The Most Frightening Stories From Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

scarystoriesIf you were an impressionable child with an overactive imagination, Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was probably the stuff that shaped your nightmares. This haunting collection, with its perfect blend of weird folksy tales and chilling urban legends, complete with the absolutely hair-raising illustrations of Stephen Gammell, left an indelible mark on my innocent brain at an early age. Perhaps even more spine-tingling was the audiobook version, narrated by the brilliantly macabre voice of George Irving, which had scary music and sound effects to boot.

Even the stories meant to be funny were scary—particularly the one about a dead man dancing to fiddle music “with his old bones rattling, his yellow teeth snapping, and his bald head wagging, and his arms flip-flopping around” until he falls to pieces. Good one, right?! You better believe sensitive, delicate 9-year-old me found that totally hilarious as it kept me awake all night, staring into the darkness with saucer eyes.

A few years back, in a fit of ill-advised nostalgia, I purchased the boxed set of all three books: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, More Scary Stories to tell in the Dark, and Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones, so that I could reread my remembered favorites. Although I was no longer 9, I’m embarrassed to say those stories still gave me eerie, twisted dreams for weeks. What struck me most upon this reread was how utterly bizarre some of the stories are—not particularly scary on the surface so much as just plain weird—but that’s what makes them all the more sinister, especially when they’re rattling around in your fevered brain late at night. Below, a roundup of the scariest tales:

The Big Toe
A little boy digs up a mysterious, random toe in his garden, takes it home, and his parents cook it and they all eat it for dinner—you know, like you do. Later that night, someone breaks into his house and the little boy hears a scary voice asking, “Where is my to-o-o-o-o-e?” You know, like it certainly would.

The Hearse Song
You remember this one. About the worms playing pinochle on your snout? And then they eat your eyes and nose? And then crawl in your stomach and…you know what? I’m done here.

May I Carry Your Basket
In this one, the titular basket contains a lady’s severed head. I didn’t even know I was terribly afraid of being chased by a bitey head until this story helpfully pointed it out to me.

The Drum
Two little girls behave so badly their mother threatens that if they don’t shape up, she’ll leave them, and their new mother will have “glass eyes and a wooden tail.” This story. I just can’t. Who came up with this, and how did they manage to plug directly into the fear center of my small developing brain?!

Sam’s New Pet
Sam’s parents visit Mexico and bring him back a little dog as a souvenir. Only it turns out it’s not a little dog, but a huge sewer rat—and it’s also rabid. Hooray!

The Dead Man’s Hand
A bunch of nursing students decide to play a practical joke on Alice, a goody-two-shoes student they don’t like. They go to the morgue and cut off a cadaver’s hand, and tie it to the string that hangs from the light in her closet, so that when she turns on the light, she’ll be holding a dead man’s hand. A truly heartwarming tale of making someone you don’t like go insane!

High Beams
A young girl is driving home alone late at night, when a truck behind her begins periodically turning on its high beams, but it won’t pass her. The girl turns off the main road, and the truck follows her. When she finally arrives home, a man hops out of the truck with a gun in his hand—but it turns out that he was only turning on his high beams to illuminate a man in the girl’s backseat, who had a knife. Finally—a happy ending!

Two farmers make a scarecrow, name it after a farmer they hate named Harold, and abuse it terribly. Eventually, Harold the scarecrow starts grunting. A little while later, Harold “climbed up on the roof and trotted back and forth, like a horse on its hind legs.” In case you were wondering, things go downhill from there.

What was your favorite Scary Story to Tell in the Dark?

  • Kiki Bice

    There was one about a little girl who has a dog that sleeps under her bed and when she is frightened at night she puts her hand over the edge of the bed and her dog licks her hand and she is comforted… Then one night she hears dripping on her ceiling and gets a little frightened. When she sticks her hand under her bed she feels the dog licking her hand and is comforted… But the dripping sound continues and she goes up to the attic to see what it is, and her dog is hanging from a beam dripping blood with a noted tied to it that says, “Humans can lick, too.” This story is the reason why I am still (at the age of 28) afraid of “under the bed.” (I am pretty sure that this story was from one of those Scary Stories collection…

    • Heather Scott-Penselin

      hmmm I always insisted on a bed with drawers under for storage (like a waterbed frame) because it is a waste of space otherwise – but I think also because there would be no room under the bed for someone to do that! That story I always found scary/creepy as well.

  • BeanBunny

    I remember hearing the Highbeams story for the first time when I was in grade school. I’m now 30 years old, and anytime I’m driving at night a see someone behind me flash their highbeams, I immediately check the back seat!

  • Harold. Harold. Harold. Always Harold.

    Also the drawing of SPIDERS coming out of her FACE.

    (This book would be NOTHING without the illustrations.)

  • Kayla Butts

    HAROLD. OMG Harold. At 22 this story still terrifies my best friend and I. We stay far far away from it… and scarecrows….
    Also the one about the spider laying and egg in a girls face and it busting with a thousand baby spiders is like out of my worst nightmare as I have an extreme fear of spiders in general.
    And there was another story kinda like The Big Toe (but I dont think it was in these books) called Taily Bone…. yep that one still has my best friend and I jumping across the room to go from separate beds to the same bed.
    And High Beams taught me to ALWAYS turn my car light on and check the backseat as soon as I get in the car.
    And the one about the sewer rat is just disturbing.
    Yeah these books were what I always went straight to in my elementary school library, might be why Im so weird today.
    There was one story that I always loved though and that was The Wolf Girl.

  • Johanna

    The Drum. I didn’t even remember it was called that, but holy #%*@# that story messed me up. Didn’t help that my mother was the one who first read it to me. I fact I may have only heard it that once, but it’s been with me ever since!

  • Alyson

    I remember the story about the girl with the ribbon around her neck that she could never take off. She fell in love, married, had kids, and then got sick. The whole time she told her husband to never touch the bow until she got sick. She told him he could remove the ribbon, and when he untied the bow her head fell off. I still freak if I see someone wearing a ribbon around their neck.

  • Elizabeth

    For me it was always the one about the girl with the spider eggs in her face. And the fact that it hatched when she was taking a steamy bath….eww! For the longest time I didn’t want my bath too hot in case a spider had crawled on my face when I was sleeping…!

  • Michelle Truax

    Man… I really treasured these books when I was a kid… the kids in my daycare would gather around and we’d read and listen to them together. They equally scared us and enthralled us at the same time, as we would turn the lights off and gather round, thin light leaking in through the curtains. I don’t remember all of the stories… which honestly makes me want to go buy the book and read them all over again…

    This may also be part of the reason why I am a bit creepy… XD

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