The niche world of young adult horror fiction was dominated by R. L. Stine throughout the nineties. The author not only became a household name with Fear Street and Goosebumps but he also wrote under Scholastic Inc’s Point Horror banner. The label was launched in 1991, and it retroactively added past titles to its collection — including Stine’s 1989 novel The Babysitter. A teenage girl is menaced by an unknown caller in what many fans consider to be the author’s breakout work. The adolescent terror didn’t stop there as Stine turned his story into a four-volume saga brimming with dread and unexpected twists.
Sixteen-year-old Jenny Jeffers’ ordeal started the moment she first accepted a job from the Hagen family. Although her charge Donny is a handful, Jenny’s biggest obstacle is really his father — Mr. Hagen is wildly overprotective and has no faith in Jenny’s abilities. Even so, he becomes the least of her worries once the phone calls begin. Almost immediately, Jenny receives unsettling calls where a raspy voice tells her, “Hi, babes. Are you alone? Company’s coming.” It sounds like a prank, but Jenny can’t ignore the fact that other local babysitters have been attacked recently. Advised by Mrs. Hagen not to worry her already anxious husband with any more concerns, Jenny stays quiet about the phone calls. Her doing so puts herself in more danger; Jenny suspects both her new crush as well as the nosy neighbor of being the creepy caller. As it turns out, the culprit is her employer, Mr. Hagen. The man finally takes her to a local quarry in an attempt to silence her forever.
While classic YA thrillers are synonymous with garish paperback covers and ominous taglines, the first-print artwork for The Babysitter is comparably subtle and outright familiar. The shaken heroine, who sits beside the very device that once entertained and liberated her, holds herself as she stares warily out the window. The accompanying tagline reads: “Every step she takes, he’ll be watching.” This telltale illustration of a woman trapped by her own fear is a reminder of the babysitter’s enduring and unconscious role in the horror genre.
It’s possible R. L. Stine was inspired by When a Stranger Calls, a 1979 movie that helped popularize the stalked-and-slashed teenage caregiver trope. Yet all media interpretations of victimized babysitters truly owe their success to a classic urban legend. And, like the modern myth, Stine’s story touches on misogyny. According to Miriam Forman-Brunell’s Babysitter: An American History, the legend took off in the 1970s because of “new notions of gender” that “benefited some family members but unsettled others.” Women seeking more autonomy were seen as an affront to the patriarchy — and those who sought jobs outside their home would be punished, one way or another. Meanwhile, Stine making Mr. Hagen his heroine’s stalker stems from the father’s other prejudices; his other child died suspiciously in the care of another babysitter. Mr. Hagen then creates a situation that automatically incriminates Jenny and questions her competence. Be it a campfire story or Stine’s own interpretation, babysitters frequently pay with their lives in horror.
The first sequel finds Jenny dealing with her near-death experience by seeing a psychiatrist named Dr. Schindler. All seems relatively well until she babysits for another family. As expected, the threatening phone calls resume. All signs point to Dr. Schindler being the new harasser, but it’s actually his receptionist, Miss Gurney. Using Jenny’s recorded sessions against her, the deranged woman targets the patient out of jealousy. Finally, Miss Gurney is lured to the same site Mr. Hagen perished at before she’s seized by the police.
While Jenny’s decision to babysit again goes against all logic, her story requires it. It’s a plot contrivance as much as it is Jenny’s coping mechanism. Others avoid anything related to their traumatic event, whereas Jenny exposes herself to hers time after time. It’s as if she thinks she can change what happened, or simply pretend there’s no problem at all. The second book retreads the creepier beats of the original yet with a darker and more dreamlike tone. As part of her trauma, Jenny experiences flashbacks and vivid dreams that embolden her to face Mr. Hagen’s ghost rather than run from him.
Stine’s writing only improved with each new book; he zeroed in on Jenny’s fragile state of mind and channeled her overwhelming paranoia. Things reached a critical point in the third volume where Jenny is sent away for the summer to stay with her cousin, Debra. Even though she wisely refrains from helping Debra with a babysitting job, Jenny can’t escape her past since her cousin is now on the receiving end of those infamous phone calls. Everyone from a former nanny to Jenny’s own boyfriend is a suspect. Unfortunately, the threat is far closer to home than ever before — Jenny herself is now the caller.
So often storytellers imperil women without exploring the consequences of said action. Stine goes the distance in his study of Jenny, someone who has clearly come undone because of repeated traumas. As dead as he is, Mr. Hagen lives on in his victim and continues to torture another woman through Jenny. It’s a tale of possession that never goes beyond psychological, but the threat remains the same. Jenny’s actions can suggest she was delivering a message to Debra — she was, in some twisted way, trying to scare her cousin away from babysitting. Regardless, Jenny carries on her attacker’s legacy without the awareness of what she’s doing, and she goes on to endlessly question her sanity in the next book.
The Babysitter franchise concludes with what is undoubtedly the strangest of swan songs. After being released from psychiatric care, Jenny’s new next-door neighbor asks her to babysit. Despite her hesitation, Jenny wants to prove to everyone that she’s all right now. Spookiness soon ensues, but things are not what they seem this time around. Much to Jenny’s surprise, her neighbor only has two children, not three. A malevolent spirit named Seth, the last residents’ son, killed his own babysitter, Monica, in the very same house. Once the ghost of the missing caregiver is freed from the attic, the two restless specters do away with each other.
From her mother to her best friend, everyone doubted Jenny’s wellness. She tortured herself for not being a better babysitter and for not being the perfect survivor. Going back to the job that nearly killed her is, in her eyes, the one way she can prove she’s okay. Still, Jenny is naturally compassionate when it comes to children and their parents. Her returning to the occupation speaks volumes about her character.
There’s an understated and easily dismissed notion of the supernatural in the series. However, the surreal dreams Jenny had in the second book were practically premonitions. And, in a bizarre turn of events, Jenny’s fear of one figurative ghost comes to deadly fruition when she’s targeted by an actual one. While the plot is ridiculous and feels wildly out of place, Stine taking a hard left in the last installment isn’t completely unsound. Jenny’s history has prepared her for this; she has inadvertently become an advocate for other threatened women. With her somehow being able to see their resident not-so-friendly ghost — Seth is invisible to everyone else other than the two living children — it almost seems like destiny that Jenny would be there to help another fallen babysitter. It’s the closure she needed all along.
R.L. Stine’s isolation of everyday concerns and worries, then reinterpreting them in ways his target audience can appreciate, is no effortless feat. He relays the core themes of babysitter horror all the while adding to the general mythology. The author’s works are more than a stepping stone for young and growing horror fans. His neverending ability to transform something universally mundane into something utterly macabre is why so many of us keep coming back to him, even as adults.