Boy did those trailers do this movie no justice. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark adapts Alvin Schwartz’s books, famously and horrifically illustrated by Stephen Gammell, into a story about the power of stories, particularly how folklore is often wielded against women. Set in 1968, Scary Stories follows Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) and her friends as they are haunted by a book belonging to the local legend, the ghost of Sarah Bellows. Believed to be a witch who poisoned children, Sarah Bellows haunts Stella’s little town as a piece of local lore, and then she literally starts haunting the town when Stella whispers, “Tell me a story,” and takes Sarah Bellows’s book, written in blood, in which appear Schwartz’s famous renderings of folklore and urban legend.
The story begins on Halloween, and takes place through the first week of November—election week. The news is constantly on in the background, updating citizens on Vietnam and Nixon’s election campaign. As Stella’s friends begin disappearing one by one, she is plagued by current events, a low-level hum to her ghost-driven terror. But it’s not just background noise, there is a connection between Sarah Bellows’s reign of terror and the political climate of the Vietnam era: Corrupt, greedy men are the real monsters of Scary Stories. At every turn, Scary Stories confronts us with the kind of every day horrors to which we are accustomed, particularly those of greedy men. And it’s hard not to think about the context of young men disappearing in town while one of the main characters has been drafted into the Vietnam war, and is certain he is going to his death. Death is inescapable—even if you survive Sarah Bellows, the war is waiting to swallow you.
But Scary Stories is not content to just draw parallels between metaphysical horror and the explicit horror of war, it also points an arrow toward the way that folklore often punishes women, and how that echoes the suffering women throughout history. “Stories hurt, stories heal,” Stella recites, acknowledging the power of words to both destroy and resuscitate. Scary Stories is deeply interested in the damage words can do, in a way that suggests everyone involved is aware of the deep emotional scars these books left on a generation (no? Just me?), and that they’re also aware of how folklore is so often wielded against women. What is a witch, after all, but a woman who doesn’t conform?
Scary Stories is so interested in words and witches, in fact, that the infamous Harold is almost an afterthought. Oh he’s scary, with his eyeless face, but here is played as a mere appetizer for the story of Sarah Bellows, which is the centerpiece of the film and the thematic glue holding it all together. She is a witch, a misfit, a victim, a monster. A story was used against her, and so now she uses stories against anyone who invokes her name. Stories are the key to everything, they define Sarah Bellows and Stella, and they’re the only shot anyone has at survival. Stories matter, too, in the real-world context. We see both sides of the Vietnam story, from its heroic fiction to its stark truth. It echoes the tale of Sarah Bellows: who benefits from the fiction, who gains from the truth?
Produced and co-written by Guillermo del Toro, cinema’s most sensitive monster-lover, and directed by André Øvredal (The Autopsy of Jane Doe), it’s not so surprising Scary Stories turns out to have this unusual sensitivity for a teen horror flick. The monsters of Stephen Gammell’s illustrations are lovingly recreated—although with slightly too much CGI, which lessens their effectiveness—and the jump scares are carefully crafted for maximum impact. One sequence is built on unbearably sustained tension and practical effects and it is by far the most successful scare in the film. Scary Stories is aimed at teens, so adult horror aficionados might look down on it for its simplicity, but Scary Stories seeks to do for kids now what the books did for kids then: introduce them to horror and hopefully spawn a new generation of fans. With Sarah Bellows and her cadre of monsters, it should do just that.