With the success of Stranger Things and the new film version of Stephen King’s It, nostalgia feels like something of a current horror trope. In these stories, the evocation of childhood fears mixes with pleasurable memories of childhood pop culture, adding a bit of sweet to horror’s usual bitterness.
At first, the theatrical film Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark looks like it might be following in Stranger Things’ footsteps. The first scene is set to the background music of Donovan’s wonderful “Season of the Witch,” played by a never-seen DJ who recalls Wolfman Jack from American Graffiti. These period touches aren’t winking celebrations of childhood, though. The film is set in the past because director André Øvredal has something specific to say about that era and the children who lived in it.
The movie is loosely based on Alvin Schwartz’s famous collections of short horror stories for kids. A group of friends led by Stella (Zoe Colletti) investigates a haunted house on Halloween. There, they find and take an old book left behind by a long-dead child from a wealthy family. Sarah, now a ghost, starts writing new short stories in the book and the stories come true, resulting in horrible fates for Stella’s friends. Stella and her love interest, an out-of-towner named Ramón, try to learn about Sarah’s past in order to stop her before her stories do them in.
The stories Sarah writes in the book are the parts of the movie based on Schwartz’s work. These setpieces are excellent. They have the nightmarish, inevitable illogical logic of folk tales or urban legends. Fans who were terrified as children by narratives of spiders hatching where they’re not supposed to hatch will not be disappointed, nor will those who fondly remember the creature who assembles itself from its own severed bits. Harold the scarecrow is particularly effective. Øvredal reminds viewers that you don’t really need spectacular makeup or gouts of blood to create a good scare. You can just walk by the same straw-stuffed figure a couple of times and then notice it’s not there anymore.
The frame story, by contrast, isn’t based directly on Schwartz’s writing, and it’s very different. The narrative of Stella and her friends abandons the book’s taut economy for a meandering supernatural slasher. It’s like Nightmare on Elm Street with a less visually compelling villain.
It’s true that the frame is fairly ruthless in its willingness to do in its characters, especially compared with something like Stranger Things. But it also has themes of reconciliation, forgiveness, healing, and even anti-racism, all of which sit oddly beside the source material’s straightforward, scare-the-kids-so-badly-they-never-sleep-again ethos. Colletti and Garza have excellent chemistry; their scenes together sizzle. But is anyone going to this film to see a teen romance, no matter how convincingly portrayed? It was always going to be a challenge to adapt a book of short stories, but Øvredal really seems to have gone out of his way to irritate his core audience. It’s an odd choice.
Odd choices aren’t always bad choices, though. Gradually, it becomes clear that the story Øvredal wants to tell is about childhood trauma — specifically, about what parents do to, and expect from, their children. Stella’s mother abandoned her, which is part of why she forms such a quick, unhealthy connection with Sarah, whose parents abused her. One of Stella’s friends is attacked after his parents decide to leave him without notice overnight; another is pursued by a hideous, bloated creature who looks like a parody of a pregnant woman. Parents, the movie suggests, are writing their kids’ stories, and what they write is death.
That may seem paranoid. But in 1968, it was literally true. Those televisions in the background often show images of Vietnam. One shows Richard Nixon, lying as per usual, as he talks about how he doesn’t want to drop bombs. This background tale about the necessity of war and the need for men to fight entangles a number of the male characters. One high school kid who disappears prompts his peers to speculate that he may have just gone off to the army early because he was so eager to kill communists. A war story substitutes for a horror story, and at least one of them is the true tale of why a boy isn’t coming home.
The 1968 setting isn’t a fun retro jaunt. It’s part of the film’s meditation on how the world is made up of stories and how those stories trap people. Placing the film in the past is a way of framing it as fiction; it’s occurring once upon a time. The true story of the 1968 election is slotted in beside false stories of the supernatural, even as Stella and her friends try to research Sarah’s true history, which is eventually written down, then received as a fictional story. Truth and lies slide around each other, tying knots around children’s lives.
”You don’t read the book. The book reads you,” Stella declares, in a campy, melodramatic line. But Scary Stories is remarkably insightful and sober in its assessment of the way stories control people, rather than the other way around. “This person is insane, so we can torture her.” “That person must go overseas and shoot a stranger.” Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was supposed to be the summer’s virtuoso meta-fiction, but its rewritten happy ending, musing on the impotence of writing, seems a lot less bleak than Scary Stories’ acknowledgment that some scripts will take you far away where you’ll never be seen again.
That’s not to say that the ending, which clumsily gestures toward a sequel, is perfect — nor, for that matter, is the film as a whole. Like the title says, the movie has more than one tale to tell, and the disjunction in tone and purpose is sometimes jarring or just inexplicable. (Why is there a car chase in this movie?) But Øvredal is to be commended for simultaneously staying true to a beloved franchise and twisting its head around to face in an unexpected direction. Thanks to him, the film isn’t just a collection of scary stories. It’s a meditation on why the stories we tell ourselves shape us and why that’s the scary bit.