What would you do if you walked by a scarecrow resembling Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or if you heard human sounding grunts from a scarecrow you stuffed yourself? What if you saw this scarecrow walking on a roof while drying a slab of blood-soaked human skin in the sun? This scarecrow goes by the name of Harold and is the subject of one of many scary stories retold by Alvin Schwartz for children. The drawings were scary enough to make me question how this was geared toward children, but then again, it wasn’t enough to scare me away at ten years old.
Partially due to these horrific drawings, the book became #1 on the Most-Challenged Book List from 1990-1999 by The American Library Association. To celebrate the 30th anniversary of this book, it was revamped with a different illustrator, Brett Helquist, who is best known for his work in A Series of Unfortunate Events (Lemony Snicket). Many genuine fans of the original books featuring Stephen Gammell as the illustrator were very upset with the change as Helquist’s drawings were much less scary. They looked cartoonish rather than haunting which took away a large spook factor of the book. I say if you want to give this book a chance, pick up the original published in 1981.
In the first of a collection of three, Alvin Schwartz retells stories collected from folklore making up the classic collection Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. My interest in scary stories started at an early age, and I remember first laying my eyes on this book at the school book fair (best day ever) when I was ten. The glossy black and white cover featuring a house-sized skull painted like a clown was enough to make me pick it up off the shelf.
Flipping through the new, crisp white pages, the haunting illustrations by Stephen Gammell mesmerized me. While they probably should’ve scared me away because I still find them chilling now, they caused me to flip through the rest of the book becoming more interested. I had sleepovers often with a group of girlfriends so I planned on using it as entertainment.
What is great about this story collection is how Schwartz included secret messages to the person reading it out loud for how and when to scare their audience while reading. “What Do You Come For?” is the third story featured, and although it is only a paragraph long it instructs the reader to jump out at someone at the very end:
“There was an old woman who lived all by herself, and she was very lonely. Sitting in the kitchen one night, she said, ‘Oh, I wish I had some company.’ No sooner had she spoken than down the chimney tumbled two feet from which the flesh had rotted. The old woman’s eyes bulged with terror. Then a body tumbled down, then two arms, and a man’s head.”
These fallen body parts assemble into a man who begins dancing around the room at a fast speed while the woman watches him in horror. “What do you come for?” she asks him. The man responds, “What do I come for? I come for YOU!” At that moment, whoever is reading out loud stomps their foot and jumps at someone while yelling “YOU!” It will probably be more effective if your group isn’t sitting around on a carpet, but however you can get the scare across works.
While I always enjoyed reading that one to my friends to get a reaction, the story that never failed to scare me was “High Beams.” This story belongs to the Other Dangers chapter; the chapter including realistic fears moving away from more surreal creatures. The introduction states, “Most of the stories in this book have been passed down over the years. But the ones in this chapter have been told only in recent times. They are stories that young people often tell about the dangers we face in our lives today.” As a kid up to now, the things that scare me (and most people) the strongest involve the realization that there are sick people out there who commit acts many will never understand.
There are different versions of this story that exist; the film Urban Legends (1998) uses the gang initiation one. In that version, gang members drive around with their headlights off until someone flashes their brights. They then target that person, aggressively flashing their brights back until they run the person off the road. That version is awful itself, but Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark chose a different one that stuck with me into adult life.
A high school girl gets into her car one night after leaving a basketball game and notices a truck following her. She thinks it’s a coincidence at first, but realizes he’s matching her speed and passing when she passes. Her nerves start swirling when he begins flashing his high beams on and off, leaving them on for almost a minute at a time. When she finally reaches home, he turns into the driveway too as she runs to her father to call the police. My stomach drops when the man tells the police, “It’s not me you want, it’s him,” pointing to the girl’s back seat. A man had slipped into her car with a knife before the game ended, and every time the truck driver saw the man try to attack her he flashed his lights to scare the man. Because of this story (and my paranoid father), I never get into my car without checking the backseat first.
After what I believe is the scariest chapter in the book, Schwartz provides the readers some reprieve with the last chapter, “Aaaaaaaaaaah!” Even though the first chapter shares the same name, the end chapter serves the purpose of making the reader laugh instead of scaring them. Thanks to the balance and range within the book, there is something for everyone who likes scary stories whether it’s ghosts, real animals and objects coming to life, or realistic scenarios. I no longer have my paperback original copy, but this piece inspired me to track it down again. After all, it is a childhood classic.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark