Literature / Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

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Ha! More like "Scary Illustrations to Haunt Your Childhood", am I right?

This trio of books is probably one of the most controversial series to hit American bookshelves. "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" is a trilogy of children's books written by Alvin Schwartz, made up of stories based on urban legends and local myths. These are the three volumes:

  1. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (1981)
  2. More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (1984)
  3. Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones (1991)

The series is geared towards extremely young audiences (not that this stops the stories from being surprisingly violent), and while the stories may be scary for an eight-year old, older audiences will find them more cheesy than anything. Instead, what makes the books so scary (and controversial) are the illustrations that accompany them. Using little more than black ink and water, Stephen Gammell has given us some of the most notoriously terrifying pictures you'll ever see in a book. So much so that the Scary Stories are on the American Library Association's list of most challenged books (ie, Moral Guardians demanding they be pulled from library shelves), being the number one most challenged book for over a decade.

Likely because of this controversy, Harper-Collins released Scary Stories and More Scary Stories in new editions with considerably less unnerving artwork by Brett Helquist (best known for his work on A Series of Unfortunate Events). There was a price spike (a high one!) when older editions were pulled from store shelves, but Scholastic Press, who released the books originally, still sells them with the original art. Hooray!

The stories were also collected and turned into a series of audiobooks with the same names. While they didn't contain any of the scary pictures from the books, the sometimes over-the-top telling of the stories could be a great replacement.

Soon to be a feature length movie from CBS Films and the writers of the Saw franchise.


These books provide examples of:

  • Adoring the Pests: Subverted in "Sam's New Pet." After the family found out what it really was, it's unlikely they kept it.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: Addie Finch in "Such Things Happen." Even though she tried to ruin the protagonist's life with her spells, she was still at heart a lonely and grieving old woman who dearly loved her cat. The amount of agony she's put through is so much even the farmer starts to feel sorry for her.
  • All of the Other Reindeer: The nursing school in "The Dead Man's Hand." Apparently at this school, being nice and friendly and not having bad habits is a bad thing.
  • Ambiguous Ending: "The Bed By the Window". Did the window dissappear as punishment for Richard murdering George? Was there ever a window at all? Did George actually exist?
    • "Alligators" has the protagonist dying in a mental hospital after claiming her husband turned himself and her sons into alligators before trying to change her as well. The story ends with it unclear whether her family drowned and she made up the story to cope or if her husband actually did what she claimed.
  • Ambiguously Evil: The twin's new mother with the glass eyes and wooden tail in "The Drum" is never explicitly stated to be evil, but considering the tone of the story, it's clear she's not exactly benevolent.
    • Addie Finch in "Such Things Happen". While it's true that she tried to ruin the protagonist's life with her spells, she only did because he accidentally killed her cat, the only friend she had in the world.
    • The ghost in "Hello, Kate!" never does anything to the protagonist except glare at him menacingly.
  • And I Must Scream: "The Bride", in which the titular bride accidentally traps herself in a trunk and dies inside.
  • And Then John Was a Zombie: The ending of "The Thing".
  • Anticlimax: The endings of "The Viper" and "The Babysitter".
  • Asshole Victim: Several examples, namely the husband in "Just Delicious".
    • The woman in "A New Horse", who puts innocent farmhands through the painful experience of being transformed into a horse and ridden at high speeds around the countryside. While her comeuppance - being transformed into a horse, having horseshoes nailed into her hands and feet, and transforming back into a human, with the horseshoes still on - is quite painful and freaky, we don't feel too bad for her when it happens.
    • Addie Fitch from "Such Things Happen." See Disproportionate Retribution below for details.
    • Samuel Blunt in "Wonderful Sausage". A revolting butcher and Serial Killer who murders pets, men, women, and children alike and turns them into sausage meat, he ends up killed by an angry mob when he's caught chasing a boy from his shop with a knife.
    • Billy in "The Little Black dog". After killing a member of a rival family even after he pleaded to be spared and murdering his dog when it tries to console him, he is haunted by the dog's ghost until it ultimately kills him.
      • Or is it the dog? In Gammel's illustration of the story, one of the dog's paws has been replaced with a human hand...
  • Bad People Abuse Animals: Samuel Blunt in "Wonderful Sausage" murders pets to grind up into meat. Needles to say, things don't end well for him.
  • Baleful Polymorph: "A New Horse", Throwing a magic bridle on someone transforms them into a horse. Fortunately for them, removing it changes them back.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: "What Do You Come For?". A lonesome old woman wishes for some company. She gets a living corpse that comes down the chimney and (most likely) kills her.
  • Bittersweet Ending: In "The Bad News", both protagonists die, but they end up playing baseball in Heaven.
  • Body Horror: "The Red Spot". An itchy spot turns out to have spiders pouring out of it.
    • At the end of "The Wendigo", after DéFago's encounter with the titular creature, his face is turned to ash.
  • Bowdlerise: The new Brett Helquist illustrations are far tamer than Gammell's. This blog article compares some of them.
  • Breaking and Bloodsucking: In "The Window", a girl sees a monster lurking out her window and she's too frightened to do anything. She unfortunately gives it the time to smash its way in, grab her, and bite into her throat. Her screams allow her brothers to save her and chase it off. The police pass it off as an escaped lunatic who thinks he's a vampire. Months later, the vampire comes clawing at her window again, but she screams at the sight of it and her brothers are able to track and kill it.
  • The Cake Is a Lie: "The Drum" and "The Bed by the Window"
  • The Calls Are Coming from Inside the House: "The Babysitter".
  • Cat Girl: "The Cat's Paw" has a truly macabre example.
  • Covers Always Lie: The Brett Helquist drawn cover of More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark features an illustration of "A New Horse", which doesn't show up in that book; it's in the first one.
  • Cruel Twist Ending: "Bess".
  • Cruel and Unusual Death:
    • Samuel Blunt in "Wonderful Sausage" is ground up in his own sausage grinder.
    • Bob in "Faster and Faster is shot to death with a ghost arrow.
    • The titular character from "The Bride" accidentally locks herself in a trunk and dies of starvation.
  • Cryptic Background Reference: The creepy woman from "The Dream" saying that the house with the carpet shaped like trapdoors and the windows nailed shut is an evil place. We never learn why, and it appears to be part of a larger story that the protagonist is not meant to be part of. She leaves before we learn anything more.
  • Darker and Edgier: Scary Stories 3.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: The strange woman in "The Dream" as well as (presumably) the creature from "Is Something Wrong?". Not that they're any less terrifying because of it, though.
    • Then, of course, there's the ghost from "The Haunted House". The iconic illustration is horrific, but all she wants is her husband brought to justice and her death avenged.
  • Dead All Along: The protagonist in "Something Was Wrong".
    • Both women that that the narrators of "The Wreck" and "The Bus Stop" pick up.
  • The Dead Can Dance: "Aaron Kelly's Bones".
  • Death by Despair: "Cold as Clay".
  • Death Glare: The ghost in "Hello, Kate!" gives one to the protagonist.
  • Dem Bones: Skeletons make many appearances: "The Thing", "Aaron Kelly's Bones", "The Bad News", "Is Something Wrong", "What Do You Come For", whatever the hell that thing is in the sky in the illustration for "Oh Susannah" etc.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: "Such Things Happen". As a poster on YouTube put it, "Accidentally running over someone's cat is one thing. It's another thing entirely to kill a defenseless dog out of spite."
  • Domestic Abuser: George Flint from "Just Delicious" is heavily implied to be abusive towards his wife, Mina. He's flat out stated to be "a bully."
  • Doomed New Clothes: "The White Satin Evening Gown", although much more extreme than the trope normally calls for.
  • Downer Ending: Quite a few stories.
  • Due to the Dead: Many stories have characters meet a grisly end because they desecrated or stole from the dead.
  • Elevator Failure: The ending of "Room For One More."
  • Empathic Environment: "Clinkity-Clink." As usually happens in these kinds of stories, a fearsome storm rolls in as the ghost of the dead woman goes looking for her stolen money.
  • Excited Show Title!: "Me Tie Dough-ty Walker!", "Oh Susannah!", "Hello, Kate!", "It's Him!", and "Thuuuup!".
  • Face Full of Alien Wing-Wong: "The Red Spot". Well, it's really "Face Full Of Spider Wing Wong", but it still applies.
  • False Reassurance: In "The Man in the Middle," one of the gangsters tells Jim, the eponymous man in the middle, that "You'll be fine." It turns out that Jim has a deadly bullet wound in his head.
  • Family-Unfriendly Violence: For a children's book, the stories delve into the gore field quite frequently, one key example being "Wonderful Sausage".
  • Faux Affably Evil: Samuel Blunt of Wonderful Sausage is described as a "fat and jolly butcher". Said "fat and jolly butcher" kills people and grinds them into sausage to serve to his customers.
  • Feral Child: The Wolf Girl.
  • Flaying Alive: Happens to Thomas in "Harold".
  • The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You: What makes the illustration for "The Haunted House" so terrifying, as pointed out here.
    The ghost is looking at YOU. YOU are trapped in that creaky old house, staring down the empty, rotted eye sockets of some girl who was strangled by her lover.
  • Fright Deathtrap: Averted in "The Girl Who Stood on a Grave", as the death was an accident.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: "Harold". Boy howdy.
  • The Ghost: Martin in "Wait 'till Martin Comes".
  • Gone Horribly Right: The "Dead Man's Hand" story is all about medical students trying to play a scary prank on their apparently unshakeable colleague. They manage to reduce her into a nervous wreck instead.
    "The prank had worked...but nobody was laughing."
  • Government Conspiracy: More like a local government conspiracy, but this is what happens in "Maybe You Will Remember..."
  • The Grim Reaper: Appears as a character in 'The Appointment.' Nobody really bats an eyelash at him unless he beckons to them, but he seems a pretty cool guy.
  • Grotesque Gallery: Every picture in the series counts, but "The Haunted House" and "The Dream" especially.
  • Hero with Bad Publicity: The ghost(?) in "The Dream" may well be cringe-inducing to look at, but to be fair, she did save the girl in the story from some unknown gruesome fate, so...
    • The truck driver in "High Beams" is a straight example.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: In "A New Horse" the witch's method of turning men into horses backfires gruesomely.
    • Though never shown or stated, the ending to "Wonderful Sausage" heavily implies that vengeful townsfolk grind up Samuel Blunt after discovering the secret behind how the title objects were being made.
    • The grave robber in "Rings on Her Fingers" dies by falling on his own knife after trying to steal the rings off a corpse that isn't as dead as he thinks.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: "Wonderful Sausage".
  • Insistent Terminology: For some reason, the story (and also the characters) keep calling Harold a doll instead of a scarecrow.
  • Jerkass: The husband in "Just Delicious" and the gypsy girl in "The Drum", who knowingly ruins two young girl's life by forcing their mother to abandon them.
  • Jump Scare: In the film version of "Clinkety Clink" it SEEMS like that story would end with the old woman's ghost being unable to find her two silver dollars. But then... fade to black... two second pause... "YOU'VE GOT IT!" (scream)
    • It's invoked in the book version - it's meant to be read out loud, and requires the reader to do the same to the audience, complete with grabbing someone.
    • Inverted in "The Attic". The reader has to scream as loud as they can at the end, and end the story there. At least someone in the audience will ask why they screamed - the reader then explains you'd scream at the top of your lungs, too, if you stepped on a nail.
  • Lighter and Softer: The last story is always a lighter version of the first story. The second book's end portion had a comedic collection of the supernatural.
  • Mama Bear: Addie Fitch must've really loved her cat. Of course, it may have been more than just a cat to her.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Part of the setting for "Such Things Happen."
    • "The White Wolf". It's never made clear if it was some kind of ghost or just a regular old white wolf.
  • MegaNeko: In "Wait 'till Martin comes", there are three black cats, one normal sized, another cat the size of a wolf, and still another the size of a tiger. None of those cats are Martin, leading to the suspicion that "Martin" is the size of an elephant
  • Mind Screw: "A Man Who Lived in Leeds". The film version does this as well, in a VERY messed up way.
    • Mr. Gammell somehow manages to pull off a few in the illustrations. Stare at "The White Satin Evening Gown", "The Black Dog", "The Ghost in the Mirror" and "The Trouble", and especially "Oh Susannah" for a good five minutes.
    • "The Church", both in the book and the film version. Hands up, who expected sheep?
  • Mistaken for Dog: In "Sam's New Pet", Sam's parents adopt what they believe to be an exotic breed of dog called a Mexican Hairless. Turns out it's a sewer rat. With rabies.
  • Mood Whiplash: "Faster and Faster." It starts with two young boys having fun in the woods, and then the supernatural stuff rears its ugly head.
    • The books themselves - all of the volumes have a collection of humorous stories near the end, ranging from terrible puns, black comedy, or hilarious subversions of the usual endings.
  • Mundane Ghost Story: "The Girl Who Stood on a Grave", "High Beams", "The Babysitter", "No Thanks", "The Cat in a Shopping Bag", "The Man in the Middle", "Sam's New Pet", "Wonderful Sausage", "The Red Spot", "Maybe You Will Remember", "Oh Suzanna", "The Bride", "Rings on Her Fingers" and "The Hook".
  • Mundane Solution: Thomas considers setting Harold on fire after the scarecrow starts grunting. Alfred considers it too rash an idea.
  • Never Trust a Title: In "Wait 'till Martin Comes", the titular Martin never actually shows up.
  • Nightmare Face: Oh yeah. Made even worse by the Nightmare Fuel-rific illustrating style depicting them.
  • No Ending: The story about the severed hand in the closet. See fuller discussion in the No Ending page.
    • "The Attic". The story ends with Rupert screaming after stepping on a nail in his barefeet and we never find out what was making noise in the titular attic. Also, he never found his dog, which went missing at the start.
    • "Wait 'till Martin Comes" ends with the protagonist fleeing the house before the titular character gets there, meaning we never find out who Martin was or what the cats were going to do when he finally arrived.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: What "The Voice" turns out to be, and "Footsteps" as well. "Sounds" might count, although it's subverted toward the end.
    • "The Curse" might also count. We never do find out exactly what happened to the boys who went into the house.
    • In "The Dream" we never find out the identity of the mysterious woman or why the place is supposedly evil.
  • Not Quite Dead: Daisy in "Rings on Her Fingers" is buried alive after being mistaken for dead, but luckily, a grave robber decides to dig up her grave soon after she wakes up. Things don't end well for the guy.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: In "The Window", the vampire is a hideous creature with Creepy Long Fingers that can break into houses without an invitation, and sleeps in a burial vault.
  • Parental Abandonment: "The Drum" gives us one of the worst possible examples of this at the end.
    • Disproportionate Retribution: Even after the mom gave the girls one more chance, she still abandoned them. Boy, that lady has trust issues.
  • Pet the Dog: George actually gets one in "Just Delicious!". It's too bad that it comes at an inopportune moment.
    George: (unknowingly eating the liver of a deceased old woman) Have some liver, Mina! It's just delicious!
    Mina: I'm... not hungry, you finish it.
  • Questioning Title?: "What Do You Come For?", "May I Carry Your Basket?", and "Is Something Wrong?".
  • Raised by Wolves: "The Wolf Girl", obviously.
  • Reptiles Are Abhorrent: "Alligators" (with the added twist that the titular 'gators are actually the protagonist's transformed husband and sons), and "Bess" (in which the protagonist is fatally bitten by a snake.)
  • Rise of Zitboy: "The Red Spot" mostly consists of the protagonist complaining about the disgusting, itching, hurting and growing spider bite - which is basically a zit - on her cheek. However, it turns out to be much worse than just a zit...
  • Rodents of Unusual Size: "Sam's New Pet". Apparently it was the size of a dog.
  • Scary Scarecrows: The eponymous "Harold", also provides the page image.
  • The Secret of Long Pork Pies: "Wonderful Sausage" has an evil butcher named Samuel Blunt kill people and pets, using their remains to make a special sausage that he sells to unknowing customers.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: In "The Baby Sitter", when the girl learns that the calls are coming from upstairs, she simply calls the police and leaves and the man is arrested. The end.
  • Shown Their Work: Most definitely. Each book ends with a comprehensive collection of sources, references, times, dates and locations. Of course, there are plenty of mistakes in those lists. See the YMMV page for details.
  • Spiders Are Scary: "The Red Spot". Gammell's illustration is horrific, natch.
  • Swamps Are Evil: "The Dead Hand"
  • Tempting Fate: In "The Bride," the eponymous bride cleverly whispers to herself "They'll never find me there." Turns out she was right.
    • "Bess" starts with horse raiser John Nicholas going to a fortune teller who tells him that his favorite horse will be the reason behind his death. John is unconvinced and laughs the idea off. At the ending, said favorite horse has been put down and reduced to bone. John gets fatally bitten by a rattlesnake who had living inside the horse's skull.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: "Something Was Wrong"
  • Transformation Trinket: The witch's magic bridle in "A New Horse" transforms anyone who puts it on into one.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: "Aaron Kelly's Bones". Features a widow's husband rising from the grave because he doesn't feel dead enough to die. In whatever universe this story takes place in, the rising dead are apparently nothing special, with the characters more annoyed than anything that this corpse insists on living. How that dead man danced...
    • Also 'The Appointment', where the Grim Reaper just kind of... hangs around the town and people seem more annoyed by him than anything else.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: "Alligators"
    • "The Cat's Paw"
  • Wendigo: Well, "The Wendigo", even though in the Sources section in the back, Alvin Scwartz makes it sound more like a Greek mythological Siren than an evil spirit of cannibalism. This is because the story is an altered version of Algernon Blackwood's 1910 short story "The Wendigo", which doesn't much resemble the original folklore either.
  • Wicked Witch: Addie Fitch in "Such Things Happen." Maybe.
  • Wild Child: "The Wolf Girl".
  • The Wild Hunt: "Faster and Faster".
  • You Can't Fight Fate: "Bess" and "The Appointment".
    • This trope is somewhat in effect in "The Dream". After the eponymous nightmare, the girl in the story can't bring herself to visit the town she originally intended, so she visits an alternate village instead. Guess who she meets in this new town? That's right, that bloody pale woman.


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Alternative Title(s): Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark

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