I don’t care what anyone says, for me Halloween is not about sexy costumes, candy, parties, or hollowed out squash. For me Halloween is about scary stories with ghosts, and skeletons, and witches and essential anything of the paranormal persuasion. When I was younger my dream was to build and operate my own haunted house, like the one at Disneyland only scarier much scarier.
So much of Halloween is just a bunch of highly marketable gimmicks. Haunted houses are filled with people who jump out and grab you, movies more often test your gag reflex than your courage. Everything is full of a multitude of cheap thrills that might scare you in the moment but have no lasting power. Halloween should be about something else, something truly scary.
What am I talking about? I’m talking about that which doesn’t necessarily make you jump in fear, but rather makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Then hours days or even years later it all comes back to you and you worry that while sitting alone by yourself in your house that you’re not as alone as you thought. The noise of your neighbors walking across their wood floors in heels, a sound you’ve heard hundreds of times becomes the sound of a ghost.
For Halloween I wanted to highlight something that is truly scary, something that has stood the test of time, the Scary Stories to tell in the Dark book trilogy by Alvin Schwartz. Growing up in the late 1980’s and early ‘90s these books were perpetually checked out at our school library. Every Friday morning our class would file down the hallway to the library and as soon as we passed thought the doors the race was on, who could get to the shelf first to see if the books were in stock.
Despite being over twenty years ago I can still remember exactly where to find the book in the library, in a dark corner on the back side of the tall bookshelf. In preparing to write this article I discovered that this series of books was listed at the most frequently challenged book or book series from 1990 to 1999 and the seventh most from 2000 to 2009
This little factoid did not surprise me, because not only is the art in these books (by Stephen Gammell) terrifyingly awesome, and gruesome, but the stories are truly scary. I can remember many a clichéd night with a flashlight under the covers reading these stories and then finding myself unable to go to sleep.
For those of you who are not familiar with this series of books let me fill you in a little bit. First of all, these are a must have for any book lovers collection, the stories are great but as I said before Stephen Gamell’s artwork is truly haunting. The other important thing to note about these books is that they all are directly derived from folklore and urban legends, Alvin Schwartz did copious amounts of research and includes a highly detailed list of sources and a bibliography in each book. This means that each story while original is vaguely familiar being something that has been told for years and years.
When I was young these books terrified me, but like so many things that terrify us, I kept going back to read them again and again. As with most scary things, I assumed that as I got older I would find them less and less scary as I got older; the corn scene in ET, Ghostbusters, the Disney movie Fuzzbucket, and the Scary Stories books. And I did, but even now as a twenty eight year old man, I still find that these books can raise the hair on the back of my neck and keep me awake at night.
In the late ’90 just when I thought these books couldn’t get much scarier, my mother bought them for me on audio tape narrated by the great George S. Irving. Stories which could have lost their frightening impact were brought back to life all over again by Irving’s voice, which finds just the right tone. Stories meant to give you a chuckle, make you laugh, and those meant to creep you out have you reaching for a blanket.
Every Halloween I like to scare myself and go on a hunt for something truly scary. When everything else fails I remember Scary Stories, and I open the books and begin to read. Just like it was the first time I read the stories, I’m terrified all over again.
This year if you’re not out jonesing for some candy, dressing up like a slutty hobo, or trying to find the terror hidden within a supposedly scary movie, open up one or all three of the Scary Stories to tell in the dark books, and find the true meaning of Halloween. That, and the Great Pumpkin.