By Jordan Gerdes
DISCLAIMER: I was provided an advanced copy of this film for review. I was under no obligations by any party to provide favorable reviews, promotion, or anything else. I was offered no monetary compensation for my work. Everything below is of my own accord.
Originally written by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones, is a three volume series made up of short stories adapted from folklore and urban legends. Originally conceived for children and young adults, this series came under fire from parents, church organizations, Parent-Teacher Associations, and school districts across the country. The subject matter, coupled with the visceral and violent illustrations were often deemed too macabre to be held in school libraries.
Cody Meirick’s documentary, Scary Stories: The Story of the Books That Frightened A Generation , is made up of more than 40 interviews and news footage, chronicling the rise of and lasting legacy that Schwartz and Gammell created. I grew up reading these books, and they still terrify me to this day in the right scenario. Between the folktales themselves, coupled with the illustrations, they cut right to the core of a person. But the most important part of this documentary is the analysis of WHY these stories work.
Alvin Schwartz utilized the folk tale as a means of pursuing the uncanny and frightening. We follow his grandson as he showcases Firestone Library at Princeton University where Schwartz researched for his Scary Stories series. With folklore that is sourced from a number of cultures and historical eras, there is something that is scary to everyone.
One of the darkest parts of this documentary, is Schwartz’ own son, Peter, talking about his father’s death and having to confront that head on. He has a strained relationship with the late Alvin Schwartz, alluding to their differences while he was growing up, and his look at his fathers legacy is quite tragic.
Books are banned constantly. These books are usually the books you should be reading. The most important figures in this documentary to myself are the librarians and teachers that not just see the legitimacy in Alvin Schwartz books, but the legitimacy in horror and folklore to experience the world and think openly about dark thoughts we find to taboo to approach in public conversation.The book ban hearing footage is wildly fascinating, as we watch parents stand up and demand censorship over literature due to larger societal causes, war, civil rights movements, or religious unrest, such as the satanic panic movement of the late 80’s and 90’s. The world outside is scary and the easiest way to shelter your family is to control their connection to foreign and outside thoughts, namely through literature.
Schwartz’s literature gave children a chance to face real life fears head on. Mistrust, death, grief, regret, all these horrible things we deal with in life, but they experience it through a lens of accessible stories.
For fans of the books and anyone who grew up around them, this documentary is an amazing look at the following surrounding these collections of short stories. For anyone interested in literature, it is a fascinating study in approaching horror folklore through an academic lens, while tackling the hidden existential issues that human beings face when the lights go off. At its best, it is brilliantly analyzing horror and why it works. At its worst, it shows just how much a single piece of literature can affect the world and the legacy that reading can create. This is a must see documentary for people who fit in either camp.
Scary Stories releases in select theaters (Los Angeles, New Orleans, Columbus, Texas) on April 26 via Wild Eye Releasing. It will release on VOD on May 7th, with a DVD release set for July 16th.
For those interested, Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark is available on Amazon with the original Stephen Gammell illustrations right here. I have this set and it is awesome.
And of course, the new film adaptation is coming to theaters Aug 9th, 2019 , directed by Andre Ovredal and produced by Guillermo Del Toro.