Documentary ‘Scary Stories’ Is A Deep Dive Into Alvin Schwartz’s Nightmares

Like many people my age, I spent a good portion of my summers in the horror aisle at my local video store. But I loved to read as well, and outside of a scant few exceptions (pour one out for Bunnicula), us twisted, blood-hungry, true 90’s kids that missed the RL Stine and Christopher Pike wave of kid-friendly horror by a year or two, really only had Alvin Schwartz to look towards for a good scare that was actually targeted to young adults. Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark was – and still is – deliciously subversive, and showed a kind of respect for kids, by not sugar-coating the creepy folktales it offered, that you don’t often see in young adult fiction from that time. Combined with the visuals from Stephen Gammell that certainly made a few pearl-clutching parents and teachers recoil, and you had something irresistible to any horror-loving kid.

To prime the pump for this summer’s release of Andre Overdal’s big-screen adaptation of the folk story compilation, Cody Meirick presents a comprehensive documentary about the Scary Stories books, and their author Alvin Schwartz. Interviewing a wide swath of people connected to the series (some more directly than others), Meirick shows that the novels have an important place in young adult fiction, and have more than cemented Alvin Schwartz’s legacy by influencing other young adult horror writers like RL Stine, who is interviewed here.

Notable in their absence from Scary Stories are Schwartz himself, whose passing in 2011 prevented him from seeing his stories come to life, and the equally-important illustrator Stephen Gammell (who is still alive as of this writing). Despite these omissions, the interviews with Schwartz’s family, particularly his son Peter, become the most compelling aspect of the documentary. Peter’s strained (to say the least) relationship with his father becomes the central tragedy of the film, as he describes how the two never really ‘got’ each other until after Alvin’s death. Made more curious for Peter, I’m sure, was their inability to connect despite the elder Schwartz being keenly interested in family dynamics and fatherhood. Peter also describes his father’s early publishing failures before hitting it big with the Scary Stories trilogy, and the elder Schwartz’s sad and somewhat lonely end.

Gammell’s drawings are as tied to the Scary Stories books as the writing itself, and the documentary brings them to life beautifully, using animated sequences that punctuate the film. The characters in Schwartz’s stories jump off the screen in a way that comes second only to the imagery promised in the Ovredal film later this year.

A big theme of the Scary Stories doc is the censorship of books. Naturally, Gammell and Schwartz’s trilogy of books was deeply worrying to the type of folks that complain about controversial materials in school libraries, and earned Scary Stories the dubious moniker of “the most banned book of the 90’s”. This part of the film focuses primarily on Sandy Vanderburg, who led the call for the books to be banned in Washington state, and is interviewed here. Though these efforts likely had the opposite effect, making the books clandestine treasures to myself and other kids, Vanderburg does clarify in an interview that she never wanted the books to be subject to a blanket ban, but just in schools.

One of the best and most indelible moments of Meirick’s documentary is a testimonial at a school council meeting from a gentleman that claims that while he can’t read himself, he owes his daughter’s literacy to her love of Schwartz’s books. The almost-tearful man pleads with the council not to ban the books, for fear that more children will be disengaged from reading and end up like him. Outside of the moments in the documentary with Peter Schwartz talking about his dad, this was one of the most effective and surprisingly emotional scenes in the film.

For any fans, new and old, of Alvin Schwartz’s trilogy of anthologies, Cody Meirick has produced a comprehensive look at how the Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark books came to be, but also a deep dive into their effects on their thousands of readers, Schwartz’s family, and society at large. It’s a more than worthwhile film that perfectly whets the appetite for what promises to be another year of Scary Stories.

Cody Meirick’s Scary Stories will be released on DVD/VOD on July 16.

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