As someone who has adored the horror genre ever since I was a kid, even weathering the storm when that adoration made me feel like an outcast, there was always something comforting about discovering that I’d traveled the same exact road, and made all the same stops, as other kids had during their formative years. It was a joy to grow older, meet people with the same interests, and realize that we had shared experiences and interests before ever knowing each other.
The Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark trilogy was a huge part of that.
I wish I could remember under what circumstances I first came to read Alvin Schwartz’s three-book collection based on urban legends, folklore, and myths. There was never a shortage of books in my house when I was a kid, as my mother had discovered I was an avid reader, and she was willing to exploit my love for all things horror (within reason) so long as it kept me reading. It got to the point where she would have to lovingly but sternly remind me that those monthly Goosebump books by R.L. Stine were somewhat expensive, as she tended to bring home a few at a time, and maybe I should try to read only a few chapters a night to make them last. (She brought home Deep Trouble one day, and with a shark on the cover, I read that book in under two hours. Spoiler alert: it ain’t about sharks.) I’m tempted to believe that my mother had been the one to bring home one of those Scary Stories books (for whatever reason, Scary Stories 3 was the first one I read), but that she’d done so without actually cracking the book and seeing Stephen Gammell’s illustrations. One glimpse at “The Haunted House” or “Me-Tie Doughty Walker” and she never would have left the store with them.
If there ever existed a bible for the horror-loving youth, it was Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Incredibly, horror-loving kids discovered these books on their own, almost like a rite of passage. It felt like childhood destiny. The illustrations were tantamount to pornography—as if they’d slipped through the parental and school library systems on some kind of technicality and were never meant for kids’ eyes, but something glorious had gone wrong, and those lucky kids were going to get their fill. Gammell’s illustrations were often so surreal that sometimes they didn’t seem to complement their stories at all. One story in particular, “Oh Susanna,” was a retelling of the urban legend about the college student who comes home to her dorm at night and doesn’t turn on the light, only to discover the next morning that her roommate had been decapitated. The illustration that accompanies that story sees an old man in a rocking chair grasping a leash tied around a flying Lovecraftian monster and being pulled through the sky of a stormy limbo. How completely inappropriate this illustration is for that story somehow made both even scarier. Was it a happy accident? Was it a one-off illustration Gammell had done that had been arbitrarily assigned to that story? Or was Gammell depicting the instant madness that the story’s terrified girl was suffering upon the discovery of her dead roommate?
On the cusp of release for the first ever adaptation of the book series (produced by Guillermo Del Toro and directed by THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE’s André Øvredal) comes this low-fi, DIY documentary by Cody Meirick, which explores the history of the books, the controversies that ensued because of their graphic content, and their legacy today. Sadly, the doc lacks the two keyest players – author Alvin Schwartz died of cancer in 1992, and illustrator Stephen Gammell, still alive, is a bit of a recluse and doesn’t grant interviews. (Nerd brag: I wrote to him about ten years ago and sent him a copy of the Scary Stories hardcover treasury edition, which he returned with his signature.)
The doc speaks to Schwartz’s family – his wife, Barbara; son, Peter; and grandson, Daniel – some of which remains surface level, but some of which, notably the segments with the son, touch on unexpectedly deep material, including the strained relationship between himself and his father, and the regrets he still lives with following his death. Wisely, the doc makes use of seemingly the only interview Gammell ever gave, which is years old; resurrecting certain excerpts from that interview not only allows him a presence in the doc, but also puts the viewer directly within his frame of mind. (Despite how perfectly married his illustrations are to Schwartz’s stories, the doc heavily suggests that the two men never actually met.)
The doc somewhat struggles to have a “point,” with the backbone being the controversies the book series endured over the years, with one parent in particular (who appears in the doc via archive footage and a newly filmed interview) leading the charge to get them banned from elementary schools. The book-ban segments are smartly intermingled with interviews with artists who grew up reading the Scary Stories trilogy and who discuss in what ways they have informed their work, directly or indirectly. Doing so makes the case that, had these books been banned successfully, these artists might never have stumbled upon them, and hence, never become inspired to do their own creating. The doc also attempts to setup a sort-of squaring off between that parent who led the ban charge and Schwartz’s son as a knock-down/drag-out moment of drama, but in reality, they sit down and share their own differing thoughts on the book, neither of which have changed ever since the initial controversy, all while remaining ever polite toward each other.
Scary Stories also struggles to feel consistently engaging, even at a brisk 85 minutes, with too many scenes of interviewees, or in some really distracting moments, actors engaging in storytelling skits, reiterating some of the books’ most famous stories. Meirick uses these bits sometimes to help transition between points, and including actual text from the stories makes total sense, but a simple voiceover accompanied by Gammell’s original illustrations would’ve accomplished the same goal while removing the incidental corniness that results from watching two young kid actors pretend to be scared by a story about an exploding spider bite.
Still, Scary Story mostly works the way it was meant to: it’s a celebration of the black sheep books that permeated so many of our bookshelves in our youth, examining their long legacy and the mark they’ve made on so many impressionable minds. With the world becoming a bigger, warmer, and angrier pile of shit, the nostalgia machine is operating at an all-time high (the self-serving third season of Stranger Things proves this), and Scary Stories is all part of it. This exploration into the infamous books is likely as thorough as it could’ve been, assuming that Schwartz never spoke candidly about them after having written them — material from which the doc could have mined (as it did with Gammell’s sole interview). Because of this, the doc can sometimes feel like it lacks potency, at times feeling more like you’re sitting around having a lightheaded conversation with friends. It doesn’t ask any tough questions about the dangers of censorship, and it lacks the kind of drama that even documentaries have proven to include from time to time. Scary Stories is more interested in serving as a keepsake — a quasi pre-eulogy for books that, it would seem, will never go away, no matter how much certain parents may want them to.
The special features are as follows:
Over 20 minutes of bonus footage
Scary Stories is now on DVD from Wild Eye Releasing, and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark hits theaters in August.