Best of 2023: The 10 Best Horror Books of the Year

Horror

Phantom of the Auditorium was originally published in October 1994 (Spine #24) and the series adaptation aired on Friday, December 1, 1995 (runtime: 22 minutes).

For over a century, the world’s stage has been haunted by a mysterious, masked phantom. From the pages of Gaston Leroux’s 1909 novel to Lon Chaney’s unnerving performance that would inspire countless screen versions over the coming decades, The Phantom of the Opera has emerged from the depths of the theater to shock, awe and embody the depressing, torturous truths of show business’ fickle refrain.

While big, bold, romantic tragedy starring the likes of Herbert Lom or Claude Rains seems far flung from the Goosebumps milieu, R.L. Stine carried the well-worn tale of the scarred phantom and his jilted passion to the pages of his paperbacks with aplomb. Trading the opera house stage for the middle school auditorium, Stine’s phantom forgoes the disfigured musical genius and embraces the desperate junior high desire to be seen.

Phantom of the Auditorium may veer off from its source material, but it transposes the gothic, brooding atmosphere of its progenitor to the silly and spooky realm of the Goosebumps page. Given the story’s historic roots on the silver screen, it was quickly adapted for the television show, airing only weeks after the series premiered and a little more than a year after the book’s publication. Filled with eerie corridors, strange warnings and ghostly goings-on, it quickly became a series classic, joining the ranks of the phantom family of adaptations that so wonderfully haunt the hallowed halls of horror entertainment.


The Story 

For over 70 years, a mysterious phantom has haunted Brooke’s school. When the school first opened the students decided to put on a play. It was called The Phantom. But the show never went on, as a boy disappeared that night. The star of the show. The phantom himself. Now, Brooke’s class is going to put on the same show. But will it go on as intended, or will it be stopped once more? For strange things are happening. Warnings are showing up in lockers. Sets are being destroyed. And Brooke can’t help but wonder: is someone out to ruin the play or is the phantom really on the prowl?

Phantom of the Auditorium came out in October of 1994, poised to spook the imaginations of Halloween readers everywhere. Focusing on two horror loving pre-teens and their quest to identify the mythical phantom who supposedly haunts their school, the book invites an otherworldly gothic ambience into the blasé world of junior high. Smart, silly and appropriately tragic, it’s both a solid entry in Goosebumps canon and a welcome addition to the myriad of approaches on The Phantom of the Opera.


The Adaptation 

The book opens by introducing readers to Brooke and Zeke, two horror movie obsessed tweens looking forward to a Creature From the Black Lagoon film festival and their leading parts in the new school play The Phantom. Their school is haunted by such a phantom, rumored to be a boy who disappeared over 70 years prior on the night the play was originally to be performed. Their teacher, Ms. Walker tells them the ghostly tale, regretting her decision to illuminate the class on the creepy mythos the moment Zeke scares the frightened group with a mask and his penchant for pageantry.

The show condenses these chapters and crafts a dream sequence to open the episode, filling it with fog, shadow and imagery of the white mask clad phantom emerging from the darkness and whispering the name Esmerelda, Brooke’s character in the play. These dreams pepper the runtime, crafting an airy mood that pervades the proceedings. This segues to a group of kids pouring over scripts atop a school stage. It’s here where a girl named Tina, mean spirited and jealous of Brooke’s leading part on both the page and the screen, details the story of the phantom in Ms. Walker’s place. The only addition is that Tina claims a year later the ghost of the boy appeared. All the while the kids are watched from a figure in the rafters, unseen by all.

Zeke scares the kids, as on the page, and Ms. Walker explains the narrative of the play. In it, a theater owner believes his theater is haunted but it is really just a scared man known as the phantom living beneath its floorboards. The phantom and the theater owner’s daughter fall in love but it is not to be, for when her handsome boyfriend discovers this, he murders the phantom, breaking Esmerelda’s heart and leaving the phantom’s spirit to forever haunt the theater. Soon after, the kids discover the trap door, which Ms. Walker scolds them to stay away from as it is very old, constructed for the play’s original run. Although the order differs slightly and it’s Ms. Walker who quickly disappears down the trap door by accident on the page not one of the students, there’s very little difference narratively as these events occur in the book.

The page and the screen sync up here as Zeke holds Brooke back in the theater after everyone leaves for the night. Convincing her to try out the trapdoor, they lower themselves, finding that it descends far beyond the five feet below the stage as it was intended to. The mechanism takes them to the bowels of the school. In the show, the place looks like an abandoned basement, bathed in cobwebs and grime amidst its network of interlocking pipes. In the book the place is a pitch-black passage, leading into a dark abyss. Either way they quickly retreat, finding a switch and returning to the auditorium where they climb out of the trapdoor to find themselves face to face with an angry stranger.

His name is Emile on the page and the screen. He claims himself to be the night janitor and angrily tells them to stay away. In the book he’s very old with wild white hair and dark eyes, while on the screen he has dark and wavy hair with a grizzled face. Still, the effect is the same. While the book follows the kids home and introduces Brooke’s little, much less interested in being scared brother Jeremy, the episode jumps to the next day at school where she meets Brian, a new kid in school who laments that he missed out on tryouts for the new play.

She interacts with Brian in the book as well, in class as opposed to the theater, and takes pity on him, asking Ms. Walker if he can become a part of the play. In both cases, the teacher allows Brian to join the crew, where he’s paired with Tina on scenery. Shortly thereafter, on the page and the screen, Brooke finds a monster mask and a message in her locker, a variation of the words: STAY AWAY FROM MY HOME SWEET HOME. Later at rehearsal, the phantom swings down from the rafters, scaring everyone and grabbing Brooke, rasping the message again before disappearing down the trapdoor.

The episode truncates the following events by having a prop door slam down, marred with the painted message: LAST WARNING STAY AWAY ESMERELDA. Zeke appears after the phantom departs and Ms. Walker confronts him. After following a trail of paint to his locker, Ms. Walker evicts Zeke from the play and threatens to cancel the whole production. Soon after, a janitor tells them that there is no night janitor and both Brooke, Zeke and Brian decide it’s time to hunt for the phantom themselves.

No door falls on the page. Instead, Ms. Walker cancels rehearsal and Brooke finds Zeke at home. He had been at a dentist appointment and could not have been the instigator on stage. The next day he explains himself to Ms. Walker and rehearsals continue. Once again, the phantom arises from beneath the stage and grabs Brooke, horrifying her as she can see Zeke waving frantically off stage. After discovering from the school secretary that there is no night janitor and being turned away by Ms. Walker when attempting to confide in her about their suspicions, Brooke, Zeke and Brian sneak into the school to uncover the truth about Emile and maybe the phantom.

Strange sounds in the dark and eerie theater space alert the three that they are not alone in the school. Scenery cranks to life, lowering on the stage and revealing graffiti smeared across its surface reading: STAY AWAY FROM MY HOME SWEET HOME. Ms. Walker finds them there and much of what occurred on the screen occurs here. She accuses all three of them of being responsible and a fight erupts, ending with a paint trail to Zeke’s locker. His parents are called and he’s kicked out of the play. Rehearsals continue for weeks after with no issues until Ms. Walker’s script is glued together as opening night approaches and the play is nearly cancelled once more. That’s when Brooke decides they need to unmask the phantom once and for all.

Hewing closely to the page, the episode continues with the three students venturing back into the forgotten basement where they discover a small, furnished room. In the book they venture down the dark tunnel and find the same, citing a table with corn flakes, an unmade bed, an old couch with a cushion missing and a bookshelf. That’s when a door slams and they become trapped inside with Emile. In both versions he yells that they should have listened and stayed away. In the episode they run, but in the book Emile continues to elaborate. They ask him what happened seventy-two years ago and he replies that he’s not that old. He is homeless and knew about the room from when his father worked for the school years before. He’s no phantom, just a man looking for a place to stay.

In the book they find Zeke’s angry father descending the platform, looking for his troublemaking son. In the episode it’s the school principal. Both authority figures serve the same purpose, however, alerting the police. In neither instance do the police find Emile, but in the episode their principal informs them that the police think he was a homeless man who was pretending to be the phantom in hopes of keeping his spot beneath the school a secret, aligning the explanation with the page, albeit in a clunkier narrative way.

The night of the play arrives. As Brooke takes the stage and faces the phantom, she looks into his eyes and sees that Zeke’s own are not staring back at her. In the show, she sees literal flame in his eyes. The phantom goes off book and tells the tale of a boy who has waited over 70 years to perform the role of a lifetime, a role he was meant to play decades before but was never able to as he plummeted to his death before the show. The crowd goes wild.

In the episode, he informs Esmerelda that she will soon join him in eternal darkness, but she refuses, knocking him back down the long trapdoor shaft that the boy had tumbled into so many years before. In the book, the phantom takes a bow before his adoring crowd and Brooke attempts to unmask him. In the chaos of the shifting fog and blinding stage lights, the phantom stumbles away, shielding his face and slipping into the trapdoor’s open chasm never to be seen again.

In both versions, Zeke regains consciousness. In the book they descend the trapdoor and look for the phantom but find nothing. In the episode, Zeke is lying atop the trapdoor, beside an old yearbook. The yearbook appears on the page as well, sometime later in Brooke’s locker. The two versions end in unison, as Brooke opens to a page advertising the upcoming play and she eyes a picture of Brian, the boy tasked with playing the phantom.


Final Thoughts 

Like the very best Goosebumps tales, Phantom of the Auditorium serves as an eerily fun journey into the idiosyncratic uncertainties of the adolescent mind as well as an introduction to some of the broader horror-centric tropes that genre storytelling has at its disposal. Dealing with everything from stage fright to eternal damnation, R.L. Stine’s Phantom carries romantic gothicism to the middle American public school system in a way that only Tim Jacobus’ wonderful caped and wild haired cover art could capture.

The television adaptation holds up well to the text on the page, snipping here and reshaping there to forge a version that feels accurate yet distinct. With the advent of ghostly dream sequences, condensing the amount of times that the story’s heroes descend to the depths of the school and keeping the action firmly planted in the auditorium in question, the episode offers the 126 page novel in a tight 22 minutes that flies by and captures the book’s unearthly atmosphere.

The phantom has enjoyed a rich tapestry of interpretation over its lengthy lifespan, showing up in all manner of entertainment, from prestige studio pictures to brief references in Saturday morning cartoon shows. It’s a character whose iconography will outlast most, a story which resonates out of time and place and a cultural touchstone that has evolved far beyond any one artistic platform. To be a part of that history is a honor in and of itself and to do its legacy justice is a mark of true creative success.

And if the twenty fourth entry in a spooky line of literature aimed at kids ushering a multitude of young minds toward discovering Gaston Leroux’s ethereal creation isn’t doing that illusory phantom justice, I’m not sure what would.

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