By John Brhel
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was one of my favorite book series when I was younger, despite the fact that many of the stories terrified me to no end. Here I was, 8, 9 years old, reading about beheaded roommates and knife-wielding maniacs. Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, this was not.
Most of the tales in Scary Stories that used to scare me when I was a kid just make me laugh now (“The Big Toe,” really?) but there are a handful that still leave me unsettled. Here’s a few of my favorite traumatizing tales!
Just look at that nightmarish thing! And that’s what it is, The Thing. Even in gathering photos for this post, I got residual childhood chills from seeing this guy’s face again. The plot here is pretty threadbare: a skeletal-looking man/zombie/ghoul follows two boys home and watches them from across the street. But the combination of this image and the idea of being helpless as some weirdo followed me home (where’s your parents, kids?) made this one stand out for me. I seriously couldn’t look at that drawing, and I don’t enjoy it too much now.
When I first read this story, I lived on a semi-rural road, across from which was an empty field. My bedroom window looked out at the field, and the bottom of the window was really low, so anyone could just walk right up and look in on me while I was sleeping if they wanted to. This story, which tells of a young woman who watches helplessly from her window as a yellow-eyed creature (later discovered to be a vampire) slowly stalks toward her home, freaked me the hell out and only served to make my bedroom window even more terrifying. I probably begged my parents to move me to a different room because of this tale.
This story features one of the most disturbing final scenes in anything I’ve watched or read to this day, for which it wins the “How The Hell Did This End Up In My Elementary School Library? Award.” In this tale two farmers, Thomas and Arnold, make a scarecrow to pass the time in their boring cow-milking lives. They name it after another farmer they dislike and proceed to treat it like dirt, taunting the dummy, smearing food in its face. When Harold begins to grunt and scurry around the roof of their hut at night, Thomas and Arnold flee. In their haste, they forget their all-important milking stools (hate it when that happens). Thomas has to go back to get the stools. But when Alfred looks back at the hut for Thomas, all he sees is Harold stretching out his buddy’s bloody skin on the rooftop. WTF! There’s a reason why this tale always comes up in discussions of Scary Stories. It’s straight-up insane.
“One Sunday Morning”
I was raised Roman Catholic, so I spent many a dull hour at Sunday morning Mass. This story, which tells of a man who unknowingly stumbles upon a church service open only to a parish of the undead, struck a chord with me. I think it was mainly the idea of feeling like you’re in a safe place — I mean, what’s more peaceful and non-threatening than a church? — and finding out that not only is it unsafe, but that the people in there want you dead. This is probably why I don’t go to church anymore. Yeah, that’s the reason.
Every kid knows what it’s like to play hide-and-seek, so every kid can relate to the terrifying prospect of being trapped in a hiding spot, never to be found. I was probably playing a lot more Nintendo Entertainment System than hide-and-seek when I first read this story, but that didn’t make it any less terrifying.
“Maybe You Will Remember”
You can blame probably this story, the “waking up in a bathtub with your kidney removed” urban legend and the movie Hostel for me never wanting to travel abroad. In this story, a young woman’s mother mysteriously disappears while they are vacationing together in Paris. The daughter insists that she and her mother were renting out room 505, but it’s revealed that the room was nothing like she remembers, and no one can recall ever meeting her mother (spoiler alert: her mother had died from some virus and authorities were trying to quell any public hysteria). The idea of losing one’s mother is terrifying, especially when you have no idea of her actual fate. I’m fine never leaving North America, really.
“Faster and Faster”
This story doesn’t come up in a lot of discussions about Scary Stories, but I think it’s worth a mention. In it, two cousins find an old, blood-stained (yeah, that’s normal) drum. For some reason, when they play the drum, phantoms on horseback come and shoot an arrow at one of them, killing him. I couldn’t believe what I was reading back then — some kid actually getting killed by a ghost! Most children’s books wouldn’t have more than a ghost simply saying “Boo!” but Alvin Schwartz was down with murder. You’re the boss, Alvin.
John Brhel is the co-author of Corpse Cold: New American Folklore, a 20-story illustrated collection greatly inspired by the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. Learn more about Corpse Cold.