September 2010

Jessica Ferri

Kissing Dead Girls

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

In honor of Bookslut's 100th issue, and to you, dear reader -- I've revived the Kissing Dead Girls column. If you missed me the past few months, thank you. If you're new -- hello! I write about women and horror here. Thanks for reading.

Bookslut's achievement of publishing 100 great issues about literature proves that some books stick with us forever. I thought back to which books had really inspired me or influenced me as a child -- ones that would fit in to this column. The first that came to mind was Alvin Schwartz's trilogy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, published in 1981, 1984, and 1991 respectively, with terrifying illustrations by Stephen Gammel. If you read these books as a kid you don't need me to tell you how horrifying they are. You remember.

As I read through the collection this week, I expected to be laughing with nostalgia at my young-self, scared to death. Instead, I was still seriously terrified, chills running up my spine, looking over my shoulder while reading this book. This time, however, I noticed that Schwartz gives abundant notes on each tale -- where it comes from, its mythology, and folkloric history. These anecdotes were endlessly fascinating, and they explain why these ghost stories stick to us -- and to pop culture -- with endless revivals in movies and books. In these ghost stories it's a delight to find a unique undercurrent of feminism. 

One of my favorite ghost stories is what I like to call the "Prom Queen" meme. A young girl meets a nice boy and he'd like to take her out on a date -- but she's always running off to another appointment, or creepily hanging out in the cemetery. When the boy goes to her house to pick her up, her distraught mother slams the door in his face. It turns out our little Prom Queen never made it to her Prom -- she died in some tragic accident fifty or twenty years ago, and wanders around, looking for another date in hopes that she'll finally get there. There are several stories in Scary Stories that follow that pattern: "Hello Kate!" and "Bus Stop" are the most similar. The "Prom Queen" is also the subject of an excellent episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, a children's show that ran on Nickelodeon in the 1990s.

The Prom Queen represents everything tragic about early death -- the loss of life and experience, of young love -- it emphasizes the universal need to be loved and to be young: the Prom being the destination. Without that experience, the soul of this young woman cannot rest. In terms of horror, this tale is fairly tame. But others in this collection reflect a more sinister reason for storytelling -- the morality lesson. In Scary Stories you'll find multiple tales of young women, alone, victimized by evil spirits or living threats. Children tell ghost stories to each other when they're on the cusp of adulthood -- they're teenagers, on the brink of sexual activity, ready to go off to college and all its temptations. Horrifying encounters with danger like "High Beams" and "The Babysitter" encourage young women to stay on their toes.

In "High Beams," a young woman driving home is followed by another car. Every time she turns a corner or tries to speed away, the driver behind her turns on his high beams. Terrified, she pulls into a gas station, runs inside screaming for the attendant to call the police, that she's being followed. The other driver gets out of his car and says "You don't want me! You want him!" and points to a man with a knife, crouched behind the driver's seat in the girl's car. The other driver was protecting her -- every time she would turn the man with the knife would sit up to attack her, so the other driver would turn on his high beams to coax him down.

"The Babysitter" is used over and over again in horror films -- a young woman at home babysitting two or more children keeps receiving phone calls from someone who breathes and hangs up. Scared, she calls the telephone company who traces the calls. "You had better get out of there," the phone company tells her, "the calls are coming from somewhere inside the house." The Police come and arrest a man who is "smiling in a very strange way." Of course this story is based on an urban legend that doesn't end as happily. These stories are cautionary tales -- women, check your cars. Secure your houses. The outside world is not so friendly.

Ghost stories also warn against greed and bad behavior, and encourage revenge. In "Just Delicious," a woman who suffers emotional (and most likely physical) abuse from her husband accidentally eats the dinner she's prepared for him, a delicious cow's liver. Knowing he'll be angry with her, she goes to the funeral home and steals one from a neighbor who has just died, cooks it, and feeds it to her husband. He tells her it's "just delicious." Later that night as they lay sleeping, the ghost of the man comes into their bedroom asking "Who has my liver???" The wife exclaims "He does!" and her husband just screams and screams.

In "The Haunted House" a preacher is determined to exorcise a house that no one will live in. He meets the ghost, a young woman who has no eyes -- just sockets. This illustration, in my humble opinion, constitutes the most terrifying in the entire collection. In fact, when I read this book as a child, I came to know where it was in the book and I'd slide my hand under the page to cover it before turning -- just so I wouldn't have to look at it.

She tells him that her lover murdered her and buried her in the basement. If the preacher can find her bones and bury them, she will leave. He does so -- reserving her pinky bone, which he places in the collection plate at church. When one man goes to make a donation on Sunday, her pinky sticks to his hand, thus "fingering" him as the murderer. He goes to jail, and the house is never haunted again.

The spine of this book will tell you it's intended for readers aged nine and up. Reading it now, it seems absolutely insane that I consumed this book with such relish at eight years old. But I loved these books. I read them so much that my original copies are falling apart at the seams. Children are open-minded enough to believe in these stories of fantasy and horror. Just look at the market today -- Twilight, Harry Potter, the Hunger Games series. In order to understand why, all you have to do is look at these folkloric traditions. I highly recommend purchasing the Scary Stories Treasury, which contains all three volumes, if you're unfamiliar with these books. Horror stories continue to tell us what we're most afraid of -- but they also tell us what we have in common. And there's a unique opportunity in the horror genre for feminism. Paranormal or special circumstances give women the chance to protect themselves. Though in ghostly stories they are often victimized, women are also given the opportunity for revenge -- in life and in death.