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 The Haunted House.
Haunted houses are synonymous with horror. And they are synonymous with the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books. But there was only one of the stories that was actually called The Haunted House. And it came with, perhaps, the illustration that has had the largest impact on readers of a certain generation.
Yes, we’re talking about THAT illustration.
It is included high on my list of Stephen Gammell illustrations that have slowly become iconic over the years. It is a grotesque, yet oddly fascinating illustration. It is right in your face, staring back at you on the page as if it could see through your soul. Here you’ll find the exact source of not only the story, but the words that generated such a haunting illustration.
The actual story of The Haunted House is iconic as well, though perhaps not as easily registered as so to the pedestrian reader of the books. But it is, mainly because of the history and storytelling tropes that reside in this particular folk horror tale. There is a lot to unpack. So let’s get started.
The Haunted House – Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Here is the version of the story that was included in the first Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark book.
One time a preacher went to see if he could put a haunt to rest at a house in his settlement. The house had been haunted for about ten years. Several people had tried to stay there all night; but they always would get scared out by the haunt. So this preacher took his Bible and went to the house–went on in, built himself a good fire, and lit a lamp. He sat there reading a Bible.
Then just before midnight he heard something start up in the cellar–walking, back and forth, back and forth.
Then it sounded like somebody was trying to scream and got choked off. Then there was a lot of thrashing around and struggling, and finally everything got quiet. The old preacher took up his Bible again, but before he could start reading, he heard footsteps coming up the cellar stairs. He sat watching the door to the cellar, and the footsteps kept coming closer and closer. He saw the doorknob turn, and when the door began to open, he jumped up and hollered, “What do you want?”The door shut back easy-like, and there wasn’t a sound.
The preacher was trembling a little, but he finally opened the Bible and read awhile.
Then he got up and laid the book on the chair and went to mending the fire.
Then the haunt started walking again and–step!–step!-step!-up the cellar stairs.
The old preacher sat watching the door, saw the doorknob turn and the door open. It looked like a young woman. He backed up and said, “Who are you? What do you want?”The haunt sort of swayed, like she didn’t know what to do-then she just faded out. The old preacher waited, and when he didn’t hear any more noises, he went over and shut the door. He was sweating and trembling all over, but he was a brave man and he thought he’d be able to see it through. So he turned his chair to where he could watch, and he sat down and waited.
It wasn’t long before he heard the haunt start up again, slowly-step!-step!-step!-step!-closer, and closer-step!-step!-and it was right atthe door.The preacher stood up and held his Bible out before him. Then the knob slowly turned, and the door opened wide. This time the preacher spoke quiet-like. He said, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost-who are you and what do you want?” The haunt came right across the room, straight to him, and took hold of his coat.
It was a young woman about twenty years old. Her hair was torn and tangled, and the flesh was dropping off her face so he could see the bones and part of her teeth. She had no eyeballs, but there was a sort of blue light way back in her eye sockets. And she had no nose to her face.
Then she started talking.
It sounded like her voice was coming and going with the wind blowing it. She told how her love had killed her for her money and buried her in the cellar. She said if the preacher would dig up her bones and bury her properly, she could rest. Then she told him to take the end joint of the little finger from her left hand and to lay it in the collection plate at the next church meeting-and he’d find out who had murdered her. And she said, “If you come back here once more after that – you’ll hear my voice at midnight, and I’ll tell you where my money is hid, and you can give it to the church.”
The haunt sobbed like she was tired, and she sunk down toward the floor and was gone. The preacher found her bones and buried them in the graveyard.
The next Sunday the preacher put the finger bone in the collection plate, and when a certain man happened to touch it, it stuck to his hand.
The man jumped up and rubbed and scraped and tore at that bone, trying to get it off. Then he went screaming, like he was going crazy. Well, he confessed to the murder, and they took him to jail. After the man was hung, the preacher went back to that house one midnight, and the haunt’s voice told him to dig under the hearth rock.
He did, and he found a big sack of money. And where that haunt had held on to his coat, the print of those bony fingers was burned right into the cloth. It never did come out.
Interestingly, a version found on the web is very similar, yet the person who ventures into the house is a girl named Stella. Well, that just so happens to be the protagonist of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark film adaptation. While the version in the book adheres closely to the origin found below (it’s a male preacher, not a girl), it isn’t a surprise that the elements that they used in the film was the alternative girl named Stella and not some old preacher (not exactly a common protagonist for a modern scary movie predominantly meant for preteens and teenagers).
Origin of The Haunted House Story
Alvin Schwartz commonly researched the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books in Firestone Library at Princeton University. I went there, where I thumbed through the main source of the version of The Haunted House Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark included. It came from a folktale included in American Folk Tales and Songs by Richard Chase.
This version of the story was on page 60 of the book.
Right there you have the description of the ghost in Richard Chase’s folklore collection. It was directly adapted by Alvin Schwartz, which in turn was adapted into art by Stephen Gammell.
It was a young woman about twenty years old. She smelled earthy. Here hair was torn and tangled, and the flesh was dropping off her face so he could see bones and part of her teeth. She had no eyeballs but there was a sort of blue light ‘way back in her eyesockets. And she had no nose to her face.
Sounds a lot like Stephen Gammell’s interpretation, right?
Finding Meaning in The Haunted House Story
A common motif in many folktales is something that could be called a “treasure guardian”… this is a ghost or entity that may haunt a house or location, but it is also a guardian of a treasure that resides in that location. I did an in-depth look at People Under the Stairs and the dragon treasure motif that is involved with that movie. This common ghost motif is similar in many ways.
But there are actually a host of entities and creatures that are depicted as guardians of treasure. Dragons, leprechauns, the Jinn from Arabian legends. All of these are supernatural or monster creatures of some kind that have some reason to be guarding a treasure. And interestingly they all set up a heroic journey of some kind. A hero is forced to confront that which he or she is afraid of, and on the other side of that scary thing… a treasure.
For this preacher in the story, he isn’t particularly seeking treasure though. What he is ultimately seeking is truth… the true story of the house, not just the shiny trinkets that lie underneath.
In the case of ghosts haunting a house, and particular Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark‘s The Haunted House story, there is an implication that underneath the “normal” scary things we see near our homes… that haunted house down the block… there is a truth that can be found. In the case of The Haunted House in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and similar stories, there is an evil that resides in your neighborhood… but it isn’t the ghost. The ghost is there because it is people who are conducting the atrocities… it’s people we should be afraid of.
Going back to the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark film adaptation, much of this theme is there and is even amplified. Bullies, family secrets, even the Vietnam War. Under the surface although the monsters and ghosts are scary, there are real-world scary things that not only these particular teenagers but even Sarah Bellows in the 19th Century had to fear. This ghost Sarah Bellows in the 1960s is only a symptom, a byproduct, of an even more horrific history of the town they live in.
And that is what The Haunted House story is about. It is meant to shine a light on the true-life horrors. The ghost, although it may be the most horrific of sights, is only a symptom of the ultimate evil: mankind.
Last Updated on September 3, 2021.