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The film release of 'Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark' has caused many to reminisce about the book series. Let's take a look at the controversial tales.

‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’: The controversial books inspiring a film

Have you ever heard of a children’s book series being so terrifying, people throughout the country have created groups targeting its removal? The film release of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has caused many to reminisce about the book series that inspired the movie, while others are still trying to remove the horrifying images from their memory. 

Spoiler alert: A look inside the film

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a 2019 horror film directed by André Øvredal. 

The screenplay was adapted by Dan Hageman & Kevin Hageman, from a screen story by the well-known producer, Guillermo del Toro. The film takes place in a fictional American small town named Mill Valley in the year of 1968. 

Unlike most small towns, Mill Valley is plagued by the creepy stories of the infamous Bellows family. Legend has it the young Sarah Bellows lived such a traumatic & tortured life that she turned these experiences into a series of scary stories, written in a book with children’s blood. 

After a night of exploring the haunted Bellows’ home, a group of teenagers discover the book in Sarah’s tomb. The stories are all-too coincidental and begin to play out into the lives of these teenagers in strange & mysterious ways. The stories featured in the film were actually inspired by a series of books written many years ago. 

The infamous book series

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a children’s series of three collections of short horror stories, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (1981), More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (1984), and Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones (1991). They were written by Alvin Schwartz and originally illustrated by Stephen Gammell.

Drawing heavily from folklore & urban legends, Schwartz used these themes as the topic of his stories. Influencers for the series include Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Mark Twain, Joel Chandler Harris, Bennett Cerf, and Jan Harold Brunvand

Schwartz spent a year writing each book of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, the first volume being published in 1981. The books had collectively sold more than seven million copies as of 2017, and appeared on numerous children’s bestseller lists. 

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is known as a “cultural touchstone for a generation” for many; however, they have also been the subject of criticism from others who consider them inappropriate for children. 

Stirring up controversy

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark initially faced criticism as it was listed by the American Library Association as the most challenged series of books from the 1990s, making the list again in the 2000s and then again in 2012. The majority of the complaints centered around the disturbing subject manner & the so-called violence it portrays. 

Although the original charcoal & ink artwork by Gammell has been singled out for praise, the ghoulish images have also been a subject of criticism. Parents find the stories unsuitable for young children as many of them feature frightening topics such as murder & disfigurement. 

During an interview conducted by the Chicago Tribune in 1993, many had much to say regarding the controversial material in Schwatrz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. “Why are we subjecting our children to this kind of violent material?” Seattle mother of two, Sandy Vanderburg, asked.

“If these books were movies, they’d be R-rated because of the graphic violence. There’s no moral to them. The bad guys always win.” Vanderburg recounted the plot of “Just Delicious,” one of the featured stories about a woman who steals the liver of a corpse and feeds it to her husband. “That’s sick,” Vanderburg concluded.

Another interview conducted by the Argus Press in 1995 also discussed the gruesome material found in the books. “Right away I thought of Jeffrey Dahmer,” concerned parent Jean Jaworski mentioned, explaining her shock when she read “Wonderful sausage,” written in the second book of the series. 

The story tells a Sweeney Todd-esque tale of a man chopping his wife up to make into a sausage. “This was way past being scary.”

Get these books outta here

Jaworski, like many concerned parents, appealed to her local library to remove the books. Supporters of this potential ban included local parent groups and Concerned Women for America while the defenders have included the American Library Association & The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.

Defenders of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark have claimed they are actually beneficial to the middle school target audience as the stories can “help children deal with reality by putting faces on what they’re afraid of.”

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is still published and can be found in school libraries. Fortunately for critics, the 30th anniversary edition replaced the original nightmarish images for less scary illustrations by illustrator, Brett Helquist, known for his work in A Series of Unfortunate Events.

However, this replacement greatly offended the supporters of the original book who hailed the creepy & dark images by Gammel.

Regardless if it is loved or hated, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark remains popular even forty years after publication making it a horror classic. “I don’t see Scary Stories going out any time soon,” recounted an anonymous librarian. “It’s something as a rite of passage for kids —and their librarians who have to talk to the scared kids’ parents.”

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has stirred up so much tension surrounding the grim images & stories it is no wonder horror fans all over have gravitated towards them. If black & white illustrations were able to cause so much fear, imagine what these stories portrayed in action could do? In fact, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has received positive feedback.


So where do you place in all of this? Are you a supporter or a critic? Be sure to check out Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark to find out for yourself!

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