The Social Impact of Alvin Schwartz’ "Scary Stories"

Updated on June 22, 2017
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I have a B.A. in English with a minor in Gender and Sexuality Studies. I've been a Goth since age fourteen, and a Pagan since age fifteen.

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Alvin Schwartz’ series Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark came from folklore. Virginia Johnson tells us in her article “Alvin Schwartz Set Down Scary Stories and Silly Ones” that living in Princeton meant he was able to take frequent trips to Firestone Library at Princeton University. It was there that he would immerse himself in the genre. Throughout the search, he kept note of similar threads before he began to write:

In the process of accumulating everything on a subject, I begin setting aside things that I particularly like. What's interesting is that eventually patterns emerge. What I'm looking for is not only what I like, but things that typify the genre. So there is a range of material and there always will be. In working with "scary story" material, one finds five or six or seven typologies. I was not aware of this with Scary Stories until I began searching the material and putting it together…

From 1990 to 1999, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark remained at number one on the top one-hundred American Library Association’s challenged book list. Upon viewing the list, I was disappointed to see the level of intolerance in the ‘90s. For instance, Scary Stories topped R.L. Stein's Goosebumps by fifteen spots–another one of my childhood favorites! Later, between years 2000 to 2009, it was number seven.

Growing up, I was ignorant of the controversy surrounding the books, and that libraries were not a reliable source. Perhaps, it was because I always had my older brother's copies to read. When I look back on my childhood, I remember how my dad would attempt to sway me from horror because he knew that sleep loss was inevitable. On the contrary, my mom encouraged me to face my fears—even if the result meant staying up with my bedroom light on all night.

Analyzing it as an adult, I know that simply avoiding what scares us is not the solution. If anything, rereading these stories now, I have learned that they are not terrifying. Many other adults acknowledge that exposing children to stories that push their limits a bit make them more healthy. The editor of Chicago’s Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, Betsy Hearne certainly agrees. In John Blades’ article “Who is Alvin Schwartz and Why Do Parents Want to Ban His Books,” her quoted words resonate with us:

These stories help children deal with reality by putting faces on what they’re afraid of. The things children fear don’t go away, just because they can’t read about them. It’s a tragic mistake to deprive a child of a book that will allow them to face and discuss the things that make them afraid. Repressing those fears only makes them more afraid.

These stories help children deal with reality by putting faces on what they’re afraid of. The things children fear don’t go away because they can’t read about them. It’s a tragic mistake to deprive a child of a book that will allow them to stand up to and discuss the things that make them afraid. Repressing fear only intensifies it.

Exploring Schwartz, his Scary Stories series, others who shared my intrigue when they were young, and society’s censorship of the series has made me realize that the problem is not that they are creepy, but that they offer a unique perspective that apparently society doesn’t want visited. Rereading a few of the tales from More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, which frightened me the most as a child, has given me an unexpected outlook on them as an adult. I thought that reading them would bring back that anxiety. Of course, there is a lingering paranoia that was adopted as a kid which remains, but not because of the story itself. That eerie feeling stems in part from the illustrations and in part from an interpretation as a kid meant to enjoy the feeling of being scared by a story. This new emotion that I feel most when I read some of these stories is empathy for the characters.

The deeper that I look into my childhood, the more frequently I understand how destined I was to be a Goth. The concept of Goth is the willingness to look at the darker things that mainstream society rejects before examination. The mindset is to see the morbid on a deeper level. Stories about death are not merely about being afraid to die, or even wishing for it. It could be a recognition of how fragile life is. We forget how easily and abruptly our lives may come to an end; therefore, we should appreciate what we have.

The first story in More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is “Something was Wrong.” Like the others, I would imagine that this story frightened me. After all, it’s about a guy whose very appearance is scaring people away—so much so that he cannot find a ride home. Then, just when he thinks that he has found a solution by phoning home for his wife to pick him up, he learns from a stranger that she is at a funeral for her husband who died the day before.

To most people, this probably sounds disturbing. To me, as an adult, this is mostly depressing. Imagine being a lost soul who’s scaring people away, and you don’t know why. You’re afraid and want to go home. Then, the one person you trust most won’t come for you because she’s at your funeral. You’re learning that not only are you unable to speak with that person, but you’ll never go home. That’s a Gothic perspective.

Like the banning of the books, the thirtieth anniversary release exchanged the artwork by Stephen Gammell for Brett Helquist’s. Fans of the original are not happy about the decision. It takes censorship to another level. Helquist is a talented artist; however, it’s one thing for an artist to admire another artist’s work, and copy it for their own collection. It’s quite another for an artist to copy the original’s work for the original book, and reap the same benefits from a future generation – erasing their memory.

If the publishers are that terrified of Schwartz’ and Gammell’s masterpiece, they should allow another publisher to take it.

You can find rants by fans such as the one by Mark Pellegrini called “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark: Gammell vs. Helquist.” Many include hilarious commentary. There is a particularly infamous illustration for “The Haunted House” story, and Pellegrini’s words do not disappoint: “There she is, boys: The face that shat a thousand pants."

As for what to do about it, there isn’t anything to be done. Thankfully, the originals can be found and purchased online.

By banning these books, adults are preventing meaningful messages from reaching kids. Even the horror genre has powerful lessons. The stories in the Scary Stories series have positive underlying themes.

Take, for example, one that used to keep me up at night called “Clinkity-Clink.” It’s the story of a gravedigger turned grave-robber. He sees that the neighbors placed two coins on an old woman’s eyes before she is to be buried, and steals them. Her spirit comes back to reclaim her money. When I was younger, I thought that the old woman’s ghost is the antagonist. A scary ghost coming to haunt someone is frighting, right? However, as an adult, the message is that it’s wrong to take from others. The old woman isn’t evil for haunting him. It’s not like he is an innocent, or being haunted for no particular reason. Plus, there’s a bit of suggestion of patriarchy in there – An old woman, without a family, whose neighborhood cares enough to give her some coins and see to it that she’s buried, only to be robbed, but we’re supposed to think of her as the monster? Come on!

A Scary Stories documentary is being made. The topics are undecided; although, it will discuss the difficulty in finding copies to read, and how by making them forbidden, they became more tempting. The website for the documentary allows those interested to keep up to date on its release.

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