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. 


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.”


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.


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.”


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.


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.’”


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.


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.”


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.


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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The Charming English Fishing Village That Inspired Dracula
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Whitby as seen from the top of the 199 Steps

The train departed King's Cross at 10:25 a.m. on July 29, 1890. Bram Stoker settled wearily into the carriage for the six-hour journey to Whitby, the fashionable and remote seaside village in North Yorkshire. The sooty sprawl of London gave way to green grids of farmland and pasture, and then windswept moors blanketed in heather and wild roses.

Stoker needed this holiday. The 42-year-old manager of London's Lyceum Theatre had just finished an exhausting national tour with his employer, the celebrated but demanding actor Henry Irving. The unrelenting task of running the business side of Irving's many theatrical enterprises for the past decade had left Stoker with little time for himself. When the curtains fell at the end of each night's performance, he may have felt that the energy had been sucked out of him.

Now he looked forward to a three-week getaway where he would have time to think about his next novel, a supernatural tale that harnessed the sources of Victorian anxiety: immigration and technology, gender roles and religion. In ways he didn't foresee, the small fishing port of Whitby would plant the seeds for a vampire novel that would terrify the world. Stoker started out on an innocent and much-deserved vacation, but ended up creating Dracula.

A photo of Bram Stoker
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As Stoker emerged from the train station in Whitby, the sounds and smell of the sea would have restored him after the long trip. He loaded his trunk into a horse-drawn cab for the journey up the West Cliff, where new vacation apartments and hotels served the crowds of holidaymakers. He checked into a flat at 6 Royal Crescent, a half-circle of elegant Georgian-style townhomes that faced the ocean.

He often felt invigorated by the seashore: "He's finally on a holiday, away from the hustle and bustle of London, the Lyceum Theatre, and Henry Irving's dominance over him," Dacre Stoker, a novelist and the author's great-grandnephew, tells Mental Floss. "The ocean and the seaside play into Bram's life, and, I believe, in stimulating his imagination."

Stoker's wife Florence and their 10-year-old son Noel would join him the following week. Now was his chance to explore Whitby on his own.

The East Cliff with Tate Hill Pier in the foreground

"A curious blend of old and new it is," wrote a travel correspondent for the Leeds Mercury. The River Esk divided the town into two steep halves known as the West and East Cliffs. Down a tangle of paths from the brow of the West Cliff, Stoker found himself on the town's famed beach, where people gathered to watch the many vessels at sea or walked along the gentle surf. At the end of the beach was the Saloon, the nucleus of Whitby's social whirl.

"The enterprising manager engages the best musical and dramatic talent procurable, whilst on the promenade a selected band of professional musicians gives performances daily," wrote Horne's Guide to Whitby. Holidaymakers could purchase a day pass to the Saloon and enjoy afternoon tea, tennis, and endless people-watching.

Next to the Saloon, the West Pier featured a long promenade parallel to the river and a three-story building containing public baths, a museum with a collection of local fossils, and a subscription library. Shops selling fish and chips, ice cream, and Whitby rock lined the winding streets. Visitors could watch all kinds of fishing vessels discharging their daily catch, and even hop aboard a boat for a night's "herringing" with local fishermen.

Whitby's East Cliff had a more mysterious atmosphere. Across the town's single bridge, tightly packed medieval cottages and jet factories leaned over the narrow cobbled streets, "rising one above another from the water side in the most irregular, drunken sort of arrangement conceivable," the Leeds Mercury reported.

Above the ancient Tate Hill Pier, a stone stairway of 199 steps (which pallbearers used when they carried coffins) led up the cliff to St. Mary's parish church and its graveyard full of weathered headstones. Towering over the whole scene—and visible from nearly any spot in town—were the ruins of Whitby Abbey, a 13th-century pile of Gothic arches that had been built upon the remains of a 7th-century monastery.

"I think [Stoker] was struck by the setting. He's thinking, 'This is perfect. I have the ships coming in, I've got the abbey, a churchyard, a graveyard'," Dacre Stoker says. "Maybe it was by chance, but I think it just became that perfect scene."

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey

In Dracula, chapters six through eight kick the narrative into frightening action. By then, real estate agent Jonathan Harker has traveled to Transylvania to negotiate Dracula's purchase of a London property and become the vampire's prisoner. His fiancée Mina Murray, her friend Lucy Westenra, and Lucy's mother have traveled to Whitby for a relaxing holiday, but Mina remains troubled by the lack of letters from Jonathan. She confides her worries and records the strange scenes she witnesses in her journal.

On the afternoon of his arrival, according to a modern account compiled by historians at the Whitby Museum, Stoker climbed the 199 Steps to St. Mary's churchyard and found a bench in the southwest corner. The view made a deep impression on Stoker, and he took note of the river and harbor, the abbey's "noble ruin," the houses "piled up one over the other anyhow." In his novel, Mina arrives in late July on the same train as Stoker, mounts the 199 Steps, and echoes his thoughts:

"This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town, and has a full view of the harbor ... It descends so steeply over the harbor that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed. In one place part of the stonework of the graves stretches out over the sandy pathway far below. There are walks, with seats beside them, through the churchyard; and people go and sit there all day long looking at the beautiful view and enjoying the breeze. I shall come and sit here very often myself and work."

The churchyard gave Stoker a number of literary ideas. The following day, Stoker chatted there with three leathery old Greenland fisherman who likely spoke in a distinct Yorkshire dialect. They told Stoker a bit of mariner's lore: If a ship's crew heard bells at sea, an apparition of a lady would appear in one of the abbey's windows. "Then things is all wore out," one of the sailors warned.

Stoker ambled between the headstones that sprouted from the thick carpet of grass. Though most of the markers' names and dates had been erased by the wind, he copied almost 100 into his notes. Stoker used one of them, Swales, as the name of the fisherman with a face that is "all gnarled and twisted like the bark of an old tree," who begins talking with Mina in the churchyard. Mina asks him about the legend of the lady appearing in the abbey window, but Swales says it's all foolishness—stories of "boh-ghosts an' barguests an' bogles" that are only fit to scare children.

St. Mary's churchyard
St. Mary's churchyard, which Mina calls "the nicest spot in Whitby."

For the first few days in August, Stoker was occupied by the summer's social calendar. He likely enjoyed dinner with friends arriving from London, and went to church on Sunday morning. On the 5th, Stoker's wife and son joined him at 6 Royal Crescent. The next several days may have been spent at the Saloon, promenading on the pier, and making social calls, as it was the custom for newly arrived visitors to visit with acquaintances in town.

But Whitby's infamous weather had the ability to turn a sunny day somber in an instant. August 11 was a "grey day," Stoker noted, "horizon lost in grey mist, all vastness, clouds piled up and a 'brool' over the sea." With Florence and Noel perhaps staying indoors, Stoker set off for the East Cliff again and chatted with a Coast Guard boatman named William Petherick. "Told me of various wrecks," Stoker jotted. During one furious gale, a "ship got into harbor, never knew how, all hands were below praying."

The ship was the Dmitry, a 120-ton schooner that had left the Russian port of Narva with a ballast of silver sand. The ship encountered a fierce storm as it neared Whitby on October 24, 1885, and aimed for the harbor.

"The 'Russian' got in but became a wreck during the night," according to a copy of the Coast Guard's log, which Petherick delivered to Stoker. The crew survived. In a picture taken by local photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe just a few days after the storm, the Dmitry is shown beached near Tate Hill Pier with its masts lying in the sand.

'The Wreck of the Dmitry' (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
The Wreck of the Dmitry (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
Courtesy of the Sutcliffe Gallery

Petherick's account gave Stoker the means for his vampire's arrival in England, the moment when the mysterious East disrupts the order of the West. Mina pastes a local newspaper article describing a sudden and ferocious storm that hurled Dracula's ship, the Demeter from Varna, against Tate Hill Pier. The Coast Guard discovered the crew had vanished and the captain was dead. Just then, "an immense dog sprang up on deck and … making straight for the steep cliff … it disappeared in the darkness, which seemed intensified just beyond the focus of the searchlight," the article in Mina's journal reads. The dog was never seen again, but townsfolk did find a dead mastiff that had been attacked by another large beast.

Mina describes the funeral for the Demeter's captain, which Stoker based on scenes from an annual celebration he watched on August 15 called the Water Fete. In reality, thousands of cheerful spectators lined the quays as a local band and choir performed popular songs and a parade of gaily decorated boats sailed up the river, with banners fluttering merrily in the breeze, according to the Whitby Gazette's report. But through Mina, Stoker transformed the scene into a memorial:

"Every boat in the harbor seemed to be there, and the coffin was carried by captains all the way from Tate Hill Pier up to the churchyard. Lucy came with me, and we went early to our old seat, whilst the cortege of boats went up the river to the Viaduct and came down again. We had a lovely view, and saw the procession nearly all the way."

The final week of Stoker's holiday elicited some of the most important details in Dracula. On August 19, he bought day passes to Whitby's museum library and the subscription library. In the museum's reading room, Stoker wrote down 168 words in the Yorkshire dialect and their English meanings from F.K. Robinson's A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Whitby, which later formed the bulk of Mr. Swales's vocabulary in his chats with Mina.

One of the words was "barguest," a term for a "terrifying apparition," which also refers specifically to a "large black dog with flaming eyes as big as saucers" in Yorkshire folklore, whose "vocation appears to have been that of a presage of death," according to an account from 1879.

"I do think Stoker meant for that connection," John Edgar Browning, visiting lecturer at the Georgia Institute of Technology and expert in horror and the gothic, tells Mental Floss. "Moreover, he probably would have meant for the people of Whitby in the novel to make the connection, since it was they who perceived Dracula's form as a large black dog."

Downstairs, Stoker checked out books on Eastern European culture and folklore, clearly with the aim of fleshing out the origins of his vampire: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, a travelogue titled On the Track of the Crescent, and most importantly, William Wilkinson's An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia: with Various Observations Relating to Them.

The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
Courtesy of Dacre Stoker

From the latter book, Stoker wrote in his notes, "P. 19. DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous by courage, cruel actions, or cunning."

The Wilkinson book gave Stoker not just the geographical origin and nationality for his character, but also his all-important name, redolent of mystery and malice. "The moment Stoker happened upon the name of 'Dracula' in Whitby—a name Stoker scribbled over and over on the same page on which he crossed through [the vampire's original name] 'Count Wampyr,' as if he were savoring the word's three evil syllables—the notes picked up tremendously," Browning says.

By the time Stoker and his family returned to London around August 23, he had developed his idea from a mere outline to a fully fledged villain with a sinister name and unforgettable fictional debut.

"The modernization of the vampire myth that we see in Dracula—and that many contemporary reviewers commented upon—may not have happened, at least to the same degree, without Stoker's visit to Whitby," Browning says. "Whitby was a major catalyst, the contemporary Gothic 'glue', as it were, for what would eventually become the most famous vampire novel ever written."

Bram Stoker visited Whitby only once in his life, but the seaside village made an indelible mark on his imagination. When he finally wrote the scenes as they appear in Dracula, "He placed all of these events in real time, in real places, with real names of people he pulled off gravestones. That's what set the story apart," Dacre Stoker says. "That's why readers were scared to death—because there is that potential, just for a moment, that maybe this story is real."

Additional source: Bram Stoker's Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, annotated and transcribed by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller

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Warner Bros.
This Harry Potter Candle Melts to Reveal Your Hogwarts House—and Smells Amazing
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Warner Bros.

As it gets darker and colder outside, the thought of lighting a candle in your room and curling up with a good book becomes more appealing. A sorting hat candle from the Muggle Library Candles Etsy store makes the perfect companion to whatever Harry Potter book you happen to be re-reading for the hundredth time this season. According to the Cleveland news outlet WKYC, the candle slowly reveals your Hogwarts house as it burns.

From the outside, the item looks like a normal white candle. But when lit, the outer layer of plain wax melts away, allowing the colorful interior to poke through. The candles come in one of four concealed colors: red for Gryffindor, blue for Ravenclaw, yellow for Hufflepuff, and green for Slytherin. The only way to know which house you’re destined to match with is by purchasing a candle and putting it to use. According to the label, the scent evokes “excitement, fear, and nervousness.” The smell can also be described as lemon with sandalwood, vanilla, and patchouli.

Due to its viral popularity, the Fort Worth, Texas-based Etsy store has put all orders on hold while working to get its current batch of shipments out to customers. You can follow Muggle Library Candles on Instagram for updates on the sorting candle, as well as other Harry Potter-themed candles in their repertoire, like parseltongue and free elf.

[h/t WKYC]


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