Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the new film adaptation of the collection of children’s books by the same name, wants you to know that stories have power. At both the beginning and the end of the movie, a voice-over reminds the audience: “Stories hurt, stories heal. If we repeat them often enough, they become real. They have that power.”
In the movie, that power is magical, sinister, and channeled through a physical book. Stories appear on the pages (written in blood, naturally) and then play out in the real world. Our heroes—a ragtag group of nerdy high-school students, and a mysterious stranger who’s passing through town—are on a mission to stop the book before they each feature in their own narrative, with possibly fatal results. This is a useful conceit, given that the source material is a compilation of very short, unrelated folktales. Yet even though Scary Stories is an entertaining homage to the original books, it can’t help but dilute the power of the stories it tells.
In my fourth-grade class, in 1998, if you hadn’t read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark—volumes one, two, and three—you needed to either rectify that immediately or resign yourself to friendlessness. So I, a fraidy-cat at my core but ever susceptible to peer pressure, put my name on the waiting list at the school library and ended up white-knuckling my way through three paperbacks that were as scary as advertised.
Collected and rewritten for kids by the folklorist Alvin Schwartz, the Scary Stories volumes were the most frequently challenged books of the 1990s, according to the American Library Association. (R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, for comparison, took 15th place.) The stories are whimsical, but also sometimes gruesome—people making sausage out of humans, detailed descriptions of corpses, that sort of thing. The accompanying drawings by Stephen Gammell, which are striking, frequently nasty, and legitimately alarming like nothing else I’ve ever seen in children’s literature, are the kind that sear in one’s brain, and likely play a large role in the trilogy’s lasting appeal.
I can’t speak for my whole fourth-grade class, but I was most compelled by how the books, being anthologies of folklore rather than wholesale invention, captured the murky origins of scary stories. Not horror writing per se, but the kinds of accounts people tell around campfires, or at sleepovers, the “My friend’s cousin swears this happened to him” kind. That sense of “This probably isn’t real, but maybe—just maybe—it is.”
“Some of these tales are very old, and they are told around the world,” Schwartz wrote in his introduction to the first volume. “They are based on things that people saw or heard or experienced—or thought they did.”
Cobbling these tales into an overarching narrative must have been a challenging task, and the producer Guillermo del Toro and the director André Øvredal did a serviceable job. The skeleton of the movie is this: It’s 1968. Three friends named Stella, Auggie, and Chuck (played by Zoe Margaret Colletti, Gabriel Rush, and Austin Zajur, respectively) are on the run after an encounter with the town bully. An older teenager called Ramón (Michael Garza) helps them out, and then they invite him to a haunted house. Allegedly, the Bellows family that once owned it kept their daughter Sarah imprisoned in the basement, where she whiled away the hours writing stories. The legend goes that if she tells you one, it’ll be the last you ever hear. Stella, an aspiring horror writer, discovers Sarah’s book and steals it from the house, the catalyzing act of stupidity that every scary movie needs.
Each night, a new fable appears in the book, featuring as its main character one of the town’s residents, who is doomed to play out the plot in real life. These are drawn from Scary Stories—though some have been tweaked, or seem to be a mash-up of more than one entry. A couple of these translate well to the big screen. The horror of “The Red Spot”—in which a girl gets a bug bite on her face that turns out to be an egg sac full of spiders—is heightened when you can actually see the spiders exploding out of her skin.
Other plotlines seem included just to provoke a “Hey, I remember that!” reaction from book fans. There’s a very faithful re-creation of the creature in one famous illustration, which was delightful and frightening to see, but the end of the scene is anticlimactic and more bizarre than anything. This vignette-centric approach is perhaps the only way to turn a collection of one- or two-page tales into a full-length film, but it also makes the movie feel disjointed.
Another admirable attempt that doesn’t quite land is the effort to connect the children’s scary quest with the 1968 political climate. The specter of the Vietnam War haunts the film, and some of the fantastical elements effectively remind viewers of that. One character whose older brother “came home in pieces” after fighting is later chased by a dismembered corpse that can reassemble itself. But it’s less clear what the movie is trying to achieve by setting much of the action on Richard Nixon’s 1968 Election Night—repeated close-ups of election coverage on TV don’t seem to connect meaningfully to the horror the kids are experiencing.
The creators of the Scary Stories movie are clearly fans of the series, and do it justice in many ways. They’ve admirably replicated the aesthetics of the original illustrations and drop several, more subtle references for the discerning fan. (One of Stella’s tales is about a boy whose pet dog turns out to be a sewer rat; it’s taken from Scary Stories 3. And Sarah Bellows’s “favorite song” is a folk number republished in the book that begins with the lyrics “Don’t you ever laugh as the hearse goes by / for you may be the next to die,” and goes on to describe your decomposing body: “The worms crawl in / the worms crawl out.”)
Maybe young viewers will imprint on the movie the same way I and so many others did with the books, but somehow I doubt it. The power of scary stories that the film wants so badly to convey is in the way they make you see the potential for danger where you didn’t before. Psycho changed generations of people’s relationships with their showers. When a Stranger Calls made them fear a phone call coming from inside the house. Scary Stories is an entertaining way to spook yourself for an hour and a half, but heavy-handed philosophizing about the power of stories does not make this one particularly intriguing.
There is a tale from the first volume of the Scary Stories books that has haunted me ever since I read it more than 20 years ago. It’s called “High Beams,” and it’s about a girl driving home late at night who is followed by a truck that keeps flashing its brights. When she gets home and runs to call the police, assuming malintent on the part of her pursuer, the truck driver stops her. He reveals that there’s a man in her back seat with a knife. He says he followed to keep her safe, and every time the man in the back seat made a move, the driver turned on his brights to force him back into hiding. To this day, I get a chill if anyone shines their brights behind me on the road.
The best scary stories do that—they get under your skin and emerge again and again. (The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out.) Scary Stories the movie just bounces right off.