Fanbase Press’ Scariest 2020: Stephen Gammell’s Artwork in ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’

As Halloween is fast approaching, the Fanbase Press staff and contributors decided that there was no better way to celebrate this horrifically haunting holiday than by sharing our favorite scary stories! Be they movies, TV shows, video games, novels, or any other form of entertainment, members of the Fanbase Press crew will be sharing their “scariest” stories each day leading up to Halloween. We hope that you will enjoy this sneak peek into the terrors that frighten Fanbase Press!

I will start off this piece by admitting that I, personally, have not yet seen the 2019 film adaptation based on the children's book series, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, written by Alvin Schwartz and featuring the art of Stephen Gammell. The concept of tying the stories together with a overarching plot didn't necessarily appeal to me, but, like many of my peers, missing the film version did not mean I escaped the childhood experience of having Gammell's horrific, yet captivating, artwork permanently burned into my mind at a young age.

A trilogy of horror story anthologies written by Schwartz and originally illustrated by Gammell, the first volume of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was published in 1981. Copies were well within reach for kids growing up in the late '80s and '90s, and while Scwartz's words could send a chill through the reader, it was Gammell's quintessential charcoal and ink illustrations that left an unforgettable impression on every youth who innocently flipped through the intriguing looking title. Gammell's artwork so defined the book series that there was a minor controversy among fans when a 2011 reprint replaced Gammell's work with that of artist Brett Helquist, causing an outcry and future printings to restore the original pairing.

In the spirit of the Halloween season, let's examine why Gammell's artwork has held such power and nostalgia for so many readers over the years.


A picture is worth a thousand words...

While Schwartz's stories featured violence, disturbing subject matter, and an assortment of macabre topics (and were often the subject of controversy and accusations of not being appropriate for children), the primal and visceral reaction nearly every reader had to Gammell's artwork can not be overestimated. In many ways, the art in these books was often so powerful that it exceeded the content of the stories themselves. It's argued that visuals are processed by the human brain at 60,000 times the speed of text and the concept of picture superiority effect is used to refer to the phenomenon "in which pictures and images are more likely to be remembered than words." If Gammell's art wasn't hard enough to turn away from on its own merits, it appears the human mind was crafted to soak up the spine-tingling images with utter efficiency.

The surreal is scary... even for kids.

There may be more layered and intellectual levels to examining surrealism in storytelling and art, but when it comes to the disorienting, dream-like, and hallucinatory quality present in the style, children are just as susceptible as adults to its unnerving effect. While still new in many ways to the world, one thing children do have "hands on" experience with early in life is the unique horror of nightmares and these books tap into that.

Imagery that could terrify even those who couldn't read yet.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was a book present in libraries, in book orders, and at sleepovers with your friends. It was also a book that was often accessible to those who were still learning to read or took very little interest in reading for pleasure. Always a popular choice for silent reading in the school classrooms I was educated in, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was a book could terrify you without even reading one of the stories written down inside due to Gammell's artwork. One flip through those pages, and the reader (or "viewer") was changed for life by the imagery inside. It might have been even more intense for those who could only interpret the haunting visuals without any context from the words written on the page.

Feeding the imagination.

While Gammell's artwork was undeniably striking, what we children imagined happening next or just off page was always far, far worse than any author or artist could hope to convey. As mentioned previously, for many, it seems the artwork in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark exceeded the power of the stories they were paired with.

I would suggest that part of that power is that a written story has an ending, while a piece of art simple exists and inspires further thought. When the last word is read, Gammell's terrifying visions still hang heavy in the minds of the reader. During the year of 2020, Fanbase Press's staff and contributors have used the #StoriesMatter initiative to explore the importance of storytelling in human culture and how we use storytelling to connect with others and learn more about ourselves. As a final thought, I would offer that the power to inspire, even inspiration of our fears, demonstrates the power of storytelling in our lives. There are many ways we seek out horror stories, especially at a young age, and one of those reasons is our desire to grapple with our primal fears, the anxiety of the unknown, and how both of these concepts connect to the natural fear and fascination with death. While it can be thrilling to be scared, the "Halloween spirit" and horror genre are grounded in our very human need to grapple with the inevitability of our own mortality and the unavoidable anxiety that, at some point, we shall to cease to exist, even if only in this form. Through stories (and art) that scare us, we better understand those fears and can come closer to accepting death and pain as part of the human experience for all of us without falling completely into the abyss.

You can find the collected addition of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (featuring the original art by Gammell) at this link if you’d like a spooky treat this Halloween!

Go to top