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Scary Stories Documentary Review

Scary Stories Documentary Review

by Jessica Gomez on August 18th, 2019 | |

Most of us can say that our love for horror began when we were kids. In the 90s, that meant that the children’s book of short stories, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz, was a must-have – and it’s even more prevalent in our minds with Guillermo del Toro’s recent adaptation in theaters. The haunting, gruesome artwork, courtesy of Stephen Gammell, was like nothing a children’s book had ever featured before. The stories, mainly based on folklore, ranged from campy and silly to downright terrifying. And on came the call for the book’s ban. 

If you can believe it, I ordered Scary Stories in elementary school through Scholastic. I found my beloved copy and ran through the pages as I have hundreds of times in my childhood before settling down to watch the documentary.

Cody Meirick’s directorial debut begins with a man singing the well-known “Hearse Song.” We later hear the “The Old Woman”, which certainly brought back great school memories, but we never quite get the dots connected further than that kids are curious about death. The books featured important themes usually reserved for adults that were made easily digestible for kids, which isn’t an easy task – and we didn’t learn much about how Schwartz accomplished that, though we do get an idea of how important Scary Stories was to getting many kids interested in reading.

Schwartz’s wife and his estranged son were interviewed, but they provided little insight into his time creating the books. His son shed some light on their personal relationship, but when it came to Scary Stories, he admitted that they were not something he was personally interested in. 

A handful of writers were interviewed about how it was meaningful to them to have a book meant for kids looking for a creative outlet. Many of them were interviewed in ruins of abandoned buildings, which at times became distracting. The doc’s biggest get was R.L. Stine, who was interviewed about the impact Scary Stories had on children’s literature, but sadly he was featured only briefly throughout the film.

I was hoping for a deeper dive into how Schwartz got the idea to write the book, and how the success of the books spun off into him creating more. Scary Stories was a three-part series, but the doc spoke little about Scary Stories 2 or 3, nary a few shots of the three of them on display. Many of the origin stories came from soldiers during the Civil War, but again, not much information was explored beyond what anyone could find in the bibliography of the books. How and why did he choose these stories? How did he complete his research? Were his own kids’ questions about death and the afterlife a source of material? I would have loved to learn more.

Much of the film, understandably, centers around the many calls around the country to ban Scary Stories. It led to many heated debates at PTA meetings, eventually becoming the number-one banned book of the 90s. It still cracked the top 10 most banned books from 2000-2010, which speaks to its relevance years later. However, the time spent on the impact of Scary Stories on a subset of artists today was problematic. Though it was an interesting segment to see the role the stories still play in the adult lives of people who read the books as children, several minutes were dedicated to this very specific group of people. The time would have been better spent on delving deeper into the origins and allegories of the stories themselves.

The doc ends with a sit-down between the number one adversary of Schwartz’s books, Sandy Vrabel, and his son. (Though it seemed like a very one-sided obsession, and in fact, Mrs. Schwartz mentioned that he liked that his books were banned). The conversation between them was pleasant and I imagine it was cathartic for them both, but it didn’t seem to go anywhere or to bring anything meaningful to the table for the film.

In all, the documentary was a love letter to Scary Stories – clearly the books were an important part of Meirick’s childhood, as they were for so many of us. We could have gotten a clearer picture behind the scenes; I think there are a lot more stories to tell.

The Scary Stories documentary is available on DVD and VOD. Check it out for yourself here

5/10



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