Mr. Schwartz was, by all appearance, an interesting, intelligent man who loved folklore and was willing to scare the bejeezus out of kids. This is difficult but necessary work for any man of conscience. After all, if children never know fear, what will they overcome to grow stronger? Schwartz wasn't trying to ruin our childhood; he was seasoning us to inherit the earth.
Seasoning us with the yellow-bitter curry of fear.
Fear doesn't care what your rational mind knows. When you've been spooked, fear is a cocktail working its way through your veins, and until it flushes out of your system, your brain devises any reason to explain the lingering terror. Evolutionarily speaking, it's better to react first and analyze later. You don't need to know what the hell is behind you; all you need to know is that it has teeth and it's getting closer.
Paranoia is a hell of a drug.
Scaring kids is especially easy because kids are in a state of uncertainty ALL THE TIME. They're wired to be terrified of the dark, so that they don't wander into it. And even when they're calm they're trying to figure what's real. They're still learning how to discern all the lies we tell them from their real experience. That's why I lie to my nieces all the time -- so they get a lot of good practice calling out adults on our BS.
What really sets Scary Stories apart is its complete willingness to terrify you not just imminently but existentially. Freddy and Jason are resilient slashers, but in these pages lurk the inconceivable truths no mortal should have to comprehend.
That's why kids are the only ones who can face them. When you're young enough that every shadow holds shapeless terrors, this kind of abject ghoulishness smudges your fear into recognizable shapes. Once you've faced the ultimate horror, you can process everyday terrors like divorce, death and -- oh God, I just realized something. What if there are mole people burrowing under the bed? Well, even if there are, at least you won't be skinned alive a goddamn lumpy scarecrow's bare hands.
This is not easy work, terrifying children all day. But our hero Alvin Schwartz was willing to take on the hard task of making us stronger.
A motorist takes shelter in an empty house when something god-awful comes tumbling down the chimney.
That awkward moment when you tell someone they lack a face.
Ah, hell, look at that giant ... whatever it is, probably some German monster with a weird name like Teufelslufthaupt. It's got a noggin so big that time moves slower near its surface, and an arm with enough reach to stop Wilt Chamberlain at the top of the key. The poor guy has no chance against this god of monsters. He dives through a window and runs until he's about to die from exhaustion. He can't see the thing anymore, so he finally stops sprinting, and sucks in some air. That's when he feels its hand on his shoulder ...
... and it asks him, "Pardon me, is something wrong?"
See, Mr. Schwartz also gives you some comedy. These books ultimately teach you to laugh at horrors. It's a map of fear, and that includes the best trail out of the countryside.
Even more than most genres, horror stories are an information game. You show the audience just enough to let their brains run wild with terrifying possibility, and then draw them along towards an awful inevitability. But if you're worried about burning out the terror centers in their brains, it's nice to offer them a breather now and again with something like this.
It's almost cute, in a suffocating damnation kind of way.
When you keep ratcheting up the fear and then recontextualize the story so one of the elements is no longer a threat, you teach people reason and courage: circumstances change, and we can be the ones to change them
In this case, we expect the story of unreasonable evil, but we get someone whose behavior is polite and helpful despite appearances. The readers who still want to bludgeon the monster after it proves to be a nice guy are never going to leave home and probably grow up to vote Tea Party.
This is one of the most prohibited books in school library history, right after Mein Kampf for Kidz but ahead of Debbie Does Decimals. And with good reason -- any school worldly enough to teach evolution is going to prohibit a book that proves, by virtue of being a portal to Hell, that Satan is real (and wants you to believe in evolution).
The thing is, a book that's provocative enough to get banned is interesting enough to scare people who don't understand that reading doesn't make something reality. Mein Kampf is a grotesque document but it can give insight into how authoritarian goons think so that we recognize such arguments the next time a demagogue uses them. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn uses an awful word casually ... but only to show how dehumanizing that word really is, and how you should stand by good people no matter what society tells you to do.
Most books are useful to society one way or another if read critically. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark performs the important function of scarring children. Besides, I actually had to read Atlas Shrugged for high school English, and that dreck is worse for tender psyches than a thousand spiders pouring from an open boil.
As seen here and in that nightmare you can never remember upon waking.
No matter how bad things get (spider bite) they can always get worse (spider eggs). But if we're willing to open our minds to the horrific possibilities, we can handle them. That's what these books taught us, with tales of folks who didn't always lose their cool when they came eye-to-eye-socket with their worst fears. A controlled setting like these pages gives us a sandbox in which to practice these confrontations, and rather than be warped by them, shape them to our needs -- even if those needs are to slowly and agonizingly murder the witch who cursed us.
Because I love my nieces, I shall be giving them the gift of pants-wetting terror this Halloween. It's not just a fun thrill; it's a chance to look what scares you in the eye, challenge it and grow to realize the only thing we have to fear is fAAAAHH GOD HERE IT COMES AGAIN!!