“We grow up, but do we ever forget how afraid of ourselves we are?”
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The books parents protest about are the best at converting children into bookworms. They create a lightbulb moment for art as an outlet. Adults aren’t plagued by anything sweeter: the hunt for a spine to crack, the subversion of a dream explored in its fullest context before responsibility disenchants. We have entered Black Mirror and made it mundane. Hackers are getting younger by the app. Fetuses might as well edit their own genome from the womb. The I-Ching ka-chings across big tech. The pillow talk of smartphones, helicopter parents the size of a satellite, tattletale culture – these will soon delete slightly inappropriate finds like Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
Tweens kneel, as if in prayer, squinting at Steven Gamell’s hellish tracings. His lines, left incomplete, torment the imagination. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (the film) is packed with Easter eggs, agonized frames referencing the text, in search of those courageous enough to stay haunted decades later. Like the book series, the film is toned down for children, but nostalgia carries it past its faults as a stand-alone work. Such seminal horror for eighties and nineties kids can be sustained on the application of one archaic thing: style.
Monstrous sculptures are brought to cinematic life at twenty-four sketches per second – the pale-faced woman from “The Dream,” Jangly Man, Harold (the scarecrow), and the woman searching for her big toe. It’s hard to pinpoint practical effects from CGI. Animation has become quite crisp right alongside our increasingly digitized lives. Actors were painted inside the body of each demon. The spinal twist, scuttling backwards on all fours, was shot in real time by men in intricate costume – Gamell’s iconic images recreated in 3D. We shift to the early retro: 1968 – what Guillermo del Toro calls “the end of innocence.” American kids go missing in Vietnam while their ghosts scream at the red scare hoax that stole their essence.
The first act begins with an awkward, bookish Stella (Zoe Colletti) and her geeky friends donning costumes to trick-or-treat, knowing that Tommy (Austin Abrams), the neighborhood bully, will steal their pillowcases of candy. Instead of filling up the sack with goodies, each bag’s stuffed with pungent dad underwear. Tommy crashes his car as the children light a bag of shit on fire and crown his tight-jeaned crotch with it. The neighborhood scarecrow, Harold, steps in and quickly dispatches Tommy with a pitchfork. It’s not blood but straw emerging from each wound fortifying Tommy’s flesh, pouring from his mouth as he claws at his throat, expanding and growing blue. His eyes pop in recognition that he’s become mulch much quicker than decomposition allows. The audience might have a hard time identifying with this plastered jerk of a character, but the excitement and expectations of the movie trailer, in anticipation of this ceremonial adaptation, is slowly undermined.
Stella and Ramón (Michael Garza) share a pockmarked romance, pimples popped in the rearview mirror closer than they appear. The roller-coaster thrill of their conundrum is too fast-tracked. “Tell her the truth!” Ramon shouts to Stella through a supernatural veil. Truth and bravery are the golden tickets for most of these Stranger Things wannabe revival flicks. Children have a stand-up-to-the-goblin moment at the end, and the spider’s legs shrink back into its body. But the clutter of characters that also clogged the narrative drain of the It remake is sadly the driving force of Scary Stories. The film is choked by transitions. Spectacular moments – pale-faced lady pulling the curly-haired kid into her belly – are embittered by their follow-through. Why make a family-friendly film for the generation who grew up with the book? In some ways, del Toro and director André Øvredal (Trollhunter) stay faithful to the text. Their few departures are cringeworthy. Our zeitgeist depression sure needs redirecting from the self-help section (the poop emoji made readable) to Dostoyevsky and Rimbaud, but the earth’s been flat since identities were solidified and hauled into the cloud. Suspended in a bionic bubble, now even scientists are trolls, explaining Doritos, laughing out Mountain Dew.
Stella flips through Sarah Bellows’s notorious book. The pages color themselves in, much like Pan’s Labyrinth. Both films include a little girl holding the key to unlock imaginary worlds. It’s her compulsive lexicon that will save her, disbelievers draining into the black hole off-screen. True to life, reading harms and saves in equal proportions. The tiny intellectuals open the magic marbled paper – an old-school technique to ensure each print is its own monotype. Some methods of marbling use children’s blood. These misfits are certified organic. Two million new cells leak red to fill out a prepubescent will and testament. Their deaths have been stripped of blood to write their end. A gold leaf fate. Leather binding stretched over the eyes. A sky that stinks of iron holds tight between each meme-like layer of plot.
The pairing of the often-quirky stories with the excruciating illustrations is lighthearted. Calls to ban the book from school libraries echo through the decades, but children have experienced and imagined worse. “For years the people in this town told lies about me. Locked me away. Called me a monster.” This sentiment from Sarah Bellows – the ghost of a girl tormented by her family for going against the grain, a watery exposé – is trending. Why do we need an audience for our lives? Does every breath of air need attention? Cancel culture continues to snake its way through the world of filmmakers and writers. But the effect of canceling is kin to bans, which makes readers and cinephiles all the more excited to witness whatever is withheld. It should go without saying that repression only causes more of what is supposedly being repressed, but those YouTube comment warriors tune in less from moral exasperation and more for likes and comments.
For the generation who retold each section of these books verbatim, thumbs dragged through the mist of youth – the Scary Stories franchise busted a few childhood bones that won’t grow back. It has been rotoscoped with fractured fingers. Luckily, many of the strange things that happened to us as children we only read. Don’t reread childhood books if you want to keep the dollhouse version of yourself from crumbling – whether “This Little Light of Mine” is a burning building or a namaste. The Gamell drawings changed some of us for the worse, Francis Bacon style. Bacon quipped that he unloaded his violence into the viewer via their cornea. “We are born with a scream … love is a mosquito net between the fear of living and the fear of death.” And like the folktales Alvin Swartz’s stories are based on (“stories keep us violent; stories keep us silent” or however the nursery rhyme goes), the parasite of art is willing to derange its host to bulk itself into tendril-like afflictions. There are many books from grade school that turned flashlight readings beneath the sheets into an outburst. Besides Scary Stories, there was anything written by Stephen King. His books turned into playground myths, children daring each other to read something more heinous, bullying one another, lying that each tortured climax didn’t prescribe its own set of sleep paralysis.
“Sarah Bellows is a myth.” This is echoed by all the teenage book junkies in the film. Cinema is the best backdrop for our fables to electroshock to life. 2D drawings grow legs, sprout movement, while the amniotic surround sound cradles us. We grow up, but do we ever forget how afraid of ourselves we are? In his The Ordinary Man of Cinema, Jean Louis Schefer writes, “At the heart of cinema (in its most ancient condition for us, and most brutal) subsists the vague terror or fear that links our entire childhood to one film or another.” He draws scattered lines between children and the theater. The atmosphere these spaces wield are thunderous and profound. Suspension of disbelief is a valuable talent the young possess. Scary Stories is concocted with fabled ingredients. The open-ended logic of Winnebago legends is somewhat explored here, since each child – hollowed out and stuffed with straw, fused into the belly of an obese mental patient, or dragged into a place between the floor and wall – does not return. No answers exist. A loop between folklore and war. Tarsal claws crunching out a future, we’re all stunted by the trauma of birth. Uncured meat, hunting for a hook that fits who we are, that fills the holes in our heart.
In response to the challenge of its censors, for reasons such as, “insensitivity, occult Satanism, and violence,” children read more. Del Toro has rekindled a feeling adjacent to the original magic, but we need more than looks that kill. For every self-important moralist, a rebellious child. For every splotchy, watercolor trauma, a time-lapse culture skinning itself alive, husk balanced on the top of a silo, crisping in the shine.
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Images are screenshots from the film.