Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, directed by André Øvredal and produced by Guillermo del Toro, is a film adaptation of the popular children’s book series of the same name. Although it has a running time of only 108 minutes, the film manages to develop unique renditions of the original stories and creatively incorporates them into the larger narrative plot of the film.
Scary Stories follows Stella, an amateur writer obsessed with horror fiction, and two of her friends Auggie and Chuck on a Halloween night in the late sixties. Having gotten revenge on Tommy, the local high school bully, the three friends flee to a local drive-in theater, where a stranger named Ramón hides them in his car and helps them escape. They then decide to explore an abandoned house formerly inhabited by the Bellows family, who originally helped establish their town. Upon discovering a secret cellar, they discover a book of scary stories that formerly belonged to Sarah Bellows, the daughter in the family who was ostracized by her family members and locked away in the cellar for most of her entire life.
To their horror, a new story begins to materialize on the pages of the book. What makes it scarier is that the story describes Tommy, someone they know, being followed and attacked by a scarecrow. The next morning, when police in the town discover a scarecrow draped with Tommy’s clothes, the three friends and Ramón realize that the stories in the book have the power to become real. New stories continue to appear on the pages of the book, this time starting to involve Auggie, Chuck and even Chuck’s sister, Ruth.
What was unsettling about the rest of the film is that as Auggie and Chuck and other characters are attacked and taken hostage by various monsters described in the stories, what may have happened to them is completely left to the imagination. These uncertainties parallel the cliffhangers that often bookend the stories in the original children’s books, and the movie itself even ends on a cliffhanger as Stella, her dad and Ruth set out on a journey to find out what happened to their friends.
As for how the film depicts the monsters in the children’s book, the film manages to faithfully reproduce the appearance of the monsters featured in the original stories. However, there is something a lot more jarring about the original charcoal drawings of the monsters in the book than how they were depicted in the movie — the colors in the film were too saturated to make them truly believable or chilling.
In general, the stories found in the original books were also accurately reproduced in the movie. However, one interesting way that the film departs from the original books is that it weaves these disparate stories into a larger narrative exploring the interpersonal dimensions between the characters, members of their society and even the monsters. Interestingly, the way that the film achieves this is by showing how the characters grapple with how they are perceived by others.
The scary story involving Ruth is a clear example of this. Throughout the movie, we see Ruth going to great pains to maintain her self-image. On the night of a big theater performance however, she feels a painful sense of self-consciousness upon discovering a large pimple on her cheek. While her peers poke fun at her blemish, Ruth’s pimple grows, eventually becoming the size of an apple. When Ruth flees to the bathroom to get rid of it, the pimple bursts, releasing a swarm of black spiders from the bloody orifice of her cheek.
Sarah Bellows’ own rationale for terrorizing people through her stories is driven by a frustration with the way in which others perceive her and treat her; she was abused and locked away by her family for her albinism due to a genetic condition. The horror of her stories actively involves and feeds off the pain of being recognized as an “other.”
Ruth’s experience of having spiders burst out of her pimple is like an expression of the pain that Sarah Bellows experienced as a result of being made fun of and excluded herself.
I couldn’t help thinking about Stephen King’s Carrie, in which the titular character uses telekinetic powers to exact revenge on her high school bullies on prom night. Though the supernatural powers at their disposal are different, the pain that Carrie and Sarah Bellows harbor is the same.
This is the same kind of pain of outside judgment and self-consciousness experienced by characters like Stella, Auggie and Chuck, who are stereotyped by others as shy and nerdy “losers”, as well as Ramón, who is mistrusted and discriminated against based on his ethnicity.
The voice-over by Stella close to the beginning of the film briefly summarizes the impact of judgments and narratives that people may create about others:
“Some people believe if we repeat stories often enough, they become real. They make us who we are. That can be scary,” she said.
Behind the veneer of spooky stories and scenes of creepy monsters, the film seems to be about the pain of exclusion and the destructive horror that can sometimes accompany that pain, which I thought was an interesting and creative complement to the original children’s stories.
In a roundabout way, the film eventually tries to show that even monsters like the Sarah Bellows have a human side, and that they are capable of redemption — at the end of the movie, Stella pleads to Sarah Bellows’ ghost to stop creating these destructive stories, to which Sarah Bellows’ ghost concedes.
Though the monsters could’ve been more chilling and the jump scares more scary than surprising, Scary Stories was an unexpectedly enjoyable and though-provoking twist on the original children’s series.