The Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark trilogy of books (published in 1981, 1984, and 1991) were written by author and folklorist Alvin Schwartz and featured disturbingly grotesque artwork by Stephen Gammell. The tales were meticulously researched, being based on folktales from around the world, and reworked into short stories aimed at an audience of children. Throughout the Nineties, the series would become the most challenged books for school library inclusion, thanks in no small part to Gemmell’s haunting illustrations. Even today, they can still spark nightmares and are serving to establish the visual style of André Øvredal’s upcoming big-screen adaptation (due on August 9th).

Fans of Schwartz and Gammell’s iconic children’s horror books don’t have to wait until then to dive back into the Scary Stories world. Released VOD on May 7th and coming to DVD July 16th is director Cody Meirick’s documentary Scary Stories: A Documentary, which explores Schwartz’s life and family, the writing of the books, the censorship battles, and how Scary Stories affected both the children’s publishing world and the lifelong fans who cut their horror teeth on these classic tales and images.

Meirick finds a way to delicately balance all these elements in a way that is not only extremely satisfying, and at times extremely moving, but also keeps the narrative moving without getting boring or sidetracked. Featuring interviews from over 40 fans, academics, librarians, and artists, including R.L. Stine and Q.L. Pierce, the film finds a way to comment on just about every aspect of the books. The fan stories are wonderful, and we see how Scary Stories influenced not just their reading tastes, but their own artistic expressions.

Most powerful, though, are the interviews with Schwartz’s estranged son Peter, who seems to be using this cathartic opportunity to reconnect with his late father in a way he never did while he was alive. It’s at times heartbreaking, but it’s also powerful and resonates in a way that many documentaries could only hope for.

Scary Stories does try to present both sides of the Nineties censorship controversies, but the outraged parents repeatedly damn themselves with their ignorant rantings and absurdly melodramatic speeches. Worst of all is PTA president Sandy Vrabel, who headed up the attempts to ban Scary Stories from her child’s elementary school. To his credit, Meirick gives Vrabel the opportunity to explain her position without criticism, allowing her to make a fool of herself without antagonism.

He’s a better man than I am.

As is Peter Schwartz, who agrees to a sit-down (with wine and cheese, no less) with Vrabel all these years later in an attempt at peacemaking. However, time hasn’t changed anything about Vrabel’s views and while Schwartz tries to remain polite in the face of her blatant dismissiveness, the audio of their conversation slowly fades out. She ultimately leaves without ever seeming to consider that she was ever in the wrong. And Meirick’s noble intensions end up being useless.

Self-righteous ignorance never changes.

Scary Stories: A Documentary inspires going back to reread the series, making your own art, defending literature from censorship, and flying your horror freak-flag. Even if you never read the original books, this film will make you feel like you did (and motivate you to add them to your library as soon as possible).

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