“Part of Alvin Schwartz’ brilliance was that he took all of these old folk legends and myths and old stories, and made them readable for kids. He used what the stories were, but he was able to write in a way that really related to kids, and I think that’s his particular genius.” – R.L. Stine
If there’s anyone who has a finger on the pulse of children’s literature, it’s the author of the Goosebumps series. At the Scholastic Book Fairs of the ’90s, R.L. Stine’s books sat right alongside those of Alvin Schwartz’s, giving an entire generation of curiouser and curiouser kids the willies long before they snuck into their first R-rated teen slasher flick. Schwartz’s books, in particular, enjoyed an elite level of infamy: his Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark series remains the most-challenged of the 1990s, and its place in the public consciousness is front and center in director Cody Meirick’s documentary Scary Stories.
The film opens with musician Harley Poe lauding the impact that Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark had upon him, with a quick glimpse of his acoustic rendition of “The Hearse Song”, a gross-out jam detailing the decay process after death. The title sequence that follows is steeped in nostalgia for a certain subset of the populace who grew up with these books: vignettes of crimson Scholastic book labels and comics flutter along to a macabre tune, immediately bringing up my own personal memories of Creepy Crawlers commercials and Saturday nights spent with Joe Bob Briggs tallying up body counts on MonsterVision. Before even diving into the folktales themselves, Scary Stories‘ message is clear: in his collection of lore, Schwartz speaks to the childhood need for a safe way to confront morbid curiosity and innate dread of death.
Featuring interviews from the family of Alvin Schwartz as well as over twenty authorities on literature, education, and art, Scary Stories casts the wide net necessary to talk about the work of a man who drew the ire of conservative parents and the adoration of youths who read his work by flashlight under their covers at night.
There are two threads that make the film engaging: the push against, and pull toward. The former features the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad Sandy Vrabel, the concerned mother and PTA President who led the book ban charge against Schwartz. The Tipper Gore of the children’s literary realm, Vrabel tut-tuts and shakes her head at the podium in archival footage, asking someone to think of the children who could be reading this filth. While it is enraging to see someone so vehemently self-righteous in their attempts to police the parenting and reading habits of others, her inclusion and follow-up in the doc lends weight to its claims of Schwartz’s colossal impact on pop culture of the era, simply by way of his work’s infamy among sanctimonious soccer moms.
If the first thread is one of aversion to morbid kid lit, the second thread is one of endearment to it. A wild rumpus of reverence drowns out attempted censorship throughout the film, with an assemblage of scholars and creatives who infuse Schwartz’s influence into their work today. A tattoo artist who emulates the eerie work of Scary Stories series artist Stephen Gammell. A psychoanalyst emphasizing the necessity for adolescents to work through fears of puberty through stories like “The Red Spot” (you know, the one with the spider eggs). It certainly makes sense for young girls who do “We must, we must, we must increase our bust!” exercises would find a comforting horror in the story about a young woman who goes through disgusting, uncontrollable changes resulting in tiny creatures coming out of her body. Most triumphant of all, though, is the testimony from small-town school librarian Miriam Downey; her refusal to remove any of the Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark books from her shelves is enough to make the most shriveled heart grow three sizes in a day.
The scope of the film is not limited to the author, either. A good portion is dedicated to memories and the significance of Stephen Gammell’s illustrations, from the ghoulish Thing to Harold the scarecrow. If my own childhood night terrors are any indication, the most horrifying aspect of those illustrations were the fact that every ghoul and creeper seems to be looking at me, through me. Ann Marie Macdowell Childs (Author, Defanging the Monster: How Illustrations Change Texts in Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark) pops up with a beautiful explanation:
“One of the things that make that effective in horror is that there’s this longstanding idea that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you. It’s the reason why children pull blankets over their heads. When these horrors are looking at you, they can see you, and they know that you can see them, so that makes them more likely to come out of the book and get you.”
But it’s not all fear; Schwartz’s work bore cultural witness to folklore worldwide. As the film states, the Scary Stories series contains stories both sourced in ancient global folklore (“Harold”) and domestic legends (“Sam’s New Pet,” “Alligator Story,” “Wonderful Sausage”). An added bonus: an Ozark historian details how most of the domestically-rooted stories reflect deep-seated social anxieties and mistrust in North America. So it turns out that there was indeed educational value to the stories about cannibal foreigners. Not that it would’ve stopped most kids, anyway.
Short filler sequences deploy actors to retell a story to rapt children but fails to show the childrens’ reactions, an odd omission in a documentary heralding the frightful impact upon generations of children. Still, it’s a fair departure from the routine talking heads format that permeates too many films of the genre. Despite that mild storytelling sin, Scary Stories successfully illustrates the scope and ripple effect of Alvin Schwartz’s collection of weird whoppers.
Scary Stories is a wonderful celebration of Alvin Schwartz’s macabre works. Engaging and thought-provoking, without using nostalgia as a crutch.