Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark: 20 Favourite Tales

Richard Petro

twitter @ThePetroProject

August 12, 2019
     I first came across Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark like quite a lot of others that remember growing up having crossed its path; it was fifth grade and I was picking through books at the library. I was already in love with horror at this point, and was slowly making my way into reading adult books (mostly Stephen King, of course). I particularly loved anthologies and short stories, and happened upon the friendly clown cover of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

     "Look at how happy he is!"

     I was immediately intrigued, and quickly worked my way through the other two books. Alvin Schwartz's folklore and urban legend based tales were exactly what I was looking for and perfectly filled a fun weekend. But, of course, it wasn't just the stories that made the books stand out and stay with me for decades. Stephen Gammell's illustrations still rank as some of the best I've seen in a work of its kind, working hand in hand with the stories themselves to make sure you'll be thinking of them when you turn the lights off for bed.
     With the film adaptation finally hitting theaters, we decided to work out our 20 favourite stories spread across the three books. We have excluded some of the more well-known urban legend stories (such as "Hook", "The Bride", "High Beams", etc.) and instead are focusing on stories that may not be as well known or spread. So let's dive in to some of our favourite stories from the collection, and which ones you need to make sure to read for yourselves, either alone or with friends.

20. Like Cat's Eyes

     Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has its fair share of great one page, or even half a page, stories. Like Cat's Eyes is a take on stories of, essentially, soul-collectors, the beings that may be around when individuals die that we don't see. A woman tends to her dying husband and, needing a break to herself, leaves her husband with the nurse and sits in a different room to take a break for herself, staring out into the night window. A hearse arrives with shadowy, strange little men with cat like eyes hanging off, and she watches them enter her home and leave carrying something. The nurse informs her that her husband has passed.
     It's a simple story that may not be frightening, but it definitely leaves you with a chilling image while picking at the questions people have about what happens when we die, and I've always enjoyed the shorter stories that are simple yet leave you with very effective imagery.

19. White Wolf

     Predictable? Sure, but White Wolf, the story of a man who happens to be good at killing cattle attacking wolves going through hundreds before retiring and being pulled back into the game years later, is the kind of story that ends very satisfyingly; nature striking back in supernatural ways. It's simple, but a classic style of "getting what one deserves" storytelling.

18. The Church

     Okay, I know a few people may not agree, at all, about having this even on the list, but it just gets me every time. Besides the straight forward scary tales, the books also housed 'Boo' stories revolving around you scaring your friends with a well placed yell, and even stories that were comedic. This is one of the comedic ones, about a man who pulls over to an abandoned church in the middle of a stormy night. It's ridiculous, and I know plenty of people aren't fans of the tales that don't fall into the genuinely 'scary' category, but there's always room for fun, and the punchline here is so ridiculous that it always makes me laugh.

17. Wolf Girl

     I'm going to come out and say that the third book in the series is the best, as it is home to multiple stories that are longer than usual, giving them a chance to breath and build. Wolf Girl is, flat out, not a scary story; it concerns the tale of a baby who disappears and is raised by wolves, and peoples sightings of her and subsequent attempt to catch her. While the story doesn't fall into what people open these books for, I always had a soft spot for it. It's a few pages long, making it compelling enough to draw your interest, a well-written tale I can't help but enjoy.

16. Room for One More
     One of the most nerve-wracking things about life are the moments where we believe we may have cheated death, or how everything could have gone differently if we had made a slightly different decision at a certain time in the day. Room for One More builds off of this, perfectly centering its story around a disaster that could happen and be easily avoided through a simple decision. The thought of experience something of the like alone is scary.

15. Little Black Dog

     A long time family feud comes to a deadly conclusion, but that doesn't end up being where it stops. Little Black Dog is a great short story on revenge, but what makes it great is the fact that it isn't direct revenge involving the main players, and it is the perfect tale for those that believe that a dog is man's best friend.

14. The Black Dog
     Geez, black dogs don't seem to be a good thing for at least one person in these stories. A man living home alone in a house begins experiencing something odd at 11pm every night; a black dog suddenly appears, running down the stairs and mysteriously disappearing in the home. He gets help from the neighbor as well as his own dogs, but how much can they do against a seeming ghost dog.
     The Black Dog is a great twist on usual ghost stories and tropes. The idea of someone haunting you, or a ghost appearing, is bad enough, but switch the subject out with a dog and it becomes slightly less scary and more weird and surreal. What works in favour of this is also the fact that, while dogs are adorable, they can also be incredibly scary, intimidating, and dangerous, and that's where the shift in the story comes. Though the dog initially appears to be harmless, there's the possibility of danger underneath the surface. The way the story ends doesn't help in this case either, with a resolution that isn't clear enough to probably make the homeowner sleep peacefully anymore.

13. Rings on Her Fingers

     Daisy Clark has been in a coma for more than a month before a doctor declares her dead. That night, after she had been buried, a thief digs up her grave in order to steal any valuables she may have been buried with. Unfortunately, for him, opening her coffin and stealing her jewelry ends up easier said than done.
     A take on the classic 'person-buried-who-isn't-actually-dead', Rings on Her Fingers has always resonated with me primarily for the reason that I find it hilarious. The idea of someone who is supposed to be dead suddenly rising above you is scary, but the thief not only gets what he deserves (along with inadvertently aiding the woman), but his terror being met with a shrug from Daisy Clark always gets me. He freaks out and she just shrugs and makes her way off, not giving it a second thought.

12. The Haunted House

     The home of one of the most recognizable and oft seen images of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, The Haunted House is a story not just of a haunting, but of a spirit that cannot rest due to the circumstances surrounding their death. The illustration is incredible and it's easy to see why it has stood the test of time as one of the staples of the series. The story itself is okay, though it (like some other stories) falls victim to the fact that these tales are kept short and sweet. Schwartz, though, was always good at still being capable of presenting a tense atmosphere for the small amount of space he used, and the first half of the tale, of the priest's encounters of the ghost herself, are wonderfully written and paced.

11. The Dream

     Another image that is usually amongst the first people mention when talking about remembering the series from their childhood days, The Dream touches on the odd feelings of deja vu and living out a dream. Lucy is an artist essentially moving from town to town and painting, deciding that she is going to move on to Kingston, until she has a nightamre about a bedrom she is staying in and a woman with black eyes, long black hair and pale face entering and leaning over her bed, telling her not to stay there as it's an evil place. The next day Lucy changes plans and goes to Dorset, only to come across the same room and woman in her dream, before hightailing it out of there.
     The Dream works as well as it does because it's something unexplainable that we have all experienced; moments during our days that feel as though we have experienced them somewhere else, somehow, especially given the idea that so many have about what our dreams can or do mean. The idea of running into something from our dreams is bad enough, but there is an extra layer here that works in a very subtle, underlying way. Mostly, we aren't entirely sure if the woman from the dream is necessarily good or bad. Her warning to Lucy ended up driving her to the location from her dream in the first place, and who knows if this was the intended purpose or not. It makes the entire story creepier to consider the possibilities.

10. The Bed by the Window
     What was always great about the trilogy of books is that it didn't simply present scary stories. You could have your choice of stories that were interactive (usually you yelling at points to scare your friends around a campfire), or jokes (The Church), or simply more straightforward storytelling (The Wolf Girl). The Bed by the Window falls into this category, with the story of three elderly friends in a line of beds with one window falling into the more 'drama' side of things. There are no scares, or creepy paragaraphs, just a wonderfully built tale that ends in a thought-provoking, painful way. I don't want to get into the details, since this is one of the stories that works best going in blind.

09. The Drum

     It's kind of difficult to talk about a lot of these stories, especially the ones in the top 10, as I'd rather have everyone experience it themselves. The Drum very much falls into that category, about two kids who see someone with a drum they would really like, and agree to be bad towards their mother in exchange for the drum. Needless to say, things continue to escalate. The Drum works as a piece of classic folktale, both unnerving and slightly weird, while also teaching children to always be good lest they, well, you'll see. It's one story you should definitely go into blind. (The story is based off of Lucy Clifford's 'The New Mother', which also served as an inspiration for Neil Gaiman's Coraline.)

08. The Voice/Footsteps
     I put The Voice and Footsteps together as they are great for essentially the same reason; being terrifying through very, very relateable means. Both revolve around the idea of hearing things that could very well be in your head, but also may be a bit more real than you know. These are the worst kinds of stories to remember when you're home alone, whether you're hanging out in the living room of attempting to get to sleep. The two are perfect examples of horror being utilized in the best way, presenting us with things we are all too familiar with.

07. The Window
     A woman is haunted by a figure that comes to her window repeatedly before action is taken against what may be a long undead creature. The Window isn't scary as it is more creepy, and I love it so much for that. It is a simple horror story, one that isn't necessarily about a real world scenario or the like, but a tale of an individual being haunted by an other-worldly figure. It feels like classic horror, and one that slots in perfectly for nights dedicated to vampires.

06. The Thing

     Two friends encounter a terrifying 'individual' one day that neither can explain, appearing like nothing they have seen before, until it is, in one way, encountered again some time down the road. The Thing explores the idea of coming across something you cannot explain, or expect, and turns it on its head in its final moments in a way that turns the entire thing into something else completely. There are a few stories from these books, even on this list, that deal with encountering death in one way or another, but this one pulls it into a more personal territory than some of the others may have. It's final moments are haunting, and the entire thing ends up feeling less scary and more self reflective, which may be the scariest thing of all.

05. The Dead Hand

     Town legends, and urban legends, have always been a wonderful, intriguing piece of life when it comes to horror storytelling amongst individuals. The Dead Hand works off of this, giving us the usual go-to subject in scenarios like this; the person who isn't scared of anything. The ending of the story seems to stray towards exactly what you may expect a few lines into it, but then turns around in its final moments to bring back the subject at hand, no pun intended, leading to an ending that may not be precisely in the same league of horrific imagery as some others (even two upcoming tales), but horrific nonetheless. This is the kind of story that would work best memorized and told around a campfire with friends, perfectly feeling like it could belong to the history of any small, scary areas around town.

04. Sounds

     Sounds you might hear when you're home alone is one thing, but hearing sounds you know you aren't supposed to be hearing is another. Sounds puts three individuals in an abandoned home in the middle of a rainstorm when they suddenly begin to hear the sound of a struggle upstairs, followed by screaming and blook dripping from the ceiling before it gets quiet. Hauntings and ghosts have always been scary enough, but the idea of hearing things that may have happened or things that may be going on is terrifying. The story does a perfect job in setting up its atmosphere, and unraveling the noises themselves. The added imagery of blood dripping onto the floor from the ceiling is perfect, and works wonders in pushing the tale into a whole new territory. A lot of the best scary stories ever told are simple in their execution, and this one is a short, effective jolt that stays in your mind long after you've read it.

03. Harold

     The final three stories could have all very easily held the #1 spot, and it all came down to trying to mix things up. Does Harold need any sort of introduction? Quite possibly the most famous story in the set, Harold is a legitimately unnerving tale about a scarecrow that has too much life to it harassing a duo who aren't quite sure what to do with him. The power of Harold lies very much in the oddity of the preceedings, building from the way the friends treat the scarecrow to the way its full sentience is slowly revealed, and his actions. The illustration is also one of the best in the series, presenting us with a scarecrow that seems realistic yet still absolutely haunting.
     And, of course, there's the ending. While quite a few of the stories from the trilogy had some explicit finales (The Dead Hand being one example), the ending of Harold was the one that has stuck with me through out all these years. It's a horrifying, gore-y end that still reads as overtly shocking for the story.

02. "Oh, Susannah!"

     This entry is a slight cheat. I made mention at the beginning of the article that I had planned to exclude anything based on more well-known urban legends, but "Oh, Susannah!" was too good and haunting to pass up. The one page tale of a college student who attempts to sleep while her roommate hums "Oh, Susannah" and keeps her awake has a disturbing ending with a terrifying cliffhanger. What makes it stand out against the urban legend it's based on is the usage of an actual song that ties it to the 'real world' for us, to the point that hearing the song itself or thinking about it will creep you out alone. The implications of what may come after the story ends also works to leave the horror of this story lingering in your head. Special mention should be given to the art that goes along with it, which doesn't have anything to do with the story but is just as unnerving, maybe even because of it.

01. Maybe You Will Remember

     Harold was always my personal favourite/scariest story when I was growing up and first got into the series. With my first read through being two decades ago, revisiting the books has made me see a few stories differently; Maybe You Will Remember is the one that has changed the most in how terrifying it is. The story involves a girl staying at a hotel with her sick mother, she is sent out to pick up some medicine for her only to return and find all at the hotel claim they don't know about her or her mother, who has disappeared. Though the story itself doesn't give you any real answers, they are included in the book, and piecing it together as it goes is horrifying based purely on what people can do, and the lengths they can go to, causing a poor girl to start believing she is crazy. It's as sad as it is scary, and one that may have flown past many when they first read it at a young age, not being able to fully comprehend the context. It is one that is worth revisiting alone, and one that stays with you the more you think about it.