Horror is a deep-seated fandom often tracing back to childhood, a collection of formative years where our young minds are sponges, thirsting for our next greatest influence or obsession. When I was a kid, my mom nurtured my love of reading, often letting me gallivant around Waldenbooks in search of the latest Fear Street or Goosebumps release. But even before my mallrat days, I was hyped at the school book fair when I got my grubby little paws on the ultimate game changer, my gatekeeper to this world I still love: author Alvin Schwartz and artist Stephen Gammell’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
Originally published in 1981, the book spawned two additional volumes: 1984’s More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and 1991’s Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones. Each book was an unsettling collection of children’s tales culled from old folklore and renowned urban legends. While the stories were simplified to suit grammar school kids, the brutality of the stories was never diluted. I devoured tales about a girl who scared herself to death, a psychopath who preyed on a babysitter, and a girl who had spider eggs hatching on her face. There was also a butcher who mixed human meat into his sausage and a ghost with bloody fingers terrorizing a hotel! I read these books over and over with friends, at the dinner table, in class... I couldn’t get enough. They were creating a monster.
Schwartz’s stories were my own primitive horror diet. He taught me why it’s fun to be scared and why we, as fiction consumers, are drawn to the macabre. “Telling scary stories is something people have done for thousands of years, for most of us like being scared in that way,” he wrote in the first book’s introduction. “Since there isn’t any danger, we think it is fun.” Something clicked in my brain. Though I wasn’t yet ready for the Freddy Kruegers and Jason Voorhees of the world, Scary Stories did set me on that path, serving as my bridge to R.L. Stine, Ghostbusters, and Ernest Scared Stupid. I remember times when the stories did chill my bones… before soccer practice, during quiet hours at the library, and best of all, right before bedtime. Those early experiences struck deep and as I grew older, I grew hungrier for horror.
A conversation about Scary Stories is never complete without giving the highest of kudos to illustrator Stephen Gammell. Gammell’s artwork helped set the tone alongside Schwartz’s words. He excelled at drawing scraggly corpses with spaghetti-thin hair and deep, dark eye sockets. His depictions of ghosts, particularly for stories like “Somebody Fell from Aloft”, were terrifying on the page, the kind of imagery that sticks with you when you close your eyes at night. Or how about the art for “Wonderful Sausage”, with a dismembered hand holding a forkful of human flesh? Or the iconic portrait of the dead corpse from “The Haunted House” facing straight off the page, peering into your soul. Gammell’s use of shadowy grays and shading are wildly effective. His fine detail sops in visual dread that elevates Schwartz’s stories to the next level. Revisiting the books as an adult, the pictures are absolutely the scariest asset of the trilogy.
(Aside: When HarperCollins released a new version of the series in 2012 to commemorate its 30th anniversary, the publisher replaced Gammell’s illustrations with more family-friendly pictures by Brett Helquist (Series of Unfortunate Events). Fans weren’t having it and the unfortunate change made headlines all over the internet. The bad publicity eventually convinced the publisher to ditch the hunky-dory new pictures and return to printing Gammell’s darker, more intricate work. Scary Stories should never be read without the original artwork. Period.)
In 2013, CBS Films acquired the rights to the books and as the news broke, I was hesitant. I wondered how they would adapt all of the books’ various pieces into a cohesive narrative, while maintaining its edgy look and tone. Years slowly passed and production is finally expected to take place this summer. Luckily for fans, Guillermo del Toro is co-writing and producing, and who better than del Toro to help bring these classic tales to life? The movie will follow “a group of young teens who must solve the mystery surrounding sudden and macabre deaths in their small town.”
André Øvredal (Trollhunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe) is taking the reigns as director with a script by del Toro, Dan Hageman, and Kevin Hageman. Fresh off Oscar victories for The Shape of Water, del Toro is no stranger to the weird and grotesque. He’s a longtime genre fan, an auteur with a mastery of infusing stories with his offbeat style and horror elements. Most of his work, including Crimson Peak, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Cronos, to name a few, are prime examples. Having del Toro as part of the creative team is a massive win for fans who want to see Schwartz and Gammell’s work honored.
Seeing a Scary Stories movie take shape is an exciting prospect for those who grew up with Schwartz and Gammell’s creation or for those who find themselves bitten by the nostalgia bug that’s going around. Though I’m intrigued to see what Øvredal can do, there isn’t a better creative mind to co-pilot this ride than del Toro. His inclusion in the project is like a safety blanket wrapped around it. These books had a huge impact on the kinds of fiction I dove into as a kid, both in writing and on screen, and I know I’m not alone on that front. The youth of America needs Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and a resurgence of the series is the perfect way to spread that horror seedling to new generations of children looking for a few fun frights.