'Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark' and the Next Generation of Horror
[This story contains spoilers for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark]
Most horror fans remember the moment they fell in love with the genre. For many of a particular generation, the fascination with things lurking in the shadows and scurrying across the ceiling began with a childhood exploration of Grimm’s fairy tales, R.L. Stine’s Fear Street and Goosebumps, Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? and of course, the holy grail of many a school library, Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
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Gateway horror, those introductory explorations into the dark, holds a distinguished place in the horror-craving heart. But in terms of contemporary films, it has become something of a rare breed and what, in part, makes Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, so exciting. Directed by Andre Ovredal (The Autopsy of Jane Doe), and co-written and produced by monster maestro Guillermo del Toro, Scary Stories is the perfect gateway horror, a surprisingly grim and socially conscious film geared toward younger viewers that doesn’t sanitize or water down the scares. Instead, like the collection of stories it’s based on, it opts for a taboo quality that dares its target audience to take another step into the dark.
Smartly, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark doesn’t take an anthology approach; instead, it reworks some of the book series’ most memorable stories — “Harold,” “The Big Toe,” “The Red Spot,” “The Haunted House,” “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker!" and “The Dream” — into one cohesive narrative centered on six teenagers in 1968. But unlike Goosebumps (2015), which went for fun comedy instead of real scares, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark uses its collection of monsters and mishaps to create a portrait of America that is unsafe and governed by stories that have a cost in which not even children are safe. As the central protagonist and horror fan, Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) says in the opening of the film, “stories hurt and stories heal.” A key aspect of horror, one that those who don’t venture far into the genre often fail to recognize, is that it’s reliant on reflection and empathy. No matter the monsters at the core or the amount of blood spilled, most horror is operating in search of larger ideas, be they moral or social.
Scary Stories opens on Halloween, but the greater horror lingering in the background is Richard Nixon’s impending election. Campaign posters line the outside of shops and they’ve been defaced with swastikas, a condemnation of the fascism rampant in the U.S. government, obvious parallels to our present-day political situation. The Vietnam War plays out across television screens and draft orders have been sent out. Stella’s friend, Ramon Morales (Michael Garza), struggles to avoid the spotlight of both subtle and unsubtle racism cast by the local police, and local teenage racists who call him “wet back.” Stella herself is dealing with her own falsely equated narrative, the rumor spread around town that her mother abandoned her and her father (Dean Norris) because of her. Even before we get to the urban legend child killer Sarah Bellows and her collection of scary stories that draw out the characters’ worst fears, we’re made aware of very real horrors that exist in a nation not far removed from today. The PG-13 Scary Stories feels like a great primer for viewers who will eventually discover the more mature modern horrors that exist within The Invitation (2015), Green Room (2015) Get Out (2017), The Shape of Water (2017) and Us (2019).
Creatures like The Toe Monster (Javier Botet), The Pale Lady (Mark Steger) and The Jangly Man (Troy James), who manage to convey a sense of both Stephen Gammell’s artwork and del Toro’s care, serve as pure nightmare fuel, even for adults. The real-life tragic situations that Stella and Ramon find themselves in are balanced by their friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush), Chuck (Austin Zajur) and Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn), who allow the film to play out its delightfully chilling notes in a way reminiscent of TV series Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark?, or earlier gateway horror entries like Poltergeist (1982) and Gremlins (1984).
But more so than the kinder-trauma inducing examples from the '80s and '90s, this film has an elegant balance struck between horror as entertainment and horror as something deeper. Even in its use of conventions, tropes familiar to the seasoned horror fan but likely new to younger audiences, there is a subversion. When the subject of black magic comes up, and Stella and her friends look into a woman, Lou Lou (Lorraine Toussaint) whose family served the Bellows, the tropes of the magical negro are avoided. Instead, we’re left with the reality of a black woman whose life was partly destroyed by stories of witchcraft that had everything to do with her race and nothing to do with the supernatural. The teenage characters in the film are caught between the monsters of Bellows’ book and the monsters of the real world and escaping one ultimately leads them to become, if not closer, than more aware of the other.
Stories have a cost, and Scary Stories doesn’t shy away from this fact. While there is a playful quality to the film, it doesn’t always play nice. Some characters end up in a slightly better place than they were before, but most don’t. This is a film geared toward younger audiences in which the creatures may subside, but Nixon wins, Vietnam rages on, scars are left and friends are gone. Monsters remain out in the world, left to combat and that’s a fascinating note to leave impressionable viewers with. The film is insistent on refusing to talk down to its target audience, and instead showcases the power of folklore, much like Ovredal has done in his previous films Trollhunter (2010) and The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016), and how sociopolitical concerns give birth to monsters, something del Toro has spent his entire career exploring. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a triumph in modern gateway horror and arguably essential to fostering the next generation of fans, because it hinges on the fact that to love the genre is to be concerned with more than monsters, it’s to be concerned with people and the world they live in.
by Sheraz Farooqi
by Graeme McMillan