Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was a staple in many childhood libraries, mine included. One of the few whose title is both description and instruction. They were books filled with the sort of spine-tingling tales you tell at a sleepover. Everyone huddled together, all the lights darkened except for one. Stories where the fun is in the telling as much as the reading.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series by Alvin Schwartz. Published by Scholastic Books.
Published by Scholastic Books.

The monsters of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark are brought to life by the movie’s producer and writer, Guillermo del Toro. The master of horror fashioned many of his most beloved films from the pages of books or comics. He adapted Alvin Schwartz’s most iconic creatures with the same care and vitality. However, the movie seems far more concerned with the telling of stories, rather than the monsters they contain.

The Monsters Of Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark Are Horrifying…

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark begins as any modern-day horror movie. Three friends set out to cause mischief on Halloween and end up with a little more than a misdemeanor hanging over their heads. After a mysterious drifter named Ramon saves Stella, Auggie, and Chuck, she offers to show him the local haunted house. It’s not your usual gesture of gratitude. But Ramon is game and listens attentively as Stella rattles off the story of Sarah Bellows.

Legend has it that the reclusive daughter of the Bellows family used to lure children to their doom with her tales. That doesn’t paint her as much of a role model, and yet Stella clearly relates to Sarah, both as a horror-enthusiast and a social outcast. Thus, she can’t resist taking a book of Sarah’s tales.

Ramon and Stella are trying to figure out what is going on.
Lionsgate, 2019.

Much to her shock, the book begins to fill with new stories and it’s her friends who have the starring roles. The most terrifying part isn’t that, creatures like the Pale Lady, the Toe-Less Corpse, or the Jangly Man — it’s that no matter what Stella tries, everything Sara writes comes true.

…But They’re Not Who We Expected

Being trapped in a narrative you have no control over, helpless to stop the words as they appear on the page, makes for some nail-biting scenes. More than that, however, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark acknowledges how much agency the narrator has in any story. And when that power is abused, we learn just how scary it can be. Narratives don’t just control our fiction, either. They also write our history. We can’t ignore that for a series not bound to any specific time or place, the writers chose to set the movie in 1968, and reminders of the era are everywhere.

Drafts pluck young men from Stella’s hometown to feed the Vietnam War effort, despite growing protests. Footage of presidential candidate Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon plays in the background. Local bullies vandalized Ramon’s car, calling him a “wetback” — a derogatory term for Mexicans — but instead of helping, the police racially profile the victim.

Ramon, Stella and the gang are reading the "book."
Lionsgate, 2019.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark puts away the rose-tinted glasses as it confronts bigotry. Today we remember Martin Luther King as a hero of the Civil Rights movement, but in the ’60s, the majority of Americans disapproved of him and his ideologies. He was a black man who spoke out against racism, income inequality, and was anti-war. For a culture predominantly controlled by wealthy, white men driving the war effort, that made him a villain.

And the movie insists we feel as constricted by the time period as the characters do since they are trapped in that narrative as much as they are Sarah’s.

Framing The Victim

As Ramon sweeps into Mill Valley — a small, industrial town in rural Pennsylvania — for gas and a screening of Night of the Living Dead, people instantly take notice. Not only because he’s a stranger in a small town, but because he is a dark-skinned, Mexican American youth living out of his car. That’s all the information the Mill Valley sheriff needs to make Ramon his prime suspect in recent disappearances. His bias seems to be vindicated when he finds out that Ramon is a draft dodger, which, technically as a crime, albeit an unfair one.

But the point isn’t that Ramon was lying or breaking the law. The point is, the sheriff treats him like a villain the moment he steps into town. Fortunately, the audience meets Ramon through our narrator, Stella, and his story unfolds from her perspective. As she befriends Ramon, and he confides in her, we don’t see a hardened criminal or a menace to society.

Ramon and Stella are sitting together in jail as he tells her the whole truth.
Lionsgate, 2019.

We see a boy whose brother was sent from Vietnam “in pieces,” who runs from the draft because he knows it’s a death sentence. We see this fear reflected in the Jangly Man, a grotesque creature that can unpiece its limbs at will. And we watch as Ramon becomes brave enough to face his fear when it means saving his friend. Through her eyes, we see Ramon for what he truly is: A hero, whether he goes to war or not.

Stranger Than Fiction

If Ramon is an example of how narratives are imposed on us, then Stella is one of how we internalize these narratives ourselves. Like Stella and her friends, I grew up in a small, Pennsylvania town that owed its existence to an industrial plant. In towns like these, a girl who defies the norm and doesn’t perform femininity in a traditional manner would receive a fair amount of ridicule and scorn.

Shout out to Stella, who doesn't care if she's "pretty" to wart up her face for Halloween.
Lionsgate 2019.

Fifty years ago, it would’ve been much worse for Stella, who delights in the gruesome and weird. However, it isn’t the rejection of the town that weighs on her. When her mother abandons her family, rumors blame her departure on Stella, simply because she’s different. And the rumor becomes so widely accepted that Stella begins to believe it, too.

Her struggle to love herself as she is, even if others do not, reminds us that stories don’t necessarily have to be true in order to be believed.

Tell All Truth, But…

Sometimes the truth proves to be more frightening than fiction.

Viewers will find plenty of chills in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, yet it’s the truth about Sarah Bellows that will haunt them long after the curtain closes. Before she was the thing that goes bump in the night, Sarah was the star of her own tragedy. Born with a unique genetic disorder, she was a flaw her family sought to hide. But it wasn’t the only secret the Bellows shoved under the rug.

The paper mill they owned was poisoning the town’s water supply, which resulted in the deaths of many children. When Sarah tried to expose the truth, her own brother committed her to a hospital, where he subjected her to electro-shock therapy. In a final act of cruelty, her family spun a story where they were innocent and it was Sarah who murdered the very children she wanted to protect.

And it is this lie that persists, even after she and all the Bellows are long dead.

In her ghostly form, Sarah confronts a pleading Stella.
Lionsgate, 2019.

We don’t feel particularly sympathetic towards the Bellows when we learn Sarah punished them all from beyond the grave. We don’t even feel too bad when she does the same to Tommy, the bully who threatens Stella, Auggie, and Chuck, and then targets Ramon and Ruth for defending the trio.

And we draw the line when she turns her rage onto the remaining five, for no other reason than Stella finding her book. Her family cast Sarah as the monster, so a monster she became. But, as Stella recalls, she doesn’t have to be what they made her anymore.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark Tells It Slant

As opposed to horror movie tradition, Stella doesn’t defeat her villain with righteous fury, determination to live, or some ingenious trick at the last minute. On the contrary, she understands that Sarah isn’t the kind of monster you beat. She’s the kind you help.

Stella sees herself as the abuse victim she was. She offers Sarah what she has been denied her entire life: the power to reclaim her story and tell it right. Naturally, she gets some flak for it. After all, it isn’t a nice story by any stretch of the word. As it paints the once very respectable, very wealthy Bellows in an unflattering light. Those preconceptions don’t disappear overnight, but at last, the real monsters have been unmasked.

Ramon and Stella are driving.
Lionsgate, 2019.

Del Toro is famous for humanizing his monsters. In this film, however, the creatures pale in comparison to the monsters we make of ourselves. At the same time, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a testament to how we can un-make them. If our narrators are brave enough to tell the truth, especially for those who have no voice.

Maybe it wasn’t the adaptation we were expecting, although I think it was the one we needed. When it’s 2019, and our narratives have the power to turn immigrants into criminals or children into prisoners, we should be critical of who is telling them.

Not all monsters lurk in the dark. And those are often the scariest of all.