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The Original Folktales And Urban Legends That Inspired ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’

Adapted into a movie by Guillermo del Toro and André Øvredal in 2019, Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books traumatized many of us as children. What made them so scary? The illustrations by Stephen Gammell.

But seriously, that's only part of it. The stories all had that unmistakable ring of reality in an age before creepypasta and the popularity of found-footage horror movies. These were classic campfire tales, designed to be told in the wee hours of a sleepover with a flashlight held under your chin. Part of the reason they work so well is that Schwartz pulled them from all over the place, ranging from ancient Babylonian myths to contemporary urban legends, creating a manic collection of the scariest stories he could find from all over the world and across history.

He didn't stop there, though. The Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books were terrifying, sure, but they were also educational. In the back of each book were story notes and an extensive bibliography that explained where Schwartz had gotten each story from, and pointing the reader toward other tales of a similar type. Yeah, most of us ignored those when we were kids, gravitating instead toward the stories themselves and those impossibly creepy illustrations. But even so, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark served as a gateway to urban legends, folktales, and classic ghost stories that we might otherwise never have encountered. Here are the real folktales and urban legends that inspired some of our favorite Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

  • 'Harold' Started Out As An Austrian-Swiss Legend

    Photo: Stephen Gammell / HarperCollins

    A fan favorite for its eerie illustration of a scarecrow, the story "Harold" from Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones was used heavily in the promotion of the 2019 film - to the extent that Harold is prominently featured on the main poster. But the story itself goes way, way beyond just another creepy scarecrow story. Two farmers are particularly cruel to their scarecrow Harold - until Harold starts grunting and "trotting" back and forth on the roof of their hut. That's creepy enough, but where the story ends is worse yet.

    Though the name is all Schwartz, "Harold" is adapted from an Austrian-Swiss folktale with a handful of variants. All of them end the same bloody way as Schwartz's telling, though. He may have picked the story up from a book by Max Lüthi called Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales.

  • 'The Big Toe' Was A Classic Story That Schwartz Heard From A Sailor

    Photo: Stephen Gammell / HarperCollins

    The first tale in the first Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, "The Big Toe" starts us off on nice, creepy ground as a kid digs up a big toe in his garden. He takes it home and his mom puts it in the soup and they have it for supper, as one does. Then a creepy voice comes demanding to have its big toe back.

    Schwartz reports that he first heard the version of "The Big Toe" from a sailor while he was serving in the Navy during WWII. However, variants on the classic story show up all over the place. In the notes at the back of the book, Schwartz points out that it is a take on the folk story "The Golden Arm," in which a man steals his wife's golden arm after she perishes and her ghost comes back to claim it. This story, which goes back to Germany and England, was often told by Mark Twain.

    Another variation on the theme are the "Tailypo" stories of the Appalachian Mountains, in which the titular creature has its tail chopped off by a hungry hunter who makes it into a stew, only to have the Tailypo come back looking for it.

  • 'The Red Spot' Comes From An Urban Legend

    Photo: Stephen Gammell / HarperCollins

    If you want to see a Scary Stories fan squirm, just mention "The Red Spot." This story of a spider bite that goes very poorly for a poor girl is adapted from an urban legend that is common in both the United States and Great Britain - nevermind that spiders don't actually work like that.

    Tracing its origins back to the 1960s or '70s, "The Red Spot" is an example of the newer urban legends that Schwartz weaves into Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark alongside classic ghost stories and ancient myths. In his notes, Schwartz refers to the version of the story contained in The Mexican Pet by folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand.

  • 'The Dream' And Several Other Stories Come From A 19th-Century Autobiography

    Photo: Stephen Gammell / HarperCollins

    One of the most striking images in the movie version of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is the "Pale Lady" monster, who comes from the story "The Dream." Instead of pulling from folklore or urban legends, this is one of several stories in the Scary Stories books ("Like Cat's Eyes" is another) that is adapted from the autobiography of Augustus Hare.

    Hare was, according to Bustle, "an English raconteur known for stretching the truth." Author Ted Morgan once called Hare "the last Victorian," and Hare's autobiography includes a handful of anecdotes about ghostly sightings and strange happenings that made their way into Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.