For many kids born and raised in the 1990s, GOOSEBUMPS was their first taste of the horror genre. R.L. Stine’s successful book series spawned an equally beloved TV series, and led to a merchandising empire that wouldn’t be challenged until a certain scarred wizard came onto the scene.
One of the inevitable multimedia avenues that Stine’s world of monster blood and killer dummies traversed was the world of video games. The first title is a true gem and an undeniable oddity — a time capsule of the ’90s FMV fad that managed to transcend the medium’s limitations.
Now twenty years old, it has achieved a bona fide cult-classic status: the 1996 PC game ESCAPE FROM HORRORLAND, one of the earliest titles developed and released by the now-defunct DreamWorks Interactive, co-directed by none other than Steven Spielberg himself.
ESCAPE FROM HORRORLAND functions as a sequel to one of the best known books in the series, ONE DAY AT HORROR LAND, and introduces you to the on-screen incarnations of the book’s main trio, Lizzy, her brother Luke, and their cowardly friend Clay (played by Eric Lloyd, whom some might recognize as Charlie Calvin from THE SANTA CLAUSE).
In the game’s opening cinematic sequence, Lizzy frantically gives you the story thus far: her brother and Clay have gone missing, and she needs your help to find them. When a trip back to her house results in both of you getting sucked into a vortex and dropped into the dark heart of Horrorland, you’re forced to join her as she searches for them, her parents, and for a way out, all while dodging a barrage of vicious creatures and decoding cryptic clues and puzzles.
To say that I have fond memories of this game would be a huge understatement. When I was a kid, GOOSEBUMPS was my world, and this game got more play on the family computer than “Stairway to Heaven” on a classic rock station. Returning to it now, it’s easy to see why it left such an impression: this game was a top-shelf production all the way. Sure, the Windows 95-era graphics are rough and a bit dated, but the game’s high production value shines through.
Its various locations — Werewolf Village, Horrorland Plaza, The Valley of Lost Kings — all feel like real locations, with their own unique energies to them; their striking and stylized designs make it so that the characters running through them seem to really be interacting with their surreal environment, as opposed to wandering around in front of a green screen struggling to visualize where they are and what they’re doing. Whether you’re exploring Horrorland’s tortured past in an abandoned museum, or approaching the gothic majesty of Dracula’s castle, you feel completely enveloped in the world that Stine and Dreamworks built.
The monsters inhabiting the park are memorable as well; when the player frees Lizzy from the confines of a freezer in a werewolf’s butcher shop (I swear when you’re playing it this all makes sense), she barely gets a chance to plan her next move when the towering lycanthrope comes crashing through a window, forcing you to run away and seek safety in the mangled forests outside. Should you take a dive into a trash can, you’ll find yourself outrunning a toothy crab-like abomination in a DOOM-styled underground tunnel sequence. And as I mentioned before, you’ll even find yourself lurking about Dracula’s castle, confronting the infamous bloodsucker himself — played by Jeff “Now, now that’s Chaos Theory” Goldblum! Be sure to keep an eye out for Isabella Rossellini’s cameo as his unholy bride.
But along with GOOSEBUMPS’ famous monsters — the Horrorland Horrors, the Scarecrow Who Walks At Midnight, etc — is the most formidable fiend, one created solely for the game: Dr. Madison Storm, the unhinged architect of Horrorland, obsessed with getting revenge on Lizzy, Luke, and Clay for having the gall to survive his park.
Played with gleeful malevolence by Robert Joy (whom genre fans might recognize as the disfigured sharpshooter Charlie from LAND OF THE DEAD and the radiation casualty Lizard in the ’06 THE HILLS HAVE EYES), Storm manages to become the true force to reckon with in a land filled with countless terrors; he always seems to be lurking just out of view, ready to ensnare our heroes in another trap, and though he’s rarely seen through most of the game, his presence is acutely felt throughout. He leaves menacing notes and is spoken about in grandiose praise by the park’s more sentient creatures, and — most memorably — sells his own legacy in a terrifying video left to watch in a burnt-out chunk of Horrorland Plaza.
Take a moment to watch it here. Seriously, don’t keep reading until you’ve watched it.
They put that in a game for kids! Sure, it’s played for maximum camp value and padded with cheesy Foley effects, but no matter how you slice it, we just saw a homicidal mad scientist have a nervous breakdown. I was six years old when I played this, and that unbridled insanity, that thrilling fear of a man masterminding the demise of innocents, left a deep imprint in my psyche. They made a point of looping his snarling delivery of “I suffered” and quickly segue into a random rant wherein the man trying to feed you to his killer creations shouts “WHO STOLE ALL MY CHOCOLATE?!”
This was the inciting incident that led me to develop a fascination with psychology of villains, their obsession and twisted passion, and I’ve no doubt anyone else who dared to explore the game deep enough could say the same. It’s that curiosity that leads us into deeper and darker corners of the macabre as we get older, as the mystique of mad scientists gives way to brutal animalism of slashers, and the abstract anxieties simply symbolized by ghouls and goblins transform into the more complex and impressionistic demons of Lovecraft and Barker.
Stine’s penchant for dark humor is honored here too: Throughout the park, there are little video kiosks with Horrorland logos on the screen. Players who check them out will be greeted by bizarre informational rants from a wild and weird woman — unnamed in the game, but identified by IMDb as “Hannah Black.” Black is played by the off-kilter comedian Judy Tenuta, who filters the character’s cryptic clues through her trademark tonal modulation and manic movement, throwing in some wicked zingers here and there (My personal favorite: “Come closer…come closer… NOT THAT CLOSE! I’M NOT A WHO CONCERT!”). Gallows humor for children; I think that’s something we can all get behind.
Much like the endings to many horror films, where the killer or monster comes back for one last scare, the dual denouements the game plays out — depending on how you handle the final puzzle — are classic unhappy endings in the GOOSEBUMPS style [SPOILER ALERT]: should you manage to save Lizzy and Luke’s parents from being dunked in a chemical bath by Storm, the game ends with the siblings arriving home, being greeted by their mom and dad on the front porch. “How’d you guys get here?” Lizzy asks. “Oh, we wrangled a ride from our new neighbor Maddy!” Her father replies. On cue, Madison Storm, dressed in his best suburbanite costume, walks out. “Hey kids! Have we met?” He asks facetiously, cackling as the scene fades out and our heroes’ fates remain uncertain.
Should you fail and let the parents fall into the ooze, you get the second (and arguably worse) ending. It begins on the same upbeat note, but when the kids approach the house, their parents come out to greet them and reveal that they have been transformed into Horrors — the signature horned monsters of the park. Like someone being given the choice to stay at the Bates Motel or drive down to Camp Crystal Lake, you’re screwed either way.
The legacy of ESCAPE FROM HORRORLAND — much like GOOSEBUMPS itself — is secured by the creepy kids (now creepy adults) who grew up with it, and the kids who are rediscovering it now; there are tons of “Let’s Play” videos of the game on YouTube, and box office success of the 2015 film shows that a whole new generation is getting their first dose of the fright from this colorful world of scares.
On that note, I leave you with this behind-the-scenes EPK of HORRORLAND’s production — featuring a pretty stoned-looking Goldblum Dracula around the 4:15 mark…