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14 Terrifying Facts About Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

The first installment of Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark trilogy hit bookshelves in 1981. The series would become a preteen cult classic and among the most banned or challenged books of the following decades. 

1. ITS AUTHOR DIDN'T START OUT WRITING SCARY STORIES.

Alvin Schwartz, the author and adapter behind the Scary Stories trilogy, actually began his career as a journalist, writing for The Binghamton Press from 1951 to 1955. He also had a penchant for wordplay, saying that creating rhymes is a good way for “people to express their feelings without getting in trouble.” After Schwartz left journalism, he started working for a research corporation, which he couldn’t stand, and began doing that part time, devoting the rest of his hours to writing books. One of his first published works: a Parents’ Guide for Children’s Play. His journalistic instincts and whimsical leanings are probably to thank for the Scary Stories’ characteristic surrealism and eerily matter-of-fact storytelling.

2. THE TALES WERE BASED ON FOLKLORE.

Research was a huge part of Schwartz's process for all his books. When writing his book Witcracks, Schwartz turned to the archives at the Library of Congress and those of the president of the American Folklore Society, using that research and his connections for Scary Stories. Among his sources were books like American Folk Tales and Songs and Sticks in the Knapsack and Other Ozark Tales. He also drew from publications like The Hoosier Folklore Bulletin and interviewed folklorists.

"Some of these tales are very old, and they are told around the world," Schwartz wrote in the foreword to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. "And most have the same origins. They are based on things that people saw or heard or experienced—or thought they did."

When asked about his writing process for an interview with Language Arts magazine, Schwartz said, “Basically, what I do with every book, is learn everything I can about the genre. This will involve a lot of reading and scholarly books and journals and sometimes discussions and scholarly folklorists … In the process of accumulating everything on a subject, I begin setting aside things that I particularly like. What's interesting is that eventually patterns emerge.”

The first Scary Stories book was released in 1981, and Schwartz would go on to write two more—More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones—before his death in 1992.

3. PARENTS HATED THE BOOKS ...

By the time the Scary Stories series reached the height of its popularity in the early '90s, the book was condemned by parents nationwide. "There's no moral to [the stories]," former elementary school teacher and mother Sandy Vanderburg told the Chicago Tribune. "The bad guys always win. And they make light of death. There's a story called 'Just Delicious' about a woman who goes to a mortuary, steals another woman's liver, and feeds it to her husband. That's sick."

One parent even made a connection between Schwartz’s book and a serial killer, citing the story “Wonderful Sausage,” about a butcher who puts people through his sausage grinder and sells the meat to his patrons. “Right away I thought of Jeffrey Dahmer," Jean Jaworski, then the mother of a fifth grader, told The Argus-Press in 1995. "It's just not appropriate for children." She asked the school board to remove the book from the library, but a special committee voted unanimously to keep the books, and the school turned down an appeal.

4. ... BUT THAT DIDN'T BOTHER SCHWARTZ.

In an interview with the journal The Lion and the Unicorn, Schwartz said that he didn’t deal directly with complaints about his books. “My editors deal with them,” he said. “Every letter is answered and the point is made that this is traditional material and that, in addition, it has developed a lot of interest in reading.”

When discussing how a Christian group had tried to get his book, In a Dark, Dark Room, banned from a Denver library, Schwartz said he wasn't surprised. Instead, he said, he was “pleased to have that kind of attention. It was ironic and pleasing that, at the same time, their ideas were rejected by the children.”

5. THE ARTIST BEHIND THE CREEPY ILLUSTRATIONS USUALLY DREW LIGHTER SUBJECT MATTER.

The books’ nightmarish illustrations are perhaps as well remembered as the stories themselves—and even less pleasing to parents. One father, J. Daniel Merlino, who called for the books’ removal from his local school’s library, told The Hartford Courant that “I can appreciate the creativity. But the images in those books are surreal. A throat being torn out. A liver being eaten. These images are the stuff of nightmares.”

Michael Wohlgenant, whose 7-year-old daughter had nightmares for months after reading “Wonderful Sausage”—its illustration involved a dismembered hand holding a forkful of human flesh—also pushed for the books’ removal. “You entrust your child to the care of school officials when you send them to school,” he said. “You don’t expect them to be traumatized and harmed.”

Stephen Gammell, the mastermind behind the creepy drawings, won a Caldecott Medal for picture book illustration for his work in Karen Ackerman’s Song and Dance Man in 1989. Though these illustrations were slightly more lighthearted, they showcased the splotchy, watercolor-heavy style that’s exemplified in the artist's grim, surreal Scary Stories illustrations. (You can watch a fun time-lapse of Gammell’s process here, in the trailer for his book Mudkin.) "Stephen Gammell has made a very important contribution to these books because he has such a wild imagination," Schwartz later said.

6. THE ORIGINAL ILLUSTRATIONS HAVE BEEN REPLACED IN NEW VERSIONS OF THE BOOKS.

Stephen Gammell, Imgur

When HarperCollins released a new version of the Scary Stories books to commemorate the series' 30th anniversary, fans were dismayed to see that Gammell's illustrations had been removed. The reprint features new illustrations by Brett Helquist, whose excellent work you may recognize from the Series Of Unfortunate Events books.

The newer, less creepy illustrations provoked outcry from those who grew up with the books, even prompting a BuzzFeed article called “They’re Ruining Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark.” According to Meredith Woerner in an article for io9, “[…I]f your child couldn't handle Gammell's paintings, they're certainly not going to be able to stomach a short story about a scarecrow who skins a farmer alive and dries out his skin sack trophy on the roof. Gammell's art is an integral part of this collection. The least they could do is release a special art book as a companion. This is just supernatural blasphemy.”

7. IT'S BEEN ON THE ALA'S MOST CHALLENGED LIST FOR TWO DECADES.

Stephen GammellImgur

The series topped the American Library Association’s list of the Top 100 most frequently challenged books for 1990-1999. Ten years later, the Scary Stories books remained in the top 10, coming in at No. 7 on the list for 2000-2009. The books were most frequently challenged for reasons of “insensitivity, occult/Satanism, violence, (and being) unsuited to age group.”

About that last thing: The books fall between the 600 and 760 Lexile mark (a system used to organize reading levels), meaning that the books' vocabulary level is most suited for fifth graders. Some of the Scary Stories vocabulary words highlighted by the Lexile system were “clink,” “blunt,” “shrouds,” “drafty” “afire,” and “shatter”—further proving that the series’ simple vocabulary doesn’t rule out spooky content.

8. WHAT HAPPENS IN "THE RED DOT" PROBABLY WON'T HAPPEN IN REAL LIFE.

The story “The Red Dot” may have instilled a deep fear of spiders laying eggs in your face, but don’t worry—according to the National Geographic, it's not likely to happen. May Berenbaum, entomologist at The University of Illinois, explained that a spider’s egg-laying structure isn’t equipped for injecting. “I suppose a spider could drop or plaster eggs on the skin’s surface,” Berenbaum said, “but it’s not clear why a spider would want to do such a thing.”

9. ONE TALE GOES BACK TO THE BROTHERS GRIMM.

Stephen GammellImgur

“The Big Toe,” the notorious story in which a starving boy finds a human toe in the ground and makes the terrible mistake of eating it, is based on an old folktale that dates back to early 19th century Germany. (Maybe not surprising; this is the country that brought us Der Struwwelpeter, after all.) Mentions of the tale were first found in the Grimm Brothers’ notes, and a version of the story—with an arm replacing the titular toe—was later a prominent feature of Mark Twain’s public speaking appearances. When he was done speaking, Twain would jump into the crowd and scream at an unsuspecting audience member.

10. THERE ARE MANY VERSIONS OF THE STORY HIGH BEAMS.

Because the tales featured in the Scary Stories books came from folklore, there were many different versions of the stories floating around—and “High Beams,” which Schwartz told The Lion and The Unicorn was “one of the most popular stories” in the series, was no exception. The story features a girl driving home alone from a nighttime basketball game. “There is a car following her and periodically the other driver will turn up his beams,” Schwartz said. “She can't understand what is going on, and she becomes progressively more frightened. As it turns out, there was somebody sitting in the back seat. He had slipped in when she left and each time he rose up to assault her the guy in the car in back of her turned on his high beams.”

The story, he said, is one that’s “told all over … It appears in a dozen different versions. … All of these stories, and there are scads of them, are really saying: ‘Watch out. The world's a dangerous place. You are going out on your own soon. Be careful.’”

11. “WONDERFUL SAUSAGE” WAS PARTIALLY BASED ON A SONG FROM SCHWARTZ’S CHILDHOOD.

Schwartz told The Lion and the Unicorn that he’d heard a fragmented version of the tale, “which is about a butcher who is sort of a prototypical Sweeney Todd,” in New Orleans. But it was also inspired by a song he learned as a kid at Scout camp called “Dunderbock and the Sausage Machine.” That butcher in the song, Schwartz explained, made sausage from dogs and cats, “and one day the machine slips or falls and he goes into the machine himself. This is the end of [the song]: ‘His wife had the nightmare. / She walked right in her sleep. / She grabbed the crank, gave it a yank, / And Dunderbock was meat.’” You can listen to a version of the song here.

12. THERE WAS AT LEAST ONE STORY HE WOULDN’T FEATURE.

Schwartz told The Lion and The Unicorn that he only implied violence in his stories, and opted for gore instead. There was at least one story that he said he found very upsetting:

“Infanticide … is a theme in American folklore and European folklore. There is an Ozark folktale ... in which a man in his youth goes away and travels and becomes quite successful. His parents are quite poor. He comes back one night after many many years have elapsed and he looks completely different. He thinks he will therefore surprise them. He has come back with a lot of money and he wants to give it to them. They have an inn and he takes a room there for the night. They don't recognize him and he thinks that in the morning he will announce that he is their son. Well, they murder him during the night for his money. It's a marvelous story but I would not put it in one of my books. … This kind of thing I avoid.”

13. THERE'S GOING TO BE A FEATURE FILM ...

The Scary Stories trilogy is currently being adapted into a feature film by CBS Films and John August, writer of Big Fish and Frankenweenie. The movie, which had originally featured Saw writers Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton, is currently in development.

14. ... AND A DOCUMENTARY.

Scary Stories (Official Trailer) from Cody Meirick on Vimeo.

If documentaries are more your speed, there may be one of those too. An upcoming documentary from Chicago filmmaker Cody Meirick will “explore the history and background of one of the most controversial works of modern children’s literature: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.” On the project website, Meirick explains that the film will not only explore the impact of the stories on the kids who grew up with them, but also the broader topics of children’s folklore, the heritage of gothic ghost stories, and what draws us to them.

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15 Powerful Quotes From Margaret Atwood
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MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images

It turns out the woman behind such eerily prescient novels as The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake is just as wise as her tales are haunting. Here are 15 of the most profound quips from author, activist, and Twitter enthusiast Margaret Atwood, who was born on this day in 1939.

1. On her personal philosophy

 “Optimism means better than reality; pessimism means worse than reality. I’m a realist.”

— From a 2004 interview with The Guardian

2. On the reality of being female

“Men often ask me, Why are your female characters so paranoid? It’s not paranoia. It’s recognition of their situation.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

3. On limiting how her politics influence her characters

“You know the myth: Everybody had to fit into Procrustes’ bed and if they didn’t, he either stretched them or cut off their feet. I’m not interested in cutting the feet off my characters or stretching them to make them fit my certain point of view.”

— From a 1997 interview with Mother Jones

4. On so-called “pretty” works of literature

“I don’t know whether there are any really pretty novels … All of the motives a human being may have, which are mixed, that’s the novelists’ material. … We like to think of ourselves as really, really good people. But look in the mirror. Really look. Look at your own mixed motives. And then multiply that.”

— From a 2010 interview with The Progressive

5. On the artist’s relationship with her fans

“The artist doesn’t necessarily communicate. The artist evokes … [It] actually doesn’t matter what I feel. What matters is how the art makes you feel.”

— From a 2004 interview with The Guardian

6. On the challenges of writing non-fiction

“When I was young I believed that ‘nonfiction’ meant ‘true.’ But you read a history written in, say, 1920 and a history of the same events written in 1995 and they’re very different. There may not be one Truth—there may be several truths—but saying that is not to say that reality doesn’t exist.”

— From a 1997 interview with Mother Jones

7. On poetry

“The genesis of a poem for me is usually a cluster of words. The only good metaphor I can think of is a scientific one: dipping a thread into a supersaturated solution to induce crystal formation.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

8. On being labeled an icon

“All these things set a standard of behavior that you don’t necessarily wish to live up to. If you’re put on a pedestal you’re supposed to behave like a pedestal type of person. Pedestals actually have a limited circumference. Not much room to move around.”

— From a 2013 interview with The Telegraph

9. On how we’re all born writers

“[Everyone] ‘writes’ in a way; that is, each person has a ‘story’—a personal narrative—which is constantly being replayed, revised, taken apart and put together again. The significant points in this narrative change as a person ages—what may have been tragedy at 20 is seen as comedy or nostalgia at 40.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

10. On the oppression at the center of The Handmaid's Tale

“Nothing makes me more nervous than people who say, ‘It can’t happen here. Anything can happen anywhere, given the right circumstances.” 

— From a 2015 lecture to West Point cadets

11. On the discord between men and women

“‘Why do men feel threatened by women?’ I asked a male friend of mine. … ‘They’re afraid women will laugh at them,’ he said. ‘Undercut their world view.’ … Then I asked some women students in a poetry seminar I was giving, ‘Why do women feel threatened by men?’ ‘They’re afraid of being killed,’ they said.”

— From Atwood’s Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, 1960-1982

12. On the challenges of expressing oneself

“All writers feel struck by the limitations of language. All serious writers.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

13. On selfies

“I say they should enjoy it while they can. You’ll be happy later to have taken pictures of yourself when you looked good. It’s human nature. And it does no good to puritanically say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be doing that,’ because people do.”

— From a 2013 interview with The Telegraph

14. On the value of popular kids' series (à la Harry Potter and Percy Jackson)

"It put a lot of kids onto reading; it made reading cool. I’m sure a lot of later adult book clubs came out of that experience. Let people begin where they are rather than pretending that they’re something else, or feeling that they should be something else."

— From a 2014 interview with The Huffington Post

15. On why even the bleakest post-apocalyptic novels are, deep down, full of hope

“Any novel is hopeful in that it presupposes a reader. It is, actually, a hopeful act just to write anything, really, because you’re assuming that someone will be around to [read] it.”

— From a 2011 interview with The Atlantic 

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China's New Tianjin Binhai Library is Breathtaking—and Full of Fake Books
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FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A massive new library in Tianjin, China, is gaining international fame among bibliophiles and design buffs alike. As Arch Daily reports, the five-story Tianjin Binhai Library has capacity for more than 1 million books, which visitors can read in a spiraling, modernist auditorium with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

Several years ago, municipal officials in Tianjin commissioned a team of Dutch and Japanese architects to design five new buildings, including the library, for a cultural center in the city’s Binhai district. A glass-covered public corridor connects these structures, but the Tianjin Binhai Library is still striking enough to stand out on its own.

The library’s main atrium could be compared to that of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum in New York City. But there's a catch: Its swirling bookshelves don’t actually hold thousands of books. Look closer, and you’ll notice that the shelves are printed with digital book images. About 200,000 real books are available in other rooms of the library, but the jaw-dropping main room is primarily intended for socialization and reading, according to Mashable.

The “shelves”—some of which can also serve as steps or seating—ascend upward, curving around a giant mirrored sphere. Together, these elements resemble a giant eye, prompting visitors to nickname the attraction “The Eye of Binhai,” reports Newsweek. In addition to its dramatic main auditorium, the 36,000-square-foot library also contains reading rooms, lounge areas, offices, and meeting spaces, and has two rooftop patios.

Following a three-year construction period, the Tianjin Binhai Library opened on October 1, 2017. Want to visit, but can’t afford a trip to China? Take a virtual tour by checking out the photos below.

A general view of the Tianjin Binhai Library
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People visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
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A general view of China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A woman taking pictures at China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A man visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A woman looking at books at China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A general view of China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

People visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

[h/t Newsweek]

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