There is a duality present in Scary Stories, a new documentary by first time filmmaker Cody Meirick about the popular series of children’s books Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
When one digs deep into the history of the books, however, that duality seems both reasonable and necessary. Few books, after all, have been both lauded and contested quite like those three little volumes written by Alvin Schwartz with haunting illustrations by Stephen Gammell.
So, to tell his story, Meirick approaches it from both angles.
On one side, we are introduced to the artists, musicians, and horror fans who have been inspired by Schwartz’s books. For many, it was their first introduction to things that go bump in the night, and they have gone on to create everything from still images and sculptures to entire musical compositions based on the stories that chilled them as children.
On the other, we meet the mothers and fathers who found fault in the books and asked for them to be removed from library shelves, and possibly more importantly the teachers, librarians, and staff who fought to keep them there.
In the center is the man, himself. Though Schwartz died in 1992, his son Peter is on hand to speak about his father and their sometimes strained relationship.
What emerges is a portrait of a complicated man who curated a selection of timeless scary stories and whose life and work affected generations.
Peppered throughout the film is archival footage of actual school board meetings that took place over the years where emotional parents spoke about what they considered books that were far too dark for young children.
One mother in particular, Sandy Vandenbeurg was particularly vocal in her resistance to the books, and remains a critic to this day insisting that she never wanted the books banned, but she did want them out of reach for children under the age of eleven.
Vandenbeurg never had a chance to ask Schwartz, himself, if he thought the books were age appropriate so Meirick arranged a meeting between her and Peter Schwartz to discuss the topic. It’s a compelling moment in the film and one that Meirick handles very well.
“I do no want to blame all of this violence on him,” she says, “but it’s like he made it okay.”
But for every detractor, every concerned parent, everyone who condemned the books, there were many more who lauded them for their style, artwork, and storytelling.
R.L. Stine, in particular, points to Schwartz’s books as not only inspiration but also as trailblazers for his own series of Goosebumps books.
Others like Professor Gary Fine, who aided Schwartz in his storytelling quest, remind the audience that none of the stories were simply made up by Schwartz. Rather, he spent hours poring through tomes of folklore from around the globe and brought those classic stories into the 20th century and beyond.
Another brilliant move by Meirick was bringing in animator Shane Hunt to create animated segments during the documentary. Hunt’s work beautifully echoes the haunting imagery Gammell created for the original books, and brings them to life to enhance those classic nightmarish visions.
Do we understand more about the enigmatic author by the end of the Scary Stories? Absolutely.
Is it satisfying? You bet.
But even more importantly Meirick’s own storytelling in the documentary reminds of the sheer joy many of us experienced when we first cracked open a copy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark when we were kids and the chills ran up our spines from those stories and illustrations for the first time.
Perhaps it’s time to pull out those old copies, dust them off, and experience them all over again.
Scary Stories opened this weekend in select theaters across the US and will hit VOD demand on May 7, 2019. It is scheduled for DVD release on July 16, 2019. Check out the trailer below!