If you ask a group of Millennials what they remember about the most-banned book series of the ‘90s, Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the answers will come fast and panicky, often in incomplete sentences. The intervening decades haven’t dulled the primal shock these collections of urban legends, regional folk tales, and campfire stories have left on their now-adult readers, a feeling that’s equal parts nostalgic and nightmarish. Love for the series has been sustained by a recent re-issuing of the books (one that restored illustrator Stephen Gammell’s horrifying but beloved illustrations, which were briefly replaced with tamer artwork in 2011), a documentary about the series and author, and now, finally, a big-screen adaptation.
The movie of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, directed by André Øvredal (The Autopsy of Jane Doe) and executive produced by Guillermo del Toro, is only a loose adaptation of Schwartz and Gammell’s books. The PG-13 film, which includes excellent creature design and some legitimate thrills, covers about six of the anthology books’ dozens of stories and cushions them in a full-fledged plot. The movie is good, but if you grew up reading the books, it’s likely to leave you eager to revisit more scary stories. In that case, we’ve got you covered with this list of 12 by Schwartz that might still leave you sleeping with the light on, no matter how old you are.
Some things worth noting: this list isn’t going for the popular vote (everyone remembers “The Big Toe,” for example, but in retrospect, it’s funnier than it is scary) but rather for the stories — deep cuts included — that’ll send shivers up your supposedly grown-up spine. Also, in the course of researching and rereading the series, I discovered a sort of Mandela Effect surrounding these books that’s creepy in its own right. Several of the people I asked mentioned stories that actually aren’t a part of this series as those that scared them most, including “The Green Ribbon.” In reality, they likely read the latter, oft-retold story in Schwartz’s book for even younger readers, In A Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories. Because nothing screams “I’m just learning to read” like a story about a woman whose head falls off, right? You’ve gotta love questionable kids’ horror.
12. “The White Satin Evening Gown”
This story has all the elements of a classic urban legend: teenagers, paper-thin social commentary, and a disquieting twist. Here’s how it goes: a poor girl is invited to a formal dance, but she can’t afford a dress. She rents a beautiful gown and is the belle of the ball, but eventually gets dizzy — from too much dancing, she thinks — and asks her date to take her home. The next morning, her mother finds her dead. It turns out, the dress she rented was stolen from a corpse before burial, and she was poisoned with embalming fluid that activated when she sweated, slowly stopping her blood flow.
The moral here is unclear — don’t go to dances? Don’t shop secondhand? Funeral homes can be pretty messed up? — but the story is all the more upsetting because the girl was having her Cinderella moment and, like another famous prom horror story, Carrie, it was cut violently short. But hey, at least it’ll teach kids cool vocabulary words like “coroner” and “undertaker” and “embalming fluid”! According to Schwartz, this urban legend’s place of origin seems to be the American Midwest, but variations on the theme also appear in Indian folklore as well as ancient Greek mythology, in the stories of both Medea and Hercules.
11. “Room For One More”
When it comes to Schwartz’s premonition stories, “The Dream” is the most popular pick thanks to its memorable illustration, but “Room For One More” deserves this spot for taking a Final Destination-like concept and making it feel as random as death truly is. In this story, a man visits Philadelphia on a business trip and is awoken in the middle of the night by the sound of a car. It turns out to be a hearse “filled with people,” and the scary-looking driver shouts the titular phrase “There is room for one more!” at the businessman. The hearse eventually leaves, and the man’s friends try to convince him it was all a dream. The next day, he goes to enter a crowded elevator in a skyscraper office building, and someone says the same thing to him. Before the doors shut, he sees that it’s the hearse driver and refuses to enter. The doors close, and he hears shrieks as the elevator plummets to the ground and kills everyone inside.
Any story that ends with dying screams is bleak as all get out, but this one also buries into your subconscious due to the briefly outlined yet never fully explained mythology. How does the hearse driver know who to invite, and why are they allowed to just say no? The idea of a businessman as the target makes sense since wealthy, successful people are often portrayed as taking things for granted or perhaps considering themselves invincible, but there are still more questions than answers. Overall, the whole story feels like the jarring opening scene of a horror movie. Schwartz cites it as a popular story that’s circulated in both the US and the UK.
10. “High Beams”
A clever addition to the substantial teen-led cautionary tale subsection of the series’ first book, “High Beams” appears in the film Urban Legend and has lingered in the public consciousness since at least the 1960s. In it, a high school senior is driving her car when she starts to be harassed by a driver behind her. It’s a man in a red pick-up truck, and he keeps flashing his high beams at her. At first, she gives him the benefit of the doubt, but as he continues to flash his lights and tailgate her, she panics and rushes home. There, she abandons her car in the driveway and yells for her dad to call the police. When they arrive, the man in the pick-up truck explains that he was trying to warn the girl and save her from an intruder in her backseat who was wielding a knife.
This scenario is beyond unlikely, but it’s a deft, cynical examination of the ways in which young women are conditioned to be cautious yet still face very real threats despite any and all precaution. Some of the ghosties in Schwartz’s stories lose their ability to scare readers over time, but the real-life threats never lose their luster, especially when considering the young age at which series fans first absorbed them.
9. “Such Things Happen”
A relatively under-the-radar story, “Such Things Happen” involves a pair of neighbors, one of whom comes to believe that the other is a witch who is cursing him. The story is frightening for a number of reasons, among them the imagery and rituals at its center. Bill’s perfectly healthy dog dies after he accidentally runs over old Addie’s cat, for one. For another, Bill’s grandpa tells him to slowly hammer a nail into a particular type of tree with Addie’s outline drawn on it, over an X drawn on her heart, in order to drive out her powers. Eventually, another neighbor comes, saying Addie has fallen ill and desperately needs to borrow something, but Bill’s sure this is part of the ritual too and refuses to lend anything. In the end, we find out Addie is just a sick old woman who needed help, and Bill lets her die in front of him. Oops!
The inclusion of nefarious-seeming magical practices disguised as “protection” (was Bill’s grandfather the actual trickster?) make “Such Things Happen” unsettling, along with the recurring animal deaths (a theme in Schwartz’s anthology). But it’s that twist ending that really pushes the story over the edge. Plenty of horror classics make use of ambiguous fear of the supernatural, teasing audiences before finally revealing that the baddie was human all along. As a young reader, the ethical implications of the twist — that the main character has blood on his hands — would be hard to handle, though it’s also a good litmus test for young horror fans who finish reading and still want more.
8. “The Babysitter”
A classic urban legend if ever there was one, “The Babysitter” is a variation on the inspiration for movies like When A Stranger Calls and scenes in other classic slashers like Black Christmas and Halloween. You likely know this one: a babysitter is plagued by disturbing phone calls that she dismisses as a prank. Eventually, the calls escalate and become threatening. This is the rare case in which Schwartz’s version is tamer than others, with the caller simply counting down to some unknown event with cryptic phrases like “one hour” and “pretty soon now.” The freaked-out babysitter ultimately calls the police, who trace the call to the house’s other line. The man bolts down from upstairs and is eventually apprehended by the police.
Even though this version of “The Babysitter” is mild by Scary Stories standards — no death, haunting, or desecration of bodies — it’s still fundamentally unsettling. Most of these chain letter-type urban legends involve vulnerable young women, and this one, in particular, has the added fear factor of being responsible for innocent lives. Although we’ve all heard them a thousand times before, stories like “The Babysitter” continue to instill new generations with a particular fear of something as simple as staying home alone.
7. “Just Delicious”
Many of Schwartz’s stories have surprisingly adult set-ups, and “Just Delicious” is one of the darkest. In it, a woman is afraid of her “bully” husband and always makes sure to have food on the table when he comes home from work. One day, she buys him a choice cut of liver, but it looks too mouthwatering to pass up, and she eats it. Desperate to replace the liver before he gets home, she steals a human liver from an open casket funeral taking place next door and cooks it for her husband. The husband scarfs it up, unaware of his own cannibalism, and when a haunt calls out to them in the night, demanding to know who ate her liver, the wife quickly points the finger at her brutish spouse.
In a weird way, this is kind of a happy ending, but there’s some nuance here that makes the story more satisfying — and disturbing — to an adult reader. There’s a strange sense of incidentalism here, with one bizarre event after another leading to the husband’s likely demise (the story ends with him screaming in the dark). More than that, though, there are clear implications of spousal abuse, making this one of Schwartz’s darkest and most baffling children’s book retellings. What’s more, the book’s notes mention that some variations on the folk tale end with the man cutting out his wife’s liver as a replacement to appease the spirit. Yikes.
6. “The Drum”
From a storytelling standpoint, “The Drum” makes very little sense, but it’s exactly the type of weirdo nonsense cautionary tale that populates a child’s nightmares. In it, two girls live in a country home and, while playing outside, they meet a mysterious traveler. She’s another girl, and she’s banging a drum featuring mechanical people on it that the sisters envy. She tells them she’ll give them the drum if they “are really bad” and report back to her about it the next day. The girls throw tantrums and vex their mother, but the next day the girl says it isn’t enough and that they have to be worse. Their badness escalates until their mother starts threatening to leave with their baby brother, saying they’ll instead have a “new mother with glass eyes and a mechanical tail” in her place. Long story short, this repeats for a few days until the nomad girl reveals that it was all a cruel joke on her part and that she never planned on giving up the drum. The girls go home, but when they get there, their mother and brother are gone. You can guess what’s in their place.
This story has all the trippiness of a dark children’s cartoon, like a lost episode of Courage the Cowardly Dog. It’s a deeply unnerving folktale that unfolds slowly and suspensefully but holds little internal logic. The strange girl is also identified as a “g*psy” in Schwartz’s version, reminding us that historic xenophobia is a foundational influence on many horror stories. Unsurprisingly, the story on which Schwartz’s is based, Lucy Clifford’s “The New Mother,” was also the inspiration for Neil Gaiman’s eerie children’s book Coraline, which features a button-eyed mom doppelganger.
5. “The Thing”
A short, easily overlooked tale, “The Thing” has no relation to the John Carpenter film that came out a year after the first of Schwartz’s anthology books. It does, however, instill some of the same profound dread thanks to an existentially fraught premise and a rather petrifying illustration. In “The Thing,” two friends are out for a walk when they spot a man-like thing in the distance that then crawls through a field and stands up. The thing seems to blip out of their vision twice but finally reappears and walks toward them. By this point, the guys are scared, but they decide to rationalize their fear and take a good look at the thing. It’s gaunt and skeletal, wearing men’s clothing, and it follows them home. That’s all there is until a year later when one of the men is struck by a terminal illness. His friend is by his bedside as he dies and swears he looks just like the thing they saw. The end.
Okay, so first of all, what the hell?! This is, at its core, a story about a wraith, a ghost of one’s self that appears before death. But there are so many terrifying little tidbits here, from the uncanny shared experience of the first sighting to the fact that the man didn’t recognize the spirit as himself to the morbid slow burn of a fatal illness that strikes way later on. It’s healthy for kids to think about death sometimes, but even for an adult, this story is too much of a mindfuck to sit with for very long.
4. “The Bride”
Less than a page long, “The Bride” is a horror story that packs a punch with few words. In it, a young bride plays hide and seek on her wedding day (weird reception game choice, but okay). She hides in an old chest upstairs, but as she’s getting in, the lid falls on her and knocks her unconscious. The wedding party looks for her for days, but the old trunk is ignored until years later an unsuspecting maid finds the bride’s skeletal body curled in the trunk, still in her white wedding dress.
There’s something deeply chilling in the idea of thinking someone may have left willingly, only to discover much later that they were very close by, waiting for rescue and never getting it. This is a gut-wrenching premise that’s been addressed in movies like The Orphanage and shows like The Leftovers, and in too many real-life news stories to count (Google “child lost stuck dies,” or better yet, don’t). Nothing makes my heart pound with anxiety more than the idea of an avoidable accident befalling an innocent, and the harsh reality of this story — there are no supernatural elements, nor any deranged killers — makes it scarier than most.
3. “The Haunted House”
The climax of Øvredal’s film adaptation takes its name from this story, but the screen version only vaguely follows Schwartz’s telling and features a haunt that looks a bit like Brett Helquist’s tamer illustration from the 2011 series reprint. The book’s version of events involves a priest staying overnight at a supposedly haunted house, confronting a female ghost, and eventually putting her spirit to rest when her severed finger bone reveals her murderer’s identity — in church, no less!
All of this is secondary to the story’s original horrifying full-page illustration, which a commentator in Cody Meirick’s documentary Scary Stories deems “the picture that shat a thousand pants.” It’s Stephen Gammell’s splotchy, shadowy, tendriled magnum opus. It’s the definition of nightmare fuel. The first time I saw it, I turned the page and screamed, throwing the book across my fourth grade classroom during silent reading time. If you’ve seen it, you surely remember it, but for the uninitiated, here it is.
2. “The Red Spot”
There are spiders living in a girl’s face in this story. She thinks it’s a boil, but it’s actually a bunch of spider eggs. In her face! And they hatch! Need I say more?!
Harold. The name is by far the most-repeated answer one gets when asking Scary Stories readers which tale is most firmly lodged in their psyche. The brutality and darkness of the story are matched only by its unique freakiness, a specificity that sears on the mind upon one’s first reading. Øvredal’s film puts its own spin on the story, and the result features its own preternatural scares, but it’s the book version that seems capable of sending chills down our spines indefinitely.
In “Harold,” two cowherds create a scarecrow effigy of a farmer they hate, which they put outside during the daytime and bring into their hut at night. The reason for their hatred isn’t mentioned, but we know that once the scarecrow counterpart is made, they laugh at him, speak to him, curse him, beat him, and even smear food on him. One day, the scarecrow makes a sound that the men assume must have been a mouse living in his straw stuffing. They consider throwing him in the fire but decide instead to leave him behind when they move their herd. One night, before they’re set to leave, they notice that Harold has grown larger, and the next day he gets up and begins pacing. The men are understandably shaken and decided to leave with their cows right then. Harold has vanished by the time they leave, so when they realize they’ve forgotten their milking stool, they draw straws and one man returns to get it. When he doesn’t come back, the other goes looking for him, only to see Harold on the roof of their hut. “As Alfred watched,” Schwartz’s story ends, “Harold kneeled and stretched out a bloody skin to dry in the sun.”
There’s a lot to unpack here, all of it horrifying. There are the men’s nonchalant acts of seemingly reasonless violence, which they seem to use as a bonding experience and ritual. There’s the possession of a being into which only hate was poured, made even more unnerving by the documentary’s Scary Stories’ revelation that the original source material included a scene where the two men baptized the effigy. There’s the ending, gruesome and sudden in a way that both highlights and downplays its wrongness. Then there’s the fact that this isn’t a story you’ve heard elsewhere. Schwartz claims it’s inspired by fairy tales and stories of things like golems, but before Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones, we weren’t telling it around campfires or sending it in chain letters. Herein lies the powerful magic of what Schwartz and Gammell created: we still retell “Harold” to one another now, conveying each beat and shock with reverence, connecting over our childhood fear and hoping each time we say it that we’ll get a little less scared ourselves.