One of the most banned books of the ’90s, the children’s horror anthology Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark is also one of the most memorable for people who grew up in that era. Now that the dust has settled, the new documentary Scary Stories from director Cody Meirick examines the book’s legacy from a contemporary lens. For the right audience, this film will serve as a well-tuned pair of nostalgia goggles. However, because it attempts to retrace everything that made those books special, Scary Stories has an unwieldier pace than the solid yarns of its namesake.
As a goody-two-shoes who stuck to Goosebumps, I don’t remember reading any of author Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories series. For the uninitiated like me, this film does a great job of explaining what made these books special. Drawing on classic folklore, each comprises short stories that are easy enough for children to read, but gory and disturbing enough to give them trouble sleeping (and possibly spark an interest in horror). A journalist by trade, Schwartz used his research skills to compile these tales and condense them into stories modern children could connect to. Moreover, the illustrations by Stephen Gammell were straight-up nightmare fuel: horrible creatures with twisted mouths, deformed limbs, and eyes that look right at you. When Meirick interviews adult superfans of the series, you can see why it has stuck in their heads for so long.
“…each comprises short stories that are easy enough for children to read, but gory and disturbing enough to give them trouble sleeping…”
The strongest parts of Scary Stories focus on the controversies surrounding nationwide attempts to remove the book from school libraries. The filmmakers interview several of the major players from the headlines several decades ago, like the PTA member who initiated the banning campaign and the librarian who refused to take it off the shelves. Archival footage mixed with interviews with scholars in children’s literature round out the sides of the debate. As one might expect, the film comes down more on the side of letting children read what they want to read, but it lets the other side say their piece and doesn’t demonize their views.
Meirick also extensively interviews Alvin Schwartz’s surviving relatives to get a better picture of the man. A lot is left unsaid, but the elder Schwartz was clearly estranged from some of his family towards the end of his life, and discussing his legacy is emotional and challenging for his son Peter. These are some of the most moving scenes in Scary Stories, but their placement towards the end of the movie becomes increasingly ill-fitting.
“…on the side of letting children read what they want to read, but it lets the other side say their piece and doesn’t demonize their views.”
A big part of documentary filmmaking is “finding the story”—setting out with a general goal, getting dozens if not hundreds of hours of footage, and then narrowing it down into a coherent narrative. The filmmakers of Scary Stories didn’t do that last part. There are three or four movies’ worth of topics here—Alvin Schwartz’s personal life, the fan community, the petitions to ban the books and the ensuing controversy, the historical backgrounds of the stories—and although some individual scenes are presented well, the flow of Scary Stories really suffers the longer it goes on. When the film staged an abridged reading of several of the stories more than halfway through the runtime, my reaction was, “huh?” Wouldn’t it have made more sense to open with these stories before talking about their illustrations, tracing how they affected people growing up, and showing us a bunch of fan art? If you love these books already, these retellings might add to your sense of nostalgia, but all they did was give me whiplash.
With the upcoming film based on several of the original Scary Stories, it’s a good moment for a documentary to contextualize the original books and retrace their cultural moment. Unfortunately, in trying to have its cake and feed it to its spider-babies too, Scary Stories won’t give that context to anyone who isn’t already familiar with the books. Less than the sum of its parts, it doesn’t have enough of a distance from its subject to appeal to non-fans.
Scary Stories (2019) Directed by Cory Meirick. With R.L. Stine, Amelia Cotter, Peter Schwartz, Barbara Schwartz, Betsy Johnson, Sandy Vrabel, Q.L. Pearce.