Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a film about the power of narrative, hence why much of the action takes place on a key night in 1968.
Just after Halloween, always a night popular with horror films as a setting, in 1968 saw election night of the next President of the United States, a night in which Richard Nixon finally was elevated to the position of Commander-in-Chief. While Andre Ovredal’s adaptation of the children’s book series by Alvin Schwartz is primarily concerned with the terrifying events swirling around bookish teenager Stella (Zoe Colletti) and her friends as they are haunted by the murderous stories of a tormented spirit, the story undulates with the ominous spectre of Nixon’s election looming over small-town America, the kind of latent 1950’s hangover, Midwestern town that wouldn’t go amiss in the world of Stephen King.
Schwartz’s original book takes place at the tail end of the 1960’s, a decade in which the counter-cultural revolution swept its way across the Western world, particularly the United States, though it seems to have passed Mill Valley, Pennsylvania by. Stella is haunted by her mother’s abandonment, perhaps to explore the big city world offered by the promise of the 60’s. Her friend Auggie (Gabriel Rush) is a middle-aged man in a young guy’s body, while mysterious stranger Ramon (Michael Garza) turns out to be a draft dodger – avoiding the senseless Vietnam conflict that killed his brother. These are not teenagers rushing headlong into a heady 60’s of abandonment, if anything they are anxious and rooted by their circumstances. This makes them far more contemporary and relatable than their period setting suggests.
Nixon’s re-election is a sign, given the US is now experiencing its most divisive and controversial President since ‘Tricky Dicky’, that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has one eye on our current problem of confused, false narratives.
It is perhaps a coincidental quirk that in recent weeks we have seen the release of two films set at the end of the 1960’s that deliberately play with reality and our perception of narrative.
While Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an enormously different film from Scary Stories, set in a sun-dappled Los Angeles of counter-cultural renaissance, Quentin Tarantino’s film nonetheless invents it’s own reality in order to re-tell the myth and lore of the Manson Family for its own cathartic, nostalgic reasons. Tarantino’s film wants a happier ending for a decade which began with hope and revolution and ended in war, fledgling economic depression and a bloodbath right at the heart of the hippy movement. It chooses to alter the narrative we accept as fact for these purposes, thereby elevating itself into hyper-reality, a different hyper-reality as experienced by the characters of Scary Stories, who instead are confronted by the supernatural when they uncover unjust stories and legends from their town’s history.
Scary Stories plays into well-known tropes in this sense. The teenagers driving the story, on Halloween, explore a haunted house—partly to escape a bunch of high school jocks who they have exacted a long-standing revenge on, something producer Guillermo Del Toro clearly finds cathartic in a different sense. Stella and her gang know the legend of the Bellows family who owned it almost a century earlier; rich mill owners who built the town’s founding industry whose daughter Sarah was accused of black magic, of poisoning the town’s children, and who ultimately hung herself (with her own hair, so goes the legend) and if you come to the house and call out her name, she will tell you a story. It could be Candyman. It could be the Bloody Mary urban myth. It’s a story that, inevitably, these teenagers fall prey to – the film at times evokes the Final Destination saga in how their deaths seem pre-determined, it’s simply the how and where that’s the question.
“You don’t read the book, the book reads you” Stella declares as the spirit of Sarah begins creating dark, murderous set pieces in a haunted book which are made manifest. Characters begin to experience the story they deserve. Jock bully Tommy (Austin Abrams) is turned into the same kind of scarecrow on his family farm that he beats up for sport, naive girlie girl Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn) gets a zit infested with spiders on the eve of a stage performance, or draft dodger Ramon is stalked by a monstrous creature who declares him a “coward”, tapping into his latest anxieties about avoiding conflict, avoiding his patriotic duty – especially as a Mexican immigrant already treated with deliberate scorn by the small-town white folks. Sarah’s stories are deliberately designed to ensure people get the ending it appears they deserve, and in this sense the alternative narratives in play here reflect our own problems right now with a proliferation of fake news, alternative facts, and people in positions or authority and influence confusing what we consider to be objective *truth* for nefarious purposes.
While ostensibly the spirit of Sarah is the evil force causing the death and destruction in Scary Stories, Ovredal’s film is at pains to point out that the real enemy of the stories are those who lie, or those who paint the truth in subjective terms. “For years, people in this town told lies about me. They locked me away, called me a monster. Now, they will get the monster they all deserve.” so declares Sarah from beyond the grave, a girl caught in a web of deceit, who became a twisted spectre out of bitterness at the injustice all around her.
What better metaphor therefore than the horror taking place on Nixon’s election night, on the evening a corrupt conservative takes office, a man who would usher in the darkest decimation of American trust in democracy and truth the country had ever seen in a much gloomier 1970’s that Scary Stories leans far more towards? We are indeed getting the monster we deserve, both in Mill Valley and indeed in the White House, and what was true in 1968 could very well be the case now. We may get the monster we deserve in 2020 for another four years. Sarah Bellows may well reflect us all.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is ultimately a chilling tale aimed at the same young adult market as the original book, and first and foremost is rooted in the emotional journey of its teenagers, but underneath the standard horror tropes and deliberately disturbing set pieces is a film making a clear and concise point on our relationship with truth and how we frame our own stories. As Stella says: “Some people believe if we repeat stories often enough they become real. They make us who we are. That can be scary.” The story right now we are living seems to be growing scarier by the day. We are leaving the 2010’s with a similar ominous shadow as people left the 1960’s, with half a century on the conditions in place for a far scarier story than the 1970’s ultimately brought us.
That might end up being the scariest story of them all.
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