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a black and white image of a terrifying scarecrow, mouth agape, raising its arms, hungry for blood Stephen Gammell/HarperCollins

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Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’s legacy of library challenges and bans

How the popular horror series became the most challenged book of the 1990s

“Why are we subjecting our children to this kind of violent material?” Sandy Vanderburg, a Seattle mother of two, asked in a 1993 Chicago Tribune interview. The controversial material in question was Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. “If these books were movies, they’d be R-rated because of the graphic violence. There’s no moral to them. The bad guys always win.” After recounting the plot of “Just Delicious,” about a woman who steals a corpse’s liver to cook and feed to her husband, Vanderburg told the paper, “That’s sick.”

Vanderburg wasn’t the only outraged parent on a crusade to remove Schwartz’s three Scary Stories books — and their terrifying illustrations by Stephen Gammell — from mass circulation. In fact, the book series, first published in 1981, and brought to screen this month (with a PG-13 rating) by Guillermo Del Toro and director André Øvredal, is historically one of the most challenged books in the American library system.

“Right away I thought of Jeffrey Dahmer,” concerned parent Jean Jaworski told the Argus Press back in 1995, explaining her shock at discovering one of the gruesome stories her son had brought home. The story in question was “Wonderful Sausage,” which appears in the second book of the series, and tells a Sweeney Todd-esque tale of a man chopping his wife up to make into sausage. “This was way past being scary.”

Like many before and after her, Jaworski appealed to her local library to remove the books from circulation.

a black and white illustration of an eerie dark hallway with a single figure facing away from the viewer Stephen Gammell/HarperCollins

Challenged books come from situations where someone — a parent in Jaworski’s case, a school staff member, or anyone else in the community — files a formal complaint or makes a public statement about the presence of a book in a library collection.

“A formal complaint involves request to remove the book and prevent anyone else from accessing that book,” Deborah Caldwell Stone, Interim Director of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom, tells Polygon. “That can happen in school libraries. It can happen in public libraries. More often than not, it happens in the school library when it involves children’s literature.” Challenged books are declared banned when they’re formally removed from the library and patrons can no longer access material.

For concerned parents, a book’s removal may seem like a triumph. Less so for kids who just want to read some scary stories, and are rarely told by librarians the real reasons behind a removal. Ruth, a 23-year-old library student in Michigan, told Polygon about a time when some concerned parents at her school discovered that their son had checked out Scary Stories.

“They went to the PTA and said that the school librarians shouldn’t have let the kid check the book out because it was ‘too mature’ for him, and also that the book should be pulled entirely because it wasn’t in line with the school’s values,” she explained. “The students who looked for it after it was pulled got told that it was because they didn’t get checked out enough so they got weeded, but my friends and I all knew that wasn’t true because we checked those books out all the time.”

Ruth attended a religious school, but says that the way the librarians acted went against the American Library Association’s professional code of ethics. Though the association doesn’t speak for all libraries all over the world, the ALA is the oldest and largest library association and seeks to provide leadership standards for librarians everywhere. According to the code of ethics on the ALA website, the organization defends the rights to accessibility and confidentiality. Anyone using a library should be able to check out a book without having their activity monitored.

A black and white illustration of a severed head suspended on a wire, smiling smugly at the viewer Stephen Gammell/HarperCollins

To become aware of when a book has been challenged or banned, the ALA monitors media reports. But not all cases of censorship make headlines, which is why the Office of Intellectual Freedom also encourages librarians to file confidential reports of censorship.

“The [confidential] reports, the websites, the media reports all fit into our database where we keep track of challenges to books,” Stone explains. “Within our ability we’ll follow up and track what the outcome is. If there is a challenge and a processes in place, we’ll follow up to find out what the end result of the committee’s decision was. If a superintendent removes the book and it makes the local newspaper, we will follow the media coverage till we find out what the final determination is.”

Though the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom has existed since 1967, it only started compiling banned book lists in the 1990s. Every decade, the OIF releases a list of 100 most challenged books; since 2001, it has released a list of top 10 challenged books each year.

The reasons that drive library challenges have shifted since the days of peak Scary Stories fervor. The Satanic panic of the late ’80s and early ’90s made horror a target through the 2000s, with Scary Stories earning the number seven slot on the ALA’s “most challenged” decade list. (That decade, the “occult” Harry Potter snagged the first spot).

Scary Stories has only popped up on an annual top 10 once more, in 2012. In recent years, the Office for Intellectual Freedom documents more challenges from books containing sexual situations, political viewpoints, and LGBTQ characters, with titles like George, a children’s book about a transgender character, and The Hate U Give, a YA novel dealing with the aftermath of police shooting, taking the top spots. Stone notes, “Last year we had a top 11 list because we had a tie for 10th place and both books happened to be books that were burned by anti-LGBTQ activists in protest of their presence in the library.”

Still, the legacy of Schwartz’s remains. A university librarian who wished to remain anonymous told Polygon that when they worked in a public library, about two to three times a year, parents were still requesting to remove Scary Stories from the collection.

“Usually around Halloween, but also about midway through the school year (when a kid picks it up and tells all their friends about it), and summer reading (when it is usually devoured by the same kids who keep our Goosebumps collection circulating). Nothing ever comes of it, but I can attest to having to placate a very concerned parent or two because [they think] the book is inappropriate,” they said.

a black and white illustration of a dungeon, with an eerie all white figure with small eyes and a toothy smile in its bulbous head reaching for the viewer Stephen Gammell/HarperCollins

The books have had loyal fans throughout the years, kids who fearlessly consumed the scary content even in the face of overbearing parents.

“I’ve always loved the feeling of being scared, even as a really young kid,” recounted Lex, another individual we spoke to who shared a story about how a concerned parent reported her to the school’s principal for reading Scary Stories when she was in the third grade in the early 2000s.

Those who couldn’t get a hold of their books in the public library got creative. Matt Hurtado of Take-Two Interactive told Polygon how he basically ran an underground library out of a copy of the book his mom gave him. “We would trade that book as well as Stephen King and other books that were too risqué,” he said. “Until Naomi’s mom freaked out and we all got in trouble for it.”

In the face of overly concerned community members, some librarians stuck to the code of ethics and made the books available.

“The books came out when I was in the third grade and almost immediately they vanished from our public library. Parents had complained after the books were used for a storytime around Halloween,” Jenny Collins, a librarian from upstate New York, told Polygon in a Twitter DM. “My public school librarian though? She bought (to my memory) five copies of each book and made sure there were stocks of them at the Scholastic book fairs. Those books were the envy of every slumber party and Girl Scout camping trip. The librarian knew what kids wanted to read and she made sure it was available.”

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is still published and still found in school libraries. The 30th anniversary edition of the anthology replaced the original nightmarish images for less scary, more Victorian Gothic illustrations by A Series of Unfortunate Events’ Brett Helquist, which caused some devoted fans to take massive offense. The book series remains popular after nearly 40 years of publication, has been read by generations of children and gained a rosy spot in childhood nostalgia.

“I don’t see Scary Stories going out of style any time soon,” recounted the earlier anonymous librarian. “It’s something of a rite of passage for kids — and their librarians who have to talk to scared kids’ parents.”

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