So my original plan for this week was to read What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank’s 2004 book on middle America’s confusion over which political party has their best interests at heart. But then I figured that, as a serious lover of Halloween—costumes and candy; what’s not to love?—I shouldn’t miss an opportunity to read something more seasonally appropriate. I mean, Kansas is scary in its own way (the way everything about politics is scary right now) but not “boo” scary, not ax murderer scary, not hold-your-pee-for-hours-because-you-don’t-want-to-get-out-of-bed-and-get-your-ankles-sliced scary. For that, I turn to Scary Stories 3.
People tend to have one of two reactions when I describe this book—general apathy/lack of recognition, or sheer terror. For those in the latter category, Scary Stories 3 (and in all likelihood its two prequels) is the incarnation of childhood fear, and of the power that stories about ghosts and monsters and spiders that lay eggs in people’s faces (!) had over us. For me personally, Scary Stories 3 is the book that I wouldn’t let my mother keep in my room because I was afraid of its actual physical presence. It’s also the book I convinced myself changed color overnight, and whose illustrations I can still remember today, more than a decade after first being introduced to them. Scary Stories 3 doesn’t remind me of trick-or-treating, or the time the “sunflower” costume my mom made for me was too hot to wear and I basically asked my neighbors for candy wearing a green sweatsuit. Nope, it reminds me of being freaking petrified of things as a child, in a way that’d be hard to replicate today unless I was approached by a demon or knife-wielding homeless man who swore to kill me and/or made that throaty noise from The Ring.
So acute is my nostalgia for this book that I remember my elementary school music teacher reading aloud from it with the lights off, while he had us all lay on the ground with our eyes closed and walked around in a cape (this sounds mildly inappropriate now that I’m writing it down, but I swear it was totally cool and may have been part of some game called Graveyard.) Moreover, so specific are my memories of Scary Stories’ drawings that I bought it twice last week, after discovering my first purchase was of a version that had been PG-ified with distinctly less terrifying visuals (no offense Brett Helquist; I’m sure you’re a fine illustrator.)
Outrage aside, spending the weekend with my less visually terrifying volume of stories actually allowed me to read them with a more analytic eye. Were the scary stories actually that scary, or was it just the process of reading them while weird shit like this was staring at you from the opposite page that made them so memorable? Also now I’m 26, and therefore moderately less afraid of being attacked by monsters (though still fairly afraid of ghosts and serial killers.) The fact that I’ll even keep this book in my apartment, where its talisman-like effect on my psyche could at any moment unravel me, means I’ve come a long way …from age 10.
Unsurprisingly, Scary Stories 3 is far less terrifying as an adult, but I do feel validated in remembering how afraid of it I was when younger. Some of these stories are still creepy as shit—in one, a wife feeds her husband a corpse’s liver and then sells him out to the vengeful corpse’s ghost; the story ends with the lights going out and the husband “screaming and screaming.” Others end without any sort of closure or explanation, and many of them rely on what’s scary in our day-to-day lives (footsteps in empty houses, bizarre noises, mysterious strangers, etc.) As Alvin Schwartz (author/collector of stories) says in his introduction:
The dead scare us, for one day we will be dead like they are. The dark scares us, for we don’t know what is waiting in the dark. At night the sound of leaves rustling, or branches groaning, or someone whispering, makes us uneasy. So do footsteps coming closer. So do strange figures we see in the shadows—a human maybe, or a big animal, or some horrible thing we can barely make out. People call these creatures we think we see ‘boo men.’ We imagine them, they say. But now and then a boo man turns out to be real.
I have so many childhood memories of falling victim to this exact type of fear—that the mysterious noise wasn’t just the house settling, or that the dark shadow wasn’t just my dresser. That rocking chairs were moving by themselves, or things weren’t where I’d left them, or my closet doors were hiding more than just clothing and an awesome Lego collection. I don’t know if I was an abnormally scare-able kid—one time I locked myself out of the house after a frightening scene in Congo resulted in me running headlong out the front door—or if everyone was just as ridiculous, but either way, Scary Stories 3 couldn’t have helped things.
To this day I find myself perhaps unusually skittish. Which isn’t to say that I don’t continue to love horror movies, or scary books or TLC shows about hunting for ghosts in abandoned mental institutions. I just find myself generally prone to nightmares and paranoid thoughts. I may have gotten over some of my more irrational childhood fears, but I still dislike medicine-cabinet mirrors and conspicuously opaque shower curtains. (When you think about it, a lot of horror movie shit goes down in bathrooms.) Granted, real life provides many new things of which one can be fearful—muggings, rape, subway rats the size of small groundhogs—but none of that holds a candle to the myriad ways I was afraid, and things I was afraid of, as a kid.
I spent most of this post appealing to the second category in my aforementioned Scary Stories 3 breakdown: those who know the book and fear it the way this guy fears puppies. But if you happen to be in the first group, the generally apathetic/unaware, you should know that the Scary Stories books are utter perfection for campfire ghost stories, or the kind you tell over Solo cups of wine while sitting in a circle in your darkened apartment with friends (this is a thing people do, yes?)
If you have kids, pick it up for them now, so they can become hardened against the increasing fuckedupness of the 21st century horror genre. And if you don’t have kids, buy it for yourself. Then go home, wait until its dark, turn off the lights and read it out loud. You tell me if it doesn’t give you chills.
TITLE: Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones
AUTHOR: Stories collected by Alvin Schwartz
PAGES: 109 (in paperback, shitty illustration version)
ALSO WROTE: Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark, More Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark
SORTA LIKE: Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark, More Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark
FIRST LINE: “The girl was late getting home for supper.”