When Carmen Maria Machado was preparing to publish her first book, Her Body and Other Parties—a story collection that would go on to be nominated for a National Book Award in 2017—she urged her publisher to hire the reclusive illustrator Stephen Gammell to provide art for the cover. Asked why, Machado pointed to Gammell’s most famous work: the images he provided for Alvin Schwartz’s 1981 kids’ classic, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and the two sequels that followed. “Every American person between 25 and 40 knows those illustrations and those books,” she said. “They were that iconic and that pervasive.” Gammell didn’t take the job, but one of the stories in Her Body and Other Parties, “The Husband Stitch,” is an eerie, feminist urban-legend fantasia built around a retelling of one of Schwarz’s stories that has haunted Machado since childhood—“The Green Ribbon.” It’s about a man who discovers that his lovely bride doesn’t want him to touch her velvet choker because her head falls off without it.
Nearly 40 years after it frightened its first children, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is coming into the light. With the release of a feature film adaptation of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and a new documentary about the book and its author, we can begin to see the true extent of the series’ reach, the way it has burrowed into the psyches of two generations of Americans like the inky tendrils Gammell so loved to draw. “We’ve sold over half a million copies of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” Alan Boyko, president of Scholastic Book Fairs, told me. That’s at school book fairs alone, the venue where many readers first encountered the series. When the first book came out Boyko was running his own company, a small regional book distributor in the Carolinas, and school book fairs were a big part of his business. “It was popular right out the door,” he said. “The original Harper cover was black and white and had a pretty good skeleton on the front. If you were a 4th, 5th, or 6th grade boy or girl and you were looking for something fun to read and something you could amuse your friends with, this was it.”
Scary Stories has also been it for many parents. Parents raising the alarm over Scary Stories fall into one of two groups. Some are like Machado’s mother, exasperated by how the books prevented her daughter from falling asleep at night by filling her head with bloody heads falling down chimneys, or made cranky with sleep deprivation by comforting children whose nightmares were inspired by Schwartz’s gruesome yarns and Gammell’s ghastly illustrations. Machado’s mother took the matter up with her daughter, telling her, “You can’t read it because you can’t handle it.” But others have a vaguer, loftier, and more authoritarian response.
The Scary Stories documentary, directed by Cody Meirick, features clips taken from TV interviews taped during the early ’90s. In them a Seattle PTA president named Sandy Vrabel complains that children have enough real things to be terrified by. Do they really need to worry that someone might, as occurs in one of the grislier stories, steal their liver and eat it? Vrabel told the Chicago Tribune, “There’s no moral” to Schwartz’s stories. “The bad guys always win. And they make light of death.”
The Scary Stories trio were the books most frequently challenged or banned in the 1990s, according to the American Library Association. They still rile up some adults. As recently as last spring, a school librarian wrote to School Library Journal asking the magazine’s advice columnist for suggestions on how to deal with a parent who “stormed into the library” to complain that her 12-year-old son had borrowed Scary Stories. “Make sure she understands that it isn’t the role of the librarian to police what patrons borrow,” was the columnist’s bracing counsel.
Librarians have mostly stood firm against attempts to eliminate the Scary Stories series from circulation. In addition to a new, extensive interview with Vrabel, the documentary features a retired school librarian in Michigan recalling her very first experience with a book challenge. The school superintendent stepped into her office with a copy of Scary Stories tucked under his arm and told her that a parent had complained and he wanted her to remove the title from her shelves. (She wouldn’t.) Vrabel called for the books to be placed off-limits to “younger children”—that is, to 5- to 11-year-olds, their target audience. She describes receiving complaints from a mother whose third-grade son had suddenly become reluctant to allow her to inspect his backpack. She later caught him reading under the covers at night with a flashlight, and when she asked to see what he was looking at, “He tried to hide the book.”
I was in college when Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was published, but like any survivor of a bookish childhood, my heart goes out not to the snooping mom but to that kid under the covers, hiding his samizdat reading. Schwartz’s tales aren’t imprinted on my imagination the way they are on Machado’s, but I recognize in that boy’s story the advent of a momentous change: the point at which reading, formerly an activity shared with or overseen by adults, becomes a private practice.
For many kids, reading the Scary Stories books represented a first tentative step toward growing up and into independence. Schwartz’s books were only semi-sanctioned by the adult world. Sure, you could buy them at school book fairs, check them out of the school library, and some teachers kept copies on their classroom bookshelves, although of course Schwartz’s books were never assigned reading. Unlike, say, a Playboy magazine, they weren’t absolutely forbidden. But one glance at Gammell’s hollow-eyed ghouls, shrieking skeletal brides, and gibbering specters told any kid that here was something that danced right on the edge of taboo.
What would-be regulators of Vrabel’s type want is not to protect children from books that might harm them, but to protect themselves from the knowledge that many children seek out and delight in the macabre. A keen interest in reading about an animated scarecrow who kills and skins a man isn’t compatible with their fantasy of children as sweet, tender, vulnerable innocents. Toward the end of the Scary Stories documentary, Vrabel bemoans what she views as the effect of books like this: “The violence in all these books I think has affected our society,” she opines. “I don’t want to blame all of the violence, but it made it OK.”
The irony of this all-too-familiar lament is that Schwartz was an amateur folklorist, and most of the tales included in the Scary Stories series have been around, told and retold, for decades or more. In other words, they’re a product of the same golden past that Vrabel believes was less violent than the present. Schwartz belonged to a now-extinct breed of 20th-century author, a guy who lived from advance check to advance check by producing amusing little books culled from research he conducted at Princeton University’s Firestone Library. Before publishing Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, he wrote books on parenting and crafts. Drawing on the work of academic ethnologists, he put together collections of tongue-twisters, wisecracks, and jokes. Only when Schwartz turned to mining back issues of American Anthropologist and Jan Harold Brunvand’s collections of urban legends for the stuff of campfire storytelling sessions and sleepover party dares, however, did Schwartz hit pay dirt. Boyko thinks that one reason Scary Stories books aroused little controversy in the Carolinas when he was selling them there is the region’s long-standing fondness for and familiarity with folk tales. Many small presses in the region had been anthologizing local ghost stories for years.
The resemblance between Scary Stories and a joke collection (a type of book dating back to the 15th century) is striking. Both are print manifestations of rakish, unkillable forms of vernacular oral culture, stuff passed around from person to person as a kind of currency. Jokes, like scary stories, typically hinge on a surprise, and their success is often all in the delivery. Schwartz’s books assume that the telling of scary stories is a social activity and offers tips on how to effectively frighten an audience. Machado recalls employing this advice at Girl Scout camp while telling the story about the liver: “In the version [Schwartz] wrote,” she told me, “it says to grab the person next you and say, ‘You have it!’ and I did that and scared the shit out of the girl next to me and she cried. I was super taken with that. I thought, ‘Oh my God, you can do anything with writing.’ ”
Kid culture—the stuff that children talk about and the rumors, jokes, and tales they swap when adults aren’t around—must constitute at least a little rebellion to have any authenticity at all. Schwartz sensed this; according to his widow, interviewed in the documentary, he greeted efforts to ban his books with glee. Kids scare themselves and each other as a test of nerves, but also to poke at the pieties and hypocrisies of the adult world. Scary stories contain the violence, the death, the decay, and the aggression that adults like Vrabel are forever trying to sweep under the carpet as soon as a tot enters the room. To claim your right to deliberately scare yourself (even if it gives you nightmares) is to make a bid for self-determination.
No wonder then that the fans interviewed in the Scary Stories documentary express such fierce devotion to Schwartz’s stories and Gammell’s illustrations. The latter, it’s generally agreed, made the book: His ghouls are confrontational, staring out of the page and straight at the reader. They may not be pretty, but they tell no lies and conceal no truths about what happens to every human body eventually. When Harper and Row, the series’ longtime publisher, released 30th-anniversary editions of the book with toned-down illustrations by another artist, the decision caused an uproar, and the company soon switched back to the original artwork—but not before causing a run on the market for earlier editions, some of which briefly cost hundreds of dollars.
One of the fans interviewed in the documentary has had a Gammell illustration (the one with the spooky church) made into a sleeve tattoo covering her whole arm. This turns out to be a not uncommon tribute. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is inscribed on the imaginations of millions of former kids and also, sometimes, on their very skin.