Scary Stories To Tell In the Dark: A Case for Scaring the Crap Out of Your Kids

Header image art by Stephen Gammell

October is a month that I have always held dear to my heart. Two of my favorite days fall in October: the day of my birth and Halloween. Growing up in North Texas, October always signaled the turn of the seasons from “Satan’s steam room” to “something below 80 degrees.” The leaves change color, tons of people won’t shut up about pumpkin spice whatever, and the weather becomes more suitable for dark beer.
But for now, let’s get back to Halloween.

I like scary and creepy stuff. This much is known about me. Recently, a guest in my apartment expressed disbelief that somebody actually owned a copy of Capturing the Friedmans on DVD. What can I say? Maybe I’m just a little fucked up, and it comforts me to know that there are people out there—real or imagined—who are a little (or a lot) more disturbed than I am. Thus, October, or a significant portion of it, is usually dedicated to revisiting my favorite scary films and books. I always watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre (for the uninitiated, there’s only one canonical entry in this “series”, and it doesn’t involve Jessica Biel), I always re-read Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven (out loud, if I’m the only one home and I’ve had a few bourbons), and now, after a long hiatus, I will be re-reading the children’s horror anthology Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, thanks to the good people at Amazon Marketplace (we'll get to that in a second).

I wrote a news story on this collection over a year ago. At the time, a row had been started because the books were being reprinted, but with Stephen Gammell’s iconic illustrations removed and “updated” with some generic, bullshit drawings that looked more at home in a corporate retreat manual than a book designed to scare the crap out of little kids. For those of you who were unlucky (or lucky, depending on how you look at it) to have grown up without these wonderful, blood-curdling tales, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a collection of ghost stories and folklore geared towards schoolchildren, the first volume of which was published in 1981. The books were ranked as the number one most challenged series of books from 1990 to 1999 by the American Library Association, due in no small part to the insane artwork by Gammell, a guy who must have grown up chained to a rusty rain-gutter in rural Idaho somewhere. At least, that’s the only plausible explanation I can come up with for one man being able to pack so much mind-searing, pants-shitting fright into his work. I couldn’t tell you what materials Gammell used to create his hellscapes, but if I had to guess, I’d say the collected blood of 1,000 innocent dreamers.

I understand how tempting it must be for parents to put a lid on all of the stuff that disturbs them so much, because they feel their kids will surely grow up disturbed if they don’t. Resist the urge. Your kids are fine, and in fact, learning to delight in feeling frightened is something every kid should go through.

The “updated” whitewashing of Gammell’s incredible work is a huge blow, not just to the Scary Stories series, but to art at large, and reflects the watering down of the more wonderfully unsavory parts of our culture, including the prized institution of Halloween, which has been (from my viewpoint at least) getting lamer and lamer over the past several years. We’re growing into what comedian Doug Stanhope once termed a “hand sanitizer generation”, distrustful of anything that brings us outside of our prescribed three squares a day and our streamlined, minimalist white living boxes. As a consequence, Halloween (a holiday that celebrates masked children roaming the streets unsupervised at night and accepting gifts from strangers) and the children’s entertainment associated with it seems to be going the way of the dinosaur, in the way that we now know dinosaurs were probably pink and had feathers and were generally a lot less badass looking than the ones in Jurassic Park. The last time I lived in a suburban neighborhood, I looked forward to handing out candy to the families that populated my block while a buddy and I listened to the World Series on the radio. It was going to be a regular Norman Rockwellesque slice of American living, right? Wrong. A grand total of two kids showed up, and their parents seem mighty untrustworthy of the two guys drinkin beers and playing guitar next to a huge bowl of candy on the front porch. I wouldn't be surprised if, in a few years, the 'burbs had all but given up on the very concept of trick or treating. "It's just too dangerous", after all.

Extending this kind of over-parenting into the realm of literature isn’t a good idea. We need to protect our scary books, stories, and even pictures, and make sure they get passed down to the next generation. It’s important, not just because I feel a weird, masochistic link to the man whose drawings kept me up at night for years, but because I feel the relationship that was forged between my budding brain and the scary things that went bump in between the pages helped me out in the long run.

The world is a scary place. You only need to turn on the news to figure this out. These days, we have horror beamed to us wholesale from around the globe, rather than just allowing our local news affiliates and urban legends to scare the crap out of us. I understand how tempting it must be for parents to put a lid on all of the stuff that disturbs them so much, because they feel their kids will surely grow up disturbed if they don’t. Resist the urge. Your kids are fine, and in fact, learning to delight in feeling frightened is something every kid should go through. Some people might say that with society being as screwed up as it is today, we don't even need tales of axe-wielding maniacs or demonic possessions, but they'd be wrong. Scary stories help kids adapt to situations that are less than ideal, and prevents them from turning into the kind of person who asks the host of a party that they don’t even know if they can turn the AC down just a smidgen. Nobody likes that person.

Instead, help them turn into the kind of person who can crack open the collected Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and tell the story of the girl who died from a heart attack because she thought a hand had grabbed her from a shallow grave. Maybe they’ll recognize their own regional appropriations of ages-old stories from reading out loud to their friends, like I did. And maybe they’ll find special relief and camaraderie when they get to some of the funny stories, like “The Viper”. Don’t forget to find a prized copy of the old school collections, with Gammell’s original spine-chilling artwork leering out of the pages at you. I mentioned in my previous news post that the tales were a little ho-hum, but it’s only now that I realize those surreal and horrifying pictures helped burn most of the stories into my brain for time immemorial.

Life gets scary sometimes. Things will not always be comfortable for you or your kids. The best way to learn how to deal with those moments is to learn how to have fun and be scared at the same time. Eventually the two sensations bleed into one brilliant feeling that’s hard to replicate when it’s not dark outside, and you’re not huddled under a blanket, looking at those blood-drip drawings with a flashlight that just might be on the verge of burning out...

What are some of your favorite scary stories from childhood? Do they haunt you still? Did you grow up into a borderline psychotic because of it? Most importantly, do you thank your stars every day that you're the kind of person that enjoys a good scare? Pipe up in the comments, and share something with your fellow fright-freaks!

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Scott MacDonald's picture
Scott MacDonald from UK is reading Perfidia October 22, 2013 - 11:53am

Scary stories were a major part of my childhood and my childhood would have been poorer without them. Many tales were told and shared as if they were real, and urban legends were a key staple.  The classic of the stalled car whose remaining occupant starts to hear a knocking noise on the roof, the driver scared shitless of the car tailing her who is only trying to warn her of the guy who crawled into her back seat, and numerous stories of hook-handed killers, ghost hitch-hikers and witches coming back from dead when you chant their name at their graveside.  

We should lose none of this regardless of how many nightmares they cause - and to be honest, no matter how much diluting of existing scary fiction goes on, I don't think it will ever be lost. Kids are generally drawn to scary stories and grotesquerie, and will swap stories amongst each other that would probably cause their parents to immediately consider paying for a therapist.  I still have a twinkle of pride at a moment from my childhood, when I was about 12 years old, and I took to telling ghost stories to kids in my street, resulting in at least three sets of parents complaining about me to my parents the following day as their kids hadn't slept a wink.

As far as fiction tales that scared me, one stands out above all others from when I was a kid; "The Emissary" by Ray Bradbury. Still now gives me a shiver.

Oh, and I've got Capturing the Friedmans on DVD too.

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer October 22, 2013 - 2:25pm

I found copies of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark at a local used bookstore. I was ecstatic. I loved those books as a kid. They are probably the reason I write horror. The illustrations are so fantastic. You can find galleries of them in several places online. I am truly bummed that they are taking them out. Glad I have the originals.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine October 22, 2013 - 3:28pm

These books scared the Beelzebub into me as a kid.

And I also own Friedman's on DVD. That's a quality doc.


SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list October 22, 2013 - 5:03pm

I have the collection in hardcover with the original art. Even as an adult, some of the stories and drawings freak me out. This post has inspired me to crack the cover and give it a read tonight :)

Zackery Olson's picture
Zackery Olson from Rockford, IL is reading pretty much anything I can get my hands on October 22, 2013 - 9:34pm

I loved all three entries in that series and read them about a thousand times each as a kid. They were probably, aside from Stine's Gooseumps books (which seem so lame to me as an adult that I'm sort of embarrassed to admit I read them at all), that drew me toward reading and later writing dark fiction. My childhood wouldn't have been the same without those books.

Benjamin Joseph's picture
Benjamin Joseph from Southern U.S. is reading Knockemstiff October 23, 2013 - 3:35am

I recently rebought these book off of amazon as they were such an intregal part of growing up for me. Wow, I was not disappointed. The drawings are still as creepy and morbid as I remember (maybe even more so) and the stories are pretty twisted. I bought them on the off chance I ever have kids of my own, to make sure they have a fear of getting their hand licked from something (or someone) under the bed too!

Ben Freeman's picture
Ben Freeman from Charlottesville, Virginia is reading everything I can October 23, 2013 - 4:57am

Scary Stories was definitely my introduction to horror writing as a child. I'd say that, Goosebumps, and Are You Afraid of The Dark? were 90s horror staples of every child (at least I hope.) I just recently rediscovered my love of dark fiction and realized it definitely started with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

plossa's picture
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plossa's picture
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