shadow of the “Doom Slide”, desperately seeking their parents but finding only strangers there. A Horror informs them that their parents left them a message: “Goodbye.” Ignoring this, they consider their options, like visiting “Monster Zoo” or the “Guillotine Museum”.
Unlike the show which cuts back and forth between the parents and the children, Mr. and Mrs. Morris are absent in the book from the early chapters. While a certain amount of relief accompanies their appearance when they are finally reunited with the kids, Mr. Morris’ frustration at how difficult it was to find them and the normal friction that exists between stressed out adults and their equally anxious children quickly assures that any repose is short lived. Still, before they go, they decide on one last ride. A nice, soothing float in a coffin-shaped boat, a ride, the nearby Horror expresses, that may be their last.
It’s here where the TV adaptation and the page again connect, only in the book with all five members of the story in coffins as opposed to just Lizzy and Luke on the screen. In both cases, the lids slam shut, enveloping the riders in darkness. Unable to scream, Lizzy feels spiders crawling on her. The show visualizes this by showing a tarantula in Luke’s coffin. In the book when they reach land and climb out, the others complain about the various things that were climbing on them in the coffins and Mrs. Morris in particular exclaims that “they have gone too far!” Looking for someone to report their experience to, the family approaches the ticket booth once more. Finding it deserted, they head to the front gates only to discover that they are locked inside.
On the screen, Lizzy and Luke also head off in search of someone, finding the park deserted. Horrors watch from the peripheral, unseen by Lizzy and Luke, grumbling and grunting. The kids find the gates to Horrorland locked as on the page. At the same time, Mrs. Morris asks for a manager and Mr. Morris mentions that he sees a potential lawsuit with the park. That’s when several Horrors appear and close in on them. The credits roll here, concluding Part One of the television adaptation.
Part Two of the episode series opens where Chapter 21 (out of 29) begins on the page, showcasing the extent of what was edited in the leap to the screen. On the page, the Morris’ find themselves against a padlocked, twenty foot tall iron gate as hundreds of Horrors march toward them. Cornered, they ask what the creatures want and the Horrors grin warmly in response, thanking them for being on “Horrorland Hidden Camera”! Revealing that they’ve been on camera the entire time and featured on “The Monster Channel”, the family is ushered toward the exit. It’s then that they find themselves in darkness once more as a voice informs them that they have one minute to get through the “Monster Obstacle Course”. The games are all over, they’re told, this is real. “You’re playing for your life!”
On the screen, the Morris’ are chased through the nondescript door they spotted earlier only to emerge onstage in front of a massive studio audience of Horrors. A Horror host steps up jovially and informs them, as on the page, they’ve been on “Horrorland Hidden Camera”. Instead of leaving however, they’re convinced by the wise-cracking host to play an additional game for the chance to win a new car. From the moment the truth is revealed, the tone leans heavily into the absurd, presenting the Horrors as flamboyant, show-biz hungry, larger-than-life characterizations. One make-up artist Horror donning a light, pink robe, for example, sifts through “Eye of Doyle”, “Ear of Holyfield” and “Booger Surprise” before informing the Morris’, “darling, we’re monsters but we’re not monsters!”
In the book, the Morris’ and Clay are thrust into a terrifying obstacle course, coming upon all manner of murderous monster in their attempt to escape. A disgusting, multi-armed thing with red fur, huge eyes and multiple rows of hideously long fangs, ten foot tall birds, snarling pig-like creatures, fur covered snakes, bear-like creatures walking on two legs, enormous insects and a hopping furry ball with three mouths of sharp teeth are just some of the terrors that stalk the path to freedom for the characters. A cavalcade of creepy that the mind reels at imagining on the screen, even if the creation of such things for a Saturday morning kids show do seem decidedly out of reach.
Instead, the Morris family on screen plays the game “Raw Deal”, a game show resembling “Wheel of Fortune” with the added caveat that penalties for losing include eating worms and losing a limb. The episode is enamored with building out the silly, monstrous world of the horrors, even interrupting the game show to play commercials for “Greatest Monster Love Songs” (including hits like “Wart to Wart” and “I wanna hold your claws”) and realistic Human action figures for monster kids. While the family fails to guess the puzzle, which turns out to be “The Morris Family is Lunch”, they stick around for a chance to win a new, fully loaded SUV. All they have to do is pick a door— behind one is a new car and behind the other is Ripper the killer beast.
On the page, Lizzy escapes the obstacle course to the Horror Host’s announcement that “3 out of 5” of the Morris family has survived. While the host quickly corrects himself to say that all have lived, the shock urges the five together in a sobbing huddle. Sweaty, bruised and in some cases bloody, they’re slid off a platform back into the plaza outside where Lizzy finally attempts to unmask the Horror before her. Of course, there’s no mask to pull off. Fear and desperation mark the actions of the Morris’ here; there’s little time to marvel at the ridiculousness of the Horror’s television obsessed culture as the menace has not been sacrificed for the glitz and glamor of show business.
On the screen the Morris’ choose the wrong door and find themselves in the den of the proclaimed killer known as Ripper. They’re saved by a different Horror, the former host of “Raw Deal” and one with an axe to grind due to being ousted from the show. They escape and manage to find their car. The Horrors pursue and bang on the windows to get in. Still, the Morris’ car pulls away and bursts through the gate. That’s when the device from the beginning of the episode’s first part comes to life, taking control of the car as a Horror pilots the vehicle remotely. Teetering on the edge of a cliff, the Horror host smiles at the audience, “Now that’s what I call a cliffhanger!” It’s then that an average monster couple clicks off their television set in a normal looking home and remarks, “I am sick of these scary human shows” before deciding that it would be nice to just sit and talk.
In the book, the Horror reveals that the Morris’ were really interacting with monsters, watched by over two million monsters all over the world, and that it is time to say goodbye. The Horrors push them toward a thick, gurgling pond which sucks in whatever comes in contact with its bubbling surface. As the Horrors close in, Lizzy remembers the “no pinching” signs and pinches one of them on the arm. The Horror deflates like a balloon and the five begin pinching every Horror they can get their fingers on.
While the creatures attempt to once more inflate themselves, the five make it to the parking lot. Their car nothing more than a black spot on the pavement, they hurry toward the Horrorland buses they spotted earlier. Once inside they find the keys already in the ignition. A legion of Horrors close behind, Mr. Morris starts the bus and peels off escaping the park and the monsters. They drive for hours and pull up to their driveway under the full moon, only to find a Horror clinging to the back of the bus. Terrified and unsure of what the thing wants, it simply extends out its hand to the Morris’ and Clay with the words, “Here, we forgot to give you your free passes for next year!”
It seems in both events, it’s the Horrors that have the last word.
My eyes raced across the words before me, scanning in Lizzy’s macabre page one promise that she and the Morris’s would soon all be lying in their coffins. Stalks of corn and empty fields may have framed the view through my window, but from where I was sitting, the book in my hands ensured that my point of view was anything but dull. Bat filled barns, werewolf villas and spider-filled coffin boats were more than enough to keep me satisfied on any family road trip, no matter how uninteresting the environment.
The magic of R.L. Stine’s creations is not simply the raised skin their overarching title so eerily promises the reader, but the way in which the relatable stories and characters so easily permeate the zeitgeist which revolves around a young kid’s life. Few kids are unable to relate to the meandering family road trip, the prospect of a theme park, of a perfect day in the sun, riding rides and eating snacks. In response, Stine posits the question: what if such a place was run by monsters, and truly, for monsters?
As a result, it doesn’t get much more iconic than One Day at Horrorland, a Goosebumps staple that remains eternally relevant. Adapted for the screen by an all-star crew of Goosebumps series creatives like director William Fruet (A Night in Terror Tower and Welcome to Dead House) and famed creature designer Ron Stefaniuk, the book comes to life with a sense of whimsy and playfulness that carries the source material into new, preposterous territory, surpassing even the page’s most amusing elements.
While scares and a certain degree of tension are sacrificed in this transition, the adaptation offers fascinating insight into the entertainment the show itself is entrenched in while leaning into the aspects of camp that were always going to be inescapable given the production and its creative and budgetary constraints. In the end, both adaptations offer incredibly different tonal interpretations. The book focuses on realizing a full-fledged amusement park of horrors, packed with death defying rides and unforgettable monstrosities while the show uses that idea as a jumping off point to explore entertainment as a subculture, ironically poking fun at the horrors of reality TV as seen through a rather monstrous lens.
Both the book and the TV adaptation are about uncertainty in the face of entertainment designed to breed uncertainty, the flavor of manufactured fear that R.L. Stine’s books are so playfully infused with. The variety and variation of what the park holds within is remarkable in its own right, igniting the imagination with each sign post and destination, even if only ever glanced at for a fleeting moment. All of it amounts to the idea that even on a family road trip to a spot designed for families to road trip to, there may be horrors in store. Sure, in this instance those self proclaimed Horrors are supposed to be there and they’re admittedly quite welcoming, but a horror is a horror.
Still, whether it’s a rollercoaster or a “Doom Slide”, what’s a ride without a little risk? Moreover, what’s a Horror if there isn’t at least a chance that it isn’t just green latex? R.L. Stine, like most of us kids, knew the answers to such questions and once you experience One Day at Horrorland, I think it’s safe to say that you will too.