If 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.
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!
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?