7 Scary Childhood Stories That Probably Still Give You Nightmares

Jacqui Miller/Stocksy

Being a kid is already terrifying. You're very small, you have no money, and you have very little control over anything in your life. Plus, there is a monster who lives in your closet and your parents refuse to believe you (luckily, the monster is allergic to blankets). To make things worse, every kid must be subjected to the "fun" holiday "tradition" of hearing ghost stories around Halloween (and at summer campfires, and at the back of the school bus, and during recess, and basically all the time constantly). You probably remember those scariest of stories that kept you up at night. Here are a few of the creepiest childhood tales that still make for pretty solid nightmare fuel.

A lot of kids first read these stories in Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark or In a Dark, Dark Room. But some of them have been retold as their own standalone books, or simply swapped back and forth by kids trying to prove their own bravery and parents trying to mentally destroy their offspring. All of these stories have existed as "urban legends" for years now, with various details and narrative flares, depending on who's doing the telling. And all of them are still at least a little bit terrifying:

The Clown Statue

This story is so ubiquitous that it has its own Snopes entry (it's rated as a purely fictional "legend," don't worry). The earliest iterations appeared online around 2004. There are many different versions, but it usually goes a little something like this: a teen babysitter is looking after two children for the night. The parents ask her to watch TV upstairs, in their bedroom, once the kids are asleep, because the kids have been having nightmares and might wake up crying (or some similar excuse). The babysitter agrees, and puts the kids to bed without a problem. But when she enters the parents' bedroom, she sees a creepy, life-sized clown statue standing in the corner. She tries to ignore it and watch her TV show... but it's just a very creepy life-sized clown statue. Finally, she breaks down and calls the dad to ask if she can watch TV downstairs instead.

"Sure," he says, "But may I ask why?"

"It's silly," she says, "but I'm just getting a little creeped out by your giant, life-sized clown statue."

The dad is silent for a moment. Then he says, "I'm calling the police. Grab the kids and get out of the house. We don't have a clown statue."

The Hook

Honestly, when I was kid this story was scary because of the hook-handed murderer, but now it's scary because of the asshole boyfriend. Most versions start with a couple in a car, parked way out on Lover's Lane (or Make Out Point). They're listening to the radio and (naturally) making out, when a breaking news report comes on, alerting them that a hook-handed murderer has escaped from the nearby prison. The girl is freaked out and wants to go home. The boy insists that everything is fine, and keeps trying to kiss her. The girl puts her foot down (and presumably gives her boyfriend a stern lecture about respecting her bodily autonomy), and the boyfriend begrudgingly agrees to leave. He drives away at top speed. When they get to the girlfriend's house and step out of the car, however, there is a bloody metal hook hanging from the car door (listen to your girlfriends, boys).

High Beams

A lot of classic American horror stories do seem to involve young, vulnerable women and cars, don't they? In this one, a young lady is driving home late at night, when she notices a car driving awfully close behind her. He flashes his high beams. She drives faster, but he continues to tailgate her, flashing his high beams over and over. She finally reaches her exit, but he turns off the highway too, still flashing. Finally, she calls the police, who arrive just as she's pulling into her driveway. They drag the man out of the other car, but he's screaming for them to check in the backseat. So the officers point the gun in the woman's direction and fire—and a man falls out of her backseat, his hand still clutching a huge butcher's knife.

The other driver was flashing his high beams every time he saw the man raise the knife.

The Big Toe

Look, this story is supposed to be scary because of the ghost, but it's really the cannibalism that puts it over the top. A kid finds a giant toe in the garden so he pulls it up (????) and gives it to his mother, who cooks it in a stew (????????) and they eat it for dinner. Then, that night, the kid hears something calling out for its toe, and then a ghost pops up and eats the kid. Like I said, pretty tame ghost, but pretty buckwild story of toe consumption.

Humans Can Lick Too

OK, I hated this one as a kid, and I only hate it more as an adult. I guess the "writing on the wall" trope comes from the Bible, which is cool and historical, but NO THANKS to the story itself: a little old lady (or sometimes a beautiful young woman) lives alone with her dog. She's easily frightened, so every night she sleeps with her dog under her bed. If she hears something scary, she puts her hand down and the dog licks it to comfort her. One night, she wakes to hear a dripping sound, but she reaches down to let the dog lick her hand, and she's reassured. But in the morning, she turns on the light to find the body of her dog, strung up and dripping blood, and a note scrawled on the wall: HUMANS CAN LICK TOO.

(Why did this murderer specifically want to murder the dog and not her? Still unclear.)

Bloody Mary

This one is the weakest by far in terms of actual story, but it definitely has the most staying power. I still won't look into a mirror in a darkened room. The story itself was usually that Mary had been a regular woman who was killed in a car crash, or that she was a witch from the Salem Witch Trials, or very occasionally that she was the actual historical Queen Mary Tudor who loved to execute protestants. The real scary part was the game aspect: at a sleepover everyone would crowd into the bathroom, turn off the lights, and try to summon the courage to chant "Blood Mary" three times to make her appear in the mirror. (What was our game plan if Mary did appear? Get murdered? Run away? Have a chat with Mary and see how she's doing? Unknown.)

The Green (or Red or Yellow or Black or Velvet) Ribbon

Ribbon color varies in this story, but most people seem to remember it as "The Green Ribbon" from In a Dark, Dark Room. It's also brilliantly re-told for grown ups as "The Husband Stitch" by Carmen Maria Machado. The basic story goes like this: there is a little girl who wears a ribbon around her neck. She grows up in the same town as a little boy, and one day they get married. He asks about her ribbon, but she says she cannot take it off. They stay married for years and have a baby, and still she will not take off her ribbon. Her husband keeps asking her about it, but her answer is always the same. At long last, after their son has grown up, the husband either wears her down or decides to just take off the ribbon himself while she's sleeping, and the woman's head falls off.