“Don’t you ever laugh as the hearse goes by,/ For you may be the next one to die./ They wrap you up in big white sheets/ and cover you from head to feet./ They put you in a big black box/ And cover you with dirt and rocks….” For many readers growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, these opening lines from the darkly funny “Hearse Song,” a poem appearing in the collection Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, were as omnipresent as morning breakfast cereal. The poem is actually a somewhat lighter interlude nestled between more outwardly frightening stories—and even more chilling illustrations, in a book written by Alvin Schwartz and published in 1981 by Harper Junior Books. Schwartz followed his collection with two sequels, More Stories to Tell in the Dark (1984), and Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones (1991). Now, a generation later, nostalgic adults can revisit the stories through a cinematic adaptation, directed by André Øvredal (The Autopsy of Jane Doe) and co-written and produced with Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water). The film, which releases on August 9, stars Zoe Margaret Colletti (City on a Hill) as lead character Stella Nicholls, Michael Garza (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1), and Gabriel Rush (The Grand Budapest Hotel).
The tales in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, several of which were based on existing urban legends, gave young readers a reason to fear scarecrows, avoid mirrors, never pick up hitchhikers, and look out for escaped killers with hooks for hands.
While the Scary Stories books featured a selection of stand-alone tales and poems, the film has an overarching concept. Set in a 1960s small town, a group of teenagers finds a book in a haunted house that writes itself based on readers’ own worst fears, which manifest as the many malevolent beings and horrifying scenarios that Schwartz created.
Schwartz wrote more than 50 books in his lifetime, many of them children’s titles that focused on world folklore and wordplay. He was a lover of backmatter, noting the origins of the tales he wrote, and urging readers to investigate the source materials themselves.
The stories are accompanied by ethereal illustrations created by Stephen Gammell, who won the Caldecott Medal in 1989. The lasting influence of Gammell’s drawings is apparent online; a quick Google search reveals a fandom that would seem only to have grown over the decades. There are many images of fans’ Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark tattoos, discussion forums, and a bevy of Scary Stories-themed tributes to Gammell’s illustrations in various art mediums, including photography and sculpture.
The unsettling stories have stirred up a significant amount of controversy. According to the Office for Intellectual Freedom, from 1990 to 1999, the Scary Stories series was number one on the list of most challenged books, with calls for removal of the books in many school districts across the country. The Banned Books Resource Guide lists many of the reasons cited by challengers, including claims that the books were “too morbid for children”; “show the dark side of religion through the occult, the devil, and Satanism”; portray an “unrealistic view of death”; and, perhaps most ironically, might “cause children to fear the dark.”
The Roots of a Pop Culture Phenomenon
Cody Meirick is the creator of Scary Stories (2019), a documentary film about the series that released earlier this year. As a child, Meirick remembers checking out the books from the library or buying them with the Scholastic book order forms: “Of course, you grow up and maybe you don’t think about [the books] for a number of years. I remembered them again in my 20s, but it took the internet to discover that millions of people had a similar experience with the series. It wasn’t just you.” Meirick set out to explore the lasting cultural impact of the stories in the documentary, including the reasons the books were so loved and defended by child readers and, conversely, so reviled by many gatekeepers.
Meirick’s film includes interviews with adult readers reflecting on their memories of the books, discussions with librarians and authors, children’s literature scholars, and interviews with Schwartz’s wife and adult son.
While parents don’t always read the books that their kids are immersed in, the Scary Stories illustrations are hard not to notice; the beings on the pages tend to stare back. “Seeing the wonderful but also ghastly illustrations is something that people (usually parents) can quickly point to to demonstrate the content of the books. Raise that book up in the middle of a PTA meeting or school board meeting and it gets noticed,” Meirick said.
Meirick traces some of the objections to the Scary Stories books to fears within the general public and perpetuated in the media in the ’80s and ’90s. “There was a lot of talk of cults and Satanism in the news at that time, and so titles like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and games like Dungeons and Dragons could be pointed to as some kind of source.” But most significantly, Meirick suggests, “The Scary Stories books were banned because they were popular with kids. If kids didn’t want them, check them out of the library, ask for them or pass them around in the school yard, then… we wouldn’t be talking about them 40 years later. It’s largely why other books like Harry Potter have appeared on the banned books list—because they are wildly popular.”
Fans, too, could not have disagreed more with the censors objecting to the stories and art. In fact, in 2010, when HarperCollins released new editions of the books with illustrations by Brett Helquist—while atmospheric and spooky in their own right—many diehard fans expressed outrage and clung to their tattered vintage copies.
As of 2017, the Scary Stories books have sold more than seven million copies. Movie tie-in editions of the three books are now available from HarperCollins; the covers feature images from the film, but also include Stephen Gammell’s art inside. HarperCollins also has a new volume that contains all three books—and features the original images, too.
If the enduring popularity of the series has proven anything, it’s that kids like to be scared (at least by make-believe horrors). Sometimes, the unearthly terrors in scary stories mirror subconscious fears, tapping into the deepest of real human anxieties, and allowing readers to safely project their own. As Meirick explores in the documentary, the 1980s and ’90s became fruitful territory for children’s horror, as evidenced by the popularity of authors like R.L. Stine (who also appears in the documentary). Through a combination of cultural and societal factors, “that era was ripe with a desire for kids to test themselves with scary and darker entertainment,” Meirick said.
Pre-internet, blockbuster book success took place the old-fashioned way—by being passed among readers. “The Scary Stories series developed a following because of the kids, not any significant marketing, Saturday morning cartoons, or movie tie-ins,” Meirick said. “It almost worked outside of the mainstream for so many years, as if it was something we weren’t supposed to be reading, but we did. The stories pushed the limits a little for kids, and that is what we liked.”
Del Toro and Øvredal have made it clear to fans that the film commits to preserving the tone and spirit of the books. To that end, the film replicates many of the books’ original images on screen. In a recent interview, del Toro spoke about his early memories of the books. “When I first saw the cover of Scary Stories, it was astounding,” he said. “I found the [stories and illustrations] so chilling. They had the powerful simplicity of a story told at a campfire.” The filmmaker went on to discuss what he feels is the value of scary stories, saying, “The world is constantly telling you about everything great, as a kid—in yogurt and shampoo commercials, in movies where nobody looks like you. Horror movies tell you: ‘There is a dark side, don’t worry.’ I think that’s really important.”