I was in in high school when I found the book: hardcover and decorated with a grotesque, black and white drawing. Opening it revealed more bone-chilling illustrations, like Shel Silverstein on acid. And the stories weren’t much better. Spiders bursting from a girl’s face. A pale witch stalking her next victim. To this day, the memory of that book is enough to make fear grip the back of my neck.
And, yet, despite that, I found myself entering a movie theater on a Saturday night to relive my teenage trauma.
From Collection to Film
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a three volume collection of folk tales and ghost stories. But how does one convert a collection to a single, cohesive narrative. Well, they took a hint from the comedy-horror, Goosebumps, only in an adult version.
Like Goosebumps, the movie centers around an allegedly haunted house and stories that come to life. Only, there’s a twist. The stories coming to life aren’t the ones already written. A sinister spirit writes the stories as they come true, leading our protagonists on a chase to keep them from happening all while trying to solve a century old mystery. The creatures that come to life are lifted straight from the pages of the original books.
The first book came out in 1981, so it’s interesting that they chose to set the movie around Halloween in 1968. It’s the year after the 1967 Summer of Love and the year before Woodstock. It is, in fact, the year that brought us the presidency of Richard Nixon. Part of that election was the divisive debate over the Vietnam War, which had been raging for three years with no end in sight.
The movie begins with a jock exiting an Army recruitment office, excited that he signed up to go overseas. That jock and his cruelty are the catalyst for the film’s plot. As the action progresses, the election and its results form a backdrop for this smaller (albeit life and death) drama. The War and its accompanying draft also play a part in the action.
The first major theme of the movie is that of leaving childhood. There is an existential horror that can come along with growing up as one realizes that life isn’t as simple or safe as one once believed. Over and over, Stella and her friends find that they can’t turn to the authority figures in their life as they might once have done. And when circumstances force them to do so, they are brushed off as miscreants and children until it is too late.
Also, the movie starts with Stella explaining that this story occurs “at the end of their childhood”. In fact, it’s not just the end of the protagonists’ childhoods but the end of the childhood of the nation. The Vietnam War was a controversial and brutal war that left many men broken physically and mentally. It also robbed a nation of its faith in its leadership. Hand-in-hand with this was the cultural revolution, when the social mores of the ’40s and ’50s were being cast aside. All of this is echoed or hinted at in the film.
The second major theme is that of stories.
Our protagonists are living sad or scary stories of their own. Stella lives under the shame of a mother who left at a time when divorce still carried a massive stigma. Ramón is a stranger trying to pass himself off as a migrant worker but it’s obvious there’s more to him as the movie progresses. Auggie is a hypochondriac with an absent mother and stepfather who don’t bother to tell him they’re leaving town for the weekend.
The outliers in this scenario are Chuck and his sister Ruthie. They are combative siblings from, arguably, the healthiest household in the friend group. Their stories seem to revolve around the travails of growing up and finding love. You know, normal teen stuff.
To add to this, Stella herself is a writer of scary stories. In fact, Auggie encourages Stella to submit her stories for publication but she refuses because of what the town thinks of her. In Stella’s voice over, both in the beginning and the end, she says that stories hurt and heal.
Racism and Romance
Before I settled down to write this review, I came across one of those idiotic tweets that make you want to put your head through a wall. Someone complained about the racism in the movie and the age difference between Ramón and his love interest, Stella. While I’m not going to link that tweet, I do want to answer those two concerns.
First of all, this movie is set in the ’60’s. Racism continues to be an unfortunate reality that obviously needs to change. At that time, racism was even more normalized than it is now. It’s not just racism for the sake of “accuracy”, however. How the local cops perceive Ramón does have bearing on the story.
Regarding the age difference: Ramón is at least 19. Stella is around 13. While mature for her age, she is underage and the movie doesn’t let you forget it. And neither does Ramón. During the entire movie, he is a complete gentleman. And even during moments where they could possibly kiss, he keeps his distance. While the door is left open for later romance, it is merely hinted at in the movie.
Should You Go See It?
Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. While there are a couple of cheap jump scares, the movie is frightening. And it is thoughtful and well done. However, you should give the movie a pass if you have a difficulty with
- Body horror
- Gross stuff in food that has no business being there
I also encourage you to look into the upcoming documentary about how the books were compiled. Oh, and once you’re home from the movie theater, don’t be ashamed if you need a light on to go to sleep. These are, after all, scary stories to tell in the dark.