This August, the worst nightmares of a generation will come to life in the film adaptation of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Alvin Schwartz’s anthology of American folktales originally published in 1981.
Directed by André Øvredal and produced by Guillermo del Toro (fresh off all those awards for The Shape of Water), the film promises to string together many of the stories in the collection into an overarching narrative, preserving and subverting the anthological spirit of the original—or so the teaser trailers that aired during Super Bowl LIII would suggest.
But why is a recent Oscar-winning filmmaker producing an adaptation of a decades-old book aimed at elementary school kids? Well, probably because few books can claim to have made such an indelible impression of multiple generations’ worth of readers. By which I mean: for nearly 40 years, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has been haunting my dreams, and probably yours too.
I still have the copies I grew up with, featuring illustrations by Stephen Gammell. With respect to Brett Helquist, the brilliant artist who provided artwork for newer editions, Gammell’s original drawings are unsurpassably terrifying. They shaped my nightmares for years.
The stark black-and-white pictures would, of course, be scary on their own — but combined with Schwartz’s straightforward retellings of folk horror stories, they become something more than just scary. To put it simply, these books are haunting.
Each tale is a few pages long at most (if you haven’t looked at a copy since childhood, this will probably surprise you). The language is simple and accessible, so it makes sense that Scholastic would market the books as appropriate for children who read at a third-grade level. This, then, helps explain why Scary Stories and its two follow-ups have had such a lasting impact on those of us who read them as children: for many, they may represent our first exposure to literary horror.
Not all the stories hold up. As one might expect from American folktales, several of them rely on white peoples’ fear of indigenous people and immigrants. That said, the endnotes in each book underscore Schwartz’s interrogation of the roots of these stories, and are worth reading by anyone who wants to develop a deeper understanding of the ways American horror and urban legends have tended to reflect what things are scariest to those who have power to lose.
Whether or not the stories can withstand contemporary examination, they’ve certainly left deep grooves in the amygdalae of nearly 40 years’ worth of readers—including yours truly.
Which is to say: here are the seven Scary Stories that made me lose the most sleep as a child (with a large portion of the credit going to Gammell’s accompanying artwork).
That seems pretty scary, but I guess Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is recommended for children reading at a third-grade level so…
This is the first time I read the story of John Q. Hookhand, and even at the time, I had questions. In this telling of the story, the Hookhand Man has escaped a prison; in other, more ableist versions, he’s escaped a mental institution. In my preferred telling, he’s a Scary Murder Guy Who Wants To Get You, and he’s got just the hook for the job. No matter how you tell it, Man Door Hand Hook Car Door is a classic, and Gammell’s sinewy illustration of the dismembered prosthetic in question amplifies the horror exactly as much as this story deserves.
I mean, that’s a toe. And that kid is creepy AF. But still, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is recommended for children reading at a third-grade level, so it’s fine.
“The Big Toe”
You know that thing of when you find a big toe sticking out of the ground, so you pull it up and bring it home and you and your parents eat it for dinner? #Relatable. But in this story, that foolproof plan somehow goes awry. “The Big Toe” is the first story in the first Scary Stories collection, and it gives the reader a good indication of just exactly what they’re about to get mixed up in.
Wait a minute. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is recommended for children reading at a… third-grade level?!
The Bride (featured in More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) is ultimate little-kid-horror, because it involves a game of hide-and-seek gone terribly awry. As a kid, winning at hide-and-seek always came with an undercurrent of fear: what if no one ever finds you? What if no one ever finds you ever again?
We’re only given one glimpse of the inner monologue of the titular Bride: “They’ll never find me there,” she thought.”
And she’s right. She wins that game of hide-and-seek. Also she dies horribly, trapped in an old trunk, which is exactly the kind of place I would have picked to hide as a child if I had never read this cautionary tale.
How old are these third-graders? Are these third-graders who emerged from the Lament Configuration?
“A New Horse”
Listen. I’m just going to give you the last line of the story, okay? It’s all you need to know:
There stood his wife with horseshoes nailed to her hands and feet.
How do you react to that? What do you say to your wife, who was, until a moment ago, a horse? What do you do about these horseshoes? What questions does this raise about your marriage? Worse: what questions does it answer?
Oh, I get it, the demons have stolen the souls of the third-graders and possessed their bodies, right?
This story, from Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones, lives up to its name. “Just Delicious” has everything you could possibly want: trickery, cannibalism, organ-theft, and justice for an abusive monster of a husband. All I want in life is to write a short horror story that captures the grotesque beauty of Mina, the main character, eating a piece of liver that she cooked to perfection — only to realize that her husband will be furious if there isn’t a liver for him to eat when he gets home.
Oh, don’t worry reader: Mina gets a liver for her husband to eat. Mina is very resourceful. The only problem arises when the person she took the liver from decides that they want it back.
HERE’S WHAT YOU’VE GOT TO LOOK FORWARD TO IN MIDDLE SCHOOL, KIDS!
“The Red Spot”
A cool thing when you’re a teenager is when you have a pimple, the kind that hurts a lot, and you suddenly remember this story you read when you were a kid, about a girl who gets a red spot on her face, and it hurts, and it turns into a boil, and after a few days it bursts open and hundreds of baby spiders come streaming out!
This is fine. Everything’s fine.
Listen. I just reread this story so I could write about it for this essay, and I am sweating profusely.
Here’s the premise: Two farmers make a man out of straw, and they name him Harold and treat him pretty terribly, and he becomes real. The phrase “He climbed up on the roof and trotted back and forth, like a horse on its hind legs” comes into play, which is an image none of us ever needed.
Mark Oshiro, author of Anger is a Gift and noted Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark enthusiast, has this to say about Harold: “Many of Schwartz’s stories are horrifying, but there’s a particular place in the darkest part of my mind for Harold. There’s a sense of terrible inevitability to that story, and the final image is so deeply upsetting, suggesting that there’s only one outcome for Alfred.”
Oh, right, I almost forgot to tell you the final image: Harold, standing up on the roof, stretching out a bloody skin to dry in the sun.
So. You know. Sleep tight.
Sarah Gailey is the author of the forthcoming novel Magic for Liars. Incidentally, she’s never sleeping again.