SCARY STORIES - "Essential Viewing For An Entire Generation"

It never ceases to amaze me how humans begin their life journey seemingly smarter than the much larger and supposedly wiser adults who raise them. They set limitations on children to protect them from the dangers of the world, but wouldn’t you say they sometimes go overboard? For the millions of children who’ve read comic books thought the near century they’ve been in print, how many of them have actually thought they could follow in Superman’s levitating footsteps and tried to fly? The numbers are pretty low aren’t they? My point is that sometimes adults don’t give kids enough credit. They know right from wrong and they can tell the difference between Wile E. Coyote cartoon violence and reality. But that won’t stop grown-ups from their crying foul and over protection.

One such example of parental over reacting is with the collected tales of Alvin Schwartz’s “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark”. Originally printed in 1981, Schwartz wrote ghastly short stories for children, working in some history as his stories were based on existing legends to both educate as well as entertain. Paired with illustrations from artist Stephen Gammell, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” became a huge hit, and spawned two follow up volumes, “More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” (1984) and “Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones” (1991). Of course, these stories would be adapted into a Guillermo del Toro produced feature film nearly twenty years later, right on schedule to capitalize on all the childhood nostalgia of the now adults who lined up to see the flick on opening night.

These books spread like wildfire among middle schools. First as rumors told from kid to kid, and eventually first hand as the books found their way into school libraries everywhere. With children fixating on the macabre artwork and suffering from nightmares from the tales, concerned parents began contacting their local schools – demanding that these books be pulled from circulation. The controversy made the national news, as Schwartz’s handy work was thought to be threatening the very sanity of American youth.

How do I know all this? Well, because I lived through it. But more to the point, because of the recent documentary “Scary Stories”, chronicling the aforementioned controversy, the work and lives of both Schwartz and Gammell and of course, the children who have been forever changed by these stories.

“Scary Stories”, directed by Cody Meirick, covers the books in four ways. First with the career of Schwartz, who seemed to struggle as an author – writing anything and everything he thought might sell before finally hitting it big with “Stories”. Schwartz has passed, so much of this is told by his son, who shared a rocky relationship with his father.

Another focal point is the illustrations. As it turns out, Stephen Gammell is a bit of a recluse and chose not to participate in the making of the documentary, which is entirely unfortunate. However, “Scary Stories” does showcase much of his work, as well as other artists who have created amazing things inspired by Gammell’s haunting imagery. Through tattoos, sculptures, photography and other mixed media.

But what fascinated me most was the Satanic Panic level outcry to have the books taken from children. Parents protested, petitioned principles and harassed school boards to help save their children for what was thought to be irreparable harm. The irony here is that these books, thought dangerous, were driving children to take an interest in reading, and that’s NEVER a bad thing.

As for “Scary Stories”, well, there isn’t much meat on it’s bones. I learned a lot about the author and the artist, but I can’t help but think that this documentary only exists with the help from the hype of the feature film. If only this could have been made while Schwartz was alive, to weigh in on the controversy. To revel in his success after struggling for so long. And to explore his relationship with his son.

The idea of books being banned or censored, and kept hidden from children could have been a documentary of it’s own. But I digress.

“Scary Stories” is essential viewing for an entire generation who grew up reading Schwartz’s work. These books have been shared by friends, handed down between siblings, and rediscovered by the generations that have followed, and it’s about time Schwartz and Gammell are celebrated for the contribution they’ve made to horror and children’s literacy.

Check it out if you get a chance! “Scary Stories” has been made available by the fine people of Wide Eye Releasing, and is currently available via DVD and VOD. For this review, I streamed it from Amazon Prime.


★ ★ ★

"A documentary about children's horror classic Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. It includes the author's family, scholars, folklorists, artists, and children's book authors such as R.L. Stine, Q.L. Pearce, and more."