The 15 Most Disturbing Illustrations From “Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark”
Oh man. I am going to hate myself so much for doing this. But not right away. I’m going to hate myself while I’m lying in bed tonight trying and failing to fall asleep.
You see, Halloween is just around the corner so I figured I would do some kind of Halloween special, or at least the Internet blog equivalent of one. The question was what I was actually going to do. I’ve already done a post about the scariest songs in my collection, and since I’m doing my Top 5 lists in the same order in which they appeared on my show, the Top 5 Songs To Scare Trick-Or-Treaters Away From Your House is still a long way off.
And then it hit me: Do a post about the Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark series.
When I was a kid, the Scary Stories books were responsible for more sleepless nights than just about anything else I’ve ever encountered. But it wasn’t the stories themselves that creeped me out. To his credit Alvin Schwartz tells these stories right, using simple language without excessive detail and short, punchy paragraphs so the stories are easy to follow and when the scary stuff hits it hits fast and hard. Some of the stories Schwartz collected for the books are genuinely disturbing. Others are funny – the stories in the last chapters in each book are usually meant to “make you laugh, not scream.” Some are actually tragic and sad – basically, any story about a guy falling in love with a woman who turns out to be a ghost, and there are several. And a few of them have been told so many times they have no effect on you. Ever hear the one about the babysitter getting threatening phone calls from inside the house? Of course you have.
But let’s face it, people… the real reason you remember these books, and why they kept me up at night, isn’t the stories themselves. Oh no. It’s the illustrations. And I’m not talking about the new ones in the latest editions of the books. I’ve got nothing against the new artist, but the books don’t pack the same punch. The new pictures are not why we’re here today. No, no, no… I’m talking about THESE.
I don’t know what the hell inspired Stephen Gammell to create these images, and frankly I’m not sure if I even want to know. His grotesque black-and-white imagery is arguably scarier than anything in any of the stories. Even the way the drips of black ink run from some of the objects he draws makes all of them look like they’re bleeding. Guys, there’s a reason these books were re-released with new illustrations. It’s because Gammell’s pictures have scared the crap out of thousands of kids. The Scary Stories books were actually the American Library Association’s most challenged book series of the ‘90s, and the 7th-most challenged of the Double-0s. To put that in perspective, the last book came out in 1991, and the other two are older than I am. Truly, Gammell’s illustrations are masterpieces of horror imagery that continue to stand the test of time.
So the way I see it is, what better way to celebrate the coming of All Hallows’ Eve than by traumatizing my readers the same way I myself have been scarred for life? I’ve delayed the inevitable long enough. These are the Top 15 Most Disturbing Illustrations from Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark. Sweet dreams, everyone. If it makes you feel any better, I won’t be getting much sleep tonight either.
[EDIT: NEW STUFF! I've added an honorable mention section, and when you click on the illustrations you'll be taken to YouTube videos with audiobook recordings of the stories. Couldn't find one for #2 though.]
15. “Cold As Clay” (Scary Stories)
You see that? Someday, that’s going to be you. And me. And everyone else. Ever since I first grasped the concept of death, I have feared it. Dreaded it. The fact that it’s inevitable, that we all become the man in this picture, is perhaps the scariest thing of all. And the Scary Stories series makes no effort to sugarcoat that either. Then again, how could you?
14. “Rings On Her Fingers” (More Scary Stories)
This picture isn’t all that creepy until you have the context of the story to go along with it. “Rings On Her Fingers” is about a comatose woman who is pronounced dead and buried, only to wake up when a grave robber digs her up and tries to cut her fingers off so he can take her rings. So here she is, walking back home to a house full of people who still think she’s dead. And it’s unclear whether she’s a zombie or if she was buried alive because the doctor made a horrible mistake. I’m not sure which is worse. Oh, and what you don’t see in this picture is the thief lying in her grave, bleeding to death after falling on his own knife.
13. “The Red Spot” (Scary Stories 3)
Spiders are creepy. I don’t know anyone who likes them. I’m not as arachnophobic as other people are (though bigger ones really freak me out), but even if they don’t scare you at all “The Red Spot” is pretty disturbing. Unless you’re okay with having dozens of spiders suddenly BURST OUT OF YOUR FACE.
12. “Wonderful Sausage” (More Scary Stories)
Everything you need to know about how gruesome this story is can be found in this picture. “Wonderful Sausage” is about a butcher who turns just about any living thing he comes across – cats, dogs, men, women, children, you name it – into sausage meat. So now we have a piece of Soylent Green sausage with a human hand holding a fork like it’s feeding itself to you. (Or possibly even trying to eat itself because it just tastes so damn good.) Which means not only was this person still alive while going through the meat grinder, but he/she is still alive as a sausage and will still be alive when you eat it. That’s it. I’m becoming a vegetarian.
11. “Bess” (More Scary Stories)
I may not be an expert on horses, but I am least 95% sure their skeletons don’t look like that. The skull seems right. The rest of the bones look more like lightning bolts. And come to think of it, where are the hind legs? It looks like this horse had all four legs in the front part of its body. Once you get past where the knees were probably supposed to be, things get even stranger. Each of the legs seem to be split into multiple feet that are all joined at the same knee. This horse is anatomically impossible. Couple that with the backdrop, where everything has drops of ink trickling down in that “bleeding ink” style I mentioned earlier, and you’ve got one seriously unsettling image.
10. “Sam’s New Pet” (Scary Stories 3)
“Sam’s New Pet” is a story about a family that somehow mistakes a rabid sewer rat for a small Mexican dog. The story itself isn’t very scary – I think it’s kind of funny, actually; I mean, how do you not know the difference between rats and dogs? But look at that… um… uh… I don’t even know what the hell that is. Honestly, I’m not sure if it makes the story funnier or more unsettling. It certainly isn’t a dog, but it doesn’t look like any rat I’ve ever seen either. It is a creature that only exists in Stephen Gammell’s twisted imagination. And suddenly the veterinarian telling the family it’s a rabid sewer rat sounds less like a punch line and more like his way of covering up the fact that he has no idea what this thing is either.
9. “No Thanks” (Scary Stories 3)
This is kind of similar to the illustration for “The Thing” in the sense that you’d run the hell away from anyone who looked like the guy in the picture. But “No Thanks” earns a spot on the list because of how horribly wrong this man looks. His skull has a bizarre and inhuman shape, his eyes are looking in two different directions, he only seems to have one ear, and there are rays of light shooting out of a gaping hole in his stomach. Oh, and when you read the story you realize this guy is trying to sell you a “nice sharp knife.”
8. Title Page (Scary Stories 3)
One of the most grotesque landscape images I’ve ever seen. Why does that tree have a face? For that matter, why does the ground have a face? In fact, why does the ground have multiple faces? Where is that arm coming from? What the hell is that bloated thing lying on the ground in the lower left-hand corner? And what’s with the disembodied eyeball floating in the sky staring right at me? How is it that the sky is the only thing in this picture that doesn’t have a face, and yet is somehow also the only thing with eyes?
7. “Harold” (Scary Stories 3)
This is one of those images where the “bleeding ink” effect seems to work most powerfully. It’s like Gammell is giving you a clue that the scarecrow is alive. He looks like a real guy who got tied to a scarecrow pole by mistake. But you want to know the real reason this picture makes the list? Look into Harold’s eyes. He is pissed off. And he’s planning to skin you alive and stretch your flesh out across the rooftop of the nearest farmhouse. And he will carry it out.
6. “Oh Susannah!” (More Scary Stories)
No, this story doesn’t have anything in common with the illustration at all. But between the weird thing on that person’s leash and that hellish demon bursting out of the sky at the top of the page, maybe that’s a good thing. And this is a story that ends with the main character realizing that somebody cut her friend’s head off and whoever did it is very close by. Can you imagine what a story that actually matches that illustration would be like?
5. “The Dream” (Scary Stories 3)
Man, Stephen Gammell really stepped his game up for Scary Stories 3. It’s like he knew this would be the last book in the series so he pulled out all the stops. Some people actually consider this the scariest image in the series. And if I saw someone who looked like this in my dreams, I’d probably try to stay awake for the rest of my life. Especially when she starts blinking and moving. Why in God’s name did someone think it was a good idea to animate this picture? (Note: I AM NOT LINKING TO THAT ANIMATED GIF. It creeps me out way too much.)
4. “T-H-U-P-P-P-P-P-P-P!” (Scary Stories 3)
Believe it or not, this is actually supposed to be one of the funny stories. It ends with the ghost blowing a raspberry, for God’s sake. But look at that picture. Look at that hideously misshapen thing materializing out of nowhere over that bedroom furniture that could easily be yours. Even if the ghost turns out to be a harmless prankster, good luck sleeping again after that.
3. “Is Something Wrong?” (Scary Stories 3)
Hell yes there is something wrong! You are a 20-foot-tall God-Knows-What with a giant head and six legs and a tail! AND YOUR EYES ARE MELTING OUT OF YOUR SKULL!
2. “The Haunted House” (Scary Stories)
I know it sounds crazy, but there is actually one image that freaks me out more than this. What’s even crazier is that she isn’t nearly as scary in the story, even though the illustration is based on the story’s description of her appearance. All she wants is for the man who killed her to be brought to justice. And who could argue with a face like that? Miss, I’ll do anything you want as long as you don’t kill me and eat my brains.
[EDIT: NEW STUFF!] And now, before we get to numero uno (yeah, yeah, just delaying the inevitable, I know), let’s take a look at a few that almost made this list.
“The Bride” (More Scary Stories)
Such a shame. She used to be a total hottie, shark fangs and all. And then she had to go and lock herself in that trunk. But don’t feel too sorry for her — I hear she’s still getting married to Johnny Depp.
Hey, I wonder if she’s related to that girl from “The Haunted House.” That would be one mighty unlucky family if they were, wouldn’t it?
Cover Art (Scary Stories)
You want to know the worst thing about this one? It doesn’t come with a story. This head is growing out of the ground for absolutely no reason. Bonus points if you’re afraid of clowns!
Whatever the hell THIS is
I don’t remember which book this guy was in. If I remember correctly, he appeared in the appendix section in one of them. It’s a nice little surprise for all you readers who thought you could read Alvin Schwartz’s notes and references without some freaky-looking whatchamacallit STARING INTO YOUR VERY SOUL.
And one of his eyes is overinflated while the other appears to have just popped open — wait a minute, is that another eye staring at me from that otherwise empty socket? So this guy has another set of eyes behind his eyes? Or do they just keep growing until they pop and then regenerate and start the whole process over?
Seriously, how did Stephen Gammell come up with this stuff? Jeez…
Okay, if I keep thinking of any more I might as well just rank the whole damn series.
1. “The Dead Hand” (Scary Stories 3)
And now, brace yourselves. It’s time to show you my choice for the #1 most disturbing Scary Stories illustration of all time. It accompanies a story called “The Dead Hand.” And I’m pretty sure there is an actual picture of a dead (and disembodied) hand dangling from a wire somewhere in this story. Or maybe I’m thinking of “The Dead Man’s Hand” from More Scary Stories. Either way, that’s not the picture at #1.
Sometimes things that disturb you stay with you. No matter how old I was, no matter how many times I borrowed one of these books from the Garrettford Elementary library as a kid, I almost always skipped “The Dead Hand.” And whenever I was reading through the books and I had a feeling I was getting close to “The Dead Hand,” I would double-check the table of contents just to be sure of where it was so I could skip it. And if I did read the story, I would do everything I could to keep my eyes focused on the text and nothing but the text, like sticking a full-size 8×11 sheet of blank paper at that page just to block the illustration.
Why did I do this? Why did I go to all this trouble? Because I knew what was coming, and I didn’t want to come face-to-face with THIS.
Don’t even try to tell me it’s human. I know it isn’t. I don’t even think that thing used to be human. I think it’s an Eldritch abomination from hell that ripped off most of someone’s face and put it on like it’s supposed to be a mask. Or to distract you from the nightmare fuel that is the rest of whatever it is. It’s like some kind of shapeless black mass that has dozens of tendrils and tentacles extending from its body.
I mean, look at this thing. This came from the mind of a human being. He conjured it, decided it was a good idea for a scary stories collection for kids, and then sat down with some ink and paper and put it on the page. When I’m lying in bed tonight, I am going to see this thing every time I close my eyes. And it’s all your fault, Stephen Gammell. Damn your wonderfully vivid and horrifying and brilliant imagination! Now my readers will have no choice but to hide under a blanket and cower in the corner until all the monsters go away…
Just like I’ve been doing this entire time.