Happy Halloween and happy 35th anniversary to an icon of childhood nightmare fuel! For three and a half decades, the Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark series has burned itself into the memories of readers everywhere. Author Alvin Schwartz had compiled numerous contemporary folkloric tales into three of the most controversial volumes known to modern literature. If Schwartz’s stories didn’t get you, however, the imagery within their pages would. Artist Stephen Gammell concocted some of the most disturbing visuals of our childhoods, with surreal warped characters and twisted creatures that all seem to be dripping in gore. There was a playfulness to the series as well, with some campy, spooky poetry and songs or a surprisingly innocent ending to a story here or there that alleviated and balanced the potentially horrific impact of some of the other tales.
Nobody knows the ins and outs of the history of Scary Stories so well as one Cody Meirick, director of the upcoming film Scary Stories: A Documentary. I recently had the privilege to pick Mr.Meirick’s mind with a series of questions:
I read them when I was a kid. I’m 36-years-old now so I would have been 11-years-old when the 3rd book came out. I read these, R.L. Stine’s Fear Street, and eventually moved on to Stephen King and other authors. I remember these being popular within the Scholastic book orders. Along with the illustrations, I remember finding it very interesting to thumb to the back of the books to find out the origins of the stories. I think an interest in the macabre is pretty natural for many kids of a certain age. So I think my interest in those things were already there, but Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark represented the best of it.
from The Haunted House (by Stephen Gammell)
I absolutely see the influence of his illustrations. That is what we touch on a lot in the documentary. The interest in dark themes both in our fiction and our art usually starts in childhood. So when kids get a visceral reaction from illustrations like Stephen Gammell’s artwork, that sticks with them. So when they are creators themselves, they take that power that an image can have and aim to recreate it in some way. I’ve actually heard video game adaptations being discussed. It seems like it’s only a matter of time. I read about horror icons slowly making their way into video games such as Mortal Kombat. I’d love to see Harold the scarecrow fight Freddy Krueger or something. Sounds fun to me.
from Harold (by Stephen Gammell)
We are absolutely discussing censorship in this documentary, both specific cases and trends. Although we’re looking at a particular book series, what you’ll find is that video games, comic books, and other types of media go hand-in-hand with children’s books being censored. Censorship follows the mood of the country and what tends to be the hot button issue of the time. In the 1950s it was comic book violence which was sort of a extension of scares involving Communism, in the 1980s and 1990s when these books came out it was Satanism and occultism, and now we are seeing more cases of multiculturalism creeping into banned book lists. But generally there will always be discussions around censorship and what we allow children to read, to play, and to watch. My hope is that there is an actual discussion, rather than it being quietly done and real quality content is being kept from children.
from The Wolf Girl (by Stephen Gammell)
I’m interested. It’s really just hard to tell. Although it could be an anthology and could be animated, we don’t exactly have a modern example of that in theaters. Not that it will be like the Goosebumps movie, but I imagine that is what studios are looking at as a comparison. But of course, Goosebumps and Scary Stories are two very different things. I interviewed R.L. Stine and he said the same thing in certain terms. So I guess I don’t know. I’m very interested in seeing it and I’m a fan of both Guillermo Del Toro and the previous writer that was working on it, John August. I guess I’m just working hard to do the best to pay tribute in documentary form.
from The Dream (by Stephen Gammell)
A few stories that stand out to me are Harold, The Bride, and The Big Toe. But the interesting thing is that there aren’t one or two stories that are everyone’s favorites. Everyone seems to think so, but I’ve interviewed enough people to know that there are at least a dozen that show up again and again as people’s favorites. The same goes for the illustrations. A few pop up often in people’s memories, such as the one for The Haunted House or The Dream, but plenty others are mentioned often as well. For me, I usually say the illustration for Oh Susannah. It doesn’t have much to do with the story. It’s just a morbid and beautiful illustration.
from Oh, Susannah (by Stephen Gammell)
I grew up when fighting games were just becoming big such as Street Fighter 2. So Mortal Kombat would be the one that introduced macabre and bloodier elements to the same type of game. I liked that. And I remember playing a few PC games when they were first taking off in the 1990s. I loved Doom. And I remember Phantasmagoria. That’s a nostalgic title there.
from The Bride (by Stephen Gammell)
The Scary Stories books hold a unique place… partially because of the illustrations, partially because of the fact that they were taken entirely from folklore and oral tradition. So they are different in many ways. That said, I sure read a lot of other great stuff growing up. I read a lot of R.L. Stine’s Fear Street books. One of my favorites was Christopher Pike. I read almost all of his, which were quite unique for various ways. They introduced science fiction and spiritual elements that I found interesting and unique.
from The Big Toe (by Stephen Gammell)
Alvin Schwartz was a relatively shy, scholarly type. He was previously a journalist and brought that background into a book that could have been just a book of scary stories, rather than in ways an examination of scary tales from all over the country and the world. As for Stephen Gammell, if he had not been an artist, he would have pursued music. He has always played numerous musical instruments, including the guitar, banjo, and mandolin.
from Wonderful Sausage (by Stephen Gammell)
Fans have been great. I think for so many of them, the idea just clicked. Of course we need a documentary about these books. It’s had an impact for so many. I do have some ideas for a next documentary, but nothing quite ready or fully formed yet. There is still so much to do with this one.
from What Do You Come For? (by Stephen Gammell)
I am also very active on social media, so they can go to our website to sign up for the newsletter or find links to social media that I maintain: www.scarystoriesdoc.com
from Rings on Her Fingers (by Stephen Gammell)
Michael A. Jones email@example.com www.nerdsintheburbs.com
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Michael Adam Jones is a writer and cartoonist. Author of the upcoming series Nerds in the Burbs. He lives near Raleigh, NC