Monday, October 14, 2013

31 Days of Halloween: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

If you went to school during the early to mid nineties, you'll probably remember the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. I don't feel like it's an exaggeration to say that everyone my age has read or seen these at one time or another. These stories might have even been your first exposure to the horror genre. I remember these three books being a staple in my 6th grade classroom and after reading them, I bought them at the book fair for my own personal library. I still have all three books today and they are quite worn, the sign of a well-loved book.

If you've never read any of this series, you would probably recognize at least a few of the stories that are contained within. Alvin Schwartz compiled all of the stories from folklore that we've heard our entire lives. Some are taken from urban legends, while some are adapted from folk tales that are part of American history. Some are old folk songs and poems that settlers once told around camp fires.

One story tells of a haunted house and a preacher who goes to put the spirit to rest and discovers a terrible secret.

 Another story tells a story of a witch who turns an innocent farmhand into a horse every night and rides him around the countryside.

Another told of a young girl who found a spot on her face that turned into much more than she was expecting.

These are stories about ghosts, the darkness in our own human heart and the fear of death, itself.

All the stories get at the very nature of fear. I think these stories appeal to children because kids still remember what it's like to be afraid of the dark. They have active imaginations and find believability in the stories. They are young enough to believe that something goes bump in the dark, but they don't know what it is. These books put a mental image with that fear.

Illustrator Stephen Gammell helped with that mental image.

During 1990-1999 this book series was the number one on the ALA's most challenged book list. It wasn't because of the language or the subject matter; It was because of the illustrations. In 2011, those challenging this amazing series won. In celebration of the 30th anniversary of the series, Scholastic re-released the books and decided to replace Gammell's creepy style with Brent Helquist's (the illustrator for "A Series of Unfortunate Events") slightly less graphic drawings.

The difference between Gammell's & Helquist's work. 
To me, something gets lost in the translation. I take censorship seriously, especially when it comes to something I remember fondly from my childhood. To my knowledge, there are no more books being printed with Gammell's original drawings.  If you, as a parent, decide your kid can handle the drawings from the original books, you have to look at a thrift store or used book store to find them.

It all just seems a little silly to me.

Changing the pictures doesn't stop the stories from being scary, but I think it does take away from some of the original intent. In addition, focusing so much time and energy on banning the original artwork in an attempt to shield kids from the more horrific aspects of this story seems wrong. There is real evil in this world; Evil more real and upsetting than ghosts, zombies and murdering skeletons and focusing so much energy on exposing the "evil" behind Gammell's drawings does the kids that read these books a disservice. By the time they become an adult, these stories will not have the same effect on them that they once did, and I think the illustrations are a big part of that effect. Why not let them be scared silly by fantastical monsters why they still can?

I still love reading these books, especially around Halloween. Sometimes I wish I could be back in Mrs. Zabel's 6th grade class, sitting in the reading corner, shaking with fear over "Bloody Mary". Wouldn't it be so much simpler to go back to a time where a ghost in a mirror was the scariest thing in the world?

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