“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” (2019) is a delightfully spooky surprise that easily surpassed my somewhat mixed expectations in response to the trailer that made it seem like a teen-horror version of 2015’s “Goosebumps” film. Instead, it turned out to be a genuinely skin-crawling fright-fest with thought-provoking and overtly political themes, realized with frequently gorgeous cinematography and lighting.
The key question on most audience’s minds when going to see a film like this is, “Is it scary?”. And I can answer that with a resounding yes. The first major scene of horror in the film immediately captures the tone and appeal of a spooky short story; an isolated vignette with a simple premise and a tense build-up to a shocking and creative demise.
The ways that the monsters dispatch their respective victims are frequently surprising and make excellent use of the film’s PG-13 rating (or 15 in the UK) to be more creative than simply throwing blood and gore around. In this scene, for example, the young victim is impaled with a pitchfork by the nightmarish scarecrow. But rather than just being a bit of slasher violence, it turns into a bit of retch-inducing body horror that leaves a lot to the audience’s vivid imaginations, all without spilling a drop of blood.
One of the key problems with the aforementioned “Goosebumps” is that its monsters were a bunch of interchangeable CGI bugaboos that harmlessly chase the cast from scene to scene, but “Scary Stories” doesn’t suffer from this issue at all. Quite the opposite. The monsters in this film are gloriously realized. Brought to their warped version of life with practical costume-work (for the most part) by Spectral Motion, and each move and operate in their own uniquely creepy ways.
There’s Harold, the stereotypical horror scarecrow visualized in a way that makes the idea feel fresh again. With his oddly missing midsection, his splayed, creaking, wooden limbs, and his decaying, latex-like face that looks as if it should be emerging from Ebenezer Scrooge’s door knocker. The withered, lurching Toe Monster, the acrobatic Jangling Man (partially built with CGI, as he arrives into the film with some assembly required).
“The monsters in this film are gloriously realised. Brought to their warped version of life with practical costume-work (for the most part) by Spectral Motion, and each move and operate in their own uniquely creepy ways.”
And then there’s The Pale Lady.
Nothing in this movie frightened me more than The Pale Lady. I was petrified by her cold, inescapable nature. She is death, approaching calmly and slowly. She does not need to rush, for she is inevitable. Though her visage is monstrous, she wears a smile on her face; and kills not with violence, but with a warm, almost comforting, embrace. This is – at least to me – far more terrifying than something that runs around or pops out and goes boo.
I’m not ashamed to admit that this scene awoke an almost childlike response of terror in me. That night, when I was alone in the dark of my small flat, part of me began to fear that when I turned the corner, The Pale Lady would be standing there, waiting for me with that spine-chilling grin. I don’t think there’s any higher praise I can give a horror film than that.
‘“Scary Stories” isn’t subtle about the message it wants to convey. The whole narrative is based on stories literally killing people. The movie even opens with a narrated thesis statement, beginning with the phrase “Stories hurt. Stories heal.”‘
This is all aided by the frequently beautiful use of lighting, cinematography, and colour in the film. For instance, the aforementioned Pale Lady scene is tinted bright red, giving it a foreboding monochrome aesthetic that harkens back to Stephen Gammell’s captivatingly gruesome book illustrations.
Though this is all praise for individual scenes of horror. It makes the film sound like a great anthology, but it’s a full narrative. What about the actual story justifies the continuous narrative?
Theeeeeeeeeemes. Delicious, delicious themes.
“Scary Stories” isn’t subtle about the message it wants to convey. The whole narrative is based on stories literally killing people. The movie even opens with a narrated thesis statement, beginning with the phrase “Stories hurt. Stories heal.” which is repeated twice throughout the film. In short, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is a scary film, about stories.
Late in the film, it is revealed that Sarah Bellows – the ghost who is writing all these deadly stories – was actually the victim. In life, she had been a young girl with albinism, monstrously abused by her family. After her family’s mill had leaked mercury into the town’s water killing many children, they used her as a scapegoat and tortured her into falsely confessing as the “true” killer, resigning her to existence as a spooky campfire story while her family were treated as heroes whose mill “put their town on the map”.
This is the terrible harm stories and lies can do. But as the film (repeatedly) says, “stories heal” too. The protagonist, Stella (played effectively by Zoe Margaret Colletti), resolves the conflict and brings Sarah peace by promising to tell her story, to tell the truth. She uses stories to heal the wounds that stories created, both in the past and during the events of the film.
And the film contextualizes this theme of the power of stories by framing it with a real-life example throughout the film, the Nixon presidency. The political landscape of 1968 is referenced consistently throughout the film, with the climax taking place on the night of Nixon’s election. The allegory is clear, Nixon (and by extension, other presidents and powerful men) will use marginalized people as scapegoats for issues they don’t want to fix or take the blame for, so they can frighten the public into directing their hate at those less powerful than them rather than the real cause. And, like Nixon, the Bellows family is exposed by people investigating and reporting the truth.
However, the film doesn’t deify the press. The newspapers aided in this scapegoating of Sarah by also spreading a racist lie that the family’s young, black, servant girl named Lou Lou taught her “black magic”. Also despite Stella’s actions at the end of the film, many people disbelieve her account. While the media is important, it can be used to harm and push forward bigotry. And the truth will not always be listened to by the majority. But it is still morally imperative to speak truth to power. I think this is a remarkably relevant and important message for a film to convey, especially one targeted at teens. This is particularly impactful for those like me, watching the mainstream British press push forward transphobic lies while LGBT-positive publications are losing readership.
“I firmly believe that “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is a strong counterargument to the idea that “teen horror” is inherently inferior to those with an R-rating. Inventive scares realised with awe-striking costume work and eye-catching use of cinematography and colour, placed within a richly themed and heavily political narrative.”
Unfortunately, the narrative doesn’t always use the politics of its setting to its advantage, as can be seen with its portrayal of the Vietnam War. Ramón is the film’s co-lead, a young Hispanic man who is revealed late in the narrative to have dodged the Vietnam draft after his older brother died fighting there. He believes this to be a cowardly act, and the film seems to agree with him. His arc ends with him choosing to go to war in Vietnam, which is framed as bravery.
Earlier in the film, the cheesy horror radio announcer says of the Vietnam War, “say no to sending our children to die”. But, in the end, “Scary Stories” chooses to say yes. This arc of overcoming fear is additionally cheapened by having Ramón not actually overcome The Jangling Man, which overtly symbolizes his fear, instead, having him be indirectly rescued by Stella.
Problematic character arc aside, I firmly believe that “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is a strong counterargument to the idea that “teen horror” is inherently inferior to those with an R-rating. Inventive scares realized with awe-striking costume work and eye-catching use of cinematography and colour, placed within a richly themed and heavily political narrative.
Though, despite the film’s minor success at the box office, I’m worried it will quickly fade from the public consciousness, occupying a somewhat cult-film status. I do hope more people give this spooky little film a chance before it leaves cinemas, and engage with its contemporary themes. I will definitely be picking up the Blu Ray upon release, even if just for what will inevitably be some fascinating making-of featurettes.