Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, a three-volume collection of folk tales and campfire stories reworked for modern kids they became instant hits with their intended audience. They also became the target of outraged parents and clergy. They found the stories by Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell’s illustrations disturbing and evil. Cody Meirick’s documentary Scary Stories examines both the books themselves and the reaction they received.
This wasn’t the easiest thing to do as Schwartz died in 1992 and Gammell is notoriously reclusive. We hear excerpts from one of the few interviews Gammell has given and there are interviews with several of Schwartz’s family, especially his son Peter. This gives us a sense of where the books came from and how they and their illustrations came together.
But Scary Stories is at its best when it looks at the influence the books had on their fans and those who opposed their presence in school libraries. We hear from librarians and scholars who defended them as well as those who challenged them. These interviews are mixed with archival footage of challenges to other books including The Handmaid’s Tale. As we’ve seen with the furor over the Harry Potter books and 13 Reasons Why some things never change.
There are also interviews with other writers such as R.L. Stine, the late Tracey Dils and Q. L. Pearce among several others. They give perspectives on not just the Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark books but writing children’s horror in general. This was pretty much a new genre at the time, and the insights into the reaction it received, good and bad, is fascinating. It’s amazing that such tame books could have provoked so much outrage.
Perhaps the most interesting interviews are with the artists who have been inspired by the books. Sculptors and photographers recreating the book’s illustrations or scenes from the stories. These stories started as folktales and then became printed tales in a book. Now they’re becoming visual forms of art, the next link in the chain being the movie adaptation coming out this summer from André Øvredal and Guillermo del Toro.
The one area I wish had gotten more time was the story’s origins. Scary Stories doesn’t give much time to the original tales and how they were adapted. Granted the author isn’t around to ask about the process. But we hear repeatedly about the time he spent researching the originals. His notes and a few folklore experts could have made a fascinating addition to the film.
Overall though Scary Stories is a fun look at the books that scared so many kids growing up. For those who have just heard of them, it’s a good introduction. And all the interviews are held together with original animation in the style of Gammell’s illustrations.
Wild Eye Releasing will debut Scary Stories in theaters April 26th for a limited run before its release to VOD May 7th. A DVD release is set for July 16. You can stay updated via the film’s Facebook page and website.