Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
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Credit: Stephen Gammell // HarperCollins

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and its history of censorship

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Aug 23, 2019, 1:00 PM EDT

If you're a child of the 1980s and '90s, then the chances are that you read at least one of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books during your youth. Perhaps you were one of many kids who picked up a copy at the Scholastic Book Fairs that frequented your school. The stories, written by author and journalist Alvin Schwartz, helped to shape whole generations of horror fans thanks to their chilling scares and truly nightmare-inducing illustrations (courtesy of award-winning artist Stephen Gammell). As of 2017, the books have collectively sold around seven million copies worldwide and remain a cultural touchstone for the genre of children’s horror. This month also saw the release of the long-awaited movie adaptation, executive-produced by Guillermo del Toro.

But the history of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is also one mired in countless attempts of censorship and faux hysteria over its supposedly inappropriate content. According to the American Library Association, the series was the single most banned and/or challenged book in the United States. That places Schwartz higher than Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, Judy Blume, and J.D. Salinger. Even in the 2000s, the books remained in the top ten most challenged titles, alongside Harry Potter and His Dark Materials. Typically, being ranked higher than some of the most iconic authors of the 20th and 21st century would be an illustrious honor, but not in this instance.

Scary Stories was criticized for, surprise of all surprises, being too scary. Parents and preachers alike slammed Schwartz for supposedly traumatizing a whole generation of kids. The stories themselves are certainly appropriately chilling for their target audience, serving perfectly as a kid's first introduction to horror. Most of the tales are rooted in familiar folklore or urban legends, with influences running deep across the history of literature. The simplicity of the language disguises a delightfully gruesome intent, and Schwartz had no qualms about delving into the gruesome and macabre. Murder, cannibalism, animal attacks, the supernatural, endless spiders... these stories have it all and then some.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Credit: HarperCollins

And then there are those illustrations. Created by Gammell, his deeply unnerving drawings only further sparked fear in the hearts of readers. There's a surrealist element to his illustrations that lingers in the mind long after the stories have dissipated from your brain. They perfectly encapsulate the dark tales in a way that your pre-adolescent brain could never conjure up on its own. His work feels like it was born of the ink splashing itself across the blank page with no guidance until the horrifying images seeped through. Many fans have debated whether the books would have been so popular or controversial had those illustrations not been there. Indeed, when the publishers re-released the books in 2011, they hired a new illustrator (Brett Helquist, best known for his work on Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events novels) and the backlash was so severe that they ended up reissuing the books in their original form.

Schwartz, who died in 1992 and thus did not live to see most of the outrage that would follow his work, was most frequently accused of glorifying the disturbing subjects he wrote about. Stories about dark and violent acts — ones rooted in familiar folklore and the kind of under-the-covers stories kids tell each other at sleepovers — were seen as condoning the occult and encouraging children to try things out for themselves. In a 1993 piece in the Chicago Tribune, one concerned parent explained her disgust with the books:

"Why are we subjecting our children to this kind of violent material? If these books were movies, they'd be R-rated because of the graphic violence. There's no moral to them. 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."

It must be said that I'm reasonably sure no kid ever read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and thought about giving cannibalism a go.

This particular kind of concern trolling is frequently evoked during attempts at censorship. Think of the children, they’re simply too delicate and naïve to understand what fiction is. It’s a dangerous precedent to set when one insists that depicting something is an automatic endorsement of it, and it’s typically the easiest way to encourage censorship across the board. The other implication of this attitude is that children should never be exposed to anything that may challenge them, which is really the only way we can grow as human beings.

Robert Warren, who was Schwartz's editor at HarperCollins, noted that the author's interest in these stories was as a means to entertain and educate kids by introducing them to age-old creepy tales that are passed down from generation to generation. That’s one of the reasons they’ve endured for decades. Old campfire stories like "The Hook," "The Babysitter," and "The Killer in the Backseat" are timeless in their ability to scare us because there are certain fears that never truly leave us. Even the most hardened individuals can’t help but be somewhat unnerved by the unknown and the threat of unexpected evil. Stories are a way for us to confront such evils, to explore our own anxieties, and face fears we may not even have known we had.

It’s good to be scared at any age, but especially when you’re a kid. There’s a part of you that grows up and learns to appreciate those sleepless nights and eerie stories that exposed you to the inherently unsafe nature of life. We need those stories that trust kids, ones that understand how important it is for us to confront our fears, and that doesn’t condescend to them by claiming they’re too delicate to be exposed to such scares. That's the real genius of Alvin Schwartz's work. He wasn't doing anything new, nor was he telling tales that prior generations would be unfamiliar with, but he got how timeless fear is and how such stories could be used as a means to dig deeper into what it really is that we’re so afraid of. Maybe that’s why those censors were really scared.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.

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