“Scary Stories” Documentary Review

2019, Directed by Cody Meireck, Giant Thumb Studios/Wild Eye Releasing, 84 minutes

Children have always had a morbid curiosity when it comes to all things horror.  They may be easily frightened, but there’s something about being scared that intrigues them.  And for many children of the 80’s and 90’s, there was no better introduction to horror than Alvin Schwartz’s “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” book series.  In his documentary feature, Scary Stories, director Cody Meirick sets out to demonstrate the enormous cultural impact these books truly had.

The Most Challenged Book of the Decade
One of the most compelling anecdotes the documentary recounts is that of an elementary school librarian who resisted removing the titular books series from the shelves.  As she narrates her own story, we see it told via a beautiful animation that is reminiscent of the books themselves.  She recounts a time when the school superintendent asked her to remove the books due to a parent complaint.  After delaying the process, the librarian flat out refused, and when the superintendent asked why she was willing to risk her career for these books, she told him that no other book series contained such a collection of folklore from such a wide variety of places on Earth.

Using animation throughout works as a great tribute to these iconic images by Stephen Gammell. For many, the books would not be what they are without them.

This was in no way in isolated incident.  The books were challenged by parents and school boards everywhere, though the documentary focuses particularly on one case in Seattle.  They even interview the concerned parent who called for the books to be removed.  And much to the film’s credit, it gives her a chance to tell her side of the story, and she even sits down with Alvin Schwartz’s son for a very civil and polite conversation.  She explains that she was never trying to censor anything, rather she merely wanted to ensure that the books were age appropriate for elementary school children.  But as the vocal fanbase has often made it known, there was something intriguing about these books to the children who couldn’t get enough, despite being scared.

A Tragic Familial Dynamic
One of the more emotional beats of the documentary deals with Alvin Schwartz’s son Peter, who had been estranged from him for many years.  Through his interviews, Peter gives us a glimpse into the life of a struggling writer with a family to provide for.  Alvin Schwartz suffered the all too familiar fate of his works really taking off and becoming popular towards the end of his life, as well as after he passed on.  These financial struggles left a young Peter feeling like his father’s work wasn’t important, and that he should do something more worthwhile.  He later laments about his regret regarding their relationship.  In a documentary about the large scale impact of his literary works, this segment does a great job of humanizing Alvin Schwartz, demonstrating that behind every great author lies an ordinary human being.

Inspiring a Community
By far the most compelling aspect of the documentary however, is the myriad of writers, artists, and musicians who were inspired by the “Scary Stories” series.  The beautiful thing about books, as well as any other works of art, is that once they are released they belong to the public and the fans.  And in this case, those fans took the stories and equally iconic illustrations and simply ran with them.  Musicians still sing the “Hearse Song”, photographers recreate the ghastly illustrations with models and makeup, other artists have even made sculptures out of them.  For some, these books were a creative outlet to inspire their own creativity, and for others these books helped get them into reading.

I myself grew up on these books as well. And without their influence, I probably never would have grown up to write two horror novels or start this very website!

Scary Stories remains a brilliant documentary that celebrates these hauntingly compelling books, along their fiercely loyal fanbase.  Alvin Schwartz’s widow said that he was amused to see his books being challenged by school boards.  We can only imagine how thrilled he would have been to see just how many people he truly inspired!

RIP Alvin Schwartz (1927-1992). You are a legend among the likes of Stephen King and R.L. Stine!

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