The time was ripe for a documentary on Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the popular children’s horror book series by Alvin Schwartz.
The Scary Stories books were published in the 1980s and early 1990s, and the original readers are now adults (many with their own children), 30- and 40-somethings who are likely nostalgic for the time they spent reading the likes of “Harold” and “One Sunday Morning,” under the covers, or with their friends at sleepovers. We definitely belong to that demographic, and as authors of books heavily inspired by the series, we were certainly excited to see it. And we’re glad we did; Scary Stories is a satisfying watch for fans of Alvin Schwartz the storyteller.
The documentary opens with an interview with musician Harley Poe, who has recorded a folksy, eerie rendition of “The Hearse Song” (a song from the first book in the series) which has racked up 625,000 views on YouTube. Poe was inspired by the Scary Stories series as a kid, and it’s a treat to hear him talk about it with such passion. Filmmaker Cody Meirick conducted approximately 40 interviews over a three-year period, and throughout the documentary, we learn that Poe’s experience isn’t uncommon.
The most noteworthy subject has to be Peter Schwartz, Alvin Schwartz’s son. Since Alvin died in 1992, we get to discover Alvin through Peter’s eyes. We learn of his father’s passion for documenting folklore, and get to know him as a man.
When it comes to the stories themselves, Meirick does a nice job discussing the folk tales and urban legends that inspired them. R.L. Stine himself, author of the mega-successful Goosebumps book series, even makes an appearance, discussing his admiration for Schwartz, who, unlike him, spent time researching stories for his books. And we learn, from folklorists and professors, the academic and mythic inspirations behind some of the stories, how they touch upon universal fears. For example, “The Red Spot,” in which a growing bump on a young woman’s face turns out to be a sac full of baby spiders, is actually analogous to the creation story of the Greek goddess Athena.
It’s stories like “The Red Spot” that helped earn Scary Stories series the title of “most banned books of all time.” Meirick explores this aspect of the story well, featuring footage from actual protests in the 90s and interviews with those on both sides of the debate. He even convinced one of the biggest pro-ban advocates to sit down for a chat with Peter Schwartz.
The interviews regarding Schwartz’s perspective are great, but the most glaring omission is Stephen Gammell. His impact on young artists is told well, but there is only a short quote from him, regarding his methodology. You can’t properly talk about the Scary Stories books without mentioning the man, as half the appeal of the books is its sinister art. We’re treated to some neat black-and-white animations in the style of his work, and his original art appears throughout, but not Gammell. Gammell rarely holds interviews, and we can’t fault Meirick for that, but it would have been nice to hear from an agent, lawyer, publishing professional, someone who could speak about the artist’s involvement with some authority. In addition, we would have liked to have heard from someone in the publishing field, perhaps someone from Harper & Row, who helped produce or promote the book at the time. There was a period in the early 90s when the books sold phenomenally well.
Overall, we were pleased with Scary Stories and heartily recommend it to fans of the series. Despite Gammell’s absence, the documentary offers new information and is a great celebration for those of us who were there in the 80s and 90s and still love the series.