I’m going to open here with some honesty:
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was one of the most satisfying book to film experiences I’ve ever had.
Before we go any further, I do want to emphasize the quantity of spoilers to follow. There will be a lot of spoilers. It’s a bit difficult to talk about a movie adaptation without talking about the movie, so if you haven’t seen Scary Stories yet (especially since it just came to theatres at the end of August), please tread carefully. Thanks, loves!
Also, I do include some GIFs from the film in this post, and they are … well … on point for this collection of stories, so be forewarned they may be a smidge… unpleasant.
So right off the bat, you’re got to know that the screenwriters had a bit of challenge ahead of them when they came to writing the script for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. For those unfamiliar with these books, Scary Stories is a collection of creepy campfire tales, usually shorter than three pages each, with a great variety of ghosts, monsters, and tragic happenings. These stories are best when read aloud at a sleepover, or under the covers at night with a flashlight after your parents told you to go to bed. They’re not overly gory, but they are all spooky and unsettling..
The challenge for this film was to take these short stories and integrate them in a master framework, while remaining creepy and true to the more iconic tales in the book. They also would need to decide early on exactly what sort of feel the movie would have. Would this go down the silly, children’s horror fest that plagued Goosebumps? Would it be more of a family-friendly but still spooky quality film like Hocus Pocus? Or would it be the dark, harrowing creepiness we get from IT? In my opinion, this never had the story potential to be a gory horror flick, so those expecting Halloween will be disappointed.
At the end of the day, I think Scary Stories found a comfortable medium between the kid-driven campiness of Hocus Pocus with a heavy emphasis on the unsettling horror and monsters from Stephen King’s IT. Also, I think that it was perfect. While yes, this may give young children nightmares, for us nostalgic adults, there’s just a few jump scares and an overall decent ghost story. Huzzah!
Also, as a complete aside, Scary Stories has been giving children nightmares for decades. I see no reason for it to stop now.
Scary Stories went for the framework of a ghost story. I don’t remember the tale of Sarah Bellows, the girl locked in the basement by her family, but the legend in town is that she continues to haunt the old Bellows house even after she hung herself. Kids would come up to the wall and say “Sarah, tell us a story.” And Sarah would. And then kids went missing. Classic horror story setup. When Stella, Augie, Ramone, and Chuck find the way into Sarah’s room, Stella is riveted. As a fellow horror story writer herself, she takes Sarah’s storybook home to read.
And then, a new story appears.
As it should, the first short story to come to life is “Harold”. This iconic creepy scarecrow comes from Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones. Please take a moment to appreciate that shot in the GIF because this is exactly what the illustration in the book looks like. In fact, as you watch, a lot of the iconic illustrations are in the film. As someone loves to nerd out about the illustrations getting film rep (hello, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs!) this just made my heart really happy. One that really stood out to me was the empty rocking chair at the asylum. The illustration is on the dedication page of the first book and yeah okay creepy asylum basement, but look! Book nerd moment!
I think that Guillermo del Toro was the perfect fit for this because he has a way of making things nightmarish without being gory. His most iconic work, Pan’s Labyrinth, testifies to that. And that is the whole aesthetic. Scary Stories is not bloody, scary monsters. It is the weird, spooky, unexplainable things nightmares are made of. Which is why the whole aesthetic is perfect.
Besides “Harold”, I recognized the following tales:
- “The Big Toe” from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
- “The Red Spot” from Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones
- “The Dream” from Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones
- “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker!” from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
- “What Do You Come For?” from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
- “You May Be the Next…” from Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones
“Me Tie Dough-ty Walker!” and “What Do You Come For?” were tied into the same monster, so to be honest, there may have been other moments I totally missed. Additionally, as Stella flips through Sarah’s book, there are a bunch of familiar titles – the ones that caught my eye were “The Wendigo” and “The Cat’s Paw”. The title of Stella’s murder story is “The Haunted House” but after re-reading that story, I have come to the conclusion that it’s not really related to the original.
Oh, and in flipping through, I believe the concept art for the corpse from “The Big Toe” is the tall, pale lady in “The Haunted House” so I guess that worked out a bit. Stories from the second volume, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark seem to be missing… unless I missed something, which is totally possible and if so, please let me know.
Generally speaking, each of the scenes where these nightmares come to life were unsettling to the core. The ones that were the most potent to me were “The Big Toe” and “The Dream”. During “The Big Toe” I threw up in my mouth a little (ugh, gross, who eats toes!?) and that one got me with two jump scares. And in “The Dream”… honestly that just ran too close to my one nightmares. Besides, look at that pale lady! Is she not the freakiest?! That whole sequence – the lighting, the casual speed and nonchalance of the pale lady. Just, eek.
All and all, the framework was really good, and the spirit of the books came out really well. Remember – these may have terrified us as kids, but re-reading these as adults, most the Scary Stories are weird and creepy more than scary. I can pretty much assure you that if you bring an eight-year-old to see this movie, they will most likely have nightmares. If that isn’t true to the spirit of the books, I don’t know what is.
This is a solid Halloween movie and a really great nostalgia film. I think it stands alone without the books, but it’s a lot better if you’ve read them. I predict that the only people who may seek out this film who would be disappointed are: a.) a die-hard fan of the books whose favorite story didn’t appear; or b.) someone expecting a lot more blood, gore, and monsters. I feel like I’ve emphasized the fact that this is more disturbing and spooky than it is scary, right? Despite the title, this isn’t the type of “scary movie” that will make adults scream and hide under their covers. Unless you’re still dealing with the childhood trauma from the books, I suppose.
Overall, this gets five enthusiastic stars from me. The ending was a bit campy, but it fit the feel of the books and the movie alike. Personally, I couldn’t have asked for a better adaptation.
Did you read any of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books as a kid? We had them in our school library of all places, and a group of us used to sit around in a circle and read them to one another when we had indoor recess. Yeah, I’ve always been pretty cool.