OcTerror · Reviews

13 Spooky Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark


The Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series is an easily recognizable collection of books that passed from kid to kid from the mid-80s to the early 2000s. They were not available in the local library or they were always checked out. Kids would gather around in groups to shudder at Stephen Gammell’s illustrations and shriek at Alvin Schwartz’s stories. Camp counselors would confiscate the books for being too distracting after lights out. Still, despite the fact they created more wet beds and nightmares than most children’s literature, kids couldn’t get enough of them.

Collected from folklore and retold by Alvin Schwartz, famous ghost stories get annotated for campfires and sleepovers. However, what really scared everyone were Stephen Gammell’s illustrations that accompanied the stories—sometimes abstract, mildly spooky or upsetting, and always scary. There are numerous stories, but it’s actually fairly easy to pick out the spookiest. So grab the kiddies, hide under a blanket, and get ready to read some scary stories.

  1. “The Big Toe.” I have a special history with this story and its twin. My kindergarten teacher would read this to us as we waited for our parents and I’d go home and have nightmares about a mysterious figure wailing, “Where’s my toe?” I can still hear the way my teacher said it, and this story fed my fear of things-getting-closer. There are two endings available in the book and, whichever you prefer, it makes for a good jump scare.
  2. “The Thing.” I really don’t like the idea of being chased or followed, and this story goes along with that in spades. (Has anyone actually seen a field of turnips?) Two friends encounter a skeleton man who chases them home, but perhaps it’s more than it seems. The illustration that goes with it stares straight at the reader, forcing them to confront The Thing in all its toothy glory.
  3. “The Haunted House.” More known for its illustration than for the story itself, kids nearly shat themselves at the Face-of-a-Thousand-Nightmares. The story itself is actually pretty nice, revolving around the murder of a woman in a house and getting justice, but the face is what people remember. You can’t forget it. Even now she’s watching you, waiting.
  4. “The Guests.” Believe it or not, there are a ton of these urban legends floating around. People find a place, receive some shelter or hospitality, and then wake up to find that it’s gone or never existed. While it’s more spooky than scary, the friendly, elderly ghosts are the kind I would want to encounter. The house doesn’t look like one you’d want to stay at, but who can say no in the middle of the night?
  5. “The Hook.” It’s a classic story about a hook hand dangling from a car door. The story kids tell at slumber parties, the one the babysitter says to her kids, the one that was included in an episode of Supernatural. What more is there to say?
  6. “High Beams.” Another classic. It’ll make you think twice about that big rig following you on lonely highways. It’s a cautionary story tale about checking your back seat before going anywhere. After all, you never know who’s hitching a ride.
  7. “The Bride.” I think what I like most about this story is how semi-realistic the scenario is. We’ve all played a game of hide-and-seek that seemed to take forever. I don’t quite know why someone would play the game on their wedding day, but to each their own. I think this one plays more with the imagination because it’s horrifying to think of what that poor bride went through trying to escape the trunk. Claustrophobia is no joke, kids.
  8. “Cemetery Soup.” Twin to “The Big Toe”, they’re often combined into one story. My stepdad would often repeat, “Give me back my bone” when he wanted to creep me out, and it worked. In some versions, instead of hearing just a voice, the woman looks out her window and sees a figure getting closer and closer until he’s at the foot of her bed! I have issues because of these stories, and I can admit it.
  9. “Harold.” Another illustration that people remember is of the not-so-loveable scarecrow named Harold. It’s one of the longer stories in the series, and definitely a creepy one as two farmers make a scarecrow that looks their neighbor. The final image in the story is the stuff of adult horror movies—definitely not kid-appropriate—and it will make you look twice at every scarecrow you see.
  10. “The Wolf Girl.” Like a twisted version of The Jungle Book, this story deals with a girl raised by wolves. More so than the story, the eerie illustration of a girl whose hair is long enough to cover every inch of flesh with a feral look in her eyes sticks with the reader. The ending is a little vague as to the relationship the woman now has with the wolves, but it still works.
  11. “Sam’s New Pet.” Imagine you smuggle an adorable, foreign dog across the border. Imagine that you give this pet to your son, feed it, and take care of it. Then you find out that it’s not even a real dog. While the story is creepy enough in its own right, Gammell’s illustration really makes the reader cringe. The morale of the story is…don’t smuggle animals over the border.
  12. “Maybe You Will Remember.” Traveling to a foreign country you’re unfamiliar with is scary enough, and having the hotel staff tell you that they don’t remember you is scarier. This story, reported as a true event in the early 20th century, captures the fear of being alone in a strange place as well as the horror of losing a parent. Basically, don’t trust hotel staff.
  13. “The Red Spot.” Short, simple, and scary, this story comes with an itch-inducing illustration. If you’re already freaked out by spiders and the possibility of eating them while asleep then this isn’t for you. That pimple might not be just a pimple. Don’t itch, and don’t scream.

The stories have been re-released for their thirtieth anniversary this year, but the illustrations by Stephen Gammell have been replaced. While the new drawings are good and spooky enough, they don’t create the same spine-tingling, jaw-clenching, breath-catching feeling that the originals do. While there are more options for children’s spooky books than there were before, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark deserves a place at any slumber party, campfire, or opportunity to give kids nightmares.