I made a documentary about Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. (Now available to watch.) The three books consisted of over 80 stories of folklore and urban legends. It was impossible to appropriately address each and every story in a single documentary. This website, in part, is a chance to look at individual stories that I researched, tales in which I learned about their origins and social contexts. It’s a chance to examine stories that I ultimately found to be fascinating in some way or another.
This is Harold.
Most scary folk tales are passed down verbally for many years, if not centuries, before a folklorist or writer of some kind records it for posterity. Many folk tales never become well-known or popular. They are recorded as a verbal tale amongst hundreds of others, written down, and forever part of countless collections that are chronicled at a university somewhere.
When Alvin Schwartz included the story “Harold” in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark‘s third book, it just so happens that he gave new life to a relatively unknown story that may have never seen much attention otherwise.
Now, Harold is regarded as one of the greatest boogeymen for generations of kids who grew up fondly remembering the story. So what is the story? And what is the story behind the story?
The Story of Harold from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
The story was not widely known before 1991, at least not as much as many other tales included in the books.
Although many people reminisce about the illustrations from the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books, Harold is an example of a story that packed quite a punch. For some generations, any scary scarecrow has become synonymous with good ol’ Harold.
Here is the full version of the scary story “Harold” which was in the third of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books, Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill your Bones.
When it got hot in the valley, Thomas and Alfred drove their cows up to a cool, green pasture in the mountains to graze. Usually they stayed there with the cows for two months. Then they brought them down to the valley again. The work was easy enough, but, oh, it was boring. All day the two men tended their cows. At night they went back to the tiny hut where they lived. They ate supper and worked in the garden and went to sleep. It was always the same.
Then Thomas had an idea that changed everything. “Let’s make a doll the size of a man.” he said. “It would be fun to make, and we could put it in the garden to scare the birds.”
“It should look like Harold,” Alfred said. Harold was a farmer they both hated. They made a doll out of old sacks stuffed with straw. They gave it a pointy nose like Harold’s and tiny eyes like his. Then they added dark hair and a twisted frown. Of course they also gave it Harold’s name.
Each morning on their way to the pasture, they tied Harold to a pole in the garden to scare away the birds. Each night they brought him inside so that he wouldn’t get ruined if it rained.
When they were feeling playful, they would talk to him. One of them might say, “How are the vegetables growing today, Harold?” Then the other, making believe he was Harold, would answer in a crazy voice, “Very slowly.” They both would laugh, but not Harold.
The Origins of Harold
The main source for Alvin Schwartz’s version of the Harold story comes from an Austrian-Swiss tale included (among many stories and examinations of them) in Max Luthi’s Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales (1976).
That version is titled “The Tunsch Baptized by the Cowherds of Goschenen” and as you can probably tell from the title, there are many differences between Alvin Schwartz’s Harold and this tale.
I explored Firestone Library at Princeton, where Schwartz researched much of his stories. Below you can read the actual page that Schwartz would have read and adapted into Harold. And below that I record the text of that story and break down some amazing differences and similarities between the versions.
As noted in the text, it is a “short, simple tale”… even more so than the adaptation by Alvin Schwartz. Here is the text of the story itself:
It is said that ancient chronicles report how, many, many years ago, the mountain pasture began right behind the houses of Goschenen. At that time the hamlet of Abfrutt did not yet exist.
In this pasture lived wanton servants who led a dissolute life, did not say their prayers and scoffed at sacred things and God’s commandments. Once they took some odds and ends and made a Dittitolgg, or as it is also called, a Tunsch, Tunggel, Dittitunsch or Tschungg. They played all sorts of foolish pranks with it, smeared it with cream and pudding and finally went so far as to baptize it. Now it came to life and began to talk. After they recovered from their first shock they resumed their mischief and behaved more and more dissolutely. After some time had passed, the Toggel began to climb up on the roof of the hut at night, where it trotted about like a horse. In the autumn, when the men came down from the mountain pasture, they forgot the milking stool. But when they noticed it, nobody wanted to go back to get it, for they were afraid. So they bast lots, and the task fell to the worst one of them. He returned while the others continued with the cattle. When they got to the top of the hill where Abfrutt stands today, they looked back and saw a ghost stretching out their comrade’s skin on the roof of the hut.
Since that time a dreadful ghost lived there and the pasture could no longer be used.
This is a fascinating origin to the Harold story for so many reasons.
First, from Alvin Schwartz’s backmatter notes of the third Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark he plainly states that “Harold” is “retold from an Austrian-Swiss legend” and gives Luthi’s book. And that is all. So it doesn’t appear that he is addressing any other versions of the story. That means we can logically assume that all other details stem from Alvin Schwartz’s imagination. Mainly, a lot! The actual name Harold is not used in this previous version, as well as other names. And although the same basic events happen, some farmhands bully a “doll” of some sort and it comes to life and skins one of them, Schwartz clearly used this Austrian-Swiss folktale to expand into something he wanted to tell.
There are other clear delineations. Alvin Schwartz is not interested in the Christian message the previous version had. Not surprising. One must always remember that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a modern series meant for children and to be popular in libraries and bookstores. Storytellers always had to make decisions on how much they would include obvious Christian or pagan themes in old stories that usually included them. Alvin Schwartz was not a particularly religious man (I’ve interviewed family, I know) as well as this was being marketed through a major publisher that wanted a wide audience, not a Christian publisher. So again, it is not surprising that Harold is stripped of its Christian undertones. The story of Harold still remains a cautionary tale, but it is transformed from one about “God’s commandments” and baptizing someone or something when you are not worthy of conducting that sacrament and turns into one more broadly about bullying.
Next we notice the various words used to describe this “living doll” that is given a name by Schwartz, Harold. In “Harold” of Scary Stories fame it is described as a doll, though Stephen Gammell‘s illustration clearly adapts that to mean a traditional American scarecrow. The Austrian-Swiss legend it is described as a Dittitolgg, Tunsch, Tunggel and others.
When you start exploring the tales and fables associated with German terms from the Alpine region like these, you’ll find Sennentuntschi, which is an entire family of stories attributed to Alpine folklore. Breaking down that word, it is separated into Sennen meaning herdsmen who travel to the Alps in the summer and Tuntschi, which is associated with these Alpine dolls that are described in the story. Looked at in that way, we have a series of similar tales that all involve herdsmen who travel seasonally to a place and have this deadly interaction with a doll. Another common version is called “The Guschg Herdsmen’s Doll” which involves turning the doll into a wife that is mistreated.
These stories are the origin of Harold, this collection of stories that can be broadly described as Sennentuntschi tales.
You’ll find that these tales have been adapted in many ways over the years. For example, here is Sennentuntschi: Curse of the Alps (2010). But in pop culture, especially in the U.S., it is Harold from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark that has become the primary example of such stories.
Finding Meaning in the Harold Story
The Harold legend was adapted in the 2019 Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark movie with a clear connection to bullying, and not only that, a fear of foreigners. The entire film arguably connects it to what I found prominent in the Scary Stories books, and that is fear of or animosity towards foreigners or those who are perceived as different. Tommy bullies not only Harold but also the boy he deems a “wetback” (a racial slur for Mexican people) and Harold clearly is used as a “revenge monster” seeking revenge for this mistreatment. You can browse the many stories I have begun to examine on this website, but it doesn’t take long to find that I found many tales in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (including Harold) to have very similar undertones, from “Sam’s New Pet” and it’s Mexican hairless to “The Drum” and its gypsy girl story. Long story short, it did not surprise me at all when the movie adaptation included this underlying message.
I would argue Alvin Schwartz’s version does not make this explicit, but it still remains subtext. Thomas and Alfred journey to the mountains where they are not from, and the farmer they hated (Harold) is likely a local of this other mountainous region. So a bullying and anger towards others of a different region exists in that version.
Other versions of the Sennentuntschi stories involve this doll taking revenge, but just insert whatever message was needed for the audience. If you want a traditional Christian message that involves not being a heathen, look to the version included in Max Luthi’s book. If you want one about women or wives seeking revenge on men, look to many other versions such as the one entitled “The Guschg Herdsmen’s Doll.”
Diving further into such tales, there are clear connections to stories of other cultures and people. Alvin Schwartz in his notes appropriately connects them to Frankenstein as well as the many stories involving golems of the Jewish tradition.
I do a thorough investigation of different types of “revenge monsters” like Harold in this video for website JoBlo. There are clear connections between various versions of such tales, including more modern ones like in Pumpkinhead and Tales from the Darkside, as well as I categorize them according to monsters seeking revenge for a master of some kind, essentially an avatar (the golem, Pumpkinhead) and ones that are searching for their own personal justice (Harold, Frankenstein).
Ultimately the story of Harold is a fascinating example of a story that has a long tradition both before and after the 1991 book Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill your Bones, but it is important to note the importance of that book in both keeping it alive as well as giving him the now-infamous name.
Last Updated on September 28, 2023.