Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
From 1990 to 1999 “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” slithered up to the top of the list as among the most notorious banned books in the country. The three collections of stories by Alvin Schwartz released in 1981, 1984 and 1991 were aimed at YA readers.
Even more disturbing than the creepy stories were the unsettling charcoal and ink illustrations by Stephen Gammell.
Complaints by the faint-hearted were so insistent and incessant that the publisher hired a “less disturbing” illustrator for its 2011 re-release of the books. But the legion of Gammell fans metaphorically marched like zombies upon HarperCollins, who got the message and restored the original Gammell illustrations.
Book reviewer Peter Derk wrote that these books were the only ones he ever encountered that were too scary for him (which is why he loved them). Derk did a side-by-side comparison of the old and new illustrations and concluded that the Gammell drawings were “scary, gory, disgusting, but definitely not boring” while newer drawings that were “safer, more appropriate -- and totally boring.”
Well, the three volumes have become a movie produced by a master of creepy movies, Guillermo del Toro. He crafted the haunting fairy tale “Pan’s Labyrinth” and the Oscar-winning “The Shape of Water.”
Del Toro is not one to dilute a horror story, and he’s adapted the Schwartz’s books in a satisfyingly disturbing way. The monsters, in particular, are reminiscent of Gammell’s visions. The scarecrow may be the single most unsettling image, an obvious homage to Gammell. Spiders creep around the edge of the screen to keep us twitchy. I twitched.
Aside from their visual impact, the stories also have deeper layers involving the nature of literature, and our current political malaise. Set in 1968, the film has the Vietnam War and Nixon as background. Seemed clear to me that the kids are being terrorized by more than an old ghost -- they are living in a culture of fear that is finding its way into their nightmares. Déjà vu.
The story also has some philosophical meanderings about literature and writing. The kids discover a manuscript of handwritten scary stories, which has blank pages at the end. But soon those pages start filling up as an unseen hand writes in blood on those pages – and then the horrors become real.
The question, of course, is whether an author is writing those stories or whether those teens are projecting their own fears into that manuscript.
The kids wrestle with these critical ideas a bit, but leave most of the pondering to us. They just want to shove the horror back inside the book and slam it shut. Too late, kids. Say your goodbyes.
The story is set at Halloween when friends dress up for a little trick or treating. The town bullies target them, but our heroes are smart and elusive.
They decide to sneak into an old notorious house where a lady named Sarah Bellows once lived. The kids unearth Sarah’s secrets, one clue at a time.
Sarah’s scary stories will ultimately be traced to her horrendous childhood. The film thus ends up being a cautionary tale about the trauma of child abuse.
“Scary Stories” is a well-crafted film. Del Toro decorates each scene with artistry we seldom see in scary movies for kids.
On the down side, we get no life-affirming message, nor are we deeply touched by our heroes.
But purists among us who appreciate film as art will likely come away nodding in respect.
Del Toro is the producer and he helped conceive the story. He didn’t direct or act or write.
But don’t be fooled -- those spider webs crawling up our necks are being plucked by Guillermo.