I consider myself an “adult.” I’m a college student. I have a job. I can and do pay for things like ramen and toweling paper, boring adult stuff I’d never have to think about buying for myself before. Still, there are things I and probably the rest of the world believe keep me from reaching that status of full adulthood. I freak out when I have to figure out insurance and tax forms. I have no clearly defined path of what I want to do with my life after graduation. Most importantly of all, though, I was, until recently, still completely terrified of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, a book I hadn’t allowed myself to read since grade school.
This classic book with terrifying illustrations has terrified many a child, and unsettled enough parents to cause controversy over its content. With much of its original audience now grown, though, there’s a lot of fond nostalgia for this old book and its terrors. I was not one of those people contributing to the fond memories train of nostalgia on this one, or, I guess I wasn’t until I decided to write this article. Dang it.
In order to take a bit less emphasis on the sarcastic air quotes around my official “adult” title, I decided to celebrate Halloween by digging this book out of a library somewhere and seeing if it still scares my pants off.
So, one late night, (or maybe it was the middle of the day and I had all the lights on and blinds wide open, and my pepper spray ready on my desk as I read. I’ll never tell.) I took out an old yellowed library copy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and read it through, cover to creepy clown-head cover.
The first section was a success or a disappointment, depending on how you look at it. I wasn’t terrified, so that’s a win, I suppose for “adult” me. I realized how many of these stories were meant to be shared and read aloud. Many of these scares relied on a cue telling the reader “[Now grab the person next to you and scream.] AUUUUGGHHH!” I liked how the book spelled out the approximate sound the kids should be making when they scream, like they weren’t sure a kid could remember it without prompting.
It seemed this first section of stories was meant to be shared aloud for full effect. I considered finding someone to help me out and read them with me, but that might mean the scary stories would actually start scaring, so I was like, “Nah, I’m good huddled safely in my room, all by myself.” Again, I was not scared, so I still called this a win.
The next couple of stories didn’t rely on screamed jump scares, so I felt reading them might go better, or worse, again, however you want to look at it. That’s when I came across it, the story, the one my pure evil fifth grade teacher read aloud for Halloween one day and led me to swear never again to let anyone touch that book in my presence. It’s called “May I Carry Your Basket?” and for a one page tale with a simple, only slightly eerie picture of a basket next to it, this story packed a punch for younger me.
The story goes that a boy sees a woman walking down the road,so heavily bundled up he can’t even see her face. She’s carrying a basket, and the boy, like a polite little child, asks if he could carry the basket for this feeble old lady. Well, turns out her severed head is in the basket, and it bites him. The boy screams and runs away, but the lady and her severed head chase after him, trying to attack him again. The story ends with “the head leaped into the air again and bit into his other leg. Then they were gone.” Wow. Okay.
What I think scared me most about this when I was younger was the last sentence and what I took as its ambiguity. Who was the “they” that were gone? Was it just the old woman and her severed head? That’d be good, I guess. The kid would have some un-dead bite wounds that he’d need to get a tetanus shot for or whatever but he’d probably pull through. Or, could it be that the “they” included the boy himself? Did he vanish back into the hell-scape with the evil headless lady once she got her teeth sunk in him? Younger me definitely preoccupied herself with that latter image. I don’t even know if the vagueness was on purpose, but that ending, combined with the generally terrifying images of a severed head chasing and biting some poor kid made “May I Carry Your Basket” stick unpleasantly in my brain for the longest time.
Reading the story now was a pleasant relief. It decidedly did not terrify me as it used to. Part of it was, I remembered what to expect going in. Also, I’ve read creepy pastas and been to other arm-pit regions of the internet much scarier that story since fifth grade. “Adult” me has seen enough stuff that I didn’t wet myself at this returning ghost of a story. At the same time, I definitely recognized that it was a pretty messed up, terrifying tale nonetheless, and so validated my fear on a way. Yes lil’ Maddie, severed heads attacking you are for real scary. You had every right to freak out.You weren’t being a “whimp” or “chicken” as some of your less kind peers may have indicated. This catharsis allowed me to enjoy reading the rest of the book. I may even look for some of the sequels now, to get in the Halloween spirit.
Well, I’ve taken one more step from “adult” to just plain adult now. Maybe I’ll even polish up my resume and head to the Career Development department for advice in pursuing my future.
Somethings are just too plain scary, even for Halloween.