Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark arrives at a moment when the anthology horror film is making a comeback, both on the big and small screens. It’s based on the trio of children’s books released in the early 80s, authored by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell, each of which provided a series of short stories based on folklore, urban legends and classic horror narratives. Screenwriters Dan and Kevin Hageman, and director Andre Ovredal, have chosen several of the most iconic Scary Stories, and worked them into a framing device that doesn’t appear in any of the original books, but which works well to anthologise them on the big screen. Opening in 1968, the film follows a collection of small-town teenagers who break into a haunted house, where they discover a book that was apparently written by Sarah, a young girl who was imprisoned and tortured there several generations ago. After they remove the book, stories start to appear on its pages, predicting gruesome deaths for people in their circle of acquaintances. All these stories come true, meaning they have to find a way to thwart or defeat the book before it targets them in turn.
For the first part of Scary Stories, however, this plays more like a coming-of-age film. From the opening half hour, you might not even guess that there was going to be any horror, since the screenplay works just as well to capture the attachment and anxieties amongst this group of adolescent friends as the broader horror narrative. Intriguing more than scary, the horror emerges quite gradually, and its point of origin is often not clear, leaving the characters guessing as to how and when the next name will appear in the book. In addition, the teenagers are also fairly self-aware about horror – they’re horror fans – meaning that it takes a lot to spook them. While this make it quite scary when they start to genuinely freak out, it also undercuts the horror of the opening scenes, making for a first act that often feels horror-adjacent, rather than horror per se. Even when the first deaths start to occur, they feel more like a natural extension of this coming-of-age mode than a shift to an entirely different kind of genre exercise, as sometimes occurs in Stephen King’s small-town stories.
In other words, Scary Stories starts by positing an inherent connection between horror and adolescence – a connection so deep that the teen film and horror film blend into one genre. As a result, most of the “stories” that Sarah tells are stories about the abject adolescent body, which is presented here as both the prototype and the logical conclusion of the desecrated bodies of horror cinema more generally. Time and again, Scary Stories suggests that the bodies of horror cinemas are always adolescent bodies, but also that the adolescent body is itself a horror film in miniature, or a horror film waiting to happen. Perhaps because she spent her adolescence imprisoned, Sarah is especially attuned to the porosity of the adolescent body, since many of her stories play on the adolescent horror of new things going in and out of the body – secretions, objects, devices – even as her victims can’t properly contain, control or understand these changing thresholds of their physical selves. In an early scene, for example, a local bully takes out his aggression on a scarecrow that has bugs perpetually crawling into its mouth, only to realise, as he starts to vomit up straw, that his own body is just as porous, and that he is morphing into a scarecrow himself.
Throughout all these scenes, Ovredal emphasises the incompetence and incoherent of the adolescent body in the face of these physical changes. Most of the monsters that Sarah imagines are lumbering bodies, or else reveal their victims to be lumbering bodies, debilitated and tortured by one horrific pubic experience after another. In another early scene, Stella, played by Zoe Colletti, realises that “you don’t read the book, the book reads you,” since Sarah’s stories seem to identify each characters’ deepest pubic anxieties and play them back as horror. It makes sense, then, that Sarah was locked up for her entire adolescence, and only had the darkest deepest recesses of her imagination to process the changes taking place in her body. Written in her own blood, her stories are her own twisted attempt to come to terms with puberty without any other context, turning her into a kind of supernatural version of the high school bully, as she punishes, shames and disciplines the bodies of every adolescent she encounters to process the changes occurring within her own.
Since the adolescent body is the real source of horror here, Scary Stories doesn’t have any one defining or overarching monster. Instead the monsters that Sarah “writes” tend to be revolting, rotting, putrid human bodies – a collective adolescent fear about what the pubic body might become without the right kind of management. Recognising how deeply fantasy and horror are intertwined during adolescence, Scary Stories thus presents the decomposing body as a kind of logical extension of the pubic body – a source of terror, to be sure, but also the most compelling vocabulary that any of the characters have for the changes that are being writ large across their own bodies. In the process, the adolescent body becomes a collection of part-objects that can’t be properly integrated or comprehended, personified by one of the later monsters, which falls through a chimney in fragments, and can then separate and recompose itself to negotiate virtually any situation.
At a more literal level, most of the horror stories have quite direct connections to puberty, and involve pubic bodies being traversed or shamed in messy and abject ways. In that respect, the centerpiece of the film is arguably a story that initially seems targeted at Chuck Steinberg, played by Austin Zajur, before turning out to be about his sister, Ruthie, played by Natalie Ganzhorn. At first, this story, which deals with an unexplained skin sore, makes Chuck believe that he might be menstruating, since it corresponds with a growing bloody blotch on his lower shirt. While this blood is never really explained, and this menstrual moif is never foreclosed, the action quickly shifts to Ruthie, who is unaware of the book as she examines an enormous sore that has appeared on her face on the night of a school dance. This pimple grows larger and larger, until a colony of spiders burst out and cover her head, making her insane, and causing her to be taken to an institution, where she eventually dies.
As Ruthie’s story makes clear, the psychological torment of the adolescent body in the face of puberty is the real subject matter of Scary Stories. In Ruthie’s case, acne is presented as the degree zero of this torment, since it makes these changes painfully visible, and transforms them from a private anxiety to a public spectacle. Virtually all the deaths in the film play like deaths from acne, in one form or another, while the last stage of destruction in each kill scene tends to involve the character in question discovering that their skin has taken on a repulsive texture that dehumanizes them as it spreads. Part of the cult status of the original novels comes from Gammell’s illustrations, which were highly textural in their depictions of the skin of the victims and the skin of the monsters – and that textural approach continues into the film, where it always plays as so many variations on the omniscient fear of acne, and desecrated facial skin in particular, lurking over the characters.
While Ruthie’s experience might overtake Chuck’s experience, however, it doesn’t quite discredit his experience either, since the nature of his menstrual bleeding is never explained. Instead, the elastic space between their two stories reflects another horrifying fact about puberty within the film’s world – that it hits people at various rates, and affects different bodies at different times, creating vast textural differences between bodies that seemed similar or identical in childhood. In Scary Stories, the taller and worldlier characters tend to be hit first, while the characters who are less “developed” – both socially and physiologically – have a bit more breathing room. Still, there’s a crushing sense that everyone’s body will be affected eventually – as in It Follows, the monsters here might approach slowly, laboriously and even clumsily, but always inexorably, typically as a series of intensifying bodily textures, and intensifying pubic textures, as also occurs in the books.
That focus on texture means that Scary Stories is driven as much by revulsion as by fear, and as much by disgust as by terror. Yet that aesthetic of revulsion also makes it one of the best recent exercises in period horror, since the abject bodily surfaces tend to cut across the nostalgic sheen that drives so much contemporary period horror. Just as the textures of the original books cuts across their stylised cinematic tableaux, so Scary Stories often feels poised between a cinematic rendition and the graphic novel aesthetic and outlook of Gammell’s illustrations. In that respect, Ovredal perhaps offers everything that Stranger Things and the reboot of It – to give just two examples – should have been. In both those texts, we’re presented with abject, messy, textural worlds (the Upside Down the alternative universe of Pennywise), but they never really comprise or qualify the nostalgic naturalism of the adolescent universes that revolve around them. By contrast, the revolting textures of Scary Stories ultimately overtake its nostalgic naturalism, making for a more ambivalent and resonant tribute to this golden age of horror, attuned to all the awkward, messy fringes that elude the nostalgic architecture that has streamlined out the 80s in so much recent cinema.