I was born too late to have spent my childhood years being happily terrified by Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Alvin Schwartz’s iconic children’s book series that earned the dubious distinction of becoming the most banned book of the 1990s. The books have sold seven million copies and become a cultural touchstone for a generation, an accomplishment that Schwartz was unable to fully savor because of his death in 1992. Cody Meirick’s documentary Scary Stories explores the books’ enduring appeal in incisive and entertaining fashion, although why it’s being released theatrically in advance of the upcoming film adaptation of the books produced by Guillermo del Toro, rather than afterwards to capitalize on the publicity, is a mystery.
The doc explores numerous areas related to the gothic-tinged trilogy filled with dark humor, including the story of their creators Schwartz, who struggled financially for most of his life despite writing over 50 books, and Stephen Gammell, whose wonderfully macabre illustrations contributed mightily to their success. (A 30th anniversary edition featuring new artwork garnered widespread condemnation from fans and is now out of print). The film includes interviews with Schwartz’s widow, who says that he was actually thrilled by the publicity garnered by his books being banned, and his son, who was estranged from his father for most of his life but who now appreciates his literary legacy.
An informative and entertaining warm-up to the upcoming feature film adaptation.
Scary Stories includes interviews with dozens of fans who testify about how the books made them avid readers; to add visual appeal to the series of talking heads, Meirick often films them in suitably gothic locations including cemeteries and the ruins of abandoned houses. To say that many of the fans are ardent in their appreciation is an understatement, as evidenced by a woman whose arms are covered in tattoos of Gammell’s gruesome illustrations and a photographer who specializes in using live models to recreate them. Several other authors of children’s horror stories are featured prominently, most notably R.L. Stine, author of the Goosebumps series. One of Stine’s most interesting thoughts is that writers of series such as his own or Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark are usually very ordinary people.
Adding to the books’ alluring mystery is that Schwartz is long gone and Gammell has always been reclusive. The documentary features excerpts from one of the latter’s rare print interviews in which he describes his working methods. We also learn that many of the tales were based on rural folk tales and urban legends, although their inspiration isn’t dwelled on too heavily except for an interview with an Ozarks historian who discusses the genesis of one particularly gruesome story.
Other sections of the movie are devoted to the controversies engendered by the books, which often resulted in their being banned from school libraries. The doc features footage of a contentious school board meeting and interviews with a PTA leader who insists that she has nothing against them but only considers them unsuitable for very young readers.
Those who grew up reading Scary Stores to Tell in the Dark will no doubt be thrilled by this cinematic tribute. And those who didn’t may find themselves compelled to read the books to find out for themselves what all the fuss is about.
Production company: Giant Thumb Studios
Distributor: Wild Eye Releasing
Director-producer-editor: Cody Meirick
Director of photography: Brenton Oechsle
Composer: E.K. Wimmer