“We grow up, but do we ever forget how afraid we are of ourselves?”
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The books parents protest against are the best at turning children into bookworms. They create a lightbulb moment for art as a starting point. Adults are not plagued by anything sweeter: the hunt for a spine, the subversion of a dream explored in its fullest context before responsibility is disappointed. We entered Black Mirror and made it worldly. Hackers are getting younger with the app. Fetuses might as well edit their own genome from within the womb. The I-Ching Ka-Chings on Big Tech. The pillow talk of smartphones, satellite-sized helicopter parents, Tattletale culture – these will soon easily erase inappropriate finds like Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
Tweens kneel in prayer and blink at Steven Gamell’s infernal tracks. Its incomplete lines torment the imagination. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (the film) is full of Easter eggs, agonizing frames that reference the text, in search of those brave enough to remain haunted decades later. Like the book series, the film is toned down for children, but nostalgia carries it past its mistakes as an independent work. Such groundbreaking horror for kids from the eighties and nineties can be sustained through the application of an archaic thing: style.
Monstrous sculptures are brought to the cinema at twenty-four sketches per second – the pale-faced woman from “The Dream”, Jangly Man, Harold (the scarecrow) and the woman who is looking for her big toe. It is difficult to determine practical effects of CGI. In addition to our increasingly digitized life, animation has become pretty crisp. Actors were painted into the body of every demon. The spine twisting backwards on all fours was captured in real time by men in intricate costumes – Gamell’s iconic images were recreated in 3D. We switch to early retro: 1968 – what Guillermo del Toro calls “the end of innocence”. American children go missing in Vietnam as their ghosts cry out for the red joke that stole their essence.
Act 1 opens with a clumsy, literal Stella (Zoe Colletti) and her geeky friends donning costumes to know that Tommy (Austin Abrams), the neighborhood bully, is going to steal her pillowcases with candy. Instead of filling the sack with goodies, each bag is filled with spicy papa underwear. Tommy crashes his car when the kids set fire to a bag of shit, crowning his tight crotch. The neighborhood scarecrow, Harold, enters and sends Tommy quickly with a pitchfork. It’s not blood, but straw that oozes out of each wound and strengthens Tommy’s flesh and flows out of his mouth as he scratches his neck, expands and turns blue. His eyes pop, realizing that he has mulched much faster than the decomposition allows. Audiences may have a hard time identifying with that plastered jerk of a character, but the movie trailer’s excitement and expectations in anticipation of this ceremonial adaptation are slowly being undermined.
Stella and Ramón (Michael Garza) share a pockmarked romance, pimples appearing in the rearview mirror closer than they appear. The roller coaster thrill of her puzzle is too fast. “Tell her the truth!” Ramon yells at Stella through a supernatural veil. Truth and Valor are the golden tickets to most of these would-be Stranger Things revival films. Children end up having a moment when they have to withstand the goblin, and the spider’s legs shrink back into their bodies. But the disorder of characters that also clogged the narrative drain of the It remake is sadly what drives Scary Stories. The film is stifled by transitions. Spectacular moments – a pale lady pulling the curly child into her stomach – are bitter about her successor. Why make a family-friendly film for the generation that grew up with the book? In a way, del Toro and director André Øvredal (Trollhunter) stay true to the text. Your few runs are worthy. Our zeitgeist depression must surely be diverted from the self-help section (the legible poop emoji) to Dostoevsky and Rimbaud, but the earth has been flat since identities were solidified and pulled into the cloud. Suspended in a bionic bubble, scientists are now trolls explaining Doritos and laughing at Mountain Dew.
Stella flips through Sarah Bellow’s infamous book. The sides are colored similar to Pan’s labyrinth. In both films a little girl can be seen holding the key to unlock imaginary worlds. It is their obsessive lexicon that will save them, infidels who drain off-screen into the black hole. Faithful to read harms and saves life equally. The tiny intellectuals open the magical marbled paper – an old school technique to ensure that each print is a separate monotype. Some marbling methods use children’s blood. These outsiders are organically grown. Two million new cells are leaking red to fill out a prepubescent will and will. Her death was stripped of blood to write her end. A gold leaf fate. Leather binding stretched over the eyes. An iron-smelling sky clings to each meme-like plot layer.
The combination of the often bizarre stories with the painful illustrations is carefree. The call to ban the book from school libraries echoed through the decades, but the children have seen worse and imagined. “For years people in this town have told lies about me. Locked me up Called me a monster. “That feeling of Sarah Bellows – the ghost of a girl who was tormented by her family for going against the grain, a watery exposé – is trending. Why do we need an audience for our lives? Does every breath need attention? Culture of breaking off continues to weave its way through the world of filmmakers and writers. However, the effect of the lifting is tied to prohibitions, which makes readers and cinephiles all the more excited to witness what is withheld. It should go without saying that repression is only more of that causing what is supposedly suppressed, but these YouTube comment warriors agree less with moral desperation than with likes and comments.
Thumbs crossed the fog of youth for the generation that literally retold each section of these books – the Scary Stories franchise blew a few childhood bones that won’t grow back. It was rotoscoped with broken fingers. Fortunately, we just read a lot of the strange things that happened to us as children. Don’t reread childhood books if you want to keep the dollhouse version of you from breaking down – whether “That Little Light of Me” is a burning building or a namaste. The Gamell drawings turned some of us for the worse, Francis Bacon style. Bacon joked that he was discharging his power over the cornea into the viewer. “We are born with a scream … love is a mosquito net between the fear of life and the fear of death.” And like the fairy tales on which Alvin Swartz’s stories are based (“Stories keep us violent; stories keep us silent” or whatever the nursery rhyme goes), the parasite of art is ready to confuse its host and turn itself into vine-like ailments to transform. There are plenty of elementary school books that turned flashlight readings under the sheets into an outbreak. Besides Scary Stories, there was everything Stephen King had written. His books turned into playground myths, children who trusted each other to read something more hideous, bullied each other and lied that each tormented climax did not prescribe their own sleep paralysis.
“Sarah Bellows is a myth.” This is borne out by all of the teen book junkies in the film. The cinema is the best setting for our fables to bring electric shocks to life. 2D drawings grow legs, sprout movement, while amniotic surround sound cradles us. We grow up but do we ever forget how afraid we are of ourselves? Jean Louis Schefer writes in The Ordinary Man of Cinema: “In the heart of cinema (in what we consider to be the oldest and most brutal state) there is the vague terror or fear that connects our entire childhood with one or the other film.” He draws scattered Lines between children and the theater. The atmosphere in these rooms is thunderous and profound. The lifting of disbelief is a precious talent that the young possess. Scary Stories is made with legendary ingredients. The open logic of the Winnebago legends is explored a bit here, as every child – hollowed out and filled with straw, melted into the belly of an overweight mentally ill, or dragged to a place between the floor and the wall – does not return. There are no answers. A loop between folklore and war. Tarsal claws shaking a future, we are all stunted by the trauma of childbirth. Unhardened meat, looking for a hook that suits us and fills the holes in our hearts.
In response to being challenged by its censors for reasons such as “insensitivity, occult satanism, and violence” kids read more. Del Toro has revived a feeling that borders on the original magic, but we need more than just looks that kill. A rebellious child for every self-confident moralist. For every spotty watercolor trauma, a time-lapse culture that sheds its skin alive, the shell balances on a silo and is crispy in its sheen.
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Images are screenshots from the film.