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 Red Spot.
In the story of The Red Spot author Alvin Schwartz hit a nerve that not many stories can do. In his third book in the series, Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones, Schwartz includes the story of Ruth and her unfortunate run-in with a spider.
The tale has become a favorite for many growing up with the books, so much so that it was included as one of the featured subplots of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark adaptation.
And time and again, it is mentioned on social media as something that inevitably comes to mind when there is an unsightly pimple on someone’s face. I for one have seen many Halloween costumes and makeup that take the story and run with it.
It hits a nerve. But the question remains, what is the origin of The Red Spot story and what meaning can we take from its memorable inclusion in popular culture?
The Red Spot – Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Here is the full story of “The Red Spot” that was included in the third Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark book.
While Ruth slept, a spider crawled across her face. It stopped for several minutes on her left cheek, then went on its way.
“What is this red spot on my cheek?” she asked her mother the next morning.
“Looks like a spider bite.” her mother said. “It’ll go away, just don’t scratch it.”
Soon the small red spot grew into a small red boil. “Look at it now,” Ruth said, “It’s getting bigger. It’s sore.”
“That sometimes happens.” her mother said. “It’s coming to a head.”
In a few days the boil was even larger. “Look at it now!” Ruth said. “It hurts and it’s ugly.”
“We’ll have the doctor look at it,” her mother said. “Maybe it’s infected.” But the doctor couldn’t see Ruth until the next day.
That night Ruth took a hot bath. As she soaked herself, the boil burst. Out poured a swarm of tiny spiders from the eggs their mother had laid in her cheek.
Origin of The Red Spot Story
A number of stories from Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark starts with understanding the place of Jan Harold Brunvand. Author Jan Harold Brunvand is a retired writer, folklorist, scholar, and was a bit of a celebrity when it came to folklore in the 1970s and 1980s.
His books The Vanishing Hitchhiker, The Choking Doberman, The Mexican Pet: “New” Urban Legends, and other collections documented many folk tales and urban legends, diving into them in order to understand their place in our culture.
It is in The Mexican Pet where Alvin Schwartz credits his tale of The Red Spot. Here is the specific story that Jan Harold Brunvand outlines. It is called “The Spider Bite” and discusses various versions.
As you can see, there are some obvious differences between Alvin Schwartz’s story and the one that Jan Harold Brunvand includes in his collection. In Brunvand’s tale, the young woman travels or vacations somewhere. This is in line with many urban legends such as the Mexican pet, which implies that traveling to unfamiliar places is bound to lead to bad luck, dangerous unusual animals, or scary foreign people.
As Brunvand notes, “Fear of insects and spiders, along with distrust of other nations (particularly those more southern than one’s own), are standard features of several other urban legends, including a recent story about South American screw worms being snorted up the nose from a bad batch of cocaine.”
As I note in the documentary, oftentimes scary stories involve a fear of unknown, strange, and foreign people, and so in this case animals and insects are bound to be poisonous or full of… well, surprises. In this way, The Red Spot story could have been very similar to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’s “Alligators,” where marrying a foreign woman results in unknowingly having a wife and offspring that turn out to be, you guessed it, alligators.
There is subtext here in many of these stories, which in many cases are not very subtle. Be careful of people and things in other lands. Be suspicious.
Finding Meaning in the Story
In Alvin Schwartz’s The Red Spot, there are notable changes. And that’s what makes this particularly interesting.
The young woman is given a name, Ruth, and she doesn’t come across the spider in a foreign land. The spider invades her body in the most comfortable place possible, her home when she is sleeping. Rather than being afraid when you go to a foreign land, the terror is able to come for you in your own home.
Also, in Alvin Schwart’s story there is a clear connection between the spider bite and puberty. The young woman consults with her mother, who gives her advice just as if it was a pimple. This girl is becoming a woman, so it could be natural, but it also could come with danger. And without saying it, there is a definite subtext involving young pregnancy that is undeniable. The young Ruth becomes a “mother” in one of the most disgusting and horrifying ways possible.
Last Updated on November 8, 2021.