For those of us on the older side of the Millennial generation, nostalgia for childhood has become a big thing. Spend 10 minutes on Reddit and you're bound to see arguments about what birth year grants you the dorky status of "'90s Kid" and whether anyone else remembers NES Power Gloves or Mighty Max playsets. It's corny and often weirdly elitist, but I have to admit that I share the enthusiasm for the aesthetics and quirks of childhood in the late '80s/early '90s. I'm sure that kind of intense (and probably deeply exaggerated) nostalgia isn't unique to those of us who are counting the hairs in the sink on our rapid descent to and through our thirties, but thanks to our sometimes disconcerting status as the first "internet generation," we certainly seem to talk about it a lot more than the older folks.
I could go on for hours about all the toys, TV shows, books, and Pog fads that I look back upon fondly, but there's one thing that will always be front and center in my man-child nostalgia daydreams: "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark."
First published in 1981, the children's horror anthology (collected from folklore and retold by Alvin Schwartz) is still tantalizing and terrifying kids-- and aging nostalgia freaks -to this very day. And though we all know and love Schwartz's classic tale of Harold the Scarecrow and still find ourselves humming along to the Hearse Song every now and then, it was the illustrations by Stephen Gammell that truly brought nightmares to an entire generation of young readers and solidified the book series as an unforgettable classic.
Gammell's deeply unsettling charcoal and ink drawings are some of the most haunting images I've ever seen, and I have yet to meet another person my age who doesn't have them permanently etched into the darkest recesses of their nostalgia-ridden minds. The drawings are so frightening, they caused a parental uproar that resulted in the "Scary Stories" series becoming some of the most banned books ever in school libraries. Gammell's illustrations have since been replaced in subsequent printings by far more tame drawings by artist Brett Helquist. Though the new artwork is well-done and striking in its own right, it doesn't come even remotely close to possessing the power and terror of the originals.
The initial banning of the books and the later replacement of the artwork made me ponder the role of horror in the world of children's lit. Is it unhealthy for kids to be exposed to those kinds of stories and images at such a young age? Are Gammell's drawings just too scary? The last book in the series ("Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones") debuted in 1991 and I've yet to find any kids book published since that could be considered in the same league as the Schwartz/Gammell works.
I dug around on the internet and found a disappointingly small number of horror anthologies for kids-- mostly just lighthearted, cartoon-y Halloween picture books aimed at beginner readers. (I'm not counting the overwhelming trend of "paranormal romance" for teens. I'm talking about the younger crowd here, and I don't consider goofy vampire crushes to be proper horror, but that's a story for a different rant/article.) So what gives? As my parents and any therapist could tell you, I'm probably not the best poster child for the claim that scary stories don't permanently warp kids, but is scaring the bejeezus out of children really that harmful?
Perhaps my search for a modern day "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" did not go deep enough, and if I've overlooked anything please let me know. (I wanna read 'em!) But it seems to me like there's this sanitization of kids' horror these days that I find strange and utterly disappointing. As a child (and now a man-child) I spent all year looking forward to Halloween-- dressing up in scary costumes, taking turns telling spooky tales at sleepovers with my friends, and just genuinely enjoying that short time every year when we all got a chance to step into the shadows with our tongues planted firmly in our cheeks. In that nostalgia-heavy childhood of mine, Halloween and horror were about having fun while we scared ourselves silly. I'd hate for today's children to miss out on that experience in the era of product-placement Halloween and Brett Helquist's toned-down illustrations. I think there's value in a good scare every now and then, and I honestly miss Harold the Scarecrow.
Just for fun, I decided to craft a homage to the books I loved so much as a kid. Although I'm no Alvin Schwartz and most definitely no Stephen Gammell, I wrote and illustrated my own Scary Story in their classic style. I call it "Nothing Under the Bed." If you happen to know a child (or man-child) who enjoys a fun scare, you can give it a read on my website. Is it too early for me to wish you a happy and terrifying Halloween? Either way, enjoy the story and don't forget to tell it in the dark.
Here are some of the terrifying images from Scholastic's original:
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