campfire scary stories

From as far back as I can remember, the one thing about horror that always enticed me was what I’ve come to call “the campfire mentality”; that feeling of sitting around and listening to someone tell you a story that was supposed to have you anxiously looking over your shoulder, leaping out of your skin in fright, and ending it all with a hearty laugh because it’s all in good fun.

As a very young child, I was no horror-hound. I still have vivid recollections of walking through the horror section of a video store with my hands over my eyes because I was scared of the box art, or being frightened by my mother when she wore press-on nails because they reminded me of Freddy Krueger (whose movies I hadn’t even seen at that point). But, one of my earliest entries into being fascinated and thrilled by horror were the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. These collections of horrific folklore and urban legends were digestible enough for a juvenile reader, but when paired with the nightmarish and often surreal artwork of illustrator Stephen Gammell, the tales became branded upon my brain.

scary stories the thing
The first image from a book that made me stop reading from sheer terror, and this isn’t even near the scariest artwork from those books.

Another crucial component to my horror upbringing involved a very literal campfire: the television series Are You Afraid of the Dark? and its group of teenage storytellers called The Midnight Society reinforced that concept of utilizing horror as a way to make friends and have fun, all while crafting wicked yarns intended to frighten and excite youngsters. There are plenty of episodes worth highlighting (maybe a rewatch and recap is in order?), but the one that made the biggest impression on me was “The Tale of the Ghastly Grinner.” In a nutshell, an evil comic book character comes to life and turns people into giggling idiots who drool blue goo.

ghastly grinner are you afraid of the dark
Who needs to sleep when they’re a kid?

Then, there was Creepshow. I have a very fond memory of watching the George A. Romero/Stephen King film with my dad, and once again being opened up to the idea that being scared and having fun weren’t mutually exclusive enterprises. I recently yammered on about my deep affection for this film on my podcast, so if you’re interested in hearing me go into detail about it, give it a listen. …And for more shameless plugging, check out the episode fellow Chewer Travis Newton and I did on Hostel and Hostel Part II. It’s a fun one! Okay, plugging over. My enjoyment of Creepshow led to my father introducing me to both The Twilight Zone (the series and the film) and the then current Tales from the Crypt television series, and my love of short form horror continued to expand.

drew meets john kassir
Pay no attention to the dork in the odious Dragonball Z shirt.

Through all of this, I discovered how much I loved the anthology format when it came to horror films and television. This idea of doing the cinematic equivalent of a short story collection reflected a lot of what I think works about the genre. I’ve always maintained that horror is a genre that can be forgiven for having some otherwise destructive faults if the premise at the center of the story is intriguing and/or is presented in a satisfying way. It’s one of the reasons why I fervently argue that Stephen King’s best works are often his short stories; it’s easier to succeed with a bizarre idea in a condensed form than it is to try and make a crazy concept work as an extended story.

That’s the simplicity that I love about anthology horror. The tales don’t have to be the most well-thought-out pieces of fiction ever crafted as long as you have a good hook, a cool monster, a wacky notion, or a mix-and-match of these things. The anthology format is also tailor-made for creating discussion. There’s bound to be entries some like more than others, and it invites viewers to compare and contrast and figure out what they themselves enjoy out of a good scary tale.

Speaking of scary tales, I guess I do have to admit some intense bias in this arena, seeing as my only semi-serious venture into the film world was in an anthology horror movie, Scary Tales: The Return of Mr. Longfellow, which I got to be a part of thanks to an ancient version of the CHUD message boards and writer/director Michael A. Hoffman. See if you can spot a peroxide blonde Drew in the trailer below (take a good look around 1:45 and 1:53):

Regardless of my pivotal role as “Young Zombie,” I will continue to argue for the validity of the anthology horror format, and this Halloween I urge you to seek out whichever ones you can get your hands on. Thankfully, there’s a plethora of choices. As far as television goes, I’m sure there’s ways for you to get your hands on some episodes of The Twilight ZoneTales from the Crypt, or even such fare as the underappreciated (but admittedly not stupendous) Monsters or the unofficial continuation of CreepshowTales from the Darkside (the pilot is a perfect Halloween episode, and the movie is worth it for the “The Cat from Hell” segment).

As far as films go, take your pick. There’s plenty of recent outings to choose from (the V/H/S and ABCs of Death films are worth a watch, as well as more festive productions like the great Trick ‘r Treat and the recently released Tales of Halloween), but I always recommend a crash course in the old school stuff. The Amicus films are essential viewing, but if you only have time for one, I nominate 1972’s Asylum. That one has the most consistent level of quality throughout the stories, and the wraparound is a standout on its own. If you want to feel a little classier, Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (which had its best segment, “The Drop of Water,” appear in The Babadook) or Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (which just got a Blu-ray re-release from Criterion!) are both fantastic choices. If you’re looking for something more ridiculous, you can always pop in John Carpenter’s Body BagsGrim Prairie Tales (Brad Dourif and James Earl Jones!), or the surprisingly competent Tales from the Hood. Heck, even Creepshow 2 can somewhat justify its existence thanks to its middle story, “The Raft.”

While plenty of people will be doing their own horror movie marathons this Halloween, I’d like to try and recapture that campfire mentality that brought me into the genre I love so much with a hearty helping of scary stories.

If you have some anthology horror movies or television shows you’d like to recommend or show your love for, please do so in the comments. I can talk about this kind of stuff until they decide to attempt another reboot of The Twilight Zone (the ’80s version isn’t bad!).

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