Scary Stories - Exploring the tradition, drama and legacy surrounding the much-loved children’s books

From its opening scenes featuring Joe Whiteford of Harley Poe singing the infamous Hearse song, and crackling photographs of every key genre image from graveyard to cabin in the woods, any horror fan will be instantly hooked.   

I was no exception although I’m slightly ashamed to say that, despite being a huge horror fan since childhood, I’ve never read the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark anthology. I consumed every Goosebumps book, every Point Horror. At each school parents evening, my teachers would fully embrace genre snobbery by politely suggesting that there were ‘better’ books to encourage my academic leanings and love of reading. Maybe I never got my clutches on the Scary Stories books because, just like many other kids in the early 90’s, I was shielded from them by overzealous adults with ‘good intentions’.

Joe Whiteford of Harley Poe tells of his passion for Schwarz’s books

Joe Whiteford of Harley Poe tells of his passion for Schwarz’s books

That censorship and adult’s perception of what is or isn’t suitable for kids is a key theme of this thought-provoking and often poignant documentary, that takes a detailed look at the iconic anthology and its author Alvin Schwartz. From a parents first objection right through to the bitter finale of the lengthy and controversial book censorship debate, Scary Stories traces the timeline of one specific complaint in Seattle led by Sandy Vanderbeurg who, alongside a group of concerned parents, campaigned to have the series of books removed from their children’s school.

The battle made national news and led to a wider scope of discussion that Sandy, and her well-intentioned if not more than a little prudish crew, had ever anticipated. And Scary Stories really does its best to cover the lot. Against the backdrop of hysterical suburban soccer Moms, it delves into an impressive number of themes given its 1hr 20min runtime, from folklore, heritage and tradition, to the impact of books on both children and society at large, right through to some philosophical questions around just how we address the concepts of evil, fear and death with our children.

The film highlights the cautionary tales and cultural analogies explored by Schwarz’s stories, and the folklore from which they were inspired – topics such as immigration, underage sex, fear of difference and social anxiety – and reminds us why these tales have always been, and will continue to be, so relevant. 

As a self-confessed nerd, I personally loved the attention to detail, references and cultural theory that was included. But the film stays nicely balanced as, alongside all of that, there’s a really satisfying personal ‘subplot’, in Alvin’s relationship with his son Peter, told by Peter himself. Their story runs parallel throughout the film, their fractured private moments mirroring the contentious public issues, until the inevitability of death – Alvin’s physical death, and the end of the ‘lynch mobs’ campaign.   

The final, very civilised, showdown between Peter and Sandy over a wedge of brie was genuinely moving as we see Peter finally reaching a level of respect and understanding for his Dad’s works. Although it’s clear that Schwartz’s books will continue to be divisive, there’s no doubt of their cultural importance.  

And, far from the wealth of heinous consequences that the censorship community predicted, the film shows us the positive impact of the books, like ripples on an eerie pond. We meet a number of people who grew up, their lives touched by the Scary Stories books, inspired to create music, art, photography. As an adult living with the demi-stigma of being a horror nut – who’s own Mother and husband will happily half-jokingly, half-fearfully declare a lunatic – I felt all warm and fuzzy seeing all that like-minded talent excited by a genre that’s so readily dismissed. I guess that’s how normal people feel at their kids’ graduation.

Scary Stories is told with real reverence – it pays the ultimate homage, not just to Alvin and his stories, but to the genre as a whole. And the visual nods to Stephen Gammell’s original illustrations throughout is spot on. 

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Whilst the film shows due respect for the point of view of those campaigning for the book’s removal from schools, its point is clear. It features an impressive array of academics, writers and industry experts, all lending their voice to the value of the books legacy and the importance of not letting adult paranoia and hysteria limit our children’s access to material that ignites their imagination, encourages them to learn, excites them.

And for my part, I’m going online immediately to order the re-issued collection of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark to read with my sons.  

The screener of this documentary was provided to us by the awesome people at screamfix.com who we are helping to create a sharing independent film community. Check out their site as they are cool!