Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark doesn’t sound like a very scary book. The title is pretty benign, conjuring images of campfire ghost stories that end with an overexcited “Boo!”
Frankly, it sounds pretty lame.
The book (and its two sequels), is, in fact, based on traditional folklore passed down over generations and collected by author Alvin Schwartz. The twist is that they are among the most terrifying entertainment ever aimed at a children’s audience — these books traumatized me more than the time my dad shaved off his life-long beard and temporarily (in my eyes, at least) became a different person. I’m not alone, either; the Scary Stories series was an overwhelming success in the children’s book market, simultaneously delighting and wetting the beds of children across the globe.
The stories themselves vary from amusingly silly to moderately creepy to legitimately frightening. A lot of them were just completely bizarre: A boy finds a big toe while digging in his backyard, morbid songs about the decomposition of human corpses, a dismembered head that inexplicably cries “Me tie dough-ty walker!” But others still resonate with me today, as vividly as childhood nightmares: an abused scarecrow murders his tormentors and lays their skin out to dry on the roof of their house; a girl wakes up with a blemish on her face, which turns out to be a spider’s egg that eventually hatches; a butcher kills his wife and turns her into “wonderful” sausage for his customers; a family takes in a Mexican sewer rat because they mistakenly believe it’s a dog (as if that wasn’t enough, here’s the punch line — the rat also has rabies).
These books were a great alternative to the watered-down, parent-friendly pabulum pushed by R.L. Stine. Yes, I read every single Goosebumps book and loved them, but, in retrospect, comparing the two series is like comparing Rocko’s Modern Life and CatDog — one holds the test of time as quality children’s entertainment, and one was just an attempt to cash in on dumb kids. Plus, I’m pretty sure “R.L. Stine” was actually just a computer program randomly combining elements of young adult fiction into vaguely cohesive narratives (i.e., Skateboarding protagonist + summer camp + pale camp director with sharp incisors and unusual behavior = Goosebumps #79: There’s a Vamp at this Camp!)
Seriously though, go back and check – every Goosebumps chapter follows the same pattern.
Sample Goosebumps Pattern
End of Chapter 12
Suddenly, a slimy hand clamped down hard on my shoulder. I turned around and shrieked:
But it was just my little brother!
But, I digress. The biggest reason the Scary Stories series is so well remembered, and why they were the most challenged books for removal from libraries between 1990 and 1999, was the down-right disturbing drawings of illustrator Stephen Gammell. Somehow both surreal and grimly realistic, Gammell’s black-and-white art depicted everything from ominous rocking chairs and mossy caskets to hollowed-out skulls and floating eyeballs. Even when presented with more pedestrian tales by Schwartz, Gammell found a way to make them 10x more harrowing — imagine an episode of Are you Afraid of the Dark? directed by David Lynch, or an ordinary amusement park Haunted House staffed entirely by crazed Meth addicts; when Schwartz’s more mundane folk tales lacked visceral punch, Gammell’s inspired work transformed them into grisly nightmares. A lot of his drawings seem to share a kinship with the pulpy “body horror” films of David Cronenberg and Stuart Gordon.
I’m sure I speak for the majority of Scary Stories fans when I say that I have absolutely no idea how these drawings were approved for a children’s book. This was the literary equivalent to showing The Shining at a daycare center or using the Manson murders as a bedtime story. I personally feel as if Mr. Gammell peered directly into my soul, took a dump on it, and then won an award for it (Gammell is a Caldecott award winner for the illustration of children’s books).
But, despite my terror, I loved Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Much like the great horror movies of the 70s and 80s that I found myself intractably drawn to, Schwartz’s stories left me unable to fully cover my eyes despite my all-consuming horror. Childhood is already full of shady, half-formed fears, cultivated in the pall cast by forces both large and unknown. As Schwartz explains in the first book’s introduction, “In the dark and the gloom, it is easy for someone listening to imagine all sorts of strange and scary things.”
Betsy Hearne, editor of Chicago’s Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, explained the value of Scary Stories in a 1993 interview with the Chicago Tribute. “These stories help children deal with reality by putting faces on what they’re afraid of,” said Hearne. “The things children fear don’t go away, just because they can’t read about them. It’s a tragic mistake to deprive a child of a book that will allow them to face and discuss the things that make them afraid. Repressing those fears only makes them more afraid.”
The tales in Scary Stories possess an undercurrent of more complex issues: lost love, illness, domestic abuse, alienation, death. They made it a little easier for children like me to turn on the lights and face the struggles of adolescence and beyond.
In an era where horror often relies on depictions of unbearable torture and graphic exorcisms, it’s oddly refreshing to look back on art that employed atmosphere and creativity; art that took the disturbing emotions which bubble from the depths of a young subconscious and handled them with candor and clarity. And Scary Stories is art.
Art for kids — imagine that.
The list of the most frequently challenged library books from 1990 to 1999, which Scary Stories headlines, is actually pretty interesting. Besides predictable entries like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (#5) and The Catcher in the Rye (#10), the list also features Sex by Madonna (#18), the Goosebumps series (#15), American Psycho (#53), anything involving homosexuality, a slew of Stephen King, sex education books, and the always subversive Where’s Waldo? (#87)
Okay, I realize that the kinds of people who attempt to ban books from libraries are probably not the most level-headed or laid-back people around. But seriously, Where’s Waldo? Who the hell would try to get Where’s Waldo? banned from libraries – and why? Were these just frustrated people who could not find Waldo?
Well, upon further research, it turns out that Where’s Waldo? had an exposed nipple scandal well before Justin Timberlake showed Janet Jackson’s weird looking boob. I didn’t know this was possible, but I ended today an even bigger Waldo fan than when I started it.