How I Got My Shrunken Head
Series number: 39
Number of pages: 119
Release date: January 1996
Tagline: Head’s up!
Did I Read It as a Child?: Yes
The Story On the Back
What has two eyes, a mouth, and wrinkly green skin? Mark’s shrunken head! It’s a present from his Aunt Benna. A gift from the jungle island of Baladora. Mark can’t wait to show the kids at school his shrunken head. It’s so ugly. So gross and creepy… and cool! But late one night the head starts to glow. Because it’s actually no ordinary head. It gives Mark a strange power. A magical power. A dangerous power…
The Story On the Pages
Here is a Goosebumps book that I remembered very fondly from childhood. Like Welcome to Dead House or Werewolf Skin I thought I was in for a treat to go back and revisit one that I remember making me happy.
Boy was I barking up the wrong tree!
How I Got My Shrunken Head opens on Mark, your average video gaming, dumb catchphrase spewing twelve year old that demands everyone huddle around him to watch as he plays a PC game. The PC game in question is called Jungle King and the dumb catchphrase goes along hand in hand with the game. It’s a jungle cry, according to Mark, and goes “kah-lee-ah”. It gets him hyped to play his jungle based game.
Like he needs to get any more hyped for it though. Ever since he was a little boy and his aunt Benna visited, he’s been obsessed with jungles. Benna is a biologist/botanist (at least, I think she’s a biologist) and is always in a jungle studying all manner of jungle stuff. We’re left to assume he loves jungles so much because of his aunt’s influence.
It’s been years since he’s seen his aunt, but as fate would have it, a woman named Carolyn is soon knocking on the door and saying that Mark’s aunt sent her to see the family. Yeah, that’s not suspicious. Who are you Carolyn and what are you planning to do to this family of trusting idiots?
FYI, calling these people idiots is not an overly harsh thing to say. On this woman’s word alone that she works with Benna they invite her to spend the night in their home and then take Mark back to the jungle with her! What parent on Earth would ever allow this for their twelve year old son and a woman they just met??
But I’m getting ahead of myself! Before they head back to the jungle the next day, Mark is given a present that his aunt sent with Carolyn: an authentic shrunken head from the jungles of Baladora. Listen, I don’t care if this Baladora place is make-believe, don’t steal their cultural artifacts! That shrunken head was a dude at one point and maybe giving it to a twelve year old as a souvenir is really fucking insulting to his life?!
During the night, the shrunken head causes a stir when it begins to glow. Mark tells his mother, but she just says it was a nightmare. Carolyn though? Her creepy response is asking if the head really glowed and when Mark says yes, she just nods silently and goes back to bed.
The next day, the two of them are boarding a plane to South East Asia and then from there, boarding another plane to Baladora. Now, as far as I could tell, Baladora is not supposed to be a real place. There is a Baladora in real world Sri Lanka, but I couldn’t find an English wikipedia article on it, so my knowledge of the place is a little sketchy. But so is Stine’s! I personally think this is a fake place because when they get there, it’s full of flora and fauna that seem really made up. Things like vines that move as if there’s a mind to them, and ants the size of toy cars. Just general jungle assumptions for a fake jungle.
So, Mark and Carolyn arrive on Baladora island and Aunt Benna is nowhere to be seen. There’s a man as suspicious and creepy as Carolyn in the mobile lab named Richard, and a blonde twelve year old girl named Kareen that’s his daughter, but no Benna.
Here’s where the truth comes out.
Benna has been missing in the jungle for weeks and Mark has been brought in to help find her. Why a twelve year old boy and not say, the coast guard, or the dozens of grad students that should be crawling all over this place because how do you do field work without grad students? Christ, if there was a recommendation letter on the line from Benna, those grad students would be killing each other to be the one to get into the jungle and find her first!
But no, Mark is going to find her because he has… *sigh* jungle magic. Yes, you read that correctly: jungle magic. Apparently Benna gave it to him when he was a kid to keep it safe and now they need him to use it to find Benna.
Mark has no idea how, since this is all news to him. The magic is linked to the Baladora jungle and the shrunken head that Carolyn gave him, but he doesn’t know how to work it. He figures it out that very night when he’s snooping through his aunt’s field journals and finds entries written about how Richard and Carolyn are brother and sister and want to use the jungle magic for evil. She writes that if they get it, they’ll shrink her head and destroy the jungle, if not the world.
Doesn’t it just get worse and worse the further in we get?
Mark is freaked and decides to make a break for it into the jungle to find his aunt himself and get off the island before anybody’s head gets shrunk. Kareen discovers him doing this and helps him, because she likes Benna and doesn’t believe her dad would ever hurt anyone. He’s just got different ideas, is all. It’s all just a misunderstanding, she claims as Mark heads off to find his aunt. He seems to believe her. Stupid boy.
While in the jungle, Mark discovers he actually does have jungle magic. It activates when he says “kah-lee-ah” and it’s the all-purpose type magic that does exactly what needs to happen to save him. Like making giant ants leave him alone, or vines saving him from quicksand, or the ground opening up to swallow him and stop a tiger from eating him. It’s all ridiculous and filled to the brim with the types of tropes you’d find in Tarzan movies from the 1930s.
And speaking of that pit that opens up, he gets stuck in it. Kareen saves him, claiming she followed him because she got nervous. But, c’mon, you don’t really believe that, do you? She led her father right to Mark and Mark leads them all to Benna, who’s been hiding in the jungle in a shack.
Mark and Benna are now prisoners unless they hand over the magic. To which Benna refuses so Richard goes about setting up all the stuff he’ll need to shrink their heads. Before he has the chance, Mark uses his shrunken head magic and shrinks Richard, Carolyn, and Kareen to the size of mice. They scurry off to the jungle and Benna and him leave Baladora and go back to mainland USA and safety.
How I Got My Shrunken Head ends with Mark taking his shrunken head to school to show everyone and learning that it not only speaks but that it speaks English. Now that is a twist!
But seriously now… what a fucking journey, amrite?
The characters of How I Got My Shrunken Head can be easily broken up into two types. Mark and Benna are The Goodies. Richard, Carolyn, and Kareen are The Baddies.
Oh, I’m sorry, yo
u want more? Too bad! That’s all you get! The simple dichotomy of good vs. bad. But not really because we never learn enough about these people to truly tell who is doing what and if it’s empirically better or worse than the other. We assume Benna is the good guy because she’s Mark’s aunt and says herself that she is.
Who’s to say that Benna won’t do something “evil” with the jungle magic if she felt so inclined? Who’s to say this is a black and white case of Benna wanting to study nature and the others wanting to profit? Well, no one can say anything about this book because Stine didn’t give us enough of anything!
Spooks and Scares
Let me just say that as soon as the words “Jungle Magic” were uttered, I almost rolled my eyes hard enough to detach them from my brain. There’s plenty scary in jungles without bringing in the rather absurd (and frankly painful to read) jungle magic. Every story needs a dues ex machina to help characters at one point, but proclaiming the main character has magic that will anticipate his needs when he says one phrase is really pushing it!
As it stands in its published form, How I Got My Shrunken Head is a mixed bag of tropes that were exhausted long before Stine ever got his hands on them. Quicksand, tiger attacks, creeping vines, and bugs all make an appearance, eating up a chapter each to keep the story moving forward in the stereotypical way these stories tend to do and none of which are scary.
What should have happened here in How I Got My Shrunken Head is a ghost story. Now, I know I say most things should be a ghost story, but this one really should have been a ghost story!
Does anyone remember the show The River from 2012? The eight episodes followed a group of people on the Amazon river looking for someone that got into some magic related things that they shouldn’t have. There are ghosts, local legends, the creepiest facts about the Amazon jungle that could be found, and yes, even magic – technically Jungle Magic! And yet, unlike How I Got My Shrunken Head, it’s pretty much the perfect jungle based horror. It all comes down to atmosphere.
Because say it with me everyone, a horror story isn’t worth shit without an immersive atmosphere!
If How I Got My Shrunken Head had just worked a little harder at establishing an atmosphere instead of adding in gimmicks and overused tropes from old Tarzan movies, and hell, even used the jungle magic but defined its rules just a little more clearly, this could have been a story that wasn’t just going through the motions.
Or rather, sinking in quicksand with each passing chapter.