If you ever want to truly terrify your child and ensure they lose at least a week or two of sleep, I advise buying them a copy of Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Don’t let the name fool you, either--you could tell these in the light and still be scared to the point of mild hysteria. Oh, and if the written word alone isn’t enough to get you, don’t worry; Schwartz has conveniently packed these books with the one-two punch of horrifying tales and gruesome, grisly illustrations. Well played, Schwartz. Our parents may not have been able to convince us to use a nightlight, but you ensured we wouldn’t fall asleep until we’d switched on every bulb in the house. Truly, well done.
Schwartz’s Scary Stories titles included Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and Scary Stories III: More Tales to Chill Your Bones. Released between 1981 and 1991, these books scared a generation’s worth of children with their fast-paced story telling and spooky unresolved mysteries. Schwartz derived most of his stories from urban-legend type folktales, taking decades-old stories and weaving them into bone-chilling narratives punctuated with eerie sketches by Stephen Gammell.
To this day, I find I can hardly endure a basic Google Image search of Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark--the pictures are just that memorable and that creepy. If you think it’s gross to read about a man whose face is slowly dripping off, imagine having to endure image after image illustrating his unfortunate and gruesome fate. Yech.
It’s unsurprising that Schwartz’s Scary Stories titles are among the most frequently banned of children’s books. After all, Harry Potter contains enough sorcery and magic to get parental watchdog groups in a tizzy, so just imagine the ante upped by adding all manners of severed limbs and hatchet-wielding headless ghosts. These anti-Scary Stories groups allege that the books’ content and imagery is too mature for its intended audience of mid-to-upper elementary students. Other common reasons for the ban are its preoccupation with the occult and the commonplace use of bloody violence. The same adults crying out over R.L. Stine’s tongue-in-cheek Goosebumps series were up in arms over Schwartz’s collections; according to the supporters of the ban, these books were just too scary for children.
Of course, the more something is shunned by adults, the more instantly attractive it becomes to children. Though the original book is nearly 30 years old, it still shows up frequently in current-day top ten banned children’s books lists. Despite its critics’ best attempt to have the book removed from libraries and bookstores, the Scary Stories series maintain an enduring popularity with children itching to test their scare limits.
Schwartz’s simple storytelling and skill for building suspense made these books a thrilling read, encouraging children who may not otherwise show interest in reading to pick one up for the sheer fear factor. Many of the stories even come with handy guides for scaring your friends around the campfire while bottom-lighting your chin with the eerie glow of a flashlight. What could be better than a book that tells you when to raise your voice or to pounce on your friends? I don’t know about you, but I prefer a book with some dramatic stage directions.
While the stories may not be in the realm of adult-geared horror novels, they do have a certain creepiness that resonates with readers even past the intended 7-12 year old audience. The content alone isn’t always particularly terrifying when held against the test of time, but anyone who read these as a child is sure to remember the way that they felt when they heard it initially.
Monsters under the bed or zombies in the closet once seemed not like a fanciful story but as a viable option for children with overactive imaginations. For those with regularly active imagination, there were always illustrations to push you over the edge. I’ve tried to include some of the less grisly ones in this post, but conduct a Google Image search at your own risk. I’m warning you, though, they will lodge themselves somewhere in the innermost depths of your cerebral cortex and haunt your dreams. Just as a caveat, I’m not to be held accountable for your ultimate stomach-heaving reaction to the guts and gore. That one’s all on you.