‘Scary Stories’ takes a fond look back at the legacy of a really messed up series of children’s book

I make no exaggeration when I say that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a cornerstone of my life. Seriously, this one book awakened in me my love of the macabre, of storytelling, of writing, and, of course, art… that wonderful, disturbing art that I would stare at for hours on end because there was no internet in those days.

I can honestly say that reading these books help me cope with a devastating loss whenever I was younger. No one in my family really wanted to talk about death and I really didn’t understand the concept. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark helped me understand it and helped me accept it as the natural conclusion of life. More importantly, it showed me I didn’t have to be afraid of it.

I’m not sure what ever happened to my copy of this book. My memory is very fuzzy from those days. Part of me thinks that it just wore out and fell apart, another part of me thinks that maybe my very religious dad found it and threw it out as he did every issue of OMNI I ever received. I’m happy to say, though, that now I have become a fully functional adult, the hardback collection of all three volumes sets proudly on my bookshelf. My own children are every bit as fascinated with it as I was.

Now there is a documentary about this book and the book that follows and the book after that. Scary Stories is a movie about the author, Alvin Schwartz, the artist, Stephen Gammell, the book, the fight against the incessant bannings across the country, and the artists, musicians, and writers inspired by the collection of stories even today.

It’s interesting because Schwartz, unfortunately, passed away several years ago and Gammell doesn’t do interviews as he is apparently a kind of recluse. All of the interviews in this movie are second hand accounts and those who were inspired. The only real substantial first person account in the movie is a lengthy interview with a woman who led the fight to get Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark banned from school libraries.

These are not the hallmarks of a bad documentary – far from it. One of the things that I enjoyed most about this film is that it takes off the rose-colored glasses and looks at many things without the filter of nostalgia, warts and all. We hear about how Schwartz and his son were estranged from each other, we hear the side from the people who wanted to ban the book and it is relatable even if you don’t agree with it.

What I enjoyed most about this film was definitely the portions of the documentary that dealt with the legacy of this book. Seeing artists sculpt 3D renditions of Steven Gammel’s work, hearing the Corpse Song sung aloud, seeing passerbys on the street recognize Harold from the book… it was a message of hopefulness and, for me, a message that I wasn’t alone as I leafed through those pages on my childhood bed all those years ago.

It’s a definitely a good documentary especially if you’re a fan of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Just seeing how other people were affected by this book was uplifting (to me at least) and, seeing the battle over free speech and how it has evolved and deevolved over the last 30 years was fascinating.

Certainly, this is not what I would call one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, but it is one of the few I have deeply and personally identified with. I suppose your own experiences or lack thereof will shape how you see it, but for me, it was a gleefull and gorey look back.

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