5 Reasons the Scariest Thing Ever Written Is a Kids' Book

When we were kids in the '80s, pornography was hidden from our eyes for fear it would warp us -- and with good reason. The only way we could see a skin mag was to sneak into the homeless camp at the abandoned drive-in, brain a hobo with a log and take the porn from his lifeless corpse. Now you're a murderer, and it's all because some people look good naked.

These days, of course, you can have any kind of porn you want on the Internet, and it won't cost you anything more than some Russian spyware recording your every keystroke. But that horny time was still better than this porny one. (Unless you're a hobo. But if you are, why are you on the Internet? Go ride a railcar.) You see, in that era, we had easy access to something far more disturbing than a woman faking an orgasm. We could walk into any library and check out three volumes of terror called Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

I am more scared of these stories than I am of real dangers.

I know you young people think you know horror, what with all the sea monsters and Australian people Cracked gives you the phobias about, but the liquid terror of these books fueled enough nightmares to run Elm Street out of business. The series was a cavalcade of butchery, spooks, demons, disease, death and other delights. So here are the reasons Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark remains the greatest batch of horror ever kind enough to warp our childhoods.

#5. The Unknown and Unnatural

A good ghost story stops at the most horrifying point in the tale. Scary Stories stopped at the most horrifying point in the universe. Many of the entries ran no longer than a page or two, but while they did, they ran like hell. Scary Stories is responsible for more psychotherapy than freshman year and clown sex combined.

The original creepypasta.

Not only did half the tales lack explanation; they defied it. Evil exists because evil exists, the book whispered in our minds, and death is not only inevitable, but the best option. To deny death is to deny life, and make mockery of the natural order. You'd kiss the reaper gladly if the alternatives were to become a shambling, murderous husk or a rattling wisp, damned forever. Or worse, Jim Belushi.

Also, ninja turtles aren't real. We learned a lot of hard truths that year.

This is Harold.

Augh it's on the roof why is it fascinated with the roof?!

His button eyes sparkle with hate, and while that feature has gotten me lots of dates with other broken people, Harold uses his gaze for something almost as unhealthy: murder.

Harold is a scarecrow who comes alive because two lonely cowboys didn't have the good sense to Brokeback away the days. If they'd only turned their energies to love and pudding instead of mistreating poor Harold, he might never have self-animated. Let this be a lesson about the importance of love wherever we find it, and also about not torturing murder-dolls.

The fact that he totters around like a drunken two-year old is way creepier than some juggernaut of violence coming at your throat in promise of a swift death. Hell, we can get that in real life just watching Shark Week, or working retail on Black Friday.

Not here, though. Harold's two hobbies are spontaneous generation and anti-life, and he's grotesquely inexperienced at both. You get the idea that next time he'll know to kill the screaming thing before ripping its skin from skull to knees like a plucked chicken ... but for now he's discovering his technique as an artist.


#4. The Goddamn Illustrations

If you asked Hieronymous Bosch to illustrate a children's collection of ghost stories, these are the pictures he would draw while quitting heroin. I would rather get pity-sex from a menstruating spider than gaze upon any of this art after sunset.

Illustrator Stephen Gammell claimed he never expected anyone to take these over-the-top monstrosities seriously. And that's an excuse that fools the kind of adults misguided enough to "protect" children. But kids are savages who haven't learned to lie to themselves yet, and they don't flinch from the truth. The fact is these drawings are the perfect match for the stories. They're also perfect for summoning Rax, the god of murder who appears in four ancient cultures that, strangely, had no contact with each other.

I was a child and someone let me see this.

When arranged in the right order, the series' illustrations form a panorama with no beginning and no end and no hope. Some kids in Iowa once configured the infinipych, and all that was found of them was a lock of singed hair and a bloody hand print that had six fingers. The house where they disappeared was sold 10 times in seven years, until it was burned down by its final owner, who to this day will only gibber, "The sinking world has seen us ... and it hungers." He does not sleep.

The book was re-released last year for its 30th anniversary with new illustrations, and they're very well drawn -- exactly what you'd commission for a kids' book of ghost stories. But not for this title. We've seen the impossible geometries of terror now, and your false world, where mothers don't devour their babies and a sane God dances in the sky, is a lie we can never swallow again.

Come on, HarperCollins, don't deprive readers of the original books' mind-scraping horror. These are scary stories; you don't defang a crocodile and then talk about how good it is with children.

Evil Warning Woman is what happens when the unknown and the inevitable make a terror-baby. She appears in an artist's dream to convince her to flee an evil house. But whoopsie! Trying to avoid her fate takes her straight to the room she was supposed to dodge. And there she runs into the woman from her vision.

It's one of the book's tamest stories -- the tale of the Englishwoman who changed her travel plans. Nothing terrible happens. Its eeriness is mostly derived from the dread of an evil premonition coming true, a feeling we're all acclimated to in the United States from every year the Yankees win the World Series.

Oh, but did you see the dream woman in question?

"Haha I'm not touching you!"

Look, not everybody you meet in life is going to have a neck. Some people can't afford one is all. So you shouldn't fault them for overcompensating with extra chins. But even if they discreetly cover their nudity with raspy, black straw hair, a moonfaced smirk doesn't apologize for their godless, bloated body. This thing looks like a 17th century corn husk doll that strips on Tuesday nights to support its four kids. After the illustration, this anecdote could give Lady Bathory a cold chill.

And this is the HELPFUL monster. Just watch as Gammell cuts loose on cannibalism, skin-walkers and swamp-zombies.

#3. Cultural Heritage

Schwartz was a storyteller, and exhaustively cited all the sources in his book to preserve a bit of folk history. That's very impressive, since you can only make a small number of pages from the skin of a virgin seventh son who committed suicide.

His citations are revealing; you can tell a lot about a person by what they're afraid of, and the same goes for societies. For example, people from South Dakota are afraid of having their limbs ripped from their joints by the restless dead. A North Dakotanese person knows that's superstitious hogwash, and the real danger is the wendigo that prowls the frozen forest. And those of us who have traveled the great 48 in these troubled times know the only thing we have to fear is fAAAAHH GOD HERE IT COMES!

In one setting, two Americans vacation in Mexico, back when that was the first line of a scary story instead of the last. They find an adorable little dog, and bring it home, because U.S. Customs can suck it. After a few days, the pooch appears to be sick, so they take it to the veterinarian, who immediately diagnoses the dog ...

The doctor also discovered the owners were blind.

... as a gigantic, rabid rat.

This tale speaks to a very real fear of having to deal with oblivious American tourists. But it's even more obviously a cautionary fable about contamination in what scared rich people consider a dirty, poor country. And you know they're rich because they're dumb enough to want a tiny dog. Rule of thumb is if it lets you carry it in a purse, it's not a dog; it's a proximity alarm that refuses to be housebroken. Chihuahuas only have two emotions: jealousy and tremble, and neither one appeals to a person who has to suffer through a real job.

No practical, responsible human being would make the mistake of smuggling a lousy little doglet, or as they call it in Mexico, un perrito. (Holy cow, you guys! I just made that up and it turns out that is the RIGHT WORD!) This story tells us that in privileged America's view, Mexico is a trap where even the pleasant joys are hidden horrors ... at least if you're a snooty richie. Those of us who do an honest day's labor know rabies is actually one of the cooler diseases. It's as close to zomboids as we're going to get on this earth.

CDC via Wikipedia via oh no, rabies!
And without it, we would never have such moving works as Old Yeller and Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Other stories in this cultural Rorschach blot include a deadly elevator (fear of technology/enclosed spaces), a poisonous ball gown (fear of shoddy merchandise) and a girl who ventured the unfamiliar streets of Paris to fetch medicine for her sick mother, only to find the hoteliers don't remember her (fear of dealing with a French concierge).*

*Concierge is a French word meaning "with contempt for you."

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Brendan McGinley

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