Drawing of scared woman with spiders coming out of her face
Illustration Source: Harper & Row/Stephen Gammell

“Stories hurt. Stories heal.”

Story by Bria Manning

Young woman with a spider emerging from her face
Image Source: CBS Films/André Øvredal

The horror film “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is a revival of Alvin Schwartz’s harrowing stories but with a not so traumatizing twist by director André Øvredal. Growing up, the illustrations by Stephen Gammell in the “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” series were more unsettling to me than the tales themselves, and the same can more or less be said for the movie. It cleverly integrates the monsters and creatures from Schwartz’s stories to strengthen the horror aspects of the movie and, just as the very distinct and creepy illustrations from the book stuck with me as a kid, the movie achieves the highest levels of unsettling creepiness when bringing these illustrations to life.

“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is set in the small town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania during Halloween of 1968. Three friends who can be affectionately described as nerdy and dorky—Stella (Zoe Colletti), Augie (Gabriel Rush), and Chuck (Austin Zajur)—befriend a young drifter evading the war draft named Ramon (Michael Garza). Together, the group explores the old haunted house of the Bellows family, where the disowned Sarah Bellows was held captive and hidden from the public eye by her own family. Here, the kids discover Bellows’ old book of scary stories she used to read to children from the other side of the wall, in the confinements of her home-based prison. In a moment of curiosity inspired by her passion for horror writing, Stella takes the book home with her, thus triggering all the creepy and weird shit. 

Comparison of scarecrow character from
Image Source: CBS Films/André Øvredal, Illustration Source: Harper & Row/Stephen Gammell

I sat in seat D13 expecting the movie to depict one of Schwartz’s scary stories on steroids.

I walked into this movie completely blind—I hadn’t seen the trailers, had no idea what the plot was about. I sat in seat D13 expecting the movie to depict one of Schwartz’s scary stories on steroids. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the movie utilized the stories themselves to advance the plot rather than being solely about them. Various characters are assigned a story which Sarah Bellows writes from beyond the grave, and each story comes from one of Schwartz’s beloved books.

The movie both opens and closes with the statements “Stories hurt. Stories heal” which proves to be the thematic force which, though it differs greatly from that of Schwartz’s books, still works to connect the two. Both the movie and the books revolve around the concept of storytelling, the importance of it and, as Schwartz put it in his author’s note in his first book, “Most scary stories are, of course, meant to be told. They are more scary that way. But how you tell them is important.” Øvredal, Dan and Kevin Hageman, the movie’s respective director and screenplay writers, weave the stories that we read growing up into their own tapestry to further the vivid themes that Schwartz held in high regard to in his books. In this sense, the directors and screenplay writers hold true to Schwartz’s statement about storytelling being less about the actual story and more about how a story is presented to an audience.