Exploring the Darkness
Understanding the Success and Controversy of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark Series
I can’t remember the first time that I read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. The first book in the series was published in 1981, a year before I was born. The second book was published two years later, with the third, and final volume appearing in 1991. In my memory, they are a constant presence, a dark, looming cloud of terror that simultaneously intrigued and terrified me. I remember listening to the stories by candlelight in my garage with a group of friends huddled in a circle. The stories, and their accompanying illustrations, filled me with an almost paralyzing dread. Despite this, I remember them as an essential part of growing up.
A quick search of the internet proves that I am not alone. Fans of the book are legion. Merchandise has been created from the book’s illustrations, Academy Award winning director Guillermo del Toro has discussed transforming the tales into a film, and a documentary about their cultural impact was produced. Thirty-seven years after the first book debuted, it remains popular and controversial. Children love the books, while a significant number of parents balk at them. The American Library Association declared the series the most challenged book of the 1990s, and the seventh most challenged book from 2000-2009.
It’s a curious amount of passion and furor over a book of folktales. How does one account for its success and notoriety?
The books are remarkably simple in concept and delivery. All three volumes are slim. They consist of ghost stories, songs, and even some ghastly puns. Schwartz gathered the material from the world of folklore and urban legend, and he wrote the stories in a conversational voice, as though he were sitting in the room chatting with the reader. It’s what gives the books their air of believability, whether it be a story about a big toe growing in garden that a young man severs and eats (“The Big Toe”) or a spider laying eggs in a young girl’s face (“The Red Spot”). Each story is also married to an illustration by Stephen Gammell. The images are surreal and terrifying, full of distorted faces, bones, and varying levels of gore, all drawn in the stark black and white of Grey’s Anatomy or some other medical text.
At their core, the books are a continuation of a storytelling tradition that dates back as long as there have been humans. These are stories that have been repeated around the globe, whispered by campfires and in dimly lit living rooms, changing and growing with each retelling. A folk story is not a static thing. Like water, stories begin to take the shape of the container holding them. This presents the curious contradiction at the heart of folktales: they are simultaneously traditional and very rooted in the present.
Scary stories, ghost stories, tales of monsters and the macabre have always been a part of the storytelling tradition. Just as we tell stories that help define the world around us, so too do we tell tales that give shape to our anxieties and fears. Our fascination with horror seems to stem from an urge to touch our fears in a tangible way and then set them aside. The story ends and everything is safe again. They provide a method for dealing with death, illness, and uncertainty in a regulated setting. This need is particularly acute in childhood.
Author Neil Gaiman, reflected on writing scary stories (specifically in books referred to as “children’s literature”),
“If you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up. I think it is really important to show dark things to kids—and in the showing, to also show that dark things can be beaten, that you have power.”
This primal need to touch the darkness, to approach our death from a safe place, goes a long way toward explaining the popularity of the books. Schwartz’s stories and Gammell’s illustrations provide a setting where readers can press up against their fears and explore them. They also give the reader the permission to laugh at their fears, using some of the stories and lyrics to express humor in the midst of the grotesque. To quote Maurice Sendak, author of the classic Where the Wild Things Are:
“From their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, they continually cope with frustrations as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things.”
However, this only paints part of the picture. Many books have been filled with scary stories that did not go on to achieve the cult-like status of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. To understand the fascination with, and distrust of, the book, it is helpful to examine the era that created it.
The first book of Schwartz’s trilogy was published in 1981, the first year of the Reagan presidency and the first “official” year of the AIDS crisis. Over the following decade, the United States would experience the crack epidemic, a poverty rate that failed to decrease (even as the richest members of society got richer), an increase in violent juvenile crime, and a growing awareness of the sexual abuse of minors that resulted in a decade long phenomenon known as the “Satanic Panic.” Cases recounting the abuse of children, specifically the abuse of children in daycare centers, created a wave of hysteria that covered the country.
The 1980 publication of the book Michelle Remembers by psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder and his former patient (and eventual bride) Michelle Smith, detailed stories of “satanic ritual abuse” that Smith supposedly experienced as a child (stories she recalled through the dubious practice of recovered memory therapy). Three years after the publication of Michelle Remembers, the McMartin Preschool trial began. The case alleged that workers at a California preschool had sexually abused students, in addition to allegations that teachers lured them into underground tunnels, flew in the air, and dressed up as witches. The case dragged on until 1990, becoming the longest and most expensive in U.S. history. It ultimately resulted in no convictions. Similar cases sprang up nationwide, all involving suggestions of the occult.
Georgetown Professor John Meyers suggested that the panic grew from both an increasing awareness of the very real problems related to child sexual abuse. In a PBS Dateline special he stated, “Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) was never completely ignored by the American legal, medical, and child protection systems. Nevertheless, until the late 1970s and early 1980s, CSA was largely a hidden phenomenon.”
In 1982, the “Tylenol Murders” occurred, in which seven people were killed by cyanide laced pills. Copycat incidents took place, with one article listing as many as “270 incidents of suspected product tampering...reported around the country.” The incidents added to the country’s panic, re-awakening stories of razors and other harmful objects placed in Halloween candy (though typically relegated to the world of urban legend, actual cases of candy tampering were reported around this time).
Between the preschool trials, the rising rate of juvenile crime, and incidents like the Tylenol murders, there was a constant undercurrent of fear throughout the decade, much of which centered around children. On a national level, the United States was moving into an era where childhood was no longer viewed as safe. This is the world that the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark trilogy was born into and from which it was created. It’s little wonder then that children latched onto the stories and parents fretted over them. For children, the stories and their ghastly images fulfilled our primal need to understand the world and its darkness through story. For parents awakening to the myriad real world horrors that could harm their children, the books seemed to glorify everything they were afraid of: the occult, gore, violence, and death.
This collision of modern reality with ancient tradition created the perfect environment for the books to flourish. Their continued success is a testament to our never ending need for story as we grope our way through the night. There are still monsters hiding in that murky darkness. Let us gather and whisper their names together, share a shudder, and then laugh in the face of it all.