The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight was originally published in May 1994 (Spine #20). The series adaptation later aired on Saturday, November 9, 1996 (runtime: 22 minutes).
Whether you liked to sleep in or not, every kid knew there was one day of the week where it was worth getting up early— and it wasn’t for school.
Saturday mornings held a breath of summer vacation to them, a freeing sense of nonexistent responsibility where the only thing left to do was to toast some Eggo Waffles and watch TV. All of the best shows were on Saturday morning, hours of pure entertainment spanning multiple stations all catered to entertain the oft underserved kid-mind. Only one thing could’ve made Saturday mornings better and, in the show’s second season, Goosebumps did just that.
An airy collection of brightly colored fun in need of a little slime soaked spookiness, the Saturday morning cartoon crowd was the perfect place for Goosebumps. Superheroes and anthropomorphic talking animals were always welcome, but who wouldn’t want an infusion of lawn gnomes, ghosts and humanoid jack o’ lanterns alongside their crime fighting super-mutants?
But of all the eerie R.L. Stine creations carried over to the glowing tubes of so many a kid’s screen over the course of those fateful Saturdays, one always stood out amongst the rest in my youthful estimation. Even in the comfort of the bright morning sunlight, I felt unnerved as this particular episode played out, its titular threat scaring far more than birds, despite what its name might imply.
The ragged school copy of The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight still loomed in my mind years later, a crease in the paperback slicing through the menacing scarecrow depicted there as though an attempt to destroy the evil thing. Watching that come to life, even curled up in comfy pajamas on a Saturday morning, still felt just as freaky as reading the words had a few years before.
It was a story about summer, about that freeing feeling of adventure. Still, it was one marred with the pitfalls of engaging with people and places that are familiar but not typically one’s own. A story about the discomfort associated with change and how that might manifest in disturbing ways if left unchecked. And, yes, most of all, it was a story about scary scarecrows.
The adaptation serves the source material well, unafraid to deviate from its narrative in significant ways, particularly in the third act. The scarecrows are brought to life with all of the menace, animosity and practicality that one might expect out of the best episodes the series has to offer and, as a result, the show is able to achieve a more viscerally striking conclusion than the original text. Still, the nuances absent from the show inform the characters in ways that make the original book an essential part of Goosebumps lore and an important companion to what ended up on the screen.
Friday nights may have lost a bit of their luster as Goosebumps moved to Saturday mornings, but this was one creepy story I was happy to view in burgeoning daylight. After all, I’m not so sure I’d want the moon to be spying through the window as the scarecrows twitched to life under their own peculiar lunar glow. Regardless of whether it was at midnight or early morning, the scarecrow walking was more than enough to unsettle me. I know I had been warned by the opening credits, but the timing just seemed to make being “in for a scare” seem far more reasonable.
Every summer Jodie and her brother Mark visit their grandparents’ farm for one whole month. Jodie can’t wait! Getting away from the city, riding horses, her Grandma Miriam’s famous chocolate chip pancakes and her Grandpa Kurt’s potent scary stories are just a few of the pleasures that await her on her favorite summer activity.
Except, things seem different this year. Grandma Miriam has stopped making her delicious pancakes. Grandpa Kurt claims he doesn’t know any scary stories. Even their simple minded but typically friendly farmhand Stanley’s attitude has shifted unpleasantly and he keeps muttering about his book on superstition. Not to mention his incessant warning that, “The scarecrows walk at midnight”. When night falls, Jodie discovers what Stanley’s warning meant. The scarecrows in the field are moving, not with the wind but on their own.
The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight was released several years after Goosebumps first hit the shelves with Welcome to Dead House, embodying everything that made the series resonate. A simple story with relatable kids at its core dealing with an instantly recognizable threat. Taking the safe, fun and familiar and twisting its iconography to the strange and terror-inducing, The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight earns its status as one of the most recognizable and disquieting titles in R.L. Stine’s spooky set.
The book opens on the train arrival platform as Jodie and Mark meet up with Stanley, their grandparents’ farm hand. The first few pages are spent getting to know the characters: Stanley’s simple but gentle mindedness, Mark’s proclivity for only using 3 words, “cool, weird and gross” and Jodie’s desire to spend time in the great outdoors despite her unrelenting allergies. The drive from the station to the farm offers a bit of local flavor as well, revealing a sparseness of people and places (a mailbox is listed as one of the town’s notable landmarks) that sets the stage for an unsettling isolation that weighs heavy in light of the events to come.
On the screen, Stanley’s truck pulls up to the farm in the opening moments, introducing the core characters immediately. Within seconds, Jodie and Mark are in their grandparents embrace, discussing all of the fun activities they plan on embarking on. While the book spends more time elaborating on how much older, more tired and slower their grandparents seemed to move and act, the screen focuses on altering Stanley’s demeanor from absent-minded but affable to downright menacing.
On the page Stanley is kind and communicative with the kids, his only distressing utterance coming in the form of his cryptic line, “the scarecrow walks at midnight”. On the screen he threatens Mark within seconds of being introduced. In response to the idea that Mark might head out to catch frogs, Stanley snaps back, “You shouldn’t catch ‘em, because if you do the scarecrows might just end up catching you!” This is followed by a shared look between Grandma Miriam and Grandpa Kurt that clearly labels Stanley as not to be trusted.
The book spends more time with the characters, following them to lunch and a subsequent tour of the farm. While not entirely necessary, this does offer an opportunity to see the scarecrows in broad daylight, calling attention to the disconcerting fact that their number has grown from the summer before. This leads to Stanley pulling an ear of corn and shucking it to find hundreds of brown, squirming worms.
Stanley’s horror at this derives not from disgust but from the “bad luck” he claims it insinuates. The through line of Stanley’s obsession with bad luck and his mysterious book on “superstition” is one of the largest excisions from the show. Early on the page, Stanley explains that it was he who built the new scarecrows and that his book told him how to do it, as well as how to make them “walk at midnight”. “I know how to do it,” Stanley says, “the book has all the words.”
It’s during this explanation that Jodie sees one a scarecrow’s arm move. She falls and scrambles back to discover it was Stanley’s son Sticks— a lanky boy nicknamed for his stringy appearance. Introduced in the opening scene of the TV episode, it takes four chapters for Sticks to appear in the text. He’s a prankster that seems Hellbent on transferring his own feelings of inferiority onto Jodie and Mark.
The show moves from the kids’ arrival to their bedroom that evening. In the book this scene is preceded by dinner and Jodie and Mark’s failed attempts to get their Grandpa Kurt to tell a scary story (Mark requests one about a “headless boy in the closet” that sounded promising). Instead, their grandparents say goodnight and rush into the living room. They whisper in nervous, hushed voices, “did you lock the doors?” and “did you bolt them shut?” Terrified and practically shaking, they peer out the window as though some marauder might be poised to launch an assault on the house the second no one was watching. A moment later, a shadow passes by the window. Finally a scarecrow shows its face through the glass, its evil black eyes and painted features matching the description on the page.
Nothing quite so direct happens on the page this early in the story, but the first night on the farm certainly does suggest the abnormalities of the scarecrows perched in the sea of corn surrounding the house. While only a few are ever shown on screen at any given time, the book describes at least a dozen of them, “like an army ready to march”. Jodie watches through her window as they twitch and jerk, calling Mark over to watch and debate whether or not they’re moving with the wind or on their own.
The following morning realigns the page and the screen as Jodie and Mark sit down excitedly expecting their Grandma Miriam’s famous chocolate chip pancakes only to find a bowl of corn flakes on the table instead. In the book she meekly claims that she stopped making the pancakes because they were “too fattening” as opposed to the screen where she says far less convincingly that she “forgot to buy chocolate chips”. The result is the same however, as both depict Stanley happily enjoying the cereal amidst the children’s disappointment.
In the book, Stanley serves as Jodie and Mark’s guardian not their adversary, despite his odd dealings with superstition and the scarecrows. He takes them fishing, helping Jodie when she falls, startled by a clump of seaweed she mistakes for a straw hand. In contrast, on the screen the kids play catch in lieu of this sequence, during which Stanley approaches with a sour expression and says the titular line, “the scarecrow walks at midnight” before explaining that he alone has the power to animate them. It’s later that night in the episode where Mark and Jodie finally see the scarecrows twitching on their stakes, and where Mark relents that he’ll refrain from asking his grandfather to ride the thresher, a plot device unique to the screen.
From here, the episode becomes more of an amalgam of what appears on the page than a direct adaptation of it. Jodie and Mark are shown playing hide and seek in the corn when Jodie comes upon one of the scarecrow’s empty perches. She moves to search the nearby barn where Sticks pops up and scares her. In the book, their fishing trip is cut short when they see something obscured in the brush, causing Stanley to lose his composure. “This is very bad,” he mumbles before running off, informing the kids that he needs to read his Superstition book. There’s a sense of urgency, fear and insecurity in Stanley that much of the episode lacks, content to feature Stanley as the villainous orchestrator for the bulk of the narrative.
While the episode does suggest that Sticks is generally behind the scares, the book paints Stick’s involvement as a revelation that seemingly solves the whole mystery. In the book, Jodie confronts Sticks, claiming that he was the hobbling figure chasing after her and stalking her in the barn. That night at dinner Stanley refuses to put down his large book on superstition, leading to a sleepless night for Jodie. The text dives further into her psyche as the machinations of her imagination start to manifest the scraping and scratching of straw limbs into the real world.
The scene culminates with a nightmare that does occur onscreen where Jodie is accosted by a scarecrow wearing her Grandpa Kurt’s face. Baring his teeth like an “angry dog”, his eyes “so cold and dead”, he scratches at her back and wraps his thick straw hands around her face just after she spies another scarecrow behind him that had once been Grandma Miriam. The screen brings this to life in an appropriately disturbing way, Jodie’s grandparents looking like fittingly distressing abominations of flesh and straw.
In the show, the next morning finds Jodie and Mark on a bike ride race through the cornfield, which is interrupted when a scarecrow emerges from the stalks and tackles Jodie, causing both her and Mark to crash. Mark injures his wrist and Jodie kicks the lifeless scarecrow in a rage, deciding that Sticks is to blame. In the book, instead of bikes the two are on horses. The situation is similar but more harrowing as when the dark figure leaps out at them they topple off of the animals. Mark nearly breaks his wrist and Jodie very narrowly avoids a concussion or worse. Stanley appears soon after and helps the kids back to the house, something that would have felt distinctly out of character in the episode. Similarly, Jodie pins the event on Sticks.
The episode jumps to Jodie’s plan to dress Mark as a scarecrow in an effort to prank Sticks. Before this happens on the page, she has a confrontation with Sticks who reminds Jodie that he warned her, that he tried to get her to go home, but she refused to relent. What follows matches the screen as Jodie stuffs straw in Mark’s shirt and paints him to look like the menacing figures they’ve grown so weary of. The book and the screen align here as Jodie knocks on Stanley’s door to draw out Sticks. The book follows Mark through the fields, building atmosphere through descriptions of the rustling wind and moonlit stalks shooting toward the sky. Still, it’s not Mark but a different figure that stumbles out of stalks.
In both versions she scolds the figure for their premature approach. The thing reaches her and extends its straw hands. In the book it grabs her and she locks eyes with its cold black ones, recognizing neither Mark nor Sticks. Sticks emerges and helps her toss it aside. In the show, she pushes it back and its head falls off before the thing wanders back into the darkness. She wonders aloud how it could possibly be alive and Sticks emerges with the words, “my dad did it”. In the show, Sticks’ explanation is more hackneyed, saying that his dad found a book of spells and animated the scarecrows to keep the birds away so he wouldn’t have to work so hard.
On the page, Stanley’s reliance and interaction with his superstitions and strange book had been built into the story since the first chapter, so Sticks’ monologue about how reading some words inadvertently brought the scarecrows to life tracks better. It had nothing to do with working less as the show insinuates, however, the book does point out that after being begged to put the scarecrows back to sleep, Stanley made Kurt and Miriam promise to do things his way from then on.
The book positions Stanley as more of an unlikely villain than the show, taking a more complicated approach to the character. Both the show and the book depict Stanley discovering the truth of the matter just after Sticks’ explanation of events. Stanley hurries off into the corn after seeing Mark emerge, his costumed revenge working on the wrong person. The book makes mention that Stanley attempted to read the words again, explaining why all of the scarecrows come to life afterwards, while the show suggests that the things had never been put back to sleep in the first place.
In the text, Jodie and Mark watch as more than a dozen scarecrows make their way toward their grandparents’ house. It’s only when Jodie sneezes, her allergies getting the better of her, that Mark leaps back in surprise and the group notices that all of the scarecrows follow suit. Realizing that the creatures are imitating Mark as one of their own, Jodie encourages Mark to mime pulling off his own head. The scarecrows follow suit, but the now headless hoard continues forward. Sticks runs off as they reach Jodie, wrapping her in straw just as Sticks returns with torches from the barn. Brandishing them like baseball bats, he strikes the scarecrows one by one, watching the straw erupt into flame until nothing but ashes remains.
On the screen, this sequence is leaner, although lacking the presence of Grandma Miriam and Grandpa Kurt. Stanley, Sticks, Jodie and Mark take sanctuary in the barn, cutting off one of the scarecrow’s arms as they shut the door in a way that is vaguely reminiscent of the type of gore one might find in a zombie film. The comparison continues as the sounds of moaning and approaching ghouls surround them on all sides, helping to construct a Romero-esque palette that conjures Night of the Living Dead (1968). Arms begin bursting through wood as the creatures fight their way in. The sequence is frightening, menacing and invasive in a way that the book’s conclusion is not.
While there is talk of Stanley saying the chant again to make them fall back asleep, it’s when the thresher mentioned earlier in the episode comes to life and moves slowly around the barn, mowing down the scarecrows and spitting them out as bits of straw that the night is won. Mark emerges from the machine he so desperately wanted his Grandpa Kurt to let him ride and Stanley concludes, “never again”, just as he does on the page.
The book and the show meet their end the next day, on a lazy afternoon where everyone is able to finally relax. In both cases Stanley is reading his book to himself once more, mumbling incomprehensibly. In the book, Jodie notices that the large stuffed bear in her grandparents living room, something she’s unnerved by earlier in the story, seems to be blinking and licking its lips as its stomach growls in earshot of Stanley’s mumblings.
On the screen, Stanley also reads something, but rather than a bear, it’s the thunderous sound of the thresher that kicks on. The machine emerges, rumbling toward the house as all of its occupants stare wide eyed through the window at the sharp, gnashing jaws of the machine as it barrels forward toward them.
Either way, suddenly scarecrows don’t seem all that bad.
Whether under the glow of the full moon on a Friday night or in the bright dawning light of a fresh Saturday morning, Goosebumps managed to provide the perfect mix of fun and fear that managed to mine adrenaline from any kid who had the pleasure of experiencing it. The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight is a wonderful example of that, a story bathed in darkness and sunshine and one where its primary threat is just as eerie no matter what time it walks.
Airing well into the show’s second season, The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight was an obvious choice for adaptation. With its distinctive rural setting and classically menacing monster, it’s a story that distinguishes itself quite clearly from its Goosebumps brethren while introducing kids to the sort of classic visual horror stylings of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
Directed by Goosebumps veteran Randy Bradshaw who helmed Attack of the Mutant (1997) and The Blob that Ate Everyone (1997), the adaptation follows the typical trend of condensing and combining, excising a great deal of more intimate character moments and quirky details in lieu of pushing the scarecrows to the forefront. The greatest victim of this is Stanley who transforms into a far more contemptible villain on the screen, but the effectiveness of the episode’s finale is undeniable and a far more visually satisfying conclusion than what the text might have offered.
Of course, as with all the best entries of the show, the book and the episode work hand in hand, building off of one another and feeling like extensions of the same thread rather than competing yarns. In true Goosebumps fashion, The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight takes something fun and familiar to its kid audience— in this instance, summer vacation— and unveils the shadier sides to its sunlit pastures.
There was something magical about seeing R.L. Stine’s ideas and Tim Jacobus’ cover art spring to life on screen week after week, a potent blend of comfort and unease that didn’t deter but engaged. Watching The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight that Saturday morning prompted me to leap up and immediately retrieve the copy of the book I had acquired from my bedroom. I began flipping through the pages, reminding myself of what had been the same on screen and that which had been altered. Before I knew it, I was rereading the whole book all over again and it seemed my Saturday was set.
Throughout the week I lumbered out of bed to get ready for school everyday with a sigh and a mumble about wanting to go back to sleep, but not on Saturdays. Saturdays I got up early, with a smile on my face and a skip in my step. It was a day to relax, eat some snacks, watch TV and, sometimes, much to my parents surprise, to read. Even school couldn’t always get me to do that. But, then again, school had little to do with murderous scarecrows— that was more of a Saturday morning thing.
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