I remember when I was about eight or nine years old, I found Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark in my elementary school’s library. Naturally, I became obsessed with them and I plowed through the book and its two sequels in record time for a kid who watched exponentially more movies than he read books. Craving more, I asked my dad to find me other scary books just like them. The problem was that there weren’t any books just like them. None of them had the authentic feeling of creepiness that oozed from Schwartz’s folklore-based tales combined with Gammell’s delightfully disturbing illustrations. I tried to explain to my dad why the books with cartoon vampires and werewolves on the covers were not the same as Scary Stories, but at that age I didn’t have the capacity to articulate what made Schwartz’s work so special.
Almost thirty years later, Cody Meirick has managed to articulate what I never could. In his new documentary, Scary Stories, Meirick writes a touching love letter to a book that has captured the hearts of countless little weirdos like me. The narrative through line centers on a sample case of a call for the book to be banned from a local school library, a common occurrence for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. What makes this documentary stand out is that instead of solely relying on archival news footage, Meirick actually interviews people involved in the debate, including Sandy Vrabel, the PTA president who claimed Scary Stories was inappropriate for the youngsters who visited the library, and Miriam Downey, the school librarian forced to defend its merit to the superintendent and eventually the school board.
Through the lens of this debate, Meirick introduces the Scary Story series’ long history of controversy while also initiating the discussion about how it’s been an essential work of art for so many of us. Naturally, he starts by exploring the men responsible for its creation, author Schwartz and illustrator Gammell. With Schwartz having passed away, Meirick deftly conveys the prolific children’s storyteller’s complexities as an author through interviews with contemporaries such as R.L. Stine, as well as his complexities as a father through interviews with Schwartz’s family. In fact, the film spends a significant amount of time with Schwartz’s son Peter, with whom he had a particularly contentious relationship, but who today still clearly has affection for his deceased father.
While Stephen Gammell is still alive, he is famous for refusing most interviews, so Meirick pieces together a portrait of the illustrator through the tiny collection of quotes that can be attributed to him. The resulting profile depicts a man who takes deep personal interest in the projects he takes on, and whose work always has a very distinct style that immediately tells you it’s Gammell’s work and no one else’s. He has a mystique that’s just as intriguing as his artwork (and dare I say, a touch creepy, too).
This look at the books’ creators is certainly compelling, but where the documentary truly shines is in conveying the cultural relevance of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books. Meirick takes a deep dive into some of the trilogy's most memorable stories and collects interviews with historians and literary critics to help connect the dots between Schwartz’s stories and the folk tales that influenced his work. Sometimes these influences and anxieties are straightforward, such as the old urban legend connection of “The Hook,” or the reflection of our fears about our body’s inherent vulnerability in “The Red Spot.” In some cases, however, the stories show a level of sophistication you might not find in other children’s stories, such as American xenophobia at the root of “Sam’s New Pet,” or the control and assimilation of other cultures depicted in “Harold.”
Through such analysis, Meirick gets to the core of what makes Schwartz’s work so special. In contrast to those who share Sandy Vrabel’s concern that these tales are introducing children to subjects too “adult” for them, Schwartz trusted that not only could children handle them, but odds are they’ve already had these ideas in their head well before reading a single story from his books. The tales in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark resonate with children because they turn vague, frightful ideas into something more tangible that give kids a chance to come to terms with them.
The cultural resonance of the Scary Stories books permeates the film as Meirick interviews countless fans who discuss how important they have been in their lives and how the books have influenced their own work. We hear instances of people who never would have gotten interested in reading anything if it had not been for books like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. We hear from new artists whose work serves as a direct homage to the books' aesthetic, and people who have taken on Schwartz’s spiritual mantle to create content that, like Schwartz, doesn’t shy away from teaching children about topics that some might consider morbid.
In the end, the Scary Stories documentary is special because in heralding books that are so important in the horror genre, Meirick has crafted a worthy defense of the horror genre as a whole. Schwartz and Gammell's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books are relevant to children in the same ways that scary stories are relevant to all of us. Horror is worthy of celebration, and if even if you haven’t read the Scary Stories books as a child, I still think you’ll find something to celebrate in this documentary.
Movie Score: 5/5