Horror movies show us what we fear. That’s why the genre has had a long tradition of mixing thrills and scares with poignant social commentary. From Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead, to Halloween and Get Out, the best horror movies use scares to illuminate the fears and anxieties that lie beneath our society and culture.
This year alone saw the release of another Jordan Peele “social thriller,” Us, that shined a light on America’s treatment of the lower class, a new adaptation of Pet Sematary that again explores grief and death, and Issa López’ Tigers Are Not Afraid is about to unleash a beautiful and scary dark fairy-tale that explores the impact of Mexico’s war on drugs on orphaned children. The latest film by Guillermo del Toro and André Øvredal, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is looking to also join this list, with a story that serves as a gateway horror movie for kids, while also telling a story of current America by revisiting its past.
Spoilers for the film follow.
Set in 1968, a group of teenage friends Stella (Zoe Colletti), Auggie (Gabriel Rush), Chuck (Austin Zajur) and young stranger Ramón (Michael Garza) find a dusty book of horror stories belonging to the tragic Sarah Bellows who, legend tells, was kept confined her entire life inside her family’s mansion. Bellows supposedly spent her time reading her stories to local children through the walls of her isolated room, until the day she hung herself. When Stella steals the book from the mansion, she discovers that new stories are literally writing themselves, with monsters coming to life to claim those who entered the mansion.
The setting impacts the tone of the story and informs its already tense atmosphere. 1968 was a very impactful year for the US, after all, in that it featured the escalation of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and the election of Richard Nixon to name just a few events. Throughout the movie, Nixon and the Vietnam War cast a large shadow over the movie’s town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania and its citizens. One of the first things we see is a row of defaced Nixon posters with the “X” having been replaced by swastikas. Likewise, reports about young men dying in the Vietnam War are constantly heard on TVs and radios in the background.
The film’s director, André Øvredal told us that he wanted the movie to feel like an ‘80s Amblin movie, but with the dangers and politics of the ‘60s. “We definitely wanted to set the film in a time that was a bit more innocent,” Øvredal says. “A time before mobile phones, but when people still could spread misinformation and tell rumours, but still have it resonate today with social media or even governments lying to their people. We set the film in a time where I think America was surprised to find that the government was capable of lying to them about war.”
Indeed, the Vietnam War plays an important part in the movie, both in terms of plot but also atmosphere. Once the first kid disappears – school bully Tommy Milner, who doesn’t just disappear but gets turned into a scarecrow – the town’s adults start getting afraid that their kids will vanish as well. Throughout the rest of the movie, we see search parties and adults talking about searching for their kids. The movie uses its setting to reflect on today’s very real fears about children being in constant danger and how powerless their parents feel to stop it. Stella’s dad (Dean Norris) becomes increasingly worried about her daughter being next, and in the film’s climax, Stella tells him that she believes she’s next and says goodbye for what she believes will be the last time.
We also find out that Ramón, who we saw driving towards Mill Valley seemingly without a specific plan in the beginning of the movie, had actually skipped the draft as his brother went to Vietnam and was sent home “in pieces.” The contrast between the adults searching for the town’s missing kids so feverishly while being incomprehensive and unsympathetic to Ramón’s fears is at the center of the film’s attempts to use the past to reflect on today’s world. The town’s sheriff is immediately suspicious of Ramón and puts him in jail the moment he finds out about he is dodging the draft, turning a blind eye to his fate and the atrocities made against “our children” in Vietnam while being overly preoccupied with the town’s disappearances. Though the movie doesn’t go into specifics, and isn’t overly direct with its message, having Ramón be a latino character and the lack of sympathy from the town’s sheriff and adults does bring to mind the situation at the U.S. border in 2019, where kids are being mistreated and how little is actually getting done to fix that.
War isn’t the only thing Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark takes from 1968 to reflect our times. As Øvredal says, they wanted to set the film in a time before social media but when rumors and lies could spread just as easily. “We wanted to tell a story basically of two characters, Stella and Sarah Bellows, and how the power of stories and lies affected their lives.” Øvredal told /Film.
The power of stories is indeed important to the movie, after all the opening and closing narration tells us that “stories hurt, stories heal. If we repeat them long enough, they become real.” Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is as much about Stella as it is about Sarah. The former is an outcast in her community, with her passion for horror being a shield to protect her from the people in town spreading rumors about her being the reason her mom abandoned her family. Meanwhile, Sarah Bellows has become an urban legend in town. The recluse daughter of an affluent family, she is either a ghost, a witch, or a great storyteller depending on who you ask. Though Sarah isn’t completely innocent here – she did send monsters to kill a group of harmless kids whose only sin was to take a dusty book off an abandoned basement – she has a more tragic story than the audience first imagines.
As the group starts investigating the history of Sarah Bellows, they discover that she was committed to an asylum and tortured with electroshock treatment by her own brother for knowing that the family business was poisoning the town’s children. This turned Sarah into a rage-filled monster with a thirst for vengeance. This development has you feel bad for Sarah in a way, which instantly brings to mind the work of both Guillermo del Toro, but also André Øvredal’s previous feature, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, which gives its villain a layered and tragic story.
“That was one reason I fell in love with the script,” Øvredal explains. “Not only is it set in a turbulent year, but it has a wonderful journey for Stella which also reflects that of Sarah. There is a similarity between Stella’s love for stories and that of Sarah’s. The movie is about telling stories and how they can have such a power that can be used positively and negatively. There is always a tragic story behind somebody who is perceived as evil in horror stories. You may not like the villain, but you want to know more and understand it, deepening the antagonist. I really did not want an antagonist that was just out to get the kids for no reason.”
The power of stories is at the heart of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. How lies can appear like the truth, how misinformation can spread like wildfire and cause fear to take over people. Though the movie appears to end on a positive note, there’s a bittersweet undertone to it. Stella’s friends are still missing, Ramón is still headed towards an uncertain future in Vietnam, and like the country was after the war, the film’s town is likely to be changed forever due to the events that transpired. Following the great tradition of horror, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark scares its audience not only with monsters and ghosts, but by holding a mirror to the reality we live in.
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