A typical adult could read the first volume of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark in under a half hour. For the kids who discovered the uncanny, disturbing folk tales at a young age, the nightmares –along with the devilish glee that comes with retelling them to unsuspecting peers — could last decades.
It’s good to be scared, most of the talking heads in the crowdfunded documentary Scary Stories will tell you, and in the 1990s renaissance of children’s horror, no one scared us better than late author Alvin Schwartz and illustrator Stephen Gammell.
For the uninitiated, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a series of three slim volumes of illustrated urban legends and folk tales, which thanks to their ability to utterly terrify audiences of all ages, became the most-banned books of the ‘90s. Commentators explain that they or their children often read them under the covers or in secret, palpably aware of the forbidden quality that came with something so dreadful and delightful.
Fans of the series will feel validation seeing this documentary, which unofficially polls its participants on the books’ most traumatizing content (they’re divided on the stories, but the eyeless woman from “The Haunted House” is rightfully named “The picture that shat a thousand pants”), delves into Schwartz’s complicated family life and career, and explores the books’ wide-ranging impact even as it relitigates their banning.
Scary Stories, which is the directorial debut of Cody Meirick and was initially funded through Indiegogo, is a fan-made documentary and it shows. Interview footage, audio, and editing vary in quality. Some sections, like the retellings of history illustrated in Gammell’s signature inky, tendril-like style, work well, but others, like the relatively brief rundown of Schwartz’s creepy original story sources, would have benefited from more attention.
A PTA mom who originally called for the books to be banned is the lone voice of dissent in the conversation surrounding their value. Still, passion can go a long way, and Scary Stories is so jam-packed with passion for its subject that it’s impossible to come away without an appreciation for the work and the generation of horror-loving kids it inspired.
The interviewees featured in Scary Stories — among them, other kids’ horror authors such as R.L. Stine — make a foolproof case for the books’ cultural relevance. Tattoo-lovers, photographers, sculptors, and other artists all attempt to pinpoint their fixation on the series, which has wormed its way into the psyche of many (including the not-featured Guillermo del Toro, who produced a big screen adaptation to be released this summer). Books like these, they say, are expressive, imaginative, and truthful about death, bodies, and cultural anxieties.
In footage from an hours-long school board hearing, one man stands up with a handful of Goosebumps books and declares that he wants his daughter to love reading so that she can receive more education and a better life than he had. That archival moment is simple yet heartfelt and summarizes all that comes before and after: words have power, and reading can make what once seemed impossible believable.