The Social Effect of “Scary Stories” by Alvin Schwartz

An article on growing up with the “Scary Stories” series, and how it continues to influence individuals and society.

Alvin Schwartz’ series Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark came from folklore. Virginia Johnson tells us in her article “Alvin Schwartz Set Down Scary Stories and Silly Ones” that living in Princeton meant that Schwartz was able to take frequent trips to Firestone Library at Princeton University. It was there that he would immerse himself in the genre. Throughout the search, he kept note of similar threads before he began to write:

In the process of accumulating everything on a subject, I begin setting aside things that I particularly like. What’s interesting is that eventually patterns emerge. What I’m looking for is not only what I like, but things that typify the genre. So there is a range of material and there always will be. In working with “scary story” material, one finds five or six or seven typologies. I was not aware of this with Scary Stories until I began searching the material and putting it together…

From 1990 to 1999, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark remained at number one on the top one-hundred American Library Association’s challenged book list. Upon viewing the list, I was disappointed to see the level of intolerance in the ‘90s. For instance, Scary Stories topped another childhood favorite of mine, R.L. Stein‘s Goosebumps by fifteen spots! Later, between years 2000 to 2009, Scary Stories was number seven. Schwartz loved this.

Growing up, I was unaware of the controversy surrounding the books, and that libraries were not a reliable source to find them. Perhaps, it was because I always had my older brother’s copies to read. When I look back on my childhood, I remember how my dad would attempt to sway me from horror because he knew that sleep loss was inevitable. On the contrary, my mom encouraged me to face my fears; even if the result was staying up with my bedroom light on all night.

Analyzing all of this as an adult, I know that simply avoiding what scares us is not a solution. If anything, rereading these stories has shown me that they are not terrifying. Many other adults acknowledge that exposing children to stories that push their limits a bit make them more healthy.

Chicago Tribune Staff Writer, John Blades gives more weight to this argument. In his article, “Who is Alvin Schwartz and Why Do Parents Want to Ban His Books,” he quotes an editor of Chicago’s Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, Betsy Hearne, who certainly agrees:

The things children fear don’t go away, just because they can’t read about them…It’s a tragic mistake to deprive a child of a book that will allow them to face and discuss the things that make them afraid. Repressing those fears only makes them more afraid.

Betsy Hearne, editor Chicago’s Bulletin of the Center

Exploring Schwartz, his Scary Stories series, others who shared my intrigue when they were young, and society’s censorship of the series has made me realize that the problem is not that they are creepy, but that they offer a unique perspective that society doesn’t want to consider. Rereading a few of the tales from More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, which frightened me the most as a child, has given me an unexpected outlook on them as an adult. I thought that reading them would bring back that anxiety; however, the new emotion that I feel most when I read some of these stories is empathy for the characters.

Of course, there is still a lingering paranoia that was adopted as a kid which remains, but not because of the story itself. That eerie feeling stems in part from the illustrations and in part from an interpretation as a kid meant to enjoy the feeling of being scared by a story.

The deeper that I look into my childhood, the more frequently I understand how destined I was to be a Goth. The concept of Goth is the willingness to look at the darker things that mainstream society prematurely rejects. The mindset is to see the morbid on a deeper level. Stories about death are not merely about being afraid to die, or even wishing for it. It could be a recognition of how fragile life is. We forget how easily and abruptly our lives may come to an end; therefore, we should appreciate what we have.

More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz. Photo by Social Thoughts

The first story in the second book in the series More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is “Something was Wrong.” Like the others, I would imagine that this story frightened me. After all, it’s about a guy whose very appearance is scaring people away—so much so that he cannot find a ride home. Then, just when he thinks that he has found a solution by phoning home for his wife to pick him up, he learns from a stranger that she is at a funeral for her husband who died the day before.

To most people, this probably sounds disturbing. To me, as an adult, this is mostly depressing. Imagine being a lost soul who’s scaring people away, and you don’t know why. You’re afraid and want to go home. Then, the one person you trust most won’t come for you because she’s at your funeral. You’re learning that not only are you unable to speak with that person, but you’ll never go home. That’s a Gothic perspective.

Like the banning of the books, the thirtieth anniversary release exchanged the artwork by Stephen Gammell for Brett Helquist’s. Fans of the original are not happy about the decision. It takes censorship to another level. Helquist is a talented artist; however, it’s one thing for an artist to admire another artist’s work and copy it for their own collection. It’s quite another for an artist to copy the original’s work for the original book, and proceed to reap the benefits from a future generation – erasing their memory.

If the publishers are that terrified of Schwartz’ and Gammell’s masterpiece, they should allow another publisher to take it.

You can find rants by fans such as the one by Mark Pellegrini called “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark: Gammell vs. Helquist.” Many include hilarious commentary. There is a particularly infamous Gammell illustration for “The Haunted House” story, and Pellegrini’s words do not disappoint: “There she is, boys: The face that shat a thousand pants.”

As for what to do about it, there isn’t anything to be done. Thankfully, the originals can be found and purchased online.

By banning these books, adults are preventing meaningful messages from reaching kids. Even the horror genre has powerful lessons. The stories in the Scary Stories series have positive underlying themes.

Take, for example, one that used to keep me up at night called “Clinkity-Clink.” It’s the story of a gravedigger turned grave-robber. He sees that the neighbors placed two coins on an old woman’s eyes before she is to be buried, and he steals them. Her spirit comes back to reclaim her money. When I was younger, I thought that the old woman’s ghost is the antagonist. A scary ghost coming to haunt someone is frightening, right; however, as an adult, the message is that it’s wrong to take from others. The old woman isn’t evil for haunting him. It’s not like he is an innocent, or being haunted for no particular reason. Plus, there’s a bit of suggestion of patriarchy in there – An old woman, without a family, whose neighborhood cares enough to give her some coins and see to it that she’s buried, only to be robbed, but we’re supposed to think of her as the monster? Come on!

In 2019, Scary Stories the documentary was released. It discusses the difficulty in finding copies to read, and how by making them forbidden, they became more tempting. Likewise, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark the movie was also released that year. The film centers around a group of kids who find the books, and their lives begin to change as the stories on the pages become their reality. Both of these add extra layers to timeless literature.

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark | Scary Website

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