Stalled in Nostalgia

Remembering Alvin Schwartz's "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark"

I love being scared. Not “there’s a spider hatching babies on your pillow next to your face” scared but artificial scared, the kind of fear that develops in your stomach when you watch a cheesy remake of an old horror film or look through the windows of a haunted house, knowing that something or someone could pop out at any moment. I am a mythical creature in that I have only ever met people who are legitimately afraid of movies like Killer Klowns from Outer Space and cannot stand the thought of bone-chilling, gut-wrenching slasher flicks. Why exactly I enjoy scary stories, I can’t exactly say, but one thing is for certain: my fascination began with Alvin Schwartz’s book series, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.”

I’ve never understood how these books were even allowed to circulate among the general population, because the illustrations that were included in them were enough to frighten adults. If you gave a marker to someone mid-exorcism and told them to draw a picture of Hell, the image that came out would not even come close to how traumatizing Gammell’s drawings were:

My kites never looked like this...


If you look at this for too long, you turn into it.


Propaganda photo from the Anti-Pimple Popping campaign.

When I stumbled upon this book in the bookshelf of my summer camp playroom, I should have put it down and gone outside to play hide-and-seek or kickball like the other normal children. But for some reason, I was drawn to the twisted black and white cover of the book, despite the fact that the author’s name was Alvin and anyone with that name cannot possibly produce anything scarier than a group of talking chipmunks. Nonetheless, I took a liking to the spooky book and read the first half of it within an hour.

Now, if the cover pictures didn’t deter publishing companies from marketing this book, the stories themselves should have. One of which, titled “Green Ribbon,” was about a girl whose head was only attached to her body by a green ribbon fastened around her neck. When an unsuspecting child tugs on one of the ends, her head simply falls off. Just like that. And for years afterwards, I distinctly remember avoiding people that wore scarves, wondering what would happen if they leaned a little too far over to say “hello” to me and their head fell onto my face. A face collision. Because of a “too-loose” scarf. This is what nightmares are made of, people.

Another chapter, titled “High Beams,” tells the story of a woman who is being followed by a mysterious car who keeps flashing its high beams at her. Terrified, the woman yanks out her phone and tells the police about the situation. When she pulls up at her house, where the policemen are waiting, the threatening car pulls up next to her and, before the police can arrest him, points out the murderer holding a butcher knife hiding in her backseat. “I flashed my high beams every time he raised the knife!” the man exclaimed. “What IDIOT doesn’t check the backseat before driving?” I exclaimed to the book. “Tyler, who are you talking to…” my counselor asked. “No one! Just myself,” I assured her. And that was the day I stopped talking to fictional characters in public.

Believe it or not, these stories gave me a social life. I told them to my friends at sleepovers (taking full advantage of the “flashlight over your face” effect), to acquaintances at camp (who, I guess, had been too weirded out to pick up the books in the first place and thought all of the tales were my original creations), and to my family (who also thought I had made up the stories and considered seeking psychiatric help for me). People would pull me out of activities so I could tell their friends “that story about the killer doll” or “the tale of the evil window wiper.”  Like a clown at a birthday party, I became everybody’s favorite source of entertainment.

But times have changed since my initial discovery of Alvin’s scary stories. No longer am I afraid of ghost stories told in the dark because, as I’ve come to find out, there are much scarier things in life. Midterm exams. Job interviews. Drunk college kids. Bees that find their way into your dorm room. The world is brimming with new obstacles that my elementary school self could have never imagined. While I still enjoy scary things (ask me to explain which one of the Scream movies is my favorite and you should expect your hair to go white before the explanation is complete), the “scariness” of scary stories has lessened over the years. What I would give to be able to sit around on the hardwood floor of my summer camp once more, discussing the power of a green ribbon and relishing in a time where a six-legged monster-human hybrid was the scariest thing in existence.

Image via

  • Lucy Fisher

    Loved reading your article Tyler! I’m glad to know that I wasn’t the only one to love and be terrified by these books as a kid. I remember “Green Ribbon” and “High Beams” instantly. It’s making me want to get these from the library and re-read them to see if they are as frightening as they were to my younger self, I think I already know the answer!

  • Nicole Finneman

    Oh my god! I REMEMBER these books! I remember reading them all and wondering how they could be available the a school library! The damn one with the spiders hatching out of the face still scares the crap outta me to this day (so thank you for using THAT picture! :))

  • Lindsey Aylward

    I remember that green ribbon story too, it was horrifying! Then the pimple one. Ugh. I’d finally gotten that image out of my brain and now it is back.

  • Kelsey Taylor

    I was one of those weird kids, too! I am surprised those books are allowed in elementary school libraries – I’m not complaining, but they are very frightening. The illustrations especially – I’ve never seen anything creepier than those drawings.

  • Colleen Lowery

    The girl with her neck held on by a ribbon was my favourite to tell when I was little!

  • Carly Herron

    Yes! My neighbors had this book and I totally remember being so freaked out by these stories!

  • Lex Tonelli

    Excellent article Ty!! Makes me want to read them since I wasn’t much of a reader when I was younger, unfortunately. But, your story makes me want to read his books, maybe with the lights on! Are they on Nook? Hehe

  • Mallory Alden

    Wow do I remember this book! Especially those haunting illustrations, I think I wore out the book re-reading it so many times! I still think about the story where the spider lays eggs in her face. Creepy, love it!

  • Christen Parker

    We had this book in our elementary school library and my friends and I all took turns checking it out. It was so scary, but so awesome. My favorite story (it was either in this book or More Scary Stories…) is the one where the girl buys a thrift store dress for a school dance and dies the next day because some chemical they use to embalm people was on the dress…because the dress was taken off a dead body.

  • Jiyoon Ha

    I remember The Green Ribbon. Read it in second grade; still traumatized by tight neck accessories after 8 years…

  • Michelle Vendetti

    And all those other kids were outside playing when they could have been getting scarred for life like you Tyler?! Haha per usual, loved your article! Thanks for bringing us all back a few years! Xoxox

  • Kaysey Aguilar

    I remember these! The stories could be so chilling; I eventually stopped reading them because I got too scared at night. I don’t think they would’ve been so scary if it wasn’t for the illustrations. I remember that spider-pimple story so well because of the creepy-disgusting-terrifying picture in this article.

  • Trina Bazzell

    Loved LOVED LOVED those books, I was the only one brave enough to read them, but then all my friends would make me tell them the stories!

  • Emily Parker

    I remember this book! I used to read it at night to scare myself! I think it would still scare me today! The high beams one was really scary! And what about the one where that lady cooks her husband?

  • Kaci Kielmar

    I used to read these books when I was in elementary! Looking back, it is weird that they would even have these in our school library… I didn’t think anyone else knew about these! I used to like the one about the spiders. It freaked me out. Great article!

  • Courtney Taylor

    These books scared the bejesus out of 10 year old me.

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