Of the many genres of fiction that my children used to have me read to them, ghost stories were among their favorites. They were a perfect mix of folklore and fantasy, with some history and culture mixed in to make them perennial favorites in our home.
Moreover, despite the uneasiness some of my fellow Christian parents felt about their macabre nature, I actually found them to be an excellent teaching tool in story form. Many of the tales of hauntings and ghosts that were rooted in revenge and unrequited or unholy desires were a perfect way to introduce kids to the Church's teachings on the Four Last Things and the reality and nature of spiritual warfare, especially as seen in the light of the death and resurrection of our Lord and his descending to the dead.
A favorite source of stories with us was Alvin Schwartz's three-book series Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. They were filled with not only well-written but also well-sourced stories that mixed both folklore and urban legends, along with some eerie artwork by Stephen Gammell which made for some spooky bedtime or camping out material. In fact, one time they were a little too good when, after listening to the audiobook version of the second book, and in particular a story called “The Curse” during a drive home, the kids all felt a strong desire to camp out in mom and dad's room that night.
Sapping the the Vigor and Originality of the Source Material
It is with that background that I was happy to hear that the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series was going to be made into a movie. Granted, that enthusiasm was muted somewhat when I read that Guillermo del Torro, who was one of the producers, said that rather than make an anthology film of the various stories, he was going to integrate the stories into a different storyline.
Given that the number of anthology films that have succeeded at the box office are far and few between, I can understand his reasons to forego the anthology route. However, that meant that the movie would only be as good as the storyline used to carry the source material; and in the end, I think the film failed in its attempt to bring one of the best-selling series of books of the 1990's to life.
The movie references only a fraction of the material from the books, which it rips from its context and turns it into just another worn out teen horror movie trope that most movie goers have come to expect. The film takes place in 1968 and tells the story of a misfit group of friends who are obsessed with the horror genre, who on Halloween night befriend a young Hispanic man named Ramón passing through their small bucolic Pennsylvania town.
But of course the town has a dark and hidden past in the form of a fenced-off and boarded up mansion at the edge of town, which the teens explore on a dare and find a hidden room within. There, the main character Stella, a bookish misunderstood and unappreciated budding novelist, finds a book containing some scary stories. When she takes the book home to read, the book begins to write more stories by itself in blood-red ink, which narrate the death or disappearances of other characters in the film.
Stella and her friends decide to do some research on the abandoned house and the family who lived there, and who had played a prominent role in the founding of their town. Whereupon, they discover (surprise, surprise!) that this prominent, rich, and powerful family had trounced all over the human and ecological rights of the locals in the past and blamed it on their misfit daughter Sarah. It is Sarah's ghost who is getting revenge on those who trespassed into her family's house, or in Stella's case, stole her book of scary stories, which is how she entertained herself when her family imprisoned her within the secret room for daring to tell the truth about her family's misdeeds.
The rest of the movie is about Stella and Ramón trying and failing to burn the book, before deciding to return it to the hidden room in the abandoned house before Sarah's ghost kills off or abducts her friends. In the end, Stella appeases Sarah's ghost by agreeing to write about the truth of her and her family's history. Sarah even demands that Stella seal their agreement by writing the first sentence of her side of the story with her own blood. The film's end hints at a sequel as Stella narrates how she thinks she can bring back her friends who had not been killed, but disappeared.
Problems with the Film
Taking into account that I am obviously not the target audience, the story telling in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is average at best, and that's only if you aren't paying too close attention to the plot. It is not something I would see again or take or allow my kids to go see, but of course I cannot foresee that they might not see it anyways when staying over at a friend’s house or when they are bored and see its availability on some streaming service.
From that perspective, I'll end with a “why not?” rejoinder, which are the short replies I often have to make to my kids or other young people as to why I have a problem with something.
It is one thing to make a film which portrays a world where God or Christianity doesn't exist, or at least its presence is added only as a backdrop for the sake of appealing to the broadest audience. But it is another thing entirely to make a movie whose storyline not only exists in, but extols, a world that is a complete inversion of a traditional Christian (let alone Catholic) worldview. Del Torro, who was raised Catholic, has managed to do with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, what he did with the standard monster movie trope in The Shape of Water, and that is to turn it into one big “woke” mess.
The malevolence of the supernatural forces seen in Scary Stories are not portrayed as spiritual entities whose existence represents a subversion of a divinely created order, but as an aggrieved victim of unjust treatment. To be fair, Sarah's haunting of the house could legitimately be seen as symbolizing the sins of the fathers coming back to haunt the town, but in this film's microcosm, apparently repentance, forgiveness, and absolution are not viable options. Instead Sarah's terrorizing and killing are seen as just desserts, and only when Stella offers to validate her bitterness by agreeing to tell her story sealed with her own blood, does Sarah cease her terrorizing.
If the deal Stella makes with Sarah's ghost is not a positive portrayal of what used to be considered a slander against those accused of being witches or modern-day Wiccans, i.e. making a blood pact with the devil, then I don't know what is. Admittedly, I could be reading too much into it, but given that Stella's musical theme in the movie, which is played both at the beginning and end of the movie, is Lana del Rey's rendition of a 1966 song called “Season of the Witch,” I'm gonna go with the notion that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is one film that is best left for the trash bin of cinema history.