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Book v. movie: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Scary Stories to tell in the dark leaves something to be desired.
Photo courtesy of IMP Awards

As children’s horror folklore anthologies go, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark excels in searing both the frightening stories and disturbing illustrations into the memories of readers. Yet, as an attempt to string individual stories (that tend to have no satisfying conclusion) into one overarching narrative leaves the movie Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark a disjointed patch job in its effort to turn an anthology into a story.

Walk into any fourth-grade classroom in the late 90s and a copy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is sure to be thrown onto the bookshelf. Any child who read these horror stories by folklorist Alvin Schwartz grew up with certain tales burned into their memories, alongside Stephen Gamell’s whimsically gruesome illustrations. Whether it was the story of the “The Big Toe” or “The Hook,” these stories have the power to settle under the skin and refuse to leave.

Perhaps that’s why writers Dan and Kevin Hageman focus their adaptation on such a concept: the power that stories hold. The film begins and ends with a voiceover telling the audience, “Stories hurt, stories heal. If we repeat them often enough, they become real. They have that power.” 

In a story that does not show itself in the books, a ragtag group of teens Stella, Auggie, Chuck, and Ramón (respectively Zoe Colletti, Gabriel Rush, Austin Zajur, and Michael Garza) in an Anytown, USA sort of place decide to explore the local haunted house on Halloween. According to legend, the Bellows family hid their daughter Sarah away in the basement, leaving her to write scary stories. While escaping the house, Stella’s act of stealing Sarah’s book serves as the key act of stupidity a horror movie needs to queue up the scares.

Each day after the book’s theft, Stella watches as a new story fills the pages, of course written in blood. Strangely enough, each day an odd occurrence happens to people throughout the town, such as the disappearance of the local bully Tommy (Austin Abrams). As a story scrawls before Stella, it chronicles an unfortunate Tommy to transform into a scarecrow. Viewers see Tommy’s transformation as he vomits up hay, trying to pull it out of his arms before succumbing to his fate.

Scary, right? That’s the key essence in the written stories with many stories ending with instructions to the reader to maximize the scares; “Now SCREAM!” The goal was to fit the maximum number of scares into successive vignettes. Instead, the movie goes lighter on the scares to go heavier into a narrative. It’s not the wispy monsters from the pages but rather a story set in the 1968 political climate that attempts to heighten frights. Viewers don’t white knuckle their way through jumps the way the books taught them to do so. 

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark could have been good if the filmmakers embraced the short, horrifying tone of the anthologies. The stories at their disposal were those that settled under the skin of an entire generation, yet the movie adaptation of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark fails to even make an attempt to be remembered.

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