The book series that rolls out every #Halloween and had many generations of kids cowering under the covers is none other than Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. It is a three-book anthology full of folktales and urban legends by Alvin Schwartz that were originally (and gruesomely) illustrated by Stephen Gammell.
The books have made headlines several times over the last six years. Once when the publisher decided to change the illustrations and the internet became collectively enraged by the idea.
Another time was when a film adaptation was announced, with filmmakers such as John August and #GuillermodelToro involved. That film has been in development for about three years; it is difficult to tell when we might see that.
For those same three years, Chicago documentary director Cody Meirick has been working on a documentary about the books and their legacy. He has interviews with the family of the author (who passed away shortly after the third book in 1992), fellow children's horror author R.L. Stine, and a number of folklorists and scholars on hand to discuss the stories and the illustrations that became embedded in so many of our minds when we were children.
There is a trailer and he is currently crowdfunding now in order to finish it.
The thing is, it is a perfect subject for a documentary. Who knows if a film adaptation will come, and if it does, whether it can tap into the sheer #horror we experienced as kids reading these iconic books. However, a documentary is something different; it can comment on the books in a way that a film adaptation can't.
1. Reproducing The Emotions We Experienced Seeing Those Illustrations Is Nearly Impossible
That is the thing with art. Adaptations can be amazing, but they also can't fully capture our experience as children seeing those illustrations for the first time. As one interviewee describes, you might have to cover the illustration for awhile so that you can actually read the story, because they do tend to stare right at you. As children, we were even more susceptible to the power of those images. The illustrations of Stephen Gammell have created nearly a cult-like phenomenon. A documentary won't recreate them so much as look at their impact. This is the type of thing that makes for a good horror #documentary.
2. The Stories Weren't Just Stories — They Were Folklore
Unlike the books of R.L. Stine and other contemporaries, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is in the nonfiction section of the library. It is taken entirely from folklore and urban legends. There is the guy with the hook, there is the call coming from inside the house, there is the killer in the backseat. There are stories taken from Native American legend such as the Wendigo, and songs with long histories in many cultures like The Hearse Song. These are all Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Furthermore, they are also part of a larger folk narrative that lends itself well to a documentary. Looking at the individual stories and their sources makes for a fun and interesting journey.
3. These Are Some Of The Most Banned Books Of Modern Time
Another thing that any film adaptation (or other media) cannot fully capture is the subject of censorship and this book series. These books were the most challenged books of the 1990s and remained in the top 10 most banned books between 2000–2009, despite the fact that the last one was published back in 1991.
"I’ve often had parents, being a children’s librarian, come to me and say, my kids just really don’t like to read. And my number one response is always it’s not that your kid doesn’t like to read. It’s just that they haven’t found the right book. This might be a book that I would definitely put in the hands of a kid who might not like to read."
— Kristin Pekoll, Assistant Director for ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom
Many of the best documentaries raise some kind of social commentary or look at our society in some way. Whether we should keep children from reading books like these and how we go about deciding those things is an important thing to look at. Where does horror belong in the books and media we give to children to consume? A documentary about #ScaryStoriestoTellintheDark is the perfect way to examine such things.