“There are all sorts of things that scare us. The dead scare us, for one day we will be dead like them. The dark scares us, for we don’t know what is waiting in the dark.” – Alvin Schwartz, “Boo Men”
Targets (1968), a film directed by Peter Bogdanovich, is notable for featuring the final performance from Boris Karloff. Art imitates life in his portrayal of an aging horror icon named Byron Orlok. (A not so subtle tip of the hat to a vampire once portrayed by Max Schreck.) In one scene in particular, he recounts the story of a servant from Baghdad. One day at the marketplace, he has an encounter with Death, who makes a threatening gesture at him. Terrified, the servant begs his master to take a horse to Samarra where he won’t be found. The story takes an unexpected turn when the servants’ master confronts Death, who offers an explanation. “I made no threatening gesture…that was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him here in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight… in Samarra.”
The Middle Eastern legend being told to a new audience isn’t limited to Bogdanovich’s film. Author Alvin Schwartz would repackage the tale in the form of a short story called “The Appointment.” He would also change the setting to the American heartland. A pickup truck and a farmers’ grandson would take the place of a servant and horse. It’s only one example of what Schwartz achieved in a trilogy consisting of 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). These titles, now known to many, would introduce several readers to a rich pallet of folklore. Adapted from numerous sources the world over, Schwartz, who had a background in journalism, would impact the lives of many. Accompanying these tales were the illustrations of Stephen Gammell. The black and white images seemed to have a life all their own. They would help take the stories beyond the confines of their pages and inspire the imaginations of an entire generation.
Cody Meirick explores this cultural phenomenon in his documentary, Scary Stories (2019). We’re given an in-depth look at the books, their controversy, and the people behind them. First and foremost—we get to know Alvin Schwarz through his son, Peter. Following in his fathers’ footsteps, he becomes a storyteller partaking in the custom of oral tradition. He allows the audience to gain intimate knowledge of the writer who tragically passed away in 1992. For years these books have maintained a larger than life cult status and it’s rewarding to finally get to know their creator in some capacity. Schwartz’ dedication to research was akin to travelling down the rabbit hole, and the results of his efforts continue to speak for themselves.
Speaking from personal experience, I can attest to how much they had an impact on my childhood. Although my literary tastes now lean towards Peter Sotos, Clive Barker and The Marquis de Sade—I still find myself drawn to them. I’m also not alone in this. The longevity of Schwartz and Gammell’s work is seen through a cavalcade of artists, musicians, and writers who all take inspiration from them. It’s a testament to the necessity of folklore and its impact on the arts. The children who checked out these titles from the library are now passing down them to a whole new generation of readers.
Like many documentaries dealing with subject matter from the early to mid-1980s, the moral backlash of the time period is addressed. Personally, I find the continuing nostalgia for Satanic Panic to be a bit overwhelming at times. That being said, it’s an important aspect of the legacy of the Scary Stories trilogy. At a time period where cults were believed to exist everywhere and ritual abuse allegations were taken seriously, these titles inadvertently got caught up in the tidal wave of misplaced paranoia. Banned on several occasions, this only propelled Schwartz and his work further into the spotlight. After all, controversy sells. (Ask anyone who bought a VHS copy of Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) around the same time.) By bringing this part of history into the spotlight, the documentary almost becomes subversive. Exploring the backlash from a few decades ago allows us to understand the need to not ban or censor any form of art that disagrees with our typical sensibilities. If anything, these books helped many children understand subjects like death, the unknown, and themselves a little bit more.
As a film, Scary Stories goes far beyond mere analysis and critique. Meirick issues a reminder about the importance of artistic freedom and allowing future generations to not be sheltered from darkness. Children are smarter than we sometimes take them for. If we allow them to face the dark, they’ll learn not to fear it. As an uncertain future looms in the distance, we need a beacon of light wherever we can find it. These books aren’t going to be disappearing from the public eye anytime soon. We should all breathe a collective sigh of relief that they won’t.