[Review] 'Scary Stories: The Books that Frightened A Generation' is an important conversation on reading
Every so often in Elementary school, we would get an order sheet from Scholastic books. All I ever looked for were horror books, so I squealed every time a new edition of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was on that sheet. The new documentary, Scary Stories, will get fans like myself to squeal once again…
…A brief rundown for those less familiar. In the 80s-90s, author Alvin Schwartz wrote three anthology horror books for kids called 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. These stories were much darker than other kid horror stories, involving decapitation, spiders hatching in a girl’s cheek, and other frightening skin-crawlers. Accompanied by the grotesque imagery of illustrator Stephen Gammell’s art, these books shaped an entire generation of horror fans, in much the same way that R.L. Stine did in the 90s with his Goosebumps series. For readers like myself, these books were the bridge between lighter horror fare, and the nasty stuff on the darker side of town. They also grew my interest in reading, and helped turn me into the bibliophile horror nut I am today.
So, it’s no surprise that first time feature director Cody Meirick has brought us a chronicle of Schwartz’s books and the craze they caused, with Scary Stories: The Story of the Books that Frightened A Generation. Likely spawned from Meirick’s own obvious passion for the books, his doc covers all sorts of topics involving Scary Stories, from their inception, to the mob of parents that tried to have them banned, to their effect on wide-eyed children and what those kids are doing today. Sadly, Schwartz passed away before the making of this doc, so there is no interview with him, but Meirick and his crew still gather a ton of fascinating discussions with Schwartz’s family, and even R.L. Stine himself.
Meirick kicks off this cemetery dance down Nostalgia Lane exactly right with a haunting rendition of “The Hearse Song” (that one about the worms crawling in and out). Singing about worms munching eyeballs and decaying bodies certainly feels right, not just as a choice to be creepy, but as a way to yank us back into childhood AND, of course, chill us to our bones. Most of us probably grew up hearing that song in the playground, and it’s the perfect lead into what is ultimately a wealth of nostalgia flowing over viewers like myself with Scary Stories. This film is for everyone, but Meirick gears it towards those of us who grew up in the late 80s, early 90s. Some of my favorite moments of Scary Stories are the ones wrapped in the warm goop of childhood, such as a callback to the Creepy Crawlies toy commercials, and R.L. Stine talking about Goosebumps and telling Stephen King that he’s been referred to as the “training bra” for King. Meirick also inserts some hugely entertaining moments in which we see acted out recounts of parents telling some of these stories to kids that made me want to read the books all over again.
But Meirick knows that the success of these books wasn’t just about Schwartz’s writing (which it does dig deep into), but Gammell’s illustrations. The doc features a whole new series of illustrations inspired by the book and Schwartz’s story, presenting moments such as Schwartz sitting down to write the books as clever animations. This segment is a thrill for viewers who grew up with Scary Stories, because here it is, that art and those words we loved so much, on screen and there for us to devour in a whole new way. Meirick takes us through discussions with fans, people who love the art so much they’ve tattooed it on themselves as tribute, and even digs a little into Gammell’s approach with an old interview.
While this is all great fun for fans, there isn’t as much behind the scenes info as you’d typically like with a documentary, largely due to Schwartz’s passing and Gammell’s privacy, which I can’t lay on the filmmakers. And while fans of Scary Stories may not discover a whole lot of new when it comes to the books, Meirick does take the opportunity to dive into a fascinating aspect of Scary Stories: the attempt to ban the books. This was an area I wasn’t old enough to remember much of, and my jaw was practically on the floor watching librarians and parents proud of their kids for reading at all, trying to defend the books against those who wanted them burned. This is where Scary Stories becomes something more than just a fan-service documentary, and evolves into an important discussion on reading and why horror like this should be accessible for kids who want to know more about the uglier parts of life through a safe means. This particular segment angered me, got me cheering, and maybe even got a bloody tear to drop from my eye. I was stunned to see Meirick get Schwartz’s son together to confront a woman who had led the charge to ban the books, a conversation which is surprisingly positive, powerful, and poignant.
In the end, Scary Stories works wonderfully as an introduction to Schwartz’s books, and pays tribute to the delightful terrors of our childhood in a way that will satisfy readers of the books. Those hardcore fans looking to discover something new probably won’t find much to take away here, but, as I said, Meirick’s film is about more than the books. Scary Stories is a meaningful conversation on the value of scary stories for kids and how they impact our futures. The glowing nostalgia of the piece is just the finger-licking good frosting on the cake.
Scary Stories releases on VOD from Wild Eye Releasing on May 7th.
By Matt Konopka