If you were in elementary or middle school between 1981 and 1991, chances are you’re familiar with the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. From the iconic artwork created by Stephen Gammell to the haunting tales created by Alvin Schwartz, these stories are etched into the psyches of the kids who dared look upon them. But what do we know about Schwartz and these stories? What do we know of the legacy they leave behind beyond our nightmares? Available now on DVD and digital is director Cody Meirick’s feature debut documentary Scary Stories, an exploration of the creator, his family, and the impact his books continue to make today.
Alvin Schwartz is most widely known as the author of the Scary Stories series, but what most don’t know is that prior to that, he’d written other books and spent his time as a reporter. Using the skills he developed as a reporter, he dove into his research, finding ghost stories from cultures around the world, adapting them into tales of his own. To some, this might seem like an inauthentic way to build a franchise, taking the voice of another and calling it their own, yet Schwartz didn’t claim the straight stories as his own and included references to the original stories in each of the three books he published. While it might seem inconsequential, this aspect ended up being a saving grace, offering proof for librarians wherever the books were published of the cultural value inherent in the stories, even if all parents and administrators could see were countless horrors (and they did see horrors, resulting in more than one instance of parents and school officials exploring ways to remove the books from school premises). This, you’d think, would be the cornerstone of Meirick’s Scary Stories, as a means of examining Schwartz’s legacy, except, brilliantly, it’s not. It’s merely one piece of a larger story to explore. Scary Stories pulls zero punches as it examines Schwartz’s personal life through the eyes of two of his children and his wife and offers insight from other respected authors in the field of YA horror, fans of his work, and from those who defended his work against scrutiny all while finding ways to celebrate Gammell’s iconic work.
With so many things to explore, a concern over how well any particular aspect is explored within Scary Stories is a reasonable concern. Meirick’s approach is often strange and seemingly wandering, but it all leads to a rather impressive ending. Weaving in and out of Schwartz’s family, primarily from son Peter’s perspective, the audience is treated to animatics in the form of Gammell’s work wherein various stories are played out. Though it’s mostly used to showcase the various authors (R. L. Stine, Q. L. Pearce, Debbie Dadey, Bruce Coville) and their takes on Schwartz’s stories, it also serves to lay the groundwork for librarian Miriam Downey’s story of protecting the Scary Stories books from removal. Meirick also interviews series protester Sandy Vrabel, who famously fought to remove the books from her school’s library. Why offer other examples of conflict? The answer is simple and gets to the heart of the documentary: everything has warts, scars, and disfigurements, yet we love it all the same. To create a documentary which fails to explore the aspects of the series which came under fire while highlighting how the stories continue to inspire artists of all mediums to create and express themselves would result in a flat, utterly one note experience. Instead, by sharing the moments where parents, guardians, and members of the community railed against the books along with Peter’s explanation of his tumultuous relationship with his father, suddenly Scary Stories morphs from simple documentary on an influential book series into a shared cathartic experience.
If you’re looking for bonus features, value is going to be determined by the individual. There’s a trailer for the documentary as well as director’s commentary to go with it. While the trailer is fairly standard, offering director’s commentary is a wonderful surprise, especially for a project like this one. This enables the audience to get more of a sense of Meirck’s intent for the project. For those wanting more from the 85-minute documentary, there’s a nearly 22 minute series of additional footage. The final product really is a tightly structured, surprisingly emotional piece – especially at the end – but for those who just want more stories from the interviewees, the bonus scenes are a great addition.
Fans of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series will delight in Cody Meirick’s documentary, not just because it makes sure to highlight the profound influence these stories continue to possess on new generations, but because of how it takes the time to create context for the stories themselves. Exploring the rich folklore from which Alvin Schwartz took his inspiration to better understanding why the stories grip audience imaginations so tightly that many never forget Stephen Gammell’s images or the stories which accompanied them. Not only that, but Meirick offers context on the author himself, along with the trials the book continues to combat. One thing is for certain, even without the upcoming André Øvredal-directed Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, which will gather several stories into one film, Schwartz’s legacy is in good hands. Now, please excuse me, the Viper is here to vash my vindows.
- Behind The Scenes Bonus Scenes
- Director Commentary
Available on DVD and digital beginning July 6th, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.