It seems like a practise more appropriately associated with the more religiously conscious 1950s and 60s, but book banning and censorship have remained contentious points in the United States through the 21st Century.
Schools and public libraries are still becoming victims of overly moralistic and sheltering school boards, PTA groups and parents, with even recent publications such as Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, John Green’s Looking for Alaska, and Stephen Chblosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower coming under fire for violence, profanity, and LGBTQ content.
Alongside RL Stine’s widely popular Goosebumps series, Alvin Schwartz’s compendiums of frightening folk tales for kids was at the forefront of a revitalised wave of American censorship during the 1980s and 90s. Satanic panic was rife, and Schwartz’s chilling short stories, accompanied, of course, by Stephen Gammel’s striking illustrations, would become a key contender in the battle for what could be shown to the nation’s children.
In the wake of the long-awaited film adaptation from Norwegian filmmaker André Øvredal (director of 2010’s Trollhunter) and producer Guillermo del Toro, Cody Meirick’s insightful documentary offers a compelling background to the tales that terrified a generation. From ‘The Dead Man’s Brains’ to ‘Harold’, the stories, especially their atmospheric sense of dread and pitch perfect visual accompaniments, have remained lodged within the imaginations of readers of a certain age throughout the country.
Meirick explores what the collections represented during a controversial period for parents of young readers, as well as providing a platform to the artists, photographers, and musicians who have paid tribute to Scary Stories.
Schwartz sadly passed away from cancer in March of 1992, but Meirick was able to cover extensive ground, from his early career as a reporter to his later success as a short story writer, with touching interviews from his children, wife, and grandson.
Like popular horror writers RL Stine and Stephen King will tell you, there’s no horrific backstory or secret traumatic past compelling horror writers to scare their readers. The film’s sweetly personal conversations with son Peter are an especially fond reminder and antithesis to censorship groups that the personas behind these stories were never that of sadistic dissidents, hoping to rob the innocence of their young and impressionable readers.
Schwartz was simply a creative wordsmith, who deeply cared about pitching each story with the right register. The tales pushed boundaries, but the writer’s journey from journalist to children’s storyteller allowed him to grant the same respect he gave his adult readers to the kids he so effectively scared. The film pulls from academics and fellow writers for a convincing montage of what it means to be afraid, and why introducing young readers to disarming yet comfortingly humorous tales of suspense, gore, and common existential questions can be incredibly rich experiences for a developing mind.
For a first time feature filmmaker, Meirick’s documentary achieves impressive coverage, and his collaboration with animator Shane Hunt crafts the ideal introduction to the three books for fans and newcomers alike. Pulling from an array of over 50 interviews with writers, fans, and scholars, Mierick acts as both director and editor to compile a persuasive narrative of Scary Stories as a vital gateway into adolescence, as well as one of the most hotly debated pieces of children’s literature during the late 20th Century. One of the braver moments of the film sees Peter Schwartz converse sensitively with one of the leading figures of the call to ban the books.
While I would have liked to see a longer cut of their conversation, the two subjects speak empathetically and intelligently represent their viewpoints in a fresh take on the film’s interview style.
The compilations of horrific tales were an American touchstone, a rite of passage for kids looking for an accessible replacement for campfire fables to stimulate the more macabre curiosities of developing readers. As a young Brit, they were never a part of my childhood until the re-emergence of certain striking illustrations began to cross my internet browsing.
Mierick’s stirring tribute to the fan culture surrounding the books, their pervasiveness in modern horror culture, and the scholarly discourse the tales have inspired is perhaps primarily a vital entry to the discussions on censorship that persist today. But, most importantly, it will guarantee you’ll be buying a set of Alvin Schwartz’s stunning books within the week, either to relive your childhood, or discover just how they so deeply unsettled an entire generation of readers.
Written by Lucas Hill-Paul