When I was a kid, I was allowed to read pretty much anything I wanted. I would ask questions about words or things in the story that didn’t make sense, but I was never shamed or punished for my interests.
This isn’t to say my interests as a child were transgressive, exactly. I mostly liked mysteries and fairy tales. I have distinct memories of working my way through my school library’s entire Agatha Christie collection. I collected Nancy Drew, and sought out as many fairy tale retellings as I could find. All pretty standard age-group fare as far as I could tell. But I always knew—could feel—that even if I was a ten-year-old reading Tolstoy or something, it wouldn’t be a big deal. To this day, one of the fundamental building blocks of my relationships to my family and the world is discussion about the art we consume. What does it mean? What does it make you think? What does it make you feel?
Tell Me a Story
I don’t remember how old I was the first time I came across Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. At most, I was still a preteen. I only remember camping out in the living room with my brother and my uncle, lights off, listening as my uncle read to us. I also remember being absolutely terrified out of my mind.
Looking back now, almost none of Alvin Schwartz’s are as horrifying as I remember. The illustrations have a lasting power to chill, yes, but the writing makes me chuckle. Back then I wanted nothing more than for my uncle to stop telling the stories—except for him to keep going. I was afraid to go to sleep, but fascinated. I have always loved stories and always knew I wanted to be a storyteller. Here was a book (and an author, and a narrator) so good at telling stories I didn’t need the illustrations for them to be effective. The experience and the feeling of that night has stuck with me for years. The little girl who cowered away from as many scary things as possible grew into someone who learned to see the feeling behind the scary thing, to find humanity in the monstrous and the monstrous in humanity.
There is evidence to suggest people with anxiety consume large amounts of horror media because it allows them a controlled space to work out their fears. I think about these studies a lot, and I find myself thinking of it now in relation to these books. They seem to have operated in a similar way. Maybe kids sought them out as as an outlet for fear; maybe as an outlet for curiosity. In any case, one thing was clear: kids loved them. Even more than that, though, parents hated them.
The Scary Stories books are some of the most banned and challenged I’ve ever come across. They were the #1 banned book series of the ’90s, and in the top 10 banned books of the 2000s. A children’s story collection written at a fifth-grade reading level, banned and challenged by parents everywhere for everything from the graphic illustrations to the light way the stories dealt with death, to the violence the stories contained (But really, have you ever really listened to a nursery rhyme?). And there is violence, and death, and graphic imagery in almost all the stories in the collection. There is a scarecrow that comes to life, a spider laying eggs in a young girl’s face, and a man who follows a young woman all the way home while flashing his brights at her. But, as with most horror, there is more going on here than the surface scares would have us believe.
These stories serve in part to teach kids about themselves and the world around them. “The Red Spot”, for example, is about more than just terrifying face-spiders. It’s also about the anxiety children and adolescents face when confronted with their changing bodies, and how maybe parents aren’t always so easily convinced there’s something wrong. “Harold”, meanwhile, is a haunting little tale about bullying. “High Beams”, however, is perhaps my favorite.
In classic slasher setup, we are led to believe for almost the entire story that the Scary Thing is the man following the young woman home and flashing his headlights at her. And, really, this would be enough to set anyone on edge. The feeling of being followed is like static on the back of your neck. But that isn’t the end of the story, or even the scariest thing. We find out, by the end, that the man was only flashing his high beams because there was another man in the back of this woman’s car who had snuck into her back seat and was planning to do her harm. Every time he would inch up to do his work, the man in the car behind her would flash his high beams, thus striking fear of being caught into the killer and making him duck down out of sight again and ultimately saving the woman’s life. This story, as I take it, shows children—much like any fairy tale or other folklore, that there’s nothing wrong with being a little wary about the world.
Life, Death, and Stories
Schwartz seems to have had multiple goals with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. On the one hand he was simply a passionate collector of folklore looking to make it more accessible to children. On the other, he didn’t want to do it in such a way that shied away from the realities of the world that everyone eventually encounters. As Disney takes traditional fairy tales and sugarcoats them for the masses, Schwartz talks to children about folklore and life and death as if they are just subjects that need to be addressed. Instead of happy endings, he seems to say, here there be monsters. Here is the world and all of its dark corners. But it’s okay! To be afraid is natural. Death is natural. And you don’t have to be alone in facing it.
One of Stephen Gammell’s tamer illustrations
One of the best things about the Scary Stories trilogy, besides its being little more than an adapted collection of folktales complete with sources for each story, is that they (as the title suggests) are meant to be read aloud. At the end of several stories there are instructions for how to read them —cues for when to leap out at your friends and shout the lines. Those stage directions take me back to the night with my uncle reading, and solidify the impact of storytelling as oral tradition. Storytelling will always be something of a communal experience, but so is life. Parents want to protect their children; I get it. But taking something away from a child because it’s too heavy a topic for you isn’t helpful to them. Exploring the hard stuff through reading is maybe the best way when you’re young. Instead of banning the things that scare you, or make you uncomfortable, face them. Talk about them with kids. Tell a scary story in the dark. You’ll be glad you did.