Ask anyone who grew up in the 1980s and 90s what their favorite scary story to tell in the darkÂ is, and most of them will have an answer. That’s how powerful Alvin Schwartz’s trilogy of terror tales, featuring the incredibly disturbing artwork of Stephen Gammell, truly were.
A collector of urban legends, folklore, and campfire stories, Schwartz traveled the country and dug through books of all kinds to bring his compilations together with the intent of passing them on to children who would then scare their friends with them.Â The first book, published in 1981, set the tone with briefly told narratives — usually just a few pages long, if that — accompanied by one of Gammell’s nightmarish drawings. The next two installments came out in 1984 and 1991, adding more missives on ghosts, monsters, and worse that continue to resonate to this day.
We dug out our original copies of all three books — the ones currently in book stores have toned down artwork for today’s far more delicate children — and gave them another read to properly get in the Halloween spirit. These are the 11 that spooked us the most this time around.
11. “The Big Toe” (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark)
Schwartz kicked off the very first book with a story featuring rotting corpses, cannibalism, and the walking dead. In other words, “The Big Toe” is a pretty great representation of the rest of the series complete with an unforgettable image by Gammell.
A boy discovers a toe in his yard, digs it up, and gives it to his mom, who decides to make soup out of it before his pops cuts it into thirds for supper. That night, the nine-digit ghoul demands to know, “Where is my to-o-o-o-o-e?” The story ends with advice on how to scare your friends while telling it, plus an alternate ending. According to the notes in the back of the book, this one comes from the south where it’s apparently okay to eat parts of dead human feet.
10. “Is Something Wrong?” (Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones)
A guy breaks into a house to stay the night after his car breaks down, encounters a ghost, and runs like hell, but eventually stops, turns, and gets asked by his pursuer “Pardon me, is something wrong?” On the page, it’s actually not that scary of a story. Sure, it’s a bit spooky, but there’s plenty of other insanity in these tomes. What earns this one a place on the list? That drawing. Much like the ghost in the retelling, this image will follow you around, though we’re guessing it won’t be so polite as the specter in the story.
9. “The Wolf Girl” (Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones)
Kids love to imagine what life would be like if they could run free without parental constraints. “The Wolf Girl,” one of the longest stories in the third volume, takes that to a whole new level, with a variety of Texas-based yarns all about a blond girl who was spotted over the years running with, hunting with, and even mothering wolves.
Making this story even more creepy is how the lupine kid came to be. Her mother died giving birth to her while her dad was out trying to get help from a neighbors. A bunch of wolves then snuck in and brought her into the pack, apparently not looking for such a small, slimy snack.
8. “Cold As Clay” (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark)
Many a Scary Story revolves around unrequited love that doesn’t give up even after death. That’s the case with “Cold As Clay,” which features a farmhand named Jim who falls for his boss’ daughter. Wanting someone better for his child, the farmer sends his daughter away, but the separation destroys Jim and he dies, unbeknownst to the young woman.
So, she doesn’t think it strange when he appears at her door telling her that her dad wants to see her. They ride back on a horse, she gives him a handkerchief, and they make it back to her dad’s place. However, Jim disappears and the woman’s father explained what happened to his former employee. They look in on the horse, who was covered in clay, and then dig up the corpse which looks as you might expect, except clutching her handkerchief in his cold, dead hand!
7. “Something Was Wrong” (More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark)
We’ve all woken up a little confused and unsure of what’s going on, but John Sullivan took that toÂ the next level in “Something Was Wrong,” the first story in the second volume. After asking a few passersby what time it was and receiving screams and evasion in response, John calls home to get a ride only to find out that his wife is at his funeral!
Like many of the other iconic Scary Stories, this one comes at you fast and furious, told in just one page and accompanied by one of Gammell’s more understated and eerie images, with the shadowy man reaching for the phone as the very atmosphere around him seems to drawing him into darkness.
6. “May I Carry Your Basket?” (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark)
All Sam wanted to do was help a woman he saw while walking in “May I Carry Your Basket?” What did he get for his troubles? A decapitated walking corpse handing over her head in said basket. When he runs away, understandably freaked out, the body and the head chase after him separately, with the latter catching up first and chomping on his legs before vanishing, most likely along with Sam’s desire to play Good Samaritan ever again.
This one’s interesting because, instead of reveling in the grotesque as with many of the other entries, Gammell decided to go the subtle route when composing this image, choosing to show only the basket with a few strands of hair hanging over the edge. Still, it’s enough to get the old imagination working overtime!
5. “The Hook” (Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark)
One of the all-time best urban legends, “The Hook” continues to thrill and terrify audiences in all manner of incarnations. The one in Scary Stories is probably the simplest, given that it’s about a page-and-a-quarter long. Donald and Sarah are out on a date when they hear thatÂ an escaped madman with a hook hand is on the loose. She wants to head back home, but he wants to stay parked. Sarah wins out and when Donald goes to open her door, there’s a bloody hook hanging from the handle.
In the book’s notes, Schwartz reveals that this tale made the rounds on college campuses and many see it as a way to keep promiscuous teenagers from getting down to business in their cars. For a generation of readers, though, it was Schwartz and Gammell’s version — complete with dangling hook image — that burned its way into their memories.
4. “Sam’s New Pet” (Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones)
You just knew that something wasn’t right with the title animal in “Sam’s New Pet.” Sam’s folks are hanging out in Mexico where they throw some scraps to a batch of stray animals. One stuck out. “It was a small, gray creature with short hair, short legs, and and a long tail.” Sam’s mom — probably super buzzed — thinks it adorable so they sneak it through customs on the way back home where the thing starts foaming at the mouth.
You can see where this is going, right? Yeah, of course. It’s a rat with rabies. This is what happens when mom and dad head down to the land of tequila and decide to flaunt international laws just to bring little Sam a pet. While many think that the mind can be left to its own devices when it comes to dreaming up the worst horrors imaginable, one look at Gammell’s version of the title animal blows that theory out of the water.
3. “The Wreck” (More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark)
More than a few of these tales put an unsuspecting individual directly in the path of a ghost or ghoul only to discover the truth much later. That’s what happens in “The Wreck,” about a high school kid who meets a girl at a Christmas dance and drives her home the long way, only to find out that she died in a car crash on the way toÂ the event. However, the Christmas tinsel he gave her is still in the dead girl’s hair.
This one is echoed in the third book’s “The Bus Stop,” in which a man gives a woman a ride home. Upon returning later, he discovers that she’s actually been dead for 20 years. In the notes of that volume, Schwartz relays that “ghost hitchhiker” stories like this actually have roots in an ancient Roman myth about a woman named Philinnion whose ghost came back to hang out with the man she loved because he didn’t know she was dead. The moral of all of these stories seems pretty simple: never meet anyone new without comparing them to the obituary section. Ever.
2. “High Beams” (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark)
Another widespread urban legend from the 80s and 90s, “High Beams” follows the misadventures of a young woman who seems to be in danger from the man driving the truck behind her car. He keeps flashing his brights at her no matter how fast she goes or which side road she heads down. By the time she arrives at her house, she’s understandably freaked out, especially when the truck driver exits his vehicle with a gun pointed in her general direction.
But, it’s not her he’s after, it’s the murderer hiding in the back of her car! Each time the killer tried to ply his nefarious craft, the truck driver flashed his high beams to blow up the madman’s spot. If you don’t glance in your back seat every time you see brights on the highway, we envy you.
1. “The Red Spot” (Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones)
“The Red Spot” is told in less than 200 words and yet it’s one of the most memorable narratives in all three books. Ruth’s face gets bitten by a spider. It hurts and gets worse over a few days. While sitting in the bath, the bump bursts, bringing forth a bevy of arachnids crawling all over her face.
Even though we’re fairly certain that that’s not how a spider actually lays eggs — and by now something along these lines would have been reported if it was possible — an entire generation of grown-ups imagines this very scenario and Gammell’s skin-exploding drawing whenever they see an eight-legged monster crawling around.
To check out the full, original line-up of Scary Stories books, you can dig around used book stores for the originals, check out the Scary Stories Treasury, which collects all three together. Do keep in mind, though, that the new versions do have different artwork, which we’re sure is great, but not what we remember from our childhood (and the accompanying nightmares).