Kids love to tell scary stories. Whether on dark nights during sleepovers or around dim low-burning campfires, the oral tradition of sharing terrifying tales is one that exists in pretty much every culture and community. Often intended to teach children simple moral and societal lessons, these stories adapt and change but often share similar threads, characters, or messages. In 1981, Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was unleashed on the unsuspecting pre-teens of the world, and reintroduced these myths to a whole new generation.
Schwartz had written multiple other young readers books based on different forms of folklore before he penned his most well known and beloved work with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. The book reimagines classic urban legends and folk stories that Schwartz studied at the Library of Congress. as well as texts that belonged to the president of the American Folklore Society. Tipping its hat to terrifying predecessors, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark takes stories from sources such as American Folk Tales and Songs and Sticks in the Knapsack and Other Ozark Tales.
In the foreword of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Schwartz states that, “Some of these tales are very old, and they are told around the world,” before continuing “and most have the same origins. They are based on things that people saw or heard or experienced—or thought they did.” That’s where part of the success and popularity of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark lies, because these tales feel like we already know them, a familiarity and knowledge that makes them sound like we’ve heard them before or that they might’ve even happened to someone that we know. How often were these stories told about our neighbor, our cousin, our sibling’s babysitter or the girl who used to live next door?
One of the most well known stories in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a great example of this. “High Beams” tells the tale of a young woman who’s pursued by a terrifying trucker during a dark night. The pursuer flashes his high beams, startling and scaring the driver until eventually she discovers that the truck driver was just trying to warn her about a murderous man in the back seat of her car. Unlike a lot of urban legends, this story may have come from a real news story in the early ’60s about a man who hid in the back of a police car, though in every contemporary version the victim is a woman and the story is often used as a parable to encourage women not to travel alone at night. “High Beams” was even reworked for the opening of the classic ’90s slasher movie Urban Legend.
Four years after Schwartz wrote Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, he put out In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories, with Dirk Zimmer, which included a stone cold creeper in the world of urban legends. This one haunted many of us on the playgrounds with the story of Jenny, a young woman who’s never seen without her green ribbon choker. When she meets her future husband she still refuses to take it off or tell him why she wears it. Even on their wedding day she will not tell him. But one fateful night he pesters her so much that she allows him to take her choker off, only for head to fall off her neck and onto the floor. Decidedly creepy and ridiculous, “The Velvet Ribbon” lives on in many different forms and under many names. Critics believe it may have originated during the French Revolution, though Washington Irving’s short story “The Adventure of the German Student”–which is set during the French Revolution–is also considered a likely starting point for this myth.
The Brothers Grimm have long been one of the most renowned sources of Germanic and European folklore. There’s only one story that can be directly traced back to them from Scary Stories, but it’s a classic. “The Big Toe” introduces us to a very hungry boy who discovers a toe buried in the ground, and in his desperate state he eats it. Lo and behold, the ghastly undead owner comes to search for his missing digit. The original Brothers Grimm yarn sees a man steal his dead wife’s gold arm, and allegedly Mark Twain loved to share a version of this fairytale at public speaking engagements.
“The Babysitter” is one of the most famous and widely shared tales included in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, one that spawned an entire subgenre of horror movies and one that is–according to Cody Meirick who made the documentary about the Scary Stories series–based on a very specific true story. The murder of a young girl named Janett Christman in Columbia whilst babysitting has been cited as the inspiration for “The Babysitter”, though details of that case did differ: the call Janet made was never traced, and she sadly did not survive. Her murderer was never caught.
The series has almost 100 stories all together, so we’ve just scratched the surface. Schwartz has been open about his inspirations and the stories that led him to create his beloved and controversial collections, so go out there, get scared, and keep the stories alive.
Did these stories creep you out as a kid? Know where one of the other Scary Stories originates from? Just can’t wait for the upcoming movie? Let us know below!