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.

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