When I was in fifth grade, I was visiting my mom for a weekend, and she surprised my brother Kenny and me with a Goosebumps book each: she gave me The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight and gave him Say Cheese and Die! I was a little jealous, because he had the better book (as I immediately decided after looking at the two covers). That was my introduction to Goosebumps. I ended up with both books because my brother did not (and still does not to this day) like to read, and I begged her to buy me more entries in the series over the next couple of years. The rest is history. I was in love with R. L. Stine.
Reading the book yesterday, I have to say my 10-year-old self was right. My brother did get the better book. Say Cheese and Die! is one of the better entries in the series. Despite having a seemingly simple concept, the book is interesting, suspenseful, in-depth, and fun.
I love the original cover. It is cheesy, it is just the right amount of creepy, and as a kid, it made me want to pick up the book. When a cover does that, it is doing what it is meant to do.
The cover depicts a dream the protagonist Greg has in which his family is having a barbecue and he takes out the camera to take a picture of everyone. He tells them to say cheese, and when he looks through the viewfinder, everyone is a skeleton. I think the dream is a great subject for a cover, especially for this book. My one issue is the cover is not technically canonically correct. There are two parents and two kids on the cover: a boy and a girl. Greg’s family consists of himself, his mom and dad, and an older brother named Terry. Since Greg is taking the picture, there should only be three people in the photo: his parents and his brother. I do not know who the girl is supposed to be; maybe it is his friend Shari, but she was not in Greg’s dream.
This cover is so good, though, that I don’t care.
The cover of the re-release is just eh to me. Looking at it closely, I am noticing some neat details like the broken lens, the skull in the lens, and the hand on the ground that makes it seem as if a character got hurt or died after taking a picture and released the camera with a final breath or something. It is chilling now that I see all of that, but I had to really examine the cover to find and appreciate those details. When I just glanced at it, I just saw a hand and a camera. I wouldn’t have felt inspired to pick this book up as a kid.
The real issue I have with this cover is it just does not make sense canonically, however. I know I said that about the original cover, too, but there is a major difference in the creative liberties taken by the artists, and this one is worse. The original artist simply added a couple extra characters to the picture. This one changed the story.
In Say Cheese and Die!, bad things happen to the subjects of the photos, not the person taking the pictures. Maybe Greg took a selfie in the new cover? In the book, he sure didn’t.
I know I am really hard on these new covers, but this one especially bugs me.
Tagline: One picture is worth a thousand screams.
The tagline, however, is amazing. I would argue that this is the best tagline in the series, at least of the books I have covered so far. It is clever, it is creepy, it is fun, it pulls me in, and it makes sense with the plot. It is also just the right amount of cheese.
Greg and his friends Shari, Bird, and Michael are bored one afternoon and decide to break into an abandoned house in their neighborhood called the Coffman house. It is home to a vagrant named Spidey. Greg is against going into the house, but is pressured by his friends, and his friend Shari, who turns out to be very forceful, puts her hand through a broken window and opens the door leading the group in. They peruse Spidey’s belongings and play minor pranks on one another. They make their way to the basement, and while everyone is exploring, Greg wanders off on his own and finds a worktable with a hidden compartment. He mistakenly opens it by turning vice handles on the table, and he finds a camera inside.
These poor kids are so bored that a camera excites them. Michael poses for a picture against a wooden staircase. After Greg takes Michael’s picture, the camera makes a whirring sound, and a square photo comes out the front. I guess this camera is supposed to resemble a polaroid camera. I had one of those in the 90s! I didn’t get to use it much because the film was too expensive. As the photo starts to develop, Michael asks to see the photo and moves, causing the railing behind him to break, and he falls. Michael isn’t hurt too terribly. He screams about his ankle, but his ankle does not really seem to affect him the rest of the book.
The kids hear Spidey return to the house and have to make a rush exit. When they get out, Greg examines his photo and finds that the camera captured Michael the moment he fell through the staircase railing, but that’s impossible because Greg took Michael’s photo before he fell. The railing didn’t break until Michael moved forward to see his photo. Greg, Michael, and Shari are naturally disturbed by this, but Bird convinces them that they are remembering it wrong, and that Greg must have snapped the photo as Michael fell. Bird calls Greg’s photo a great “action shot.”
And so, we have encountered the evil of the story. Greg takes the camera home, and throughout the story he takes several more pictures: a picture of his dad’s new car, a picture of his brother Terry at his computer, a picture of Bird at a baseball game, a picture of Shari, and in a penultimate moment toward the end, mistakenly has a picture taken of himself. If Stine didn’t have a picture get taken of Greg, I would have been bothered, because the protagonist should be directly affected by the evil in the story.
Each of the developed photos shows a disturbing image that is not what Greg photographs. The photo of the new car shows the car totaled. The picture of Terry shows Terry looking sad on a field. The picture of Bird shows Bird sprawled out on the ground unconscious with his neck bent at a disturbing angle. The picture of Shari shows just the scenery behind her, with Shari missing from the photo completely. The picture of Greg shows Greg with Shari running from something. All of the events pictured in the photos become reality. And so, the big question is raised: does the camera predict the future, or does the camera cause evil things to happen? I will discuss a few of the photos below in Analysis.
Shari gets her picture taken and goes missing during her birthday party. Greg hangs behind and is questioned by a policeman. When he gets home, he finds his room has been ransacked. He suspects it was torn apart by Spidey who must have been looking for the camera. Shari’s disappearance convinces Greg that he must return the camera. He wants his friends’ help, but Michael and Bird do not want to go back to the Coffman house.
There is a scene that introduces two bullies shortly after this, which I am convinced is to set up the ending. They give Greg a hard time and take his camera. Don’t worry; he gets it back. Somewhere around here, Bird and Greg fight over the camera and Bird accidentally takes Greg’s picture. He is terrified to find out what his photo develops into, but is confused and relieved to find that it is a picture of him and Shari running from something. He knows he will see Shari again.
In his room that night, Greg decides that he will return the camera even if he has to do it alone. He tears up the photos he has taken up until this point, including the one of (or I guess without) Shari. A couple hours later, Greg gets a phone call from Shari, who says she is safe and home, but has no recollection of what happened to her.
Greg and Shari meet in person and are chased by Spidey, making the prediction in Greg’s photo come true. They are saved by a neighbor who drives by and scares off Spidey.
Greg and Shari eventually return the camera to Coffman House in the secret compartment Greg found it, and on their way out, they are ambushed by Spidey. Greg tells Spidey that they have returned the camera and asks him to let them go. In typical Goosebumps fashion, however, Spidey insists on telling Greg and Shari his story, and the story of the camera.
Spidey is a scientist named Dr. Fritz Fredericks. He worked with a partner who created the camera, but Spidey, who admits that he is evil, stole the camera to present it as his own invention. What Spidey did not know was that his partner was a master of the dark arts and put a curse on the camera. The camera killed everyone Spidey cared about. He discovered that the camera cannot be destroyed, so he decided it must remain hidden to prevent it from harming another soul. That doesn’t sound very um, evil, for someone who calls himself evil.
Spidey goes on to say something about how the camera steals souls, but that is only consistent with the photo Greg took of Shari, and it just ended up confusing me. Spidey then tells the kids — get this — that they cannot leave because they know too much. They know too much because we all had to endure his confusing story. I rolled my eyes at this quote.
Shari, being the forceful bad-ass she is, takes the camera from Spidey and holds it up to take his picture. He begs for her not to, but as he pleads the flash goes off, and Spidey, or Dr. Fritz, or whomever, dies of fright. Greg and Shari hightail it out of there. They call the police and tell them they snuck in the house out of boredom and discovered the body.
A couple days later, Greg and Shari fill Michael and Bird in on what happened, and then they walk off into the sunset, never to be heard from in this novel again.
The two bullies from before appear, and talk to each other about how Greg and Shari didn’t notice them spying on them through the basement window. They have the camera, and one takes a picture of the other. A whirring sound goes off, a picture comes out, and the two boys huddle over the photo to see what develops.
Being such an integral part of the novel, I want to discuss the best and worst photos taken with the camera below.
Terry’s Photo: This is the photo I have the most problem with. Every other photo shows something terrible happening to its subject. This photo shows Terry’s reaction to what happens to his and Greg’s father (and his new car) as a result of the photo Greg takes of their father’s new vehicle. It’s Terry distraught and coming to tell Greg that their father has been in a car accident. Terry’s photo leads the reader to believe that the camera predicts the future rather than makes bad things happen, which turns out to not be the case.
Shari’s Photo: Shari’s photo is just confusing, if anything. It shows her absent from the photo and then Shari goes missing. When she returns later, she says she does not know where she went. Did the camera absorb her? And if so, why didn’t it absorb anyone else? Why isn’t there an explanation for her amnesia of the events?
Bird’s Photo: Bird’s photo is the best photo taken in the novel. Knowing at this point that the camera causes (or at least predicts, as we don’t find out for sure that the camera is evil until Spidey’s reveal at the end) bad things to happen, I was on the edge of my seat waiting for Bird to get knocked out. Some might argue that Say Cheese and Die! is boring or predictable because of this, but I thought it was intense. The scene where he gets hit with a ball, sinks, and utters a cry sent chills down my spine. That was the most suspenseful, intense scene of the series for me, and Stine wrote it really well. I have to give him props.
What makes this book rise above many of the other Goosebumps books I have read is the level of depth in it. I am referring primarily to Greg’s whole does the camera predict the future or cause bad things to happen? debate. Being a horror novel, it was obviously the latter, at least for me, but I enjoyed the prospect that it could have gone either way.
Having said that, I wish it was executed a little better. Stine could have played with the photos a little more to make it less obvious that the camera was evil and leave the reader actually questioning whether it could be predicting the future along with Greg. Imagine if the camera did predict the future instead of cause evil things to happen. That would have been unexpected and might have made for a stronger book. With the exception of Bird’s and maybe the car’s photo, the photos were not the strong point of the novel, and they should have been.
Also going deep, Stine revealed some accurate trivia that people used to be afraid of having their pictures taken because they believed cameras capture the soul. Unfortunately, this was at the end, and it felt like a quick random fact rather than a plot device. That is of course unless we consider Shari’s photo and her going missing.
That presents the biggest problem I have with this book. We have a photo that suggests the camera captures souls (Shari’s), a photo that suggests the camera predicts the future but does not infer that it could be responsible for the bad things that are happening (Terry’s), and photos which I believe were meant to lean either way (Greg’s, the car’s, and Bird’s). The photos were all over the place as far as logical plotting is concerned.
While I enjoyed the book, I did not like the ending. Spidey’s reveal and confession felt Scooby Doo-ish. Additionally, I’ve seen it done again and again in other Goosebumps titles (Egg Monsters From Mars, How I Got My Shrunken Head, The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, Bad Hare Day…). There are other ways to satisfyingly let the reader know what is going on and close plot holes without having a character spill his guts. I’m just saying.
This is going to seem random, but this entry is getting really long, so bare with me.
I like that the book is in third person. Stine described settings in a way we really don’t see in his first person books, and the writing felt stronger and more flowery (in a good way). What sticks out in my mind is the melted candles on Shari’s untouched birthday cake.
The characterization is strong. Greg is a strong, believable protagonist who takes charge rather than a protagonist stuff just happens to. I’ve experienced the latter in several Goosebumps entries, so this was refreshing. Shari annoyed me a little bit because she kept getting Greg into trouble, but she too, is a strong character and is up there with Andy from Monster Blood as far a supporting characters go. Both characters felt fleshed out, and I learned a lot about both. Heck, even Bird, who was like a supporting supporting character was interesting and fleshed out.
Say Cheese and Die! was not perfect by any means, but it is a strong entry in the series because I feel its strengths outweigh its weaknesses. The biggest disappointment for me were the photos, which, because they were significant to the plot, should have been more consistent with one another and stronger all around. They seemed to lack purpose because they were all over the place. The ending, also, could have been executed in a more creative fashion, but it didn’t ruin the book.
The highlight for me was most definitely Bird’s photo scene. I cannot express enough how knowing what was about to happen made reading about it legitimately scary.
Reader beware… this book isn’t bad, and I’d almost call it good.