Goosebumps: Say Cheese and Die! was originally published in November 1992 (Spine #4). The series adaptation later aired on Friday February 9, 1996 (runtime: 22 minutes).
Whatever the number of copies of the Goosebumps book series that my elementary school library actually housed was decidedly not enough to meet the demand of its ravenous patrons. Checking the return bin for those spooky covers with their strikingly colored, pimply raised fonts was a daily affair, and one that was often met with disappointment. You’d think that with the fervor and speed that kids in my school seemed to be devouring R.L. Stine’s tales of terror that there’d be nothing but Goosebumps books sitting available atop the library’s countless rows of shelves but, to my pained chagrin, the tomes remained as elusive as many of the mysteries which burned within the pages of the books I so desperately sought.
But, despite the heartbreak of countless empty handed exits from the library’s front double doors, it was those times where the playfully macabre cover art stared back up at me from the dark recesses of the book return that my breath would catch in my throat, that my heart would skip a beat and when my imagination would reel. From my first ever find of The Ghost Next Door to subsequent discoveries like Night of the Living Dummy, The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb and Let’s Get Invisible, that unassuming school library became my entry point into the strange and bizarre world of horror. But of all the covers to first meet my gaze in that misleadingly wholesome place, none held so strong an impact as the aptly titled, Say Cheese and Die!
A polaroid of a family barbecue, a perfect summer’s day shared with laughter, food and fun, all soured by the absence of tissue and flesh. The family in question, the father in his chef’s hat and apron flipping burgers, the mother beside him, her mouth agape in a frozen chuckle and their kids in the background, lounging at the picnic table, wore only their clothes atop their exposed bones. Devoid of dressing, their smiles seemed sinister, their presence an omen, a promise of death where you might least expect it.
Goosebumps was a diabolical concoction, every element key to its witches’ brew bent on intoxicating the young mind. The same held true when the show leapt to the screen some years later, its presentation carrying over those mysterious elemental components that made the books so resonant. As his name hung over each title in plain font, R.L. Stine would appear at the top of each episode as the credits began, shrouded in black and spilling his briefcase into the wind, releasing his horrors on an otherwise mundane and unsuspecting world. And with each new episode, a memory was sparked, the first time I laid eyes on the cover art swam through my mind, and I was frightened and excited all over again.
Arriving toward the end of the first season, Say Cheese and Die! was one of the earliest and most iconic books to be adapted. Moody and atmospheric, the episode transposes and simplifies the events of the book in striking ways, crafting a different experience that nails the tone and feeling that the original material conjures so well. Having been a personal favorite since the moment I first spied those eerily grinning skeletons in the library at Willow Elementary, I could not wait to see what horrors the episode had in store and, alterations and all, the end result did not disappoint.
Greg and his friends are bored. There’s nothing to do in Pitts Landing— that’s why everyone calls it “the pits”.
Still, are they bored enough to sneak into the abandoned Coffman House? The old, dilapidated manor that every kid has heard stories about? Greg doesn’t think so, but his friends Shari, Doug (nicknamed Bird due to his avian-like features) and Michael have the last word. All too soon, they find themselves in the creaky basement, noticing that someone has made a home for themselves there, perhaps the lanky homeless man dressed in black that the town’s kids have nicknamed Spidey on account of his spindly legs and unnerving mannerisms.
It’s there Greg stumbles upon a hidden compartment and an old, heavy camera. Always having been interested in photography, Greg snaps a photo of Michael at the top of the stairs. It’s when the photo prints out that he notices something’s wrong: Michael is falling in the photograph, despite being perfectly stable when the picture was taken. There’s little time to dwell on the mystery, however, as a moment later, the railing breaks and Michael plummets.
Spidey returns to the old house and the kids must flee. They escape with the camera and a slew of questions that will only get more complicated as Greg comes to realize this particular camera doesn’t take pictures of what’s happening… it captures what’s going to. More than that, it twists things and turns them. It makes them bad. A new car becomes a wrecked one. A baseball player ends up unconscious on the ground. His best friend disappears.
How can Greg stop the evil camera? How can he save his friends when no one will believe him? When the only one who could possibly understand his problem is a deranged vagrant who will stop at nothing to retrieve the cursed camera that cannot be destroyed?
Say Cheese and Die! was one of the earliest Goosebumps books released, serving as a foundational effort that would solidify those elements that would go on to become tried and true in the series. Constructed around a core group of relatable kids, the horror is the kind of immediate fantasy that feels chillingly grounded. The book not only serves as a shining example of R.L. Stine’s penchant for crafting instantly classic, kid-friendly horror fare but the raw power of Tim Jacobus’ artwork and how, together, new nightmares are so expertly born.
Both the book and the episode open with the core group of kids engaged in conversation, but in different places and with slightly different motivations. In the book, Greg, Shari, Bird and Michael are in Greg’s driveway, waxing endlessly about how bored they are. Their conversation is meandering but relatable as they discuss baseball, comic books— namely The X-Force— and what they’d do if they had superpowers. Finally they take a walk across the neighborhood and find themselves staring at the old Coffman house. Hidden in the shadows of some old oak trees, the place reeks of wealth, but its broken windows, cracked shingles and hanging shutters tell a story of neglect and abandonment.
The show excises Michael entirely, focusing on Greg, Shari and Bird as they stand before the gate of a large, imposing industrial building. Gone is the feel of haunted suburbia, replaced with the blunt coldness of the city. Rather than talk of boredom, the kids seem to be swapping stories of the supposed madman who dwells inside the building they’re so keen to spy on.
“I hear he sleeps in there!”
“I hear he eats rats!”
Spidey makes an appearance here, something he doesn’t do until several chapters later on the page, a wild looking man with long, scraggly gray hair and strange black goggles, providing him the insect-like appearance that his elongated, slender lankiness does in the book. In the book, Michael suggests that they check out the house in an effort to cure their boredom. Spidey is mentioned here, along with the rumors that he frequents the house. In the show, it seems that the reason the kids want to check out the soon to be demolished building is specifically because Spidey lives there, which is why the three so eagerly enter once Spidey runs off.
Both the book and the episode make sure to highlight Greg’s protests, his friends pushing him forward regardless. The book provides a bit more atmospheric nuance to the three story manor it concerns, the pale circles of light dotting the creaking floorboards, a mysterious dark, oval stain on the carpet and a low hanging chandelier so covered with dust that its glass frame is indiscernible just a few of the details filling out the spooky space. On the other hand, in the show the kids enter directly into Spidey’s laboratory.
The lab on the screen is fairly sparse, containing a television and a tool bench, marked with odd, nondescript inventions. In the book the basement of the house is brighter, made up with an old table and mattress as though someone had been living there. They even find an old Hungry Man frozen dinner, which the kids make a point to note that Spidey most likely eats frozen “like pop-sickles” given that he has no microwave, casting the unsettling feeling that they are no longer exploring an abandoned place but invading someone’s personal living space. They also notice an area with rusty tools, a worktable and a metal vice. Thoughtless curiosity leads to Greg turning the vice and exposing a hidden door on the bench. Inside is a large, old camera.
The show accomplishes all of this in seconds, as Greg bumps into the tool bench and opens a shelf immediately upon entry. He too discovers a camera, although onscreen it looks more like an alien weapon than a traditional piece of photography equipment. Large and black with small fins protruding and several blinking red lights, the camera’s whir and otherworldly green flash makes for a strikingly strange device. While it may be more visually interesting in some ways, it also seems less likely Greg would recognize it as a camera.
The book dwells on Greg’s indecision of whether or not to take the object, feeling that it was hidden for a reason, before finally giving into the budding desire to snatch the surprisingly heavy object. Exposition of Greg’s interest in photography, how he had been saving his allowances for a nice camera with a plethora of lenses and how he daydreamed of traveling the world with it are excised. Instead, the moment he finds the camera in the show, he snaps a picture of Bird (instead of Michael), who promptly falls from the top of the stairs whilst attempting to juggle. It’s then that Spidey shows up and shouts, “What are you doing here?” and the three kids quickly flee in a series of canted angle shots that provides the brief opening with an even more chaotic feel.
The book follows a similar trajectory, Michael falls but, unlike Bird who claims to be fine in the show, complains about his ankle. Instead of Spidey showing himself, footsteps resound on the floor above. As the kids panic and attempt to find a way out, the footsteps grow louder and a man’s voice calls out, “Who’s down there?” Their exit slowed by Michael’s injured ankle, there’s a bit more tension and build up on the page, culminating with the kids bursting through locked wooden double doors leading to the overgrown backyard as Spidey, only referenced as a dark figure, watches through a window of the house.
The book and the show match up closely here, as Greg discovers that the picture depicts Bird/Michael falling, despite the event occurring after the photograph was taken. In both versions Greg pockets the photo and pushes the thought out of his mind, assuming the camera must have gone off later than he thought. In the book, Greg arrives back home to find his father’s new navy blue Station Wagon in the driveway. He snaps a photo of the car to remember it as it was when it was brand new, before running up to his bedroom to hide the camera so that he would not have to explain its origins to his parents. It’s there that he looks at the snapshot in surprise.
In the show, Greg also finds the new car, here surrounded by leaves and presenting the comfortable feeling of fall that the book doesn’t feature. His brother Terry is also there, someone only mentioned in the book up until this point. Terry approaches Greg with the greeting, “Hey troll!” Terry is a completely different character here, presented as something of a mindless older brother bully-type as opposed to the genuinely supportive and, at worst, aloof sibling that he is on the page. Terry is more excited about the car than Greg and goads him into taking a photo in the show. Greg complies, while Spidey watches from behind a nearby tree, something the book doesn’t mention.
Greg reacts to the photo alone in his room in both versions, the car on the small rectangular photograph no longer new, but completely wrecked. In the show, Terry is leaning against the car in the photo, an odd choice as he has his own photograph subplot in the book that is excised in the show and nothing is done with him here in its place. Still, the following scene, where Greg’s family eats dinner and decides to take a ride in the new car, plays out on screen fairly closely to how it does on the page. The one exception here is that in the book Greg attempts to get out of the leisurely drive to no avail with excuses of homework and not feeling well whereas, in the show, he never speaks up.
In the book, Greg’s father is a little over excited, pushing the car above 70 miles per hour despite Greg’s mother’s consistent concerns. In the show, Greg’s father is far more conservative, responding to the request that he slow down with the fact that he’s only going 35. Greg also attempts to show his mother the picture in the episode while driving, a picture which goes flying out of the open window as a result. That’s when the truck horn blares and the car spins out, narrowly missing a collision. On the page, Greg wishes his dad would slow down but doesn’t verbalize it. Distracted by his new, unfamiliar dashboard, Greg’s father doesn’t see the truck barreling toward them. The horn blares and they swerve out of the way. More time is spent with the family here as Greg’s mother comforts her children and scolds her husband.
The book also features an additional excised scene in which Greg stares once more at the picture of the damaged car in his bedroom, before deciding to test the camera out on himself. Thinking that the flash would distort the image if he used a mirror, he enlists his brother Terry instead. When he takes Terry’s picture, however, Terry is not smiling awkwardly in his bedroom, he is outside and frightened looking. This provides a further string to the burgeoning mystery of the camera as well as what might soon transpire that the runtime of the show apparently couldn’t afford.
The show moves directly from the near miss incident with the car to the scene which conjures the instantly recognizable key art into the real world, as the family is seen grilling together. Greg sets up the camera and they all say “Cheese!” Strange carnival music plays as the photo prints out, depicting them all as skeletons. Greg wakes up a moment later, terrified. While this scene is referenced briefly in the book, outside of the cover art, it’s not for several more chapters.
This transposition marks a breaking point in the episode and the book, the show removing large swaths of exposition and set pieces in an effort to arrive at the climax. In the next scene, Bird and Greg discuss the camera, whether it can predict the future and how there seems to be no place to put in additional film (a conversation that’s had between Greg and Shari in the book). They then encounter Joey and Mickey, two bullies from school, who attempt to steal the camera, resulting in a chase that lands Greg and Bird in Shari’s backyard. It’s there that she demands Greg take her picture only to be miffed when she doesn’t appear in it, the empty backyard where she had been standing the only thing to show up on the square image. Then suddenly, Terry bursts into the backyard, breathlessly informing his brother that their father’s been in an accident.
The book skips ahead a few days to Bird’s first little league game, something mentioned in the first chapter on the page but abandoned on the screen. Greg and Shari talk extensively about the camera and accidentally snap a photo of Bird in the process, an image which depicts him sprawled out on the ground with his neck and limbs at odd angles. The following chapters serve to flesh out Greg and Shari’s best friendship, making her the central sounding board for Greg regarding the camera as opposed to Bird on the screen. It culminates with Bird taking a line drive to the head and passing out, fulfilling the picture’s prophecy just as Terry turns up looking frightened, fulfilling the promise of his own photograph, informing that their father, and his new car, had been in an accident. All the while, a dark figure watches from behind the bleachers.
For a moment, the show and the book align once more, as Greg visits his father in the hospital. The book comments on the indistinct colors and shapes of the hospital as Greg takes the long walk to his father’s room, unsure of the state in which he’ll find him. The aroma of “rubbing alcohol, stale food and disinfectant” greet him as he sees his crying mother and father whose head is wrapped like a mummy, his arm in a cast while attached to a tube dripping dark liquid. From the perspective of a child, there is a sense of weighted trauma invading his senses that suggests not only the danger his family is in at the moment but the potential for far worse outcomes should the camera not be decommissioned.
The show doesn’t quite capture the horrors of the hospital in the same way, offering a quick glimpse at Greg’s father whose leg is elevated in a cast and whose sense of embarrassment at the trouble and worry his accident might have caused outweighs any fear he might’ve had for his life. Unlike the book, the show spends very little time at the hospital, finding Greg back at home and face to face with several police officers with questions about Shari. She’s been missing since that afternoon and given that Greg was one of the last people to see her, he’s on the hot seat. The cops express a great deal of attitude and a forceful sense of intimidation, as Greg debates about whether to tell them the truth. All the while, Spidey watches.
The book jumps from the hospital to the following weekend, Shari’s birthday party. While the show somewhat sidelined Shari prior to the events of the car accident, on the page she is still a major presence, demanding that Greg bring the camera to her party to take a picture of her. He argues, but as it’s her birthday he ultimately relents. It’s here that he mentions the dream shown earlier in the episode and the one featured so prominently on the cover of the book. The mention is fleeting and barely a blip on the story’s radar, clearly revealing its true origins as something R.L. Stine added after the book was written in an effort to include Tim Jacobus’ wonderful art into the story itself.
The party is a big one with a large group of kids. It’s there that Greg takes the photo of Shari that doesn’t have her in it, no matter how many times he snaps the shutter in her direction. The kids head out to the woods to play truth or dare, something Greg is not excited about due to the potential for “kissing and awkward stunts”, before being called back for Shari’s candle lit pink and white birthday cake. It’s there that everyone realizes Shari is missing.
Rather than disappearing offscreen, the book depicts Shari’s disappearance as it’s happening. Uniformed police search the woods around Shari’s house as the birthday cake sits untouched, its candles melted down to puddles atop the pristine pink and white icing. There’s a disturbing sadness that pervades the event as Greg, their next door neighbor, sits against a tree and watches the search along with Shari’s grieving parents— knowing what happened while, at the same time, at a loss to provide any reasonable explanation as to how or why it did.
The book dives deeper into Greg’s psyche than the show is able to, depicting his conversation with a police officer there under the tree as opposed to later at his home. Instead of an accusatory line of questioning, the officer approaches with concern in his voice. After reassuring Greg that they’d find her, Greg finally admits that he knows the camera is why Shari is missing, explaining the object’s powers to the authority figure. Again, instead of mistrust, the officer pats him on the shoulder and acknowledges how difficult this must be for him. The lesson for Greg is clear: no one will believe that he is in possession of an evil camera. If something is to be done, he will have to do it himself.
While the show depicts Bird and Greg arguing about what to do before Greg finally decides to take the camera back to Spidey’s workshop on his own after tearing up Shari’s blank photograph in anger, the book follows Greg home from Shari’s to find his room in complete disarray. Multiple chapters pass as Greg gathers Michael and Bird together to form a plan to dispose of the camera, save Shari and finally shake Spidey off of their backs.
Here is where Greg and his friends encounter the bullies and the scene which transpired much earlier on screen plays out on the page, this time resulting in an accidental photograph being taken. While it would have helped for a more cohesive narrative to introduce the bullies earlier in the story, their presence feels natural in the unique brand of kid jungle that Stine tends to craft for his young characters to live in. The inadvertent photo shows Greg, frightened but not alone. Shari is there too, someone who apparently may not be missing for much longer.
Days pass in the book, with the authorities developing the working theory that Shari had been kidnapped. A heavy sense of fear and grief pervades Greg’s household, despite his dad’s return home from the hospital, in part because of their close relationship with Shari and their family and also because of the implications a kidnapping in their quaint suburban town might represent. Without this element, Shari’s disappearance on screen holds less weight and, again, relegates her to a far less reaching supporting role than she plays on the page.
In the show, Greg heads out to the old building with the camera in hand when he’s surprised by a figure in the darkness— Shari. Without an idea of where she had disappeared to, she seems to have reappeared after Greg tore up the photograph. Having found out from Bird what Greg was up to, she decided to join and support him in putting the camera to rest.
The book resolves Shari’s disappearance in much the same way, albeit with more breathing room. Greg destroys the photograph before falling asleep, waking up several hours later to a phone call from Shari. As in the show, she had turned up at approximately the same time that Greg tore up the photograph with no memory or knowledge of where she’d been or what had happened to her. They meet up and finally bring the most recent photograph’s image to fruition as both Shari and Greg stop dead, terrified, in the face of a tall, gangly man.
Likening him to a “black tarantula”, they run before being stopped by one of their neighbors who frightens Spidey off with a warning of calling the police. Shari and Greg then decide that the camera has to be returned if they’re ever going to rid themselves of Spidey. They decide on the following afternoon at 3pm, not under the cover of darkness as in the show, but in the bright light of day, when their neighborhood will feel safe rather than sinister.
Here, once more, the book and the show connect. As before, the book offers additional set dressing as the two venture through the house, describing cobwebbed ducts spiraling out like old tree limbs and a sudden lightning storm flashing periodically much like the signature of a certain cursed camera. The show instead once more finds the kids descending straight down into the green and blue haze of Spidey’s lab.
In the book, Greg deposits the camera back in its secret compartment before being confronted by Spidey, but in the episode, Spidey appears almost immediately. This is the first good look at the man the book provides, describing him as old, with small eyes resembling dark marbles. He speaks softly, explaining that they should not have taken the camera, that it is not broken but evil. He explains that his real name is Dr. Fritz Fredericks and that he stole the camera from his partner who would have made a fortune from it. He explains that his partner dabbled in the dark arts and had cursed the camera, ensuring that if he could not profit from it, then no one could.
In the show, Fredericks is far more intense and wild. His tone is crazed and raised, heightened in a way that feels understandably theatrical. This version of the doctor explains that while some primitive tribes believe cameras to be soul stealers, this one is far worse than that. Insinuating that he invented it rather than stole it, he laments that it should’ve made him his fortune but that it ultimately not only predicted the future, it made it worse.
Both versions explain that the camera can not be destroyed and so therefore must be hidden as well as land on Dr. Fredericks telling Greg and Shari that they know too much and can never leave. Completely aligned, both versions depict a struggle, culminating with Shari snapping a photo of Dr. Fredericks, effectively positioning Shari as the hero of the day. That’s where the versions diverge once more.
In the book, Fredericks howls like a “wounded animal”, flailing on the floor before lying still, his eyes bulging in a frozen stare of utter terror, exactly what the photo depicted. Frightened to death, Greg and Shari decide, despite the paramedic’s eventual conclusion that it was heart failure. On screen, Fredericks disappears in a flash of green light, only to be shown visibly inside of the camera shouting, “Release me! Someone! Anyone! Release me!!” Not dead, but trapped. Perhaps not as macabre as the page and easily more palatable for younger viewers, the show still offered a fascinating fate for the evil camera’s keeper.
Still, both versions leave its viewers and readers with the same scene: consummate bullies Joey and Mickey sneaking into Spidey’s lab, laughing at the idea that Greg could hide the camera they were so intent on stealing from them. They take a picture and say “Cheese!”, excitedly huddled around the photo to watch as it develops. Of course, while the book ends there, in keeping with the earlier alteration, in the show Spidey stands up behind them, grinning widely.
It seems, regardless of the version, the camera’s curse is far from over.
Unlike so many unsatisfactory trips to the library, Say Cheese and Die delivered just the sort of Goosebumps experience my young mind had craved. Like many of the episodes before it, and so many that would come in its wake, it managed to capture much of the feel of reading a Goosebumps book while providing something different than what the page had to offer. Friday nights continued to reign supreme, as though infused with a drug made potent by watching my favorite series’ entries come to life in new and exciting ways.
Brought to life by prolific Goosebumps director Ron Oliver, helmer of Welcome to Camp Nightmare and Night of the Living Dummy II, the episode comes imbued with an autumnal atmosphere and a sharp juxtaposition between Spidey’s lair and the pleasant suburbia nearby. Those two locations craft a stark contrast mirroring the dark, potential futures which may or may not lie ahead depending on how the protagonists choose to proceed. There’s an energy to the episode in how the camera moves and in the way the story flows that maintains momentum right up until the last frame. Not to mention, the whole affair is headlined by a young Ryan Gosling in the role of Greg.
The book remains more emotionally complex and narratively cohesive, providing a better sense of what’s at stake. Shari in particular works much better on the page and is a far more interesting companion to Greg than Bird, making the decision to diminish her role in the episode all the more disappointing. Still, the core elements remain in place, making the episode an essential companion piece to the book that only further serves to solidify its place as one of the best Goosebumps properties in Stine’s extensive stable of scary.
Say Cheese and Die! does what Goosebumps does best, placing relatable, average kids in remarkable situations. Providing an avenue in which to face fear, rejection, grief and anxiety through the lens of everyday life so that they might be able to suss it all out, and have a bit of fun while doing it. Sure, it’s a book about an evil camera, but it’s also about a parent in a car accident. For every spider-like mad inventor lurking in the shadows, there’s a missing friend or an injured companion, the fear that something bad might happen and there will be nothing you can do to stop it.
It was always disappointing peering down into a return bin devoid of Stine, but when I think back to those endless days after school, scouring the library for the odd copy of anything brightly colored and dripping with the familiar Goosebumps moniker, I don’t remember disappointment. I don’t even recall the fear the books might have caused. No, it’s the curiosity. The budding wonder of what might be in store. There would be danger, certainly, but danger could be navigated, explored— conquered too.
Kids like me did it all the time, after all, just pick up a Goosebumps book and see for yourself, the library should have plenty of copies. Still, if they’re not on the shelf, check the return bin; you never know, you might get lucky.