I went into André Øvredal and Guillermo Del Toro’s Scary Stories expecting a creepy-crawly, scary-but-not-too-scary haunted house movie, which is what I got. What I didn’t expect was a film that has much more on its mind than “Boo!” scares – although there are plenty. In what as been an unprecedented run of excellent independent and studio horror films over the past few years, Scary Stories continues the elevation of the genre as a vehicle for evoking the horrors of real life.
Set during the Nixon election of 1968, Øvredal’s adaptation of Alvin Schwartz’s classic book series stays true to the spirit of folklore while weaving those traditional, passed-down elements into a human and political landscape that eerily evokes the dread faced by this generation’s youth. The film casts an unearthly spell from the beginning, introducing our teenage characters in the midst of personal crisis, racism, and the threat of the Vietnam War, all during the perfectly aesthetic gloom of Halloween season. The setting makes for a movie that’s rife with social and political fear before we even see a single monster.
When the monsters are introduced – through a rather ingenious Goosebumps-esque tactic of incorporating different stories into one narrative – they are appropriately creepy and do justice to Stephen Gammell’s iconic illustrations. These stand-alone sequences work as an example of skillful horror filmmaking. Øvredal clearly has a deft eye for background, foreground, and shot composition, delivering suspense and jump-scares with maniacal pleasure.
Like many millennials, I’ve been a fan of Schwartz and Gammell’s book series since I was a kid. The stories were short but sweet, usually featuring some kind of frightful punch-line delivered like the final twist of a knife, and the illustrations were truly nightmarish, lingering in the imagination. Many of these stories were gathered from folklore and urban legends – stories that have been passed around in different cultures for generations. The reason they’re so powerful is not just because they’re creepy, but because they often exploit existential fears of death and the unknown. In general, scary stories derive from an attempt to understand the horrors of the real world. They’re a way to make sense of what we cannot fathom.
There’s a lot of fear, confusion, and unrest in America right now. What Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark absolutely gets is that horror stories are essential and powerful elements of human culture – a way to understand, a way to lie, a way to tell the truth. The power lies in the storyteller.