Some kids loved Aesop’s Fables, others loved Where the Sidewalk Ends, and others loved the children’s horror stories of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I was a kid who read all three but fell deeply in love with the latter. Growing up in a superstitious Mexican household meant that ghost stories and scary fables were some of the earliest stories I remember.
So naturally, I was drawn to the anthologies of folktales written by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and its subsequent sequel. For me, those books hold a special place in my heart and a special place on my shelf. And hopefully, the new movie of the same name, directed by André Øvredal (the Autopsy of Jane Doe) and produced by Guillermo del Toro, will hold a place on my favorite horror movie list.
But with the new film and nostalgia around the original books, I never knew the controversies they bore, the process to getting them created, and the ways in which those stories impacted other people like me. In Scary Stories, a documentary directed by Cody Meirick, the creation, history, and enduring legacy of the fantastical and horrific children’s classic is lovingly explored.
The film uses 40 interviews with the author’s family members, fellow children’s horror writers, folklorists, scholars, and fans to create the books historical narrative and prove its lasting impact on the lives of those who read it. Some of those interviewees include Schwartz’s son Peter Schwartz, famed children’s horror author R.L. Stine (Goosebumps), and Dr. Gary Alan Fine, a Northwestern University folklorist and sociologist whose theories are featured in Scary Stories 3.
However, as much as the documentary showcases the books’ lasting impact on those who read it, it also highlights the fact that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is one of the most controversial books in history and earned the title of one of the most banned books of modern times. The documentary explores the various times in which the books were banned or targeted by parent and religious groups as ‘satanic’ or otherwise too macabre for its targeted scholastic audience.
The documentary does well to balance the controversy with the love that the books received. Featuring what some would call graphic illustrations and short stories that deal with death head-on, while also including fantastical elements that make for rather gruesome and eerie illustrations. Because of these violent illustrations and the subject matter, they were pulled from libraries and schools at various times.
But as former librarians and readers explain, the books were powerful tools that answer questions that all children have about death and dying. Throughout the documentary, The Hearse Song plays and is used to explain the darkness and lessons from the book. Although the book is filled with scary urban legends and folktales that will leave young ones scared, it also offered a way for children and teens to confront questions of mortality. As one of the interviewees explains, we did not want to have these conversations with children, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not thinking about these topics.
While it would be easy to just tell one side in favor of the books being allowed in schools the documentary includes interview segments with one of the women who led the charge at her school to have them banned. That being said, when clips of the different hearings about the book are shown and librarians and sociologists discuss the books it’s clear that banning was never the answer.
For me, it’s always interesting to see that side of the discussion, the one that is scared of children seeing darkness or death in print. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a culture that never saw death as a thing to be feared, we have holidays dedicated to celebrating those who have died, we have our own stories that we’re told from a young age, and overall my culture seems to be fascinated by it.
The documentary also showcases people who have been touched by the series, some enough to tattoo Gammell’s illustrations on their bodies. By including personal stories, some grounded in memories, some who were sparked to create because of Gammell’s art, and others who found the joy of reading through the series when they weren’t able to excel in the subject before.
All of the heart, controversy, and history are told with interviews, footage of PTA meetings, and most stunningly, animations done in the style of Gammell’s art. These 2D illustrations glide across the screen and tell the stories of what the interviewers are retelling. The animations work as a powerful tool to break the stream of talking heads while also reminding the viewer of the books themselves throughout the film.
Although the story that is told is interesting and sheds light on many things that some may have not known the film does stumble in some aspects. Throughout the film there are moments that are repeated, interview portions and some animations that made me question if the copy of the film I was watching had messed up, it had not. Although this doesn’t break the film it does break the viewer’s concentration. In addition to this, the film seems to end abruptly, almost like no ending at all, but more a need to put in the second disk in a split DVD.
That being said, Scary Stories is an important documentary for fans of children’s literature, horror, and those who grew up with the series shaping their love of storytelling, urban legends, and more. Overall, the film is a loving look at a book that leaves a legacy 30 years after its first publishing. With images that haunted our childhood and stories that we are excited to see on the big screen, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a cultural touchpoint and Scary Stories shows audiences why in the most caring and explorative of ways.
Following the limited theatrical release – which includes Los Angeles, New Orleans, Columbus, and Texas – Scary Stories will be available on VOD May 7 with a DVD release set for July 16.
Scary Stories is an important documentary for fans of children’s literature, horror, and those who grew up with the series shaping their love of storytelling, urban legends, and more. Overall, the film is a loving look at a book that leaves a legacy 30 years after its first publishing. With images that haunted our childhood and stories that we are excited to see on the big screen, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a cultural touchpoint and Scary Stories shows audiences why in the most caring and explorative of ways.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.