Spooks Weekly: Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark

I’ve always had a fondness for horror and the macabre, even as a little girl.
Not to say I didn’t love other things little kids like, I wasn’t some sort of weird Damien from The Omen child. I just always liked weird stuff.

Of course, as a Millennial child who grew up in the mid-90’s I was devouring “baby” horror (my word for it) as soon as I could read chapter books. My brother had a large collection of Goosebumps that he literally never read.  My brother wasn’t a reader, and I think my parents bought him Goosebumps hoping the sometimes-gross covers and weird titles would entice him, They did not interest him, but they did catch my eye.

Until my parents gave up and just moved the collection into my room, I would sneak to my brothers bookshelf and snatch a few at a time, running back to my room to avoid detection.

After reading most of the original Goosebumps series I searched for more scary books.  Which brings me to the subject of this Spooks Weekly.

Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark Volumes I - III
By Alvin Schwartz and Illustrated by Stephen Gammell


These books were originally published from 1981 – 1991. I didn’t read them until about ten years after Volume III was published. I recall these books being an absolute staple at Scholastic Book Fairs (or, as they are otherwise known, the greatest day of any elementary school kid’s life) and probably the location that I purchased them.
Most of the stories in the collection are adapted by Schwartz from urban legends and various folklore from the USA and the world. Alvin Schwartz included many of his direct sources in the back of each book, however, I did include some research and side tales of my own.  Urban legends and spooky tales have always interested me, and I thoroughly enjoyed the research I put into tracking down not only the sources Alvin mentioned, but other sources I speculate could have fueled the legends he was inspired by.
These books are also well known for being the top of the most banned and frequently challenged books from 1990 - 1999 according to American Library Association. The complaints were that the books were too scary for kids, both in content and the artwork that accompanied it.  
 HarperCollins (publisher) re-released the novels without the original artwork in 2012, to almost universal backlash. Luckily, they saw the light and heard the complaints, and have since changed the box set back to reflect the original publication art. Which is amazing, because if you've ever had the pleasure of reading these books you know that the artwork is half of what makes the stories so memorable.
These books were always in my bags at sleepovers, which was and still is the best place to tell scary stories with your friends. And with the re-release as well as the upcoming movie, I’m sure kids are still scaring the daylights out of each other in the middle of the night.

Here are a few of my favorites from the collection. I looked at not just scariest overall, but the content of the stories and the ones I most frequently re-told, especially during late night sleepovers or around a campfire.

The Girl Who Stood On A Grave

Stephen Gammell

Stephen Gammell

Some young people are at a party trying to spook each other ( I can relate.) A boy says that you cannot ever stand on a grave after dark, or else the dead will pull you down.
A young woman says that that’s not true and that she will go the the nearby cemetery and prove it. The boy bets her money that she won’t be able to go through with it. The girl scoffs and says she’s not afraid.
The boy hands her his knife to stick in the ground right over a grave, so that when she returns they can all venture out in the morning to the graveyard and she will have  proof of her completed dare.
She went to the graveyard, a little scared but telling herself she's being stupid. She wants to get it over as quickly as possible. She rams the knife in the ground, and as she's turning to leave she realizes something has her skirt. She can’t pull free, and thinking that it’s an undead hand reaching up to clutch at her, she drops dead from fright.
The party comes looking for her when she fails to return, and they find her dead with her skirt pinned to the ground by the knife. In her haste she had plunged it to the ground without looking, accidentally catching her skirt, and panicked when she couldn't get loose.

This story is devastatingly simple. The cause of the character's demise being nothing supernatural whatsoever, and for that reason I love this story. It definitely ends a bit bleak, but I think its perfect. It’s creepy, suspenseful, and I am a sucker for a twist ending.
This is a pretty old urban legend and is one of the few that are almost impossible to trace the exact origin of. But it’s possible this story was first
collected by American Folklorist Richard Dorson (the first person who took urban legends and folklore seriously as a subject of study) and published by him in the first issue of Indiana Folklore (1968).  In that version, the story is called “The Graveyard Wager.”

The Wendigo

Stephen Gammell

Stephen Gammell

A man goes hunting in North Canada and hires a local Indian named DeFago to be his guide. (This is the term used in the book, I think because this is Canada the guide would be of First Nations origin, but this detail is overlooked by the author, I digress) They try to catch game and fish, but end up not really catching much of anything. One night there is a terrible blizzard with fierce winds, and the man thinks he hears the wind calling DeFago’s name. “Defayyyyyyyyygo.” The man thinks he's losing it, but he notices that DeFago is hearing it too. Defago jumps up and runs out of the tent toward whatever is calling him, the hunter begging him to not leave, since he would be completely lost. The man tries to chase DeFago, but loses him in the storm.

The man hears searches for his guide for days while he wanders, trying to find his way back to civilization. He finds Defago’s tracks but they are so long and far apart they don’t look human. He follows the tracks to a frozen pond where they simply stop.  He’s sure he hears DeFago screaming at night “my burning feet! My feet of fire!” from far off in the distance.

The man makes it back to the village and he tells everyone the story. The locals suggest that it sounds like The Wendigo, a protector spirit of the forest that drags a human along at great speeds until their feet are burned away, then he flies up to the sky and drops them from a huge height.

The story then ends with the man seeing someone he thinks is Defago but when he lifts the man’s hat, he finds only a pile of ash.

This is one of my favorites in any of the books. The legend of the Wendigo has been around for hundreds of years. It originates in the Atlantic coast and Great Lakes region of United States and Canada, most likely from the Algonquian, who are native to that area. It’s supposed to be a spirit or a creature who possess a human (in some legends, humans that engage in cannibalism) and is a cautionary tale against greed and murder. Creatures inspired by this legend have often appeared  in popular culture too, like the shows Supernatural, Charmed, and Grimm.

Aaron Schwartz was inspired by the novella The Wendigo, written by Algernon Blackwood for this short story.   

I’m a big fan of the story until the very end, I think the ambiguity is far scarier than a pile of ash. I’ve read the novella this story is based on and I am pleased at how much of the original feel Alvin Schwartz was able to keep.

The Bride

Stephen Gammell

Stephen Gammell

A Bride and Groom has just finished celebrating their wedding, when they and the remaining guests decided to play a game of hide and seek. The bride decided to go first and she ran off to hide.

 The groom and the guests searched and searched, growing more worried. Finally, they gave up; the bride was nowhere to be seen. The groom eventually came to the sad conclusion that his new bride had run off. He was devastated, but soon moved on with his life and found another woman to marry.

 Many years later, a housekeeper was cleaning the man’s house, and when she went to the attic she noticed a dusty old trunk. She opened it and was shocked to find a skeleton wearing a wedding dress. The Bride hadn’t run off after all, she must have hid in the trunk and had gotten stuck.

This story is short, but probably one of the most sad out of the series. I find this story terrifying for a few reasons. I almost feel worse for the Groom in this story than the Bride.  The Groom thought his new wife had run off on their wedding night, only to find out that because he hasn’t located her she presumably suffocated and/or died of dehydration or some other terrible fate? And her body was in his house the whole time? How awful for that groom to have to live with that. Especially since it wasn’t his fault; the whole thing was a terrible accident, but I’m sure he would blame himself.

Then, if you’re the bride stuck in that trunk for god knows how long, what a horrifying death. Eventually, she must have come to accept that no one was going to find her up there. I can't imagine having to accept your death while you're still alive, shudder.
This is another old urban legend with several different versions that all end the same way.
Bramshill House could be a probable origin of this story (there it is known as the Legend of Misteltow Bough) in Northeast Hampshire, England. This estate attributes their “ghost bride” that allegedly haunts the location to this story, claiming the ghost is the bride that died during a game of hide and seek.
A poem was published by
Samuel Roberts that claims the story is true, however mentioning that many other houses besides Bramshill House claim the occurrence of the tragedy.  Thanks to ThoughtCo and their article on this urban legend, I found that another mention of this story told as truth stems from an article written in 1890 by an anonymous author, named “A Melancholy Occurrence” a newspaper called “The Monthly Anthology, and Boston Review”, which sets the location of the incident in Germany.

Wonderful Sausage

Stephen Gammell

Stephen Gammell

The main character in this story is a sausage maker who kills his wife, and then to hid the body grinds her up and mixes her remains into his sausage. He sells it as a gourmet secret recipe, and the people in his town go crazy for it. It sells out and the village is demanding more of his amazing sausage.

 The butcher kidnaps and kills more and more people to keep up with the demands. Men, women, children, pets, they all go into his grinder.  Eventually his actions catch up with him, and the ending is ambiguous. It’s suggested he was fed to his own meat grinder after the towns people realized what he was doing.

Schwartz was inspired by a few different sources. There is a Louisiana folklore story Schwartz credits that is set in the early 1800’s about a man who kills his wife, grinds her into sausage, and is haunted by her ghost until he goes mad and commits suicide. The information I found myself about this story even names a location of this crime, the old Hans Miller house in New Orleans.
I also found a well-known murder that may have also contributed to this urban legend.
Adolph Luetgert, a German immigrant living in Chicago, was convicted of killing his wife at his factory, the A.L. Luetgert Sausage & Packing company, in the year 1878. However, Luetgart did not make his wife into sausages. He dissolved her body with lye in one of his sausage vats and attempted to burn the rest of her remains in his furnace. Fragments of bone were found as well as other remains.

There is also a campfire song (which by the way, is a song for children) Schwartz also mentions by name that’s been around since the late 1800’s called “
Dunderbeck’s Machine.” The song doesn’t mention grinding kids (uh, luckily) but it does mention good ‘ole Dunderbeck grinding animals to make his sausage. Much better for kids! (sarcasm)
This story also reminded me of the serial killer
Joe Metheny, who admitted to at least eight murders that took place between 1974 to 1996. He later admitted to mixing the meat of his victims in with burgers that he later sold at his roadside BBQ stand to unsuspecting customers. But Metheny wasn’t caught until 1996, and these books were released in the late 80s - early 90’s, so this crime obviously didn’t inspire the tale. Just a creepy coincidence!

Me Tie Dough-Ty Walker

Stephen Gammell

Stephen Gammell

The story is about a boy and his dog who take a local rich man up on a dare and spend the night in a haunted house. No one ever stayed the night, but it is rumored a bloody head falls down the chimney every night

The boy built a fire and he and his dog are chilling, when the boy hears a sound in the woods surrounding the house. It’s a creepy voice singing “Me-Tie-dough-Ty-Walker.”

This boy’s dog proceeds to respond by singing back “Lynchee Kynchee Kolly Molly Dingo Dingo”

The story says the boy was shocked. His dog had never spoken before!

(At this moment, I would be so terrified that my DOG was talking to me that damn the supposed bloody head that’s going to come down the fireplace.)

The boy then proceeds to sit there, as the disembodied voice and his possessed devil-dog have several back and forth exchanges, the voice getting closer every second. Finally, after one last loud exchange, a bloody head falls out of the fireplace, turns itself around (somehow) and looks at the dog, who drops dead. The way this story ends is you (as the storyteller) are supposed to say “The head looked at the boy, opened its mouth, and AHHHHHHHHHH.” And you're supposed to lunge at your friends and scare them, as well as probably hope they don’t punch you in the face.

There are several stories in these books that end this way. I definitely told a few of these at sleepovers and scared the shit out of some girls. I understand that this is a folklore story, and its very scary almost purely for the the jumpscare at the end. But although I love it I admit it has its issues, primarily in the coherence of the story. Should I be so critical of a folklore story in a children's book? No. Am I going to be anyway? Yeah kinda. But I can’t help my questions. Whose head is coming down the chimney? IS this a ghost head or a real one? And if no one has ever spent the night how do they know this happens? Is the ghost standing on the roof and dropping heads down the chimney? Does this happen even if no one is in the house? So many questions.

 I feel like there’s no resolution in these jump scare stories, because there isn’t a real ending. But this story wins for a great scare (if you’re telling the story aloud) and a freaky picture, as well as the talking-demon dog and overall creepiness of someone speaking that you can't hear. .
The only source of this story I found was the one that Aaron Schwartz credited himself in his book, from the
Hoosier Folklore Bulletin, published by the Hoosier Folklore Society in June 1942. In this collection, the story is titled “The Rash Dog and the Bloody Head.”

The Bed By The Window

Stephen Gammell

Stephen Gammell

Three old men live in a nursing home, one window their only link to the outside world. The man whose bed was next to the window eventually passes away, with the second man taking his bed. The second man describes everything he sees outside of the window to the third man. Pretty girls, traffic jams, a pizza place. The third man grew jealous; he wanted to see these sights for himself.

 He decides to kill the third man so that he finally has the bed by the window. He knocks the second man’s heart medication down so he could not reach it in the middle of the night, and eventually he second man dies.

 The third man finally has the window to himself. He looks out, and all he sees is a brick wall.  

The story isn’t particularly scary, but I love the ending. It leaves it open to interpretation. Were the other two men just making up what they saw, amusing themselves and the others?  Did they actually believe they saw what they were describing? Perhaps was the brick wall some sort of supernatural occurrence to punish the third man for his murder?
Aaron Schwartz mentions this is a story in a book called “Try and Stop Me” a collection of anecdotes and urban legends, compiled by American writer Bennett Cerf published in 1950. However, I also found this as an original story named “The Street “ published in Vanity Fair in 1934 by
Allan Seager, and later included in his 1950 collection called The Old Man of the Mountain and Seventeen Other Stories.

The Red Spot

Stephen Gammell

Stephen Gammell

A woman has a red spot appear on her cheek. She isn't concerned about it at first, but it grows in size and becomes very painful. The young woman complains to her mother, who tells her it’ll soon pass.

One night, the woman is laying in the bath and the large spot on her face bursts, with hundreds of baby spiders emerging.

This story was one of my first exposures to body horror. Also, as a life long arachnophobe, it’s a story I have a hard time reading, even now.

The story emerged as an urban legend sometimes in the 1970’s, and versions of the story often times state the woman to be on vacation in a foreign land when the mother spider lays the eggs in her body.
Fortunately for all of us, there’s no reason to panic. Spiders have
no reason nor even the ability to lay eggs in human skin.

High Beams

Stephen Gammell

Stephen Gammell

Alvin Schwartz includes many “classic” urban legends. (The Hook, The Babysitter, etc.) I didn’t want to include all of them, but I’m a sucker for a classic, well-known spooky urban legend, so I just picked one.

A young woman is on her way home from an event at her school. As she pulls out of the parking lot she notices a truck pull out also and start to follow her. She assumes they are going in the same direction, but the truck starts following her very closely and mimicking her moves, passing cars, and matching her speed. The truck starts flicking its high beams, flooding the young woman’s car with light. She starts to become uneasy as he flicks them on and off in more frequent intervals. He won’t pass her and stays right on her tail, finally leaving the high beams on and leaving them on. The young woman reaches her home and runs inside, screaming for her parents to call the police.
The driver of the truck was in her driveway, gun in hand, when the police arrived. They tried to arrest the driver, but he just points to the back of the young woman’s car. “It’s him you want, not me,” The truck driver says.  
Behind the driver’s seat is a man with a knife. The truck driver explains he saw the man slip into her car in the parking lot and didn’t want to leave her to get the police in case something happened.  Every time he saw the man reach up to over power the woman the truck driver flipped on his high beams and the man dropped out of view, afraid of being seen.

I’m sure most people are extremely familiar with this particular urban legend. This is a story with many different variations, and has been told so many times it’s nearly impossible to find the original source. According to Snopes this story may have originated in 1964 when an (off-duty) cop found an escaped murderer hiding in his back seat and shot him. This incident is different than the urban legend we have now (lacking the “savior” in the story) but it’s plausible that this could be the origin of the “killer in the back seat” trope.

Elements change in versions of this urban legend. At times the story is that the woman has stopped to get gas when the attendant pulls her inside to tell her what he’s seen. There have been several
news stories over the years about attackers hiding in back seats of cars, but it’s of note to point out that these stories lack the distinction of a “savior” (much like the suspected origin of the story I mentioned above) of sorts helping out or saving the person. A recent reiteration of the story changes many elements but keeps the same idea; a man is lying in wait under the car to slash her ankles and murder her/steal her car/kidnap her for a gang initiation.

Folklore and urban legends have been around for hundreds of years. Before they were written down they were verbally passed. Understandably, the nuances of the stories have changed through this thousands-of-years-long game of telephone. But they capture the culture, traditions and experiences and are often told to warn against risky behavior or tap into our worst fears. One things for sure, they aren’t going away, especially due to the internet. And I can assure you, these stories didn’t happen to your sister’s best friend’s brother’s girlfriend!

Stephen Gammell

Stephen Gammell