As a child, no Halloween season was complete without revisiting tales from SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK, the series of children’s books by Alvin Schwartz that your elementary school probably banned in the 90’s. If you haven’t read any of the chilling stories yourself, chances are you’ve heard one recounted around a crackling campfire, or that you’d recognize some of the motifs that have made their way into movie and television adaptations.
Recently, I revisited the first book in the series for 129 pages of pure nostalgia, and was surprised by how much remained familiar. Not all of the bits and details, but the textbook scares and nightmarish cliches that likely attributed to a fear of answering calls from unknown numbers and a habit of checking the backseat before I get into a car. The experience wasn’t quite as thrilling as being read to in the dark of my third grade classroom by a grown woman dressed as a pumpkin, but I appreciated revisiting these classic scares nonetheless.
Here are 5 of my favorites from the first in the SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK series, collected by Alvin Schwartz.
THE BIG TOE
The first story in the anthology is bizarre through and through – it begins with a young boy digging in his garden when he discovers a big toe. Like, a giant, 20-pound toe sprouting from the dirt. Instead of freaking out, calling for help, or at least getting rid of an incriminating human body part, the boy’s mother recommends popping it in the oven. “It looks nice and plump,” she says, so they carve it up for supper. They think all is well until a thundering voice appears in the middle of the night, getting closer and closer as it asks “Where’s my to-o-o-o-o-e?”
This story is in the appropriately titled “AAAAAAAAAAAH!” section of the book, which celebrates the classic jump scare. The point is to catch your friends off guard, letting the suspense build up slowly until you have the perfect chance to “pounce on your neighbor,” in Schwartz terms, with the yelp or shriek of your choice. THE BIG TOE offers two possible endings that are equally as loud, both involving a “gotcha!” moment with the mysterious toe-owner.
THE GIRL WHO STOOD ON A GRAVE
I like this one because it has a bit of a twist at the end, if a twist is at all possible in a 200-word story. A group of friends at a party discuss the nearby cemetery, and one boy claims that if you stand on a grave after dark, the being inside will pull you under.
“A grave doesn’t scare me,” a girl says. For a wildly compelling offer of one dollar, she agrees to test the theory. She planned to stick the boy’s knife in the grave to prove she was there, but without realizing it, she stuck it right through her dress and into the dirt. “Something has got me!” she screamed, and when her friends came to look for her, her dead body was sprawled across the grave. She had died of fright.
THE GIRL WHO STOOD ON A GRAVE freaked me out as a kid because it seemed pretty feasible when compared to other stories featuring otherworldly creatures and severed heads that still talk. The suggestion that a scary story, much like the one you were reading, could scare you to death is what made it so frightening (and meta).
THE DEAD MAN’S BRAINS
THE DEAD MAN’S BRAINS has been the main event at children’s Halloween parties for decades. It’s just gross enough but not too grim for kids, which seems to be the criteria for making it into Schwartz’s collection.
To play, a storyteller describes the rotting remains of a corpse, while a bowl of said remains is passed around a circle of children who stick their hands in one at a time. Watch and enjoy as a huge, disgusting mess inevitably ensues. Instead of actual human body parts, it’s suggested to use a wet tomato (his brains), a piece of raw liver (his heart), and two peeled grapes (his eyeballs), among other food products of the cold and slimy variety.
At this point, THE BABYSITTER is one of the most popular stories from the anthology. Its premise inspired the classic WHEN A STRANGER CALLS movies, in which a local psychopath harrasses a babysitter through dozens of threatening phone calls as he moves closer and closer. After a disturbing amount of heavy breathing from the other line, the babysitter finally calls the operator to trace the call’s source. They find that it’s being made from the phone right upstairs.
THE BABYSITTER marks the birth of the call coming from inside the house, and the sliver of fear that likely still remains in the back of the modern babysitter’s mind.
After reading this story for the first time in ages, I immediately had a flashback to the MySpace era. At a certain point, the concept of HIGH BEAMS had made it all the way from 1981’s SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK to a bulletin that threatened the end of my life if I didn’t repost it or send it to some absurd number of Internet friends. Being that I’m still sitting here, I must have reposted it.
The story centers around a girl driving home late at night, when a truck starts tailing her and flashing its brights sporadically, chasing her through sharp turns and highway exits. Terrified, she continues home and sprints to the door when she arrives. He gets out and points his gun; not at her, but at an unknown man in the backseat who had been waiting for a moment to attack her. By flashing his lights each time the man rose up with a knife, the truck driver had saved her life. That’s a twist deserving of an M. Night Shyamalan picture.
To revisit the stories that turned you into a horror freak, you can find the full set of SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK books on Amazon, or in bits and pieces around the web.