I’m pretty confident when I say that almost everyone reading this article has fond memories of the SCary Stories to Tell in the Dark story collections that delighted children and horrified (some) parents back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Written by Alvin Shwartz and further brought to life by the memorably haunting illustrations of Stephen Gammell, the Scary Stories series are a cultural touchstone for any darkly inclined individuals on their journey to young adulthood. With a movie adaptation being released this year, what better time than now to also release a documentary that covers the history and creation of these children’s’ classics, the controversy that surrounded them and the lasting impact they’ve had on people that continues striong to this day.
Directed by Cody Merrick, Scary Stories starts right at the beginning of everything, diving into the creation of the books and the long hours of research that went into them by way of interviews with Alvin Schwartz’s son and wife. Discovering the sheer amount of time he dedicated to crafting these stories and including the relevant folklore footnotes just makes my appreciation of them that much stronger; these clearly weren’t just a cash grab or a quick project but something Shwartz was truly passionate about. From there the documentary explores the impact the books had on children as well as educators of the time through numerous interviews with readers (many of whom are now artists, authors and performers in their own right), a librarian who fought the school board to keep the books in her library, and contemporaries such as Q.L. Pearce and RL Stine. One of the most interesting interviewees they feature however is the woman who lead the charge in Seattle to have the books banned. Spoiler: she’s STILL mad about them! Her continued distaste for them, despite losing at every turn, is an interesting look into the Satanic Panic mindset of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when the Devil was lurking behind every album and book cover that might feature something deemed “evil” by the conservative religious right.
While still an extremely compelling documentary, there are moments where the focus drifts,jumping back and forth between history and impact later in the documentary when it feels like the previous portion is done. It seems this might be more due to wanting to keep some of the more impactful interviews cohesive and not chop them up than anything so it’s truly a minor criticism in the grand scheme of things, as this is the most in depth documentary one could hope for on this subject matter. I can’t recommend Scary Stories enough to anyone who grew up reading these books by flashlight on sleepless nights, haunted by thoughts of the Pale Lady and the Red Spot. Scary Stories will be released on VOD May 7th with a DVD release following on July 16th.
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