Like many of us horror lovers, I was both haunted by and entranced with Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books. The stories were short and sweet, but the true terror came from their surreal illustrations by Stephen Gammell. His black and white drawings rendered even the most innocuous items, like a basket, into objects of pure horror. His drawings made the stories’ monsters all the more nightmare-inducing, and even the cover illustrations were enough to send me into a panic. Yet, despite that fear, those books and their illustrations left a mark on my young brain, a mark that helped inspire a love of all things spooky.
André Øvredal’s adaptation of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark takes those illustrations and adapts them for the real world, something my child brain could never have comprehended. We’ve seen a few of the drawings that will make their way into the film, such as the spider bite full of babies and Harold the Scarecrow. But there are so many other illustrations by Gammell that struck fear into young hearts. In honor of the release of the film, I’ve rounded up some of the scariest illustrations in this iconic series of books.
10. The Hand Eating Itself from “Wonderful Sausage” (More Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark)
In returning to this series of books, I’m starting to understand where my love of body horror came from. This illustration accompanies the story of a butcher who grinds human beings into sausage. So, of course, the best way to illustrate such a macabre story is to show a human arm holding a fork coming out of a sausage; it is gross, deranged, but also slightly hilarious. It still makes me grin while also feeling slightly nauseous.
9. “The Voice” (More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark)
While many of Gammell’s illustrations were of creatures or human figures, some of his work is much more abstract and surrealist. The image for “The Voice” is a great example, as it takes the idea of a disembodied voice and makes it feel like something out of a David Lynch movie. It’s simple enough, with a single eyeball at the bottom of a staircase with strange root- or vein-like protrusions reaching out of it. It feels like he illustrated a nightmare.
8. Snowy Footsteps from “The Wendigo” (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark)
Admittedly, this image doesn’t seem as horrifying as some of the others on this list. There is no deranged version of the human body, or awful monster with exaggerated features. This really is just an illustration of a set of footsteps in the snow. But something about it feels scary. Perhaps it is the lack of a source of the footsteps. Perhaps it is the desolation you can feel from the bare-bones landscape. Then, you read the story and realize these are the footprints of a wendigo, they take on a whole new meaning.
7. The Feet from “Footsteps” (Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones)
Ghostly footsteps are always terrifying, but obviously you never see anything. So how would you illustrate it? Gammell knew just the way, the most terrifying way, that would make sure I always fell asleep on my side. Many a night I would look up at my ceiling and imagine this exact scenario: ghostly feet pushing through the drywall and extending towards me as I quaked in bed.
6. The Ghost from the Introduction to Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones
Gammell didn’t just illustrate the ghost stories; he also provided illustrations for each of Schwartz’s book introductions. This one is particularly spooky, with a black ghostly figure drifting in a background of various grays. There is something about the small white pinpricks where the eyes should be, that send shivers down my spine. It also resembles a glitchy image you’d see online that claims it is evidence of actual ghosts. It’s just unclear enough that you can fill in the gaps with the darker side of your imagination.
5. Sam’s Pet from “Sam’s New Pet” (Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones)
Sometimes, your parents go on vacation and bring you back a rabies-infected sewer rat that they thought was a dog! Gammell’s rendering of such a present looks like something from John Carpenter’s The Thing, an unrecognizable being that seems vaguely mammalian but also resembles a reanimated potato. This is the kind of pet you keep away from you at all costs, but still manages to wake you up in the middle of the night by licking your toes with its nasty tongue.
4. The Red Spot from “The Red Spot” (Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones)
Arachnophobes beware, because this is a story from your darkest nightmares. Even if you aren’t scared of spiders, this illustration will make sure you shriek at the sight of them. We’ve all heard that urban legend about how you swallow eight spiders in your sleep throughout your lifetime. But what about spiders laying eggs in your face? Ruth, the subject of this short story, had the misfortune of a spider finding a home for her eggs right in her cheek. I’m not sure of the actual logistics of that happening, but I also never want to find out.
3. The original cover illustration of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but that saying doesn’t apply to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Its original cover told you exactly what to expect with that giant grinning head, sprouting out of the ground, smoking a pipe. While most of Gammell’s illustrations were black and grey, this image had added splashes of blue and red in just the right places to make it all the more eye catching. That side-eyeing head haunted me in my childhood, but also piqued my interest; it didn’t scare me enough to keep me away.
2. The Creature from “Is Something Wrong?” (Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones)
“Is Something Wrong?” is another example of Gammell taking minimal description and creating something more awful than you expected. In this case, it is a giant floating creature with a massive head, melting eyeballs, and a strange number of limbs that resemble tree roots. Yet, despite the grotesque imagery, this creature merely asks, “Is something wrong?” as the story’s subject runs away. Even though he is horrible to look at, he is still quite polite!
1. The Haunt from “The Haunted House” (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark)
Gammell’s full-page illustrations were always a guaranteed nightmare fest. With a full page, he could render so much more detail into just one face, especially for the story, The Haunted House. For this particular tale, he drew the decaying face of a twenty-year-old girl whose “hair was torn and tangled, and the flesh was dropping off her face so he could see the bones and part of her teeth.” Gammell takes such a short, yet gruesome, description and creates something even more horrific than could be imagined inside a child’s head.
Øvredal’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark hits theatres on August 9. Are you excited for the adaptation? Which of Gammell’s images scared you the most? Let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Reddit, and in the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook group!