As humans, we are predisposed to relate through stories. Considering that some of the earliest forms of recording history itself came from cave drawings and hieroglyphics, which recorded events through broad illustrations that predate storybooks, it makes absolute sense that a proclivity towards storytelling is something ingrained into our subconscious. Maybe that’s why we’re able to empathize with characters in films or books, because the art of storytelling itself is the bridge that allows us to overcome the willful suspension of disbelief that accompanies fiction. Maybe that’s why we love the anecdotes our friends tell us about their lives, because we can relate to their experience through words and emotions even if we weren’t there. Maybe we find that campfire stories and tales of the dark both thrill and frighten us at any age because we find that stories are able to give our ethereal fears and anxieties some sense of embodiment.
That’s what made Alvin Schwartz’s collection of eerie short tales, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, so chillingly effective. Each tale is resoundingly straightforward, more suggestive than literal, and often incredibly open-ended to a very discomforting degree. In lieu of complex storytelling, Schwartz highlights simple fears and uses the implicit nature of his storytelling to create suspense while his lack of closure never allows for a sense of safety. It helps that the original editions of Schwartz’s three volumes of stories had some incredibly sinister, almost downright disturbing illustrations by Stephen Gammell (which were, of course, made softer in later editions, with artwork by Brett Helquist). The real rub is that these anthologies were, above everything, tailor-made for children, something you probably wouldn’t assume by looking at the cover. But children are often drawn to the macabre, because the stories help them better realize and confront that which usually scares them the most. There’s a reason ghost stories are a staple of social gatherings like sleepovers or campouts.
A film adaptation of a disparate series of short stories seems like it should be pretty intangible, unless it was presented as an anthology of unrelated stories like Schwartz’s books were. But producer Guillermo del Toro and his writers have concocted a fairly clever if not entirely original way of stringing the stories together by tying them to a central storyline that has Schwartz’s stories literally come to life to haunt a group of unsuspecting teenagers. In a move that might seem preposterous given the talent involved behind the camera, the film has been designed for a younger crowd, as a perfect gateway into greater horror for tweens who crave an entry point into the genre. And it’s effectively accomplished. Beyond that, the smartest observation made here by Del Toro goes back to the very core elements of storytelling: that they are intrinsically tied to a sense of historicity. “Stories can hurt, and stories can heal,” our protagonist Stella tells us at the very beginning of the film, before we even see our first image on the screen. With that thesis in mind, Scary Stories goes far beyond just being a collection of ghoulishly playful jolts that are played out by a cavalcade of fantastically designed monsters conjured up by some really impressive practical effects. Instead, it becomes a film that’s about the importance of the truth, and how damaging lies can become. And above all, it asserts that our perpetuation of a lie could be the very reason that history repeats itself.
Set in the autumn of 1968, as young men are drafted to fight in the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon is up for election, Scary Stories follows high schooler Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), who has a deep love of horror films and wants to be a writer someday. On Halloween, after a prank against the neighborhood bully goes wrong, Stella, her two friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur), and drifter Ramón (Michael Garza) hide inside the neighborhood’s haunted house. Legend has it that the home once belonged to the Bellows family, and the youngest Bellows child, Sarah, practiced dark magic and told stories to the neighborhood children, who would disappear shortly afterwards. Stella finds Sarah’s collection of short stories and takes them home with her only to discover Sarah isn’t done telling stories – and her new tales involve Stella and her friends, as the horrors come to life to hunt down their victims.
That story structure will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a fair number of horror films. In fact, the design, wherein Stella’s friends are targeted one by one, often cornered or separated from the main group as some new monstrosity that frightens them the most comes after them, is not too dissimilar from a slasher film. But that well-worn dynamic is not so much a detriment as it is the point, it seems, since the film benefits from knowing that its shocks are drawn from a very frequented well. Schwartz’s own short stories were often drawn from well-known urban legends and myths, and many characters in the film acknowledge the stories that are being brought to life as things they’ve either heard as children or dreamed about. Just because we are familiar with something doesn’t inherently make it any less dangerous. It might actually make it more dangerous, because we’re more than aware of the threat being imposed. And every moment and encounter with these wonderfully conceived monsters is a genuine treat.
Perhaps the most important component of this adaptation, and the one that’s a huge contribution from Del Toro himself, is the decision to set the film in 1968. Not only is this the year that George A. Romero’s glorious Night of the Living Dead was released, but there are plenty of historical moments that weave their way into the plot, especially Vietnam. Not unlike Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood (excellently covered here on the site by Timothy Lawrence), Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark first looks at the past as a kind of storybook recollection before the artifice is stripped away and the truth of history is revealed, namely inherent racism and the dark cloud of the draft that threatens to affect almost all of the children in the story. It’s a YA film that taps into the inevitability of death, in some form or the other, and its lens into history fits nicely with the thesis that stories have historicity and unchecked lies allow for events to be recycled.
Narratively, the film uses the story of Sarah Bellows as its prime example regarding the power of stories. Without spoiling the mystery and ultimate truth behind the urban legend of the troubled girl, the film does a great job highlighting how the lies we tell can eventually take a form of their own to haunt us. And maybe if we believe them enough, and if they’re passed down to others, they might just become truthful. The main characters each struggle with truths and lies. Stella believes her mother left all those years ago because of her, since that’s what all the town gossip intuited about a situation they had no real knowledge of. Naturally, the truth of the matter has nothing to do with Stella and has everything to do with a personal choice her mother made. Then there’s Ramón, who lies about his own identity so he can dodge the draft. The reason? His brother was drafted, sent overseas, and shipped home in pieces. That all comes back to haunt Ramón when his story comes to life and he’s stalked by the contorting Jangly Man, an original monster for the film that has the uncanny ability to dissemble and then rebuild itself.
The film’s tackling of the other historical components, racism and Vietnam, are accomplished with various degrees of effectiveness. The racism directed at Ramón is brief, but its implicitness has a pretty stark effect, especially when it’s tied to Vietnam. A drifter, Ramón feels displaced and removed from the film’s quaint setting in old school, midwestern Americana. Here, he is unwelcome. His car defaced with racist slurs and the police chief unnecessarily hounds him and even suspects him as being behind the string of disappearances that start when Sarah begins to tell her stories again. The glaring truth is that Ramón is seen as “less than” until the draft becomes involved. Then he is a traitor, an American who isn’t doing his duty. Ramón and other minorities, the film argues, seem to only have value when they’re sent to fight in a war that cannot be won. And that viewpoint, that minorities are seen as “less than,” is something that remains sadly resonant today. History repeats itself because the lie that one race is superior to another remains unchecked. This viewpoint of “less than” even applies to how Sarah Bellows’ family and the community at large treats her simply because she has a disease that makes her look different.
Less effective overall is the film’s use of Vietnam. Part of this comes from the usage of the time period as a whole, which is more whimsical than historically accurate. It doesn’t need to be the latter, but it can’t be the former if it wants to properly expose the horrors of the Vietnam war. The cutaways to Nixon’s election also feel a bit far-reaching, and the placement of a TV showing the actual event comes at an incredibly inopportune time that feels both like a puncture to the tension and thunderously obvious all at once. But at the same time, that a film targeting a younger audience wants to have a conversation about how one of the most polarizing moments in America’s history does share a frightening commonality with present events is a noble thing indeed. It’s not having that conversation as effectively as it could. Just because a film is about something doesn’t always mean it’s about that something effectively. And yet, at least the film desires for its monsters to mean something more, in typical Del Toro fashion.
Another recurring theme that often crops up in Guillermo Del Toro’s works, and remains shockingly resonant to this day, is the film’s ultimate observation: that the real monsters are people. We create monsters out of our own abominable behaviors, sometimes as a way to assign blame and sometimes as a way to try in vain to remove those awful attributes about ourselves. Like the lies that perpetuate a frightening cycle of history, sometimes our inability to face our own faults and be truthful about ourselves can truly hurt others. The stories we tell are important. Are they guided by the truth? Are they honest? Or are they the opposite? And how many people will be hurt by them in time?