This Is Us

How ‘In A Dark, Dark Room’ Made Me A Creep (Thank God)

It affirmed for me that sometimes, life is scary for no good reason

There are moments in life when you wonder how you got here. You know, your classic, “This is not my beautiful house, this is not my beautiful student loan”-type early midlife business, where you’re going about your day and some small moment snags you, pulling you out of the present and into your past, leaving you wondering how you even came to be the person you are.

For me, those moments usually come when I am involved in multiple haunted necklace auctions on eBay. Or when I have to hide my book of crime scene photos because guests are coming over. Or when, in the middle of bemoaning my financial insolvency, I remember how I once paid over $200, plus train fare, to see “The Real Annabelle the Doll” (turns out she was a Raggedy Ann shoved inside an Ikea curio cabinet).

For you see, gentle reader, I’m a ghoul.

Scholastic

I know that’s less taboo now than it was a decade or two ago, when my parents wanted to send me to one of those scared-straight wilderness survival camps just because I owned two VHS copies of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (gotta have a backup in case the first gets lost or stolen!). Today, even humans with Sweetgreen Kale Caesar bowls where their souls should be have to have an opinion on Richard Ramirez just to fit in at parties. But the urge to engage with the grimmest parts of the human experience runs so deep in me, and has for so long, that I have to wonder where it came from, and how it became such a major part of my life.

I have come to believe that it all started before I could even spell the word “ghost.” It was 1987 when, during kindergarten nap time, a teacher played our class the audio version of In A Dark, Dark Room.

Alvin Schwartz’s In A Dark, Dark Room was published in 1984, three years after his original volume of deviant stories for unwell children, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Both anthologies are based on classic folk tales and urban legends; flipping through them as an adult, you’ll recognize many of the stories from college sociology textbooks and/or the 1974 movie Black Christmas. In fact, I was recently informed that In A Dark, Dark Room’s “The Green Ribbon” is actually based on a Washington Irving story.

Both books are full of ghosts and murderers and human bones just laying around in a pile like a bunch of socks or something — but they are not quite the same. The Scary Stories series has gotten most of the cultural heat, both good and bad: It was adapted into a feature film in 2019, and it was also the #1 most banned book of the ’90s, according to the American Library Association. Stephen Gammell’s illustrations for the book — which all look like something Grandpa Munster would draw in his own poo while in the depths of an amphetamine binge — are iconic.

Scholastic

And yet, Scary Stories is a book for third- or fourth-graders who’ve already had a little life experience: Maybe they’ve been in a fight, or they were pantsed at sleep-away camp, or they once got yelled at by a grocery store employee for knocking over a huge display of Fanta. You know, kids who’ve lived a little.

In A Dark, Dark Room, by contrast, is for tiny, innocent beings who have only recently mastered the art of completely unassisted peeing. Children who can’t yet read on their own — which means that adults likely picked this book out and read it to them, or at the very least helped the child sound out words in the text, such as “dead” and “death” and “corpse” and “die” and “you will die” and “ghosts will eat your flesh” and “then you’ll be a ghost and have to eat other people’s flesh, sorry.”

I’m obviously kidding about that last part: though In A Dark, Dark Room occasionally uses words like “dead” or “ghost,” it mostly steers clear of overt gory talk or complex mythology. Which is part of what makes these stories much, much more troublesome than Scary Stories or your traditional horror tale: The stories in In A Dark, Dark Room have no cause and effect. Even the wildest, most violent classic horror story is ultimately about people who make choices—to talk to a stranger, to spend the night in a haunted house, to use eerie telekinetic powers to burn down the gym on prom night—and the consequences of those choices. By contrast, there are few choices in In A Dark, Dark Room, and when there are, the decider seems to be punished for doing something neutral-to-positive, i.e. Don’t give a ride to an abandoned child standing by the side of the road, because maybe they’re a ghost? Don’t say you don’t believe in ghosts, because then you’ll be murdered by a ghost??

But for the most part, no one in In A Dark, Dark Room is making any choices. There is no learning experience, no moral. There is simply chaos and nihilism. Sometimes, you marry a lady and her head just falls off! Sometimes, everyone has giant threatening teeth — including your parents, who you assumed love you, but actually I guess it was a long con! SOMETIMES A BOX IS FILLED WITH GHOST!

Scholastic

It’s honestly more hardcore than Texas Chainsaw Massacre, if you think about it. As gnarly as the film gets, and as unfairly as everyone is tortured, it’s presented as the outcome of a choice—Sally Hardesty could have never picked up the hitchhiker; she and her friends could have avoided all the horror and chaos that befell them and instead had a nice bucatini for dinner. In In A Dark, Dark Room, it doesn’t matter if you stay locked up tight in your bedroom. The chaos comes to you.

The randomness of it all tortured me. After our teacher played us the audiotape during nap time, I stayed awake until dawn. (The fact that she wasn’t immediately exsanguinated on live television by Nancy Grace for doing so is a testament to how much culture has changed in the past 30-plus years. If this hadn’t happened, who knows. Maybe I’d be writing a newsletter about glamping right now.) The previous day, I was a five-year-old scaredy cat who was interested in nothing darker than Alf and my own boogers. But now I was distraught: attuned to the chaos that apparently surrounded me, and extremely concerned about the malevolent skeletons who were surely walking the streets of my town, looking for children to “get.”

If there were no rational explanation as to why these things happened, I reasoned, I had to constantly be on guard. So I obsessed over ghosts and monsters constantly. I assumed that our backyard “woods” — which were, in reality, three trees separating our house from the neighbor’s yard — were desperately haunted. In short, I became a ghoul.

And, yet. Today, I’m happy I was exposed to this most hardcore and nihilistic of tales at that tender age (I should note that yes, I did reread this book for this essay — and I used an original copy with the good illustrations, not the 2017 edition where everything looks like a Tim Burton storyboard). Even then, I think there was a part of me that was desperate to hear and see those stories.

Sure, the chaos scared me. But also, I had already kinda realized that my life was chaos. Having a ghost jump out of a box seemed as random and awful as being toxically unpopular in school or being born to parents who hated each other, two milestones of my own early life. The predictable, pedestrian chaos of daily life — getting bullied by other kids, falling off the jungle gym, hearing my parents shriek at each other into the night — was terrifying to me, because it was so petty, so hurtful, and so totally inevitable. It happened day after day no matter what I did and, even though I’d experienced these things a million times before, they still hurt. In my real life, everyone seemed to be mad at me for being afraid, for crying, for feeling shocked every time I learned that life was cruel. But in In A Dark, Dark Room, it was okay to be afraid. Being afraid made you smart. If there were any moral lesson in In A Dark, Dark Room — and I’m not convinced there is—it’s that admitting your fear is a superpower.

I’m sure I’m reading too much into this now — when I was five, my main priority was not choking to death on a Lego, so I’m sure I wasn’t, like, consciously responding to the philosophical messages of “The Green Ribbon.” But I believe it got under my skin — with every year that passed afterward, I became a little more drawn to anything with a spooky castle on the cover, and a little more prone to trying to face any pain and danger in my life to see if there was an answer, a solution, a way through to the other side. I’m not certain the second part was always a great idea, but it made me the person I am, and I think that person is alright.

And every time I see a picture of spooky castle — or a spooky graveyard, or a bat flying across the moon, or whatever else pops up at Walgreens in October — I think, this is the language that unites us, the people who’d rather grab a flashlight and try to understand what’s happening than cower on the couch and wait for someone to save us. Sure, we might all get eaten by a ghost in a box, but at least we get to go out knowing we tried to author our own destinies, a little. Plus, it gave me a hobby — and a good hobby really is hard to find. It’s better than glamping, right?

“I was feeling very depressed, which is how most stories start.” —Amy Heckerling * buy my damn books: https://tinyurl.com/yxd852a2

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