I grew up on Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I didn’t find the stories that scary (though some of them were very gross), but the pictures that went with the original editions absolutely haunted me. I ultimately decided that seeing this movie might not actually kill me because after watching the TV spots, the glimpses of the monsters we got didn’t scare the bejeesus out of me like the old pictures did.
Now, from the other side of the movie theater, I’m pleased to report that as expected, I am still alive. Which is not to say that this movie isn’t scary. It depends mostly on the combination of jump scare/dread of knowing that a jump scare is coming. Which it uses very effectively. It had me scrunching down into my seat and on a couple occasions covering my eyes (because yes, I’m still ten years old), and at one point I wanted to just scream at the movie to get it over with, we know the ghost is coming. Kudos to director André Øvredal for knowing just how long to hold a scare and then holding it even longer. There’s also a couple of pretty gross bits. Yet it also all still feels in keeping with the audience for the book; there’s something juvenile about it, and I don’t mean that as an insult. Like if you took the old Goosebumps TV series and ratcheted it up to a PG-13 with a good effects budget.
Part of that is the visual feel of the movie. Guillermo del Toro was a third of the screenwriting crew and produced the movie, but you can see some of his aesthetic sensibility in there. It’s a movie that’s not afraid of saturated, warm colors, or the grotesque that leans toward the ridiculous, or solid and intricate props. Watching it, there are times when everything is a little too clean, or the cobwebs are a little too artfully placed, and you see the artifice of it while knowing simultaneously that the movie intends for you to understand it’s the fantasy of a small town in Pennsylvania. It’s like someone scrubbed away the little bit of dirt Stranger Things calls its own and subtracted a couple of decades off the year it’s supposed to be taking place in.
Where reality deliberately intrudes is in the background, in grainy television images and by the radio. The Vietnam War is going on, somewhere out there. Richard Nixon is getting elected while claiming that he definitely doesn’t want to bomb anyone. (The first you see of Nixon in the movie are posters of him where the “x” in his name has been drawn into a swastika.) Boys with similar hair cuts and cookie-cutter letterman jackets are signing up to go to war as soon as school is done. Against that backdrop, Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) and her two friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) are taking their last shot at Halloween revenge against the town juvenile asshole, Tommy (Austin Abrams). Their trick backfires and leads them to meeting Ramón (Michael Garza), a young Latino just passing through town and claiming that he’s a farm worker following the harvest. After escaping Tommy, the four decide to go to the town’s haunted house, where a girl named Sarah Bellows was locked in the basement by her family and killed other children by telling them scary stories through the wall. They find a book that belonged to Sarah and Stella takes it home–and that’s where the scary stuff really gets started. Stories write themselves into the book, picking off Stella’s friends one by one.
It’s a fun movie. It’s also got a lot more meat on its bones than you’d think, considering the source material. Which is honestly what I’d expect from something Guillermo del Toro is involved with; his greatest skill is in telling brutal fairy tales that have layers of meaning to them. Consider just the character of Ramón; he’s the outsider to the town, the only non-white person in the main cast. The movie doesn’t shy away from his fear of the police (which has multiple levels), the slurs that get hurled his way, or the assumptions made about him because of his skin color (relevant plot point: Ramón is plainly an American citizen); it’s all immensely relevant to the current political climate. As the town gets more and more concerned about the disappearances of its children, throwing itself into superficial activities such as searches that don’t actually address the problem, the adults a pointedly unconcerned with listening to the fears of Stella or Ramón. (Generational divide, anyone?)
I want to dig in a little more here, which is going to involve LOTS OF SPOILERS. Continue below the fold at your own risk.
The thesis of the movie is simple: “Stories hurt. Stories heal. When you tell the same story enough, it becomes real.” The juxtaposition of this with the Vietnam War and Nixon in the background becomes extremely pointed.
Sara Bellows is very much an American ghost; there’s a way to beat her, which involves finding out the truth of her life and death. What Stella and her friends learn is that Sarah realized that mercury from her family’s paper mill had gotten into the town’s water, and that caused the deaths of the children that were later blamed on her. She tried to warn the town, and her family, knowing exactly the crimes they were committing, locked her away, first in the house’s basement, then in an asylum, where under the “care” of her own brother, she hanged herself. Stories hurt; the lies that Sarah’s family told caused death and illness in the town, and then the lies they told about Sarah made her a monster in their place. The local harm of these false stories is a microcosm of the harm that lying narratives did during the Vietnam War, compounded with Nixon as president–and it’s also very much about today, considering the presidential lies causing real harm, and the message of environmental damage and pollution being swept under the rug by wealthy business owners out to protect their own interests.
But Sarah Bellows in this movie isn’t just a hapless victim. She is also the monster currently killing kids in Stella’s town. (Also significant: The three kids that disappear in the film are all young men, one of whom just signed up for the army. Ramón is a draft dodger, and he’s relentlessly pursued by a monster, only barely escaping with his life.) Her ghost has spent decades feeling the helpless rage of the voiceless, and it’s twisted her into something hateful that wants the guilty and innocent alike to suffer. Combined with the fact that she’s apparently an albino, that’s more than a bit problematic.
The magic bullet for the ghost is ultimately the truth told by Stella, to combat the layers of lying stories that have been told: Sarah was a victim of her family; Sarah has also become what they claimed she was. Either half of that truth isn’t enough to stop the ghost. What does it is the full, complicated story, a reckoning that sees both the good and the ugly. The truth sets all of them free from the cycle of rage and harm, and it’s something only the whole truth can do. Sarah lets go, but it’s not without one final wail of rage and anguish, because healing isn’t necessarily a pleasant process when there are so many lies to be demolished.
I think it’s an important message, about the power of stories, and why untrue stories are incredibly harmful the more they get repeated. While it’s built on the turmoil of 1968, it’s most definitely a movie about today. Lies hurt; lies (and misinformation) spread and can be hard to root out. The truth heals, but only when it’s the whole truth, which doesn’t exist to make anyone feel good about themselves.
At the end of the movie, Ramón is getting on a bus that’s going to take him to basic training; he can’t run from the draft any more, and there’s no promise that he’ll survive. It was luck and the capriciousness of a ghost that meant he was the next to last on her list; it was being in the wrong place at the wrong time and having their number come up first that killed Tommy, Auggie, and Chuck. Honestly, I think that’s where the movie should have ended, with him reading the letter that Stella wrote to him. There’s one more scene after, with Stella, Ruth (the one victim of Sarah’s that survived), and Stella’s dad driving to an unknown destination, with Stella promising she’ll find a way to bring back Auggie and Chuck. (Fuck Tommy anyway. He was a grade-A asshole.) That little coda feels cowardly for a movie that’s advocating for the power of difficult truths, for a movie that’s about wars founded on lies and the people they kill.
Or maybe it’s just a story Stella’s telling herself, in the hopes that if she repeats it often enough, it’ll become true.