If you've read my work on Daily Dead or listened to my ramblings on the Corpse Club podcast, then you might be aware of my deep love for Dance of the Dead, Gregg Bishop's midnight movie masterpiece that blended prom, zombies, and the music of Pat Benatar (via a great cover) into one of the most memorable rentals I ever enjoyed from Blockbuster. When I saw that Joe Ballarini, the screenwriter of Dance of the Dead, had written a new book (for children and adults) called A Babysitter's Guide to Monster Hunting, I knew that I had to talk with him about it, and I recently had the great pleasure of doing just that.
In addition to A Babysitter's Guide to Monster Hunting—the first in a planned three-book series from Katherine Tegen Books (an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)—Ballarini also discussed his plans for the future installments in the series and the upcoming film adaptation that will star Keegan-Michael Key as the Grand Guignol Boogeyman. And for you Dance of the Dead fans out there (don't be shy, come on out to the dance floor), stay tuned for part 2 of my interview with Ballarini, in which he reflects on Dance of the Dead's incredible journey to the big screen.
My fandom of yours goes back to Dance of the Dead. When I saw that you had written this new book, I thought, "I gotta talk to Joe," because the book sounds great and Dance of the Dead is amazing, so it was a no-brainer.
Joe Ballarini: Thanks so much. Yeah, A Babysitter's Guide to Monster Hunting is sort of an extension of that tone and that vibe of Dance of the Dead. I think if you're a fan of the Dance, you'll be a fan of the Babysitter's. I'm trying to get the word out to horror fans [of all ages]. It's sort of like when you watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and you go, "That kitty snatcher is a freaking scary guy. That's a proper Freddy Krueger-worthy villain to me, and I like watching twisted kid stuff like that where you are just like, "Whoa, they actually made that for kids? That's crazy.
Kind of like a Return to Oz situation, where you're like, "That was a kid's movie?"
Joe Ballarini: Yeah, the whole chamber of heads. Oh yeah, dude. That's the best stuff, too. That's the stuff that sticks with you. Hopefully a kid, ten years from now, will be like, "Dude, you wrote Babysitter's Guide to Monster Hunting... that book fu**ed me up. I can't believe my parents let me read that thing."
I haven't had the chance to read it yet, but it seems like this book has a Goosebumps or Fear Street vibe to it. Is that what you were going for when you came up with the idea, to do something that could be Goosebumps for the next generation?
Joe Ballarini: R.L. Stine's pretty good at having fun while scaring you, and treating you like you're being on a roller coaster in a really fun, haunted house carnival ride. That's definitely what I was going for. Also, Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury was the book that just really rocked my world, and I read that when I was in college. I came into reading books late, because I didn't really like reading when I was a kid. I came to all the old masters in college, which is so weird. I probably should have read Something Wicked This Way Comes when I was 13, but it took me a while to get to Ray Bradbury.
So, it was definitely that tone, but also the mischievousness of Roald Dahl. Kids' books can be a little dark and a little bit more twisted because the adult world seems, through a kid's eyes, like a really weird, twisted, strange place. So, I think that's why kids are cool with reading something maybe a little bit more scary, or just slightly in the shadows more, because they can tell that something weird is out there in the world. They just don't really know what it is yet.
You're tuned into that when you're younger. You see the world differently, and monsters are more believable at that age.
Joe Ballarini: Yeah, definitely. We are all still looking for that magic, that everyday magic, to reappear. And another huge reference is Monster Squad, too. I read that [screenplay] when I was in my 20s. It was written by Fred Dekker and Shane Black, and it's a near-perfect screenplay, just because it's so Shane Black, but it's also so Fred Dekker. Those guys are just writing it at the pinnacle of all the great, scary ’80s movies, but there's just something about kids fighting monsters—The Lost Boys is also a huge reference. I just remember watching the movie and telling a friend how you really have to hunt vampires, and how it's important to have garlic on you at all times, how you need a cross. But I was super serious about it. I was an expert in it, and I was drawing fake vampire hunting guide notebooks.
I also think that there's something in a kid that wants to be able to kill the monster, because as a kid you're so scared. I was so scared of a lot of stuff as a little boy. I think there's a part of me that goes, "Gosh, I really wish I could kill a monster," even though you're just terrified of them. It's very empowering, not only to kids, but also I think little girls specifically, too, being able to slay monsters.
Your book almost seems like if The Babysitter's Club hunted monsters, like they're all Buffy to some extent.
Joe Ballarini: If the Internet is listening at all, I would love it if people took a Babysitter's Club book cover, but Photoshopped Babysitter's Guide to Monster Hunting and just made it look like a giant monster was in one of those illustrations. That would just be great. Anyone could do that. Come on, you kids and your laptops these days. Come on.
In the world of Babysitter's Guide to Monster Hunting, you incorporate of these very cool monsters, like toadies and the boogeyman. What was it like building that mythology? Was that really important in your eyes, to build this world with a wide variety of monsters?
Joe Ballarini: Oh yeah, because part of the love of monsters is the variety, and the interesting uniqueness of every monster and every creature, and every living creep. I was able to be as creative with that as possible. There's a Mephistophelean shadow monster named Oleg that I'm really proud of. It's like a shadow, but the longer it spends time in the dark, the bigger it gets. It's sort of like a metaphor for your fears. The more that you are afraid, the bigger your fear can get and overtake you. But it moves like smoke and octopus ink, but it's a shadow as well. It's ghostlike and phantom-like. It feeds on lost laundry and socks and stuff like that, so that's why your socks are always missing. The more you feed it, the bigger it gets. It's just a great sort of kid metaphor about feeding your fear.
That's just one of the monsters that she [main character Kelly Ferguson] has to figure out a way to defeat. Of course, you could shoot a flashlight on it, but flashlights don't work because her cell phone battery is always going out. So she's got to figure out a cool way to get rid of that monster, which is actually a fun, big way. She's at a party, a middle school party, like a Project X Halloween party. Kids are just taking over their parents' house and destroying it, and she ends up really destroying it. She's chasing around the shadow monster to get the party to rally around and has to figure out a way to stop it. It's pretty awesome.
I loved all of that variety. And that's just one of the monsters. I grew up drawing, and I think every kid likes to doodle, but I was good at it as a youngster. I don't do it anymore, as much as I should, but I loved those how-to-draw books, and I would copy Dungeons & Dragons monsters. This book is a guide to monsters, so you have to feel like there's a whole world. There is a whole mythology behind the boogeyman. There's the seven boogeymen who are actually a boogeyman mafia. We'll meet a few of them throughout the series, which is really fun, and it's sort of about defeating the seven boogeymen, and it's serialized, too.
So it's part of a much larger story, and I'm going to embark on writing book three now, because I finished book two a few months ago. Vivienne [To] is illustrating that one as well, the cover is just gorgeous, cool, and vibrant. It's going to follow this larger story of them trying to take down the seven boogeymen while trying to rescue the children. It really is fun to build up. You're like, "Oh yeah, that's going to be a huge bomb drop in book three!" Book two is great. I'm really proud of how it extends the story.
I genuinely want to tell a much larger story, and then, with success, hopefully in book four you would get to kind of spin off and follow another one of the babysitter's crew, another one of the kids or something like that, if they go off to high school, or you could really expand it and just have a lot of fun. Monsters are everywhere, so you've got to keep your guard up.
Absolutely. They're not just going to go away if someone graduates. The next generation has to step up.
Joe Ballarini: Exactly. It's kind of like The Babysitter's Club in that it's a bizarro Babysitter's Club group. I'm always trying to expand to the group, or try to add to them, figure out the challenges that each kid is going to have to face emotionally and physically, too. How do you conquer your own fears? And how do you conquer your own vanity? Book two is sort of about vanity and pride, and not feeling like you're good enough. I like that each monster can prey upon an emotional part of a kid, or an emotional part of a babysitter.
It almost sounds like how in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy will prey upon individual fears of a group of characters, which makes it a little more relatable and personal. And you have these multiple babysitters that are put in peril, which I think is a cool world building aspect, especially when you're doing a three-book arc (and maybe more), it leaves a lot of territory to be covered.
Joe Ballarini: Yeah. It's a really fun world to build. I was a babysitter as a kid for a little bit, and it's always so interesting to go to strangers' houses. There's just something inherently spooky about strangers' houses when you're a kid, and you don't really know them, and you have to look after another kid. They go out and you're all alone, it's a perfect set up for a scare, especially as a kid.
Yeah, something like Ti West's House of the Devil comes to mind, where you don't know if they're keeping somebody upstairs, and any sound could be your worst nightmare.
Joe Ballarini: Yeah, exactly. And it's having fun with all those tropes as well. Just having fun turning the babysitter [trope] on its head, because it's usually the babysitter who is screaming and dying third or something like that. I just like the idea of a super, uber-prepared, badass person who's ready to fight. It's a little Kill Bill sometimes, but you've got to kick some ass, right? It's not just direct scares and all that stuff, it's also a fun action ride.
It's also exciting to hear that there's a film adaptation of A Babysitter's Guide to Monster Hunting in the works, and you've written the film adaptation, too.
Joe Ballarini: Yeah, I wrote the adaptation. Keegan-Michael Key is going to play the Grand Guignol, who is a boogeyman, which is so cool—him with goat legs, and a tail, and a dusty overcoat. He's very much a classic faun-type, weird, creepy devil, demon-y, but also very zane and comical as well. He essentially has been around for a long time, so he's a pro and he holds that over you, and really looks down at everyone beneath him. It's fun to write him so full of himself, and just so grotesque and disgusting. He has bugs in his teeth, and doesn't even know it as he's smiling at you, doesn't even give a shit, with cockroaches crawling around in his hair and everything. But he thinks he's gorgeous, and there's something really funny about that. There's a funny grotesqueness about him. Then, in the second book, his sister comes back looking for revenge, and she's the spider queen, so she's this gorgeous, elegant woman, but with spider legs that are strapped into a pair of sexy leather boots.
When you wrote the screenplay, did you write it to have the same spirit as the book? The latest Goosebumps movie was fun for a lot of adults and kids. Is that the kind of the vibe you went for with this movie, too?
Joe Ballarini: Yeah. I want to be able to watch it as well, to be honest. First and foremost, I think everyone is their own best audience sometimes, and their worst. But mostly, we know what we want to see in those movies, and I'm an adult. But then, I also wrote it for kids. The tone is very funny, and I do feel like it captures the book's essence and action. For the sake of the movie, we age it up, so she's [the Kelly Ferguson character] going to be 16 instead of 13 like she is in the book, which I think is a pretty cool move. It's a little different, but we got away with a little bit more in the movie. But yeah, Montecito [Pictures] and Walden are producing it, and John Lee, who directed Pee-Wee's Big Holiday, is attached to direct it. He's just a fountain of creativity and non-stop ideas, so it's been pretty amazing. Hopefully we'll be shooting that soon.