If you were a child of the late 80's and 90's your first experience into the world of horror may very well have come from the shelves of your elementary school library. Alvin Schwartz's classic series, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark no doubt entertained, terrified, and inspired a number of us as children and finding those well worn paperbacks on the shelves or during a book fair was no doubt a highlight of our grade school careers. Even as I write this the Scary Stories Treasury sits on my desk with the haunting artwork of Stephen Gammell staring into my soul, watching every keystroke as I write this review. With a renewed interest in the series courtesy of Guillermo Del Toro's upcoming film adaptation, the documentary explores the cultural significance of the stories, their influence, the battle against unnecessary censorship, and of course the legacy of the author as seen through the eyes of his estranged son.
Written, directed, and produced by Cody Meirick, the documentary starts out with a card containing an incredibly short tale from Alvin Schwartz himself. It reads:
Many years ago a young prince became famous for a scary story he started to tell, but did not finish. His name was Mamillius and he probably was nine or ten years old.
"I shall tell it softly," he said. "Yond crickets shall not hear it."
And he began, "There was a man dwelt by a churchyard." But that was as far as he got. For at that moment the king came in and arrested the queen and took her away. And soon after that, Mamillius died. No one knows how he would have finished his story.
This singular moment of white letter on black backing, silent, frozen is the most poignant tribute to the late author and shares with us the very heart of what we are about to experience.
Scary Stories explores how Alvin Schwartz began to comb through the folklore history of his generation and those past, how he began to connect stories and create comparisons from iteration to iteration based upon the region, the culture, and the message intended to be conveyed by the story teller. He spent years documenting old tales and oral traditions, compiling them in a form that would be engaging, coherent, and above all else relatable to readers of any age. A man who had made a career writing books largely about parenting had unknowingly created something larger than life. Of course, this level of success came at a cost.
It's said that Schwartz reveled in the battles that were fought over his books between librarians and pearl clutching soccer moms over whether or not Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was suitable for children. Many librarians found that the books got the kids reading despite the fact that some parents felt that the combined subject matter as well as the gruesome art of Stephen Gammell were too much for children to cope with. Book banning and censorship are still battles being fought regularly in literature as well as the horror community and, thankfully, in most cases art wins out over unfounded fear. But it is the relationship between Alvin Schwartz and his youngest son Peter that brings about the most emotional moments of the documentary.
Peter Schwartz, a futurist and author, discusses his father's accomplishments, bibliography, and the tenuous relationship the two shared in the years leading up to Alvin Schwartz's passing in 1992. He speaks of his father with respect, love, and admiration with an overarching tone of bittersweet longing for the strained years of their relationship. Meanwhile, the documentary is filled with other recollections from librarians, artists, writers, fans, and contemporaries of Schwartz and illustrated in images that closely mimic the style of the somewhat mysterious Stephen Gammell. We meet a host of talented creatives whose work was either directly or indirectly influenced by reading Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark during their formative years. There are also educators, scholars, and psychologists who discuss the importance of the work.
It brings about a larger conversation that we've been having here in recent months about horror and its cultural significance as well as overall benefit. So many of these men and women interviewed talked about how the stories positively influenced them in their childhood and guided them into the careers and lives that they've taken on as adults. The entire film is not only informative as to the history of the books and their author but entertaining in seeing some of the incredible art and music especially that have been born from such an unexpected source.
If I have one complaint, and you should know by this time that I almost always do, is that the last twenty minutes or so feel needlessly slow. This is more of a personal taste than anything else but, in the sake of offering a truly honest review, my feelings on the pacing need to pop up somewhere.
Scary Stories is a must see documentary for fans of the work --past, present, and future-- and would make for an excellent early evening viewing as a family. If you have never taken the chance to read the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, I'd encourage you to download or pick up a copy today. Just make sure you leave a light on.
And now, I will leave you with this fantastic adaptation of The Hearse Song by Harley Poe, featured in Scary Stories.
Dan is an author, editorialist, podcaster, and horror culture & lifestyle correspondent from the Southeast. You can find Dan's stories at Danno of the Dead Blog and through PDI Press.