The first installment of Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark trilogy hit bookshelves in 1981. The series would become a preteen cult classic and among the most banned or challenged books of the following decades. Here’s what you need to know.
1. The author of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark didn’t start out writing scary stories.
Alvin Schwartz, the author and adapter behind the Scary Stories trilogy, actually began his career as a journalist, writing for The Binghamton Press from 1951 to 1955. He also had a penchant for wordplay, saying that creating rhymes was a good way for “people to express their feelings without getting in trouble.” After Schwartz left journalism, he started working for a research corporation, which he couldn’t stand, and began doing that part-time, devoting the rest of his hours to writing books. One of his first published works was A Parents’ Guide to Child’s Play and Recreation. His journalistic instincts and whimsical leanings are probably to thank for Scary Stories’ characteristic surrealism and eerily matter-of-fact storytelling.
2. The tales in the Scary Stories books were based on folklore.
Research was a huge part of Schwartz's process. When writing his book Witcracks, Schwartz turned to the archives at the Library of Congress and those of the president of the American Folklore Society, using that research and his connections for Scary Stories. Among his sources were books like American Folk Tales and Songs and Sticks in the Knapsack and Other Ozark Tales. He also drew from publications like The Hoosier Folklore Bulletin and interviewed folklorists. “Some of these tales are very old, and they are told around the world,” Schwartz wrote in the foreword to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. “And most have the same origins. They are based on things that people saw or heard or experienced—or thought they did.”
When asked about his writing process for an interview with Language Arts magazine, Schwartz said, “Basically, what I do with every book, is learn everything I can about the genre. This will involve a lot of reading and scholarly books and journals and sometimes discussions and scholarly folklorists … In the process of accumulating everything on a subject, I begin setting aside things that I particularly like. What's interesting is that eventually patterns emerge.”
The first Scary Stories book was released in 1981, and Schwartz would go on to write two more—More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones—before his death in 1992.
3. Parents hated Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark ...
By the time the Scary Stories series reached the height of its popularity in the early '90s, the book was condemned by parents nationwide. “There's no moral to [the stories],” former elementary school teacher and mother Sandy Vanderburg told the Chicago Tribune. “The bad guys always win. And they make light of death. There's a story called 'Just Delicious' about a woman who goes to a mortuary, steals another woman's liver, and feeds it to her husband. That's sick.”
One parent even made a connection between Schwartz’s book and a serial killer, citing the story “Wonderful Sausage,” about a butcher who puts people through his sausage grinder and sells the meat to his patrons. “Right away I thought of Jeffrey Dahmer,” Jean Jaworski, then the mother of a fifth-grader, told The Argus-Press in 1995. “It's just not appropriate for children.” She asked the school board to remove the book from the library, but a special committee voted unanimously to keep the books, and the school turned down an appeal.
4. ... But that didn't bother Alvin Schwartz.
In an interview with the journal The Lion and the Unicorn, Schwartz said that he didn’t deal directly with complaints about his books. “My editors deal with them,” he said. “Every letter is answered and the point is made that this is traditional material and that, in addition, it has developed a lot of interest in reading.”
When discussing how a Christian group had tried to get his book, In a Dark, Dark Room, banned from a Denver library, Schwartz said he wasn't surprised. Instead, he said, he was “pleased to have that kind of attention. It was ironic and pleasing that, at the same time, their ideas were rejected by the children.”
5. The artist behind the Scary Stories illustrations usually drew lighter subject matter.
The books’ nightmarish illustrations are perhaps as well remembered as the stories themselves—and even less pleasing to parents. One father, J. Daniel Merlino, who called for the books’ removal from his local school’s library, told The Hartford Courant that “I can appreciate the creativity. But the images in those books are surreal. A throat being torn out. A liver being eaten. These images are the stuff of nightmares.”
Michael Wohlgenant , whose 7-year-old daughter had nightmares for months after reading “Wonderful Sausage”—its illustration involved a dismembered hand holding a forkful of human flesh—also pushed for the books’ removal. “You entrust your child to the care of school officials when you send them to school,” he said. “You don’t expect them to be traumatized and harmed.”
Stephen Gammell, the mastermind behind the creepy drawings, won a Caldecott Medal for picture book illustration for his work in Karen Ackerman’s Song and Dance Man in 1989. Though these illustrations were slightly more lighthearted, they showcased the splotchy, watercolor-heavy style that’s exemplified in the artist's grim, surreal Scary Stories illustrations. (You can watch a fun time-lapse of Gammell’s process here, in the trailer for his book Mudkin.) “Stephen Gammell has made a very important contribution to these books because he has such a wild imagination,” Schwartz later said.
6. The original illustrations were replaced in recent versions of the Scary Stories books.
When HarperCollins released a new version of the Scary Stories books to commemorate the series' 30th anniversary, fans were dismayed to see that Gammell's illustrations had been removed. The reprint featured new illustrations by Brett Helquist, whose excellent work you may recognize from the Series Of Unfortunate Events books.
The newer, less creepy illustrations provoked an outcry from those who grew up with the books, even prompting a BuzzFeed article called “They’re Ruining Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark.” According to Meredith Woerner in an article for io9, “[I]f your child couldn't handle Gammell's paintings, they're certainly not going to be able to stomach a short story about a scarecrow who skins a farmer alive and dries out his skin sack trophy on the roof. Gammell's art is an integral part of this collection. The least they could do is release a special art book as a companion. This is just supernatural blasphemy.” Later editions restored the illustrations.
7. The Scary Stories books have been on the ALA's most challenged list for two decades.
The series topped the American Library Association’s list of the Top 100 most frequently challenged books for 1990-1999. The Scary Stories books came in at No. 7 on the list for 2000-2009 and No. 23 on the list for 2010-2019. The books were most frequently challenged for reasons of “insensitivity, occult/Satanism, violence, (and being) unsuited to age group.”
About that last thing: The books fall between the 600 and 760 Lexile mark (a system used to organize reading levels), meaning that the books' vocabulary level is most suited for fifth graders. Some of the Scary Stories vocabulary words highlighted by the Lexile system were “clink,” “blunt,” “shrouds,” “drafty” “afire,” and “shatter”—further proving that the series’ simple vocabulary doesn’t rule out spooky content.
8. What happens in “The Red Dot” probably won't happen in real life.
The story “The Red Dot” may have instilled a deep fear of spiders laying eggs in your face, but don’t worry—according to National Geographic, it's not likely to happen. May Berenbaum, entomologist at the University of Illinois, explained that a spider’s egg-laying structure isn’t equipped for injecting. “I suppose a spider could drop or plaster eggs on the skin’s surface,” Berenbaum said, “but it’s not clear why a spider would want to do such a thing.”
9. One tale from the Scary Stories series goes back to the Brothers Grimm.
“The Big Toe,” the notorious story in which a starving boy finds a human toe in the ground and makes the terrible mistake of eating it, is based on an old folktale that dates back to early 19th-century Germany. (Maybe not surprising; this is the country that brought us Der Struwwelpeter, after all.) Mentions of the tale were first found in the Grimm Brothers’ notes, and a version of the story—with an arm replacing the titular toe—was later a prominent feature of Mark Twain’s public speaking appearances. When he was done speaking, Twain would jump into the crowd and scream at an unsuspecting audience member.
10. There are many versions of the story “High Beams. ”
Because the tales featured in the Scary Stories books came from folklore or urban legends, there were many versions of the stories floating around—and “High Beams,” which Schwartz told The Lion and The Unicorn was “one of the most popular stories” in the series, was no exception. The story features a girl driving home alone from a nighttime basketball game. “There is a car following her and periodically the other driver will turn up his beams,” Schwartz said. “She can't understand what is going on, and she becomes progressively more frightened. As it turns out, there was somebody sitting in the back seat. He had slipped in when she left and each time he rose up to assault her the guy in the car in back of her turned on his high beams.”
The story, he said, is one that’s “told all over … It appears in a dozen different versions. … All of these stories, and there are scads of them, are really saying: ‘Watch out. The world's a dangerous place. You are going out on your own soon. Be careful.’”
11. “Wonderful Sausage” was partially based on a song from Alvin Schwartz's childhood.
Schwartz told The Lion and the Unicorn that he’d heard a fragmented version of the tale, “which is about a butcher who is sort of a prototypical Sweeney Todd,” in New Orleans. But it was also inspired by a song he learned as a kid at Scout camp called “Dunderbock and the Sausage Machine.” That butcher in the song, Schwartz explained, made sausage from dogs and cats, “and one day the machine slips or falls and he goes into the machine himself. This is the end of [the song]: ‘His wife had the nightmare. / She walked right in her sleep. / She grabbed the crank, gave it a yank, / And Dunderbock was meat.’” You can listen to a version of the song here.
12. There was at least one scary story that Schwartz wouldn't feature.
Schwartz told The Lion and The Unicorn that he only implied violence in his stories, and opted for gore instead. There was at least one story that he said he found very upsetting:
“Infanticide … is a theme in American folklore and European folklore. There is an Ozark folktale ... in which a man in his youth goes away and travels and becomes quite successful. His parents are quite poor. He comes back one night after many many years have elapsed and he looks completely different. He thinks he will therefore surprise them. He has come back with a lot of money and he wants to give it to them. They have an inn and he takes a room there for the night. They don't recognize him and he thinks that in the morning he will announce that he is their son. Well, they murder him during the night for his money. It's a marvelous story but I would not put it in one of my books. … This kind of thing I avoid.”
13. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark inspired a horror movie.
The Scary Stories trilogy was adapted into a 2019 feature film produced by Guillermo del Toro (who called Scary Stories "a favorite book of youth," and also helped develop the story) and directed by André Øvredal. Set in 1968, it featured iconic Scary Stories characters like the scarecrow from "Harold" and the pale woman from "The Dream," each extremely faithful to Gammell's illustrations.
One character, the Jangly Man—based partially on the story “Me Tie Doughty Walker”—was brought to life by actor and contortionist Troy James. “I grew up with the stories,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “I loved the books, all the kids our age did. We took them out of the library, and they were the most-requested books; dog-eared and floppy with a loose spine because we all loved those books so much. I never would’ve thought, many many years later that I’d have a chance to participate.” A sequel is reportedly coming; no word on which Scary Stories characters might be brought to terrifying life this time around.
A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2021.