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Scary Games to Play in the Dark

The recently released Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a surprisingly terrifying film drawn from a collection of tales that haunted kids' imaginations in the 80s. The three volumes that inspired the movie reveal a lot about meta-narrative with some surprising connections to role-playing games. PLEASE NOTE: This article features mild spoilers about the books and movies.


Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was written by Alvin Schwartz and published in 1981 (Scary Stories), 1984 (More Scary Stories), and 1991 (Scary Stories 3). They encompassed a decade of childhood that was about sharing the myths and legends that made up horror stories. But they were so much more than that.

For one, Scary Stories wasn't just retelling tales, it was about teaching kids to scare others. In that regard, the stories act as a script of sorts, with the conclusion often ending with "pick a person to scare and scream at them!" In a few cases, Schwartz even provided multiple endings for the reader to choose from.

For another, Scary Stories was scary because it left out as much as it explained. To fill that gap, artist Stephen Gammell provided some deeply disturbing art. This art, along with the stories themselves, were deemed so ghoulish that the books were listed by the American Library Association as the most challenged series in the 1990s, and the seventh most challenged in the 2000s, returning to the list 2012.

Scary Stories launched an entire genre of horror aimed at young adults, but unlike its successors (e.g., Goosebumps), Scary Stories was rooted in research. Thanks to Schwartz's experience as a journalist, every volume is meticulously sourced and explained, providing context from a variety of global cultures, myths, and legends. The documentary about the series, Scary Stories, interviews Gary Alan Fine. Dr. Fine is a Northwestern University folklorist and sociologist whose theories are featured in Scary Stories 3. Dr. Fine also wrote Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds. I interviewed him for my own book on gaming, The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games.

The reason for this renewed interest is because of the recently-released movie, which revisits some of the events in the books through a framing story. Set in 1968, four teenagers in the small town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, end up visiting a haunted house on Halloween. Those friends include amateur horror writer Stella Nicholls (Zoe Colletti), awkward Auggie Hilderbrandt (Gabriel Rush), goofy Chuck Steinberg (Austin Zajur), and Ramon Morales (Michael Garza) who is dodging the draft. When Stella discovers a book of horror stories written by Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard), the four teens learn that "you don't read the book, the book reads you."

And thus begins a series of tales in which the player characters are railroaded by the ghost of the world's worst game master as she steadily offs each of the teens by writing their story in real time. The protagonists are helpless to stop it, watching the fresh red ink appear in the book in real time.

The movie covers several mainstays from the books, including "Harold," about a murderous scarecrow; "The Big Toe," about a reanimated corpse looking for a body part; "The Red Spot," which features some nasty body horror; "The Pale Lady," a creature that just wants a hug; and "Me Tie Dough-ty Walker" which features the best representation of a Dungeons & Dragons-style troll to ever grace the screen.

The movie does a great job of amping the scares from stories that may seem quaint to adults who remember being afraid of the book. But the books themselves are excellent gateways to legend and lore, providing tips on how to tell a really scary story -- skills that serve game masters well today.
Michael Tresca



Thanks for the well-written, clear, and interesting article. Although I do not remember ever hearing of those books, I remember reading lots about ghosts and such when I was growing up...in the 80s. It seems that a lot of the backdrop to my childhood stories, and the impact they had on my RPG choices, was either informed by or sat alongside the first two books. Thanks for pointing them out,


I remember those books haha. I was at BAM the other day with my daughter and saw these books, brought back some memories. Think I'll pick them up and have some bedtime reading with my little girl hahahaha. I remember the art work and that's what wrapped these books up just perfect.

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