Throughout time immortal there have existed stories so powerful they can shoot tingles up the spine, steal the breath, darken the night, turn flesh to prickly goosebumps, and drive children (not to mention adults) safely under the blankets. Long embedded in American folklore, these shadowy tales have been told and retold around campfires, at sleepovers, in schoolyards, between friends and among families for the sheer bone-chilling fun of it all. But what if…what if the most startling legends of supernatural horror, revenge and the ghostly macabre suddenly became your actual reality?
That’s what happens in Scary Stories to Tell In The Dark, a horror tale drawn from the iconic but deeply eerie book series by Alvin Schwartz. As brought to life by the visionary team of producer Guillermo Del Toro (The Shape of Water, Pacific Rim, Pan’s Labyrinth) and director André Øvredal (Trollhunter), the film is anything but an anthology. Instead it’s a tale of a group of young misfits who must confront all the fears that stand between them and the future.
It all begins in 1968. In a time of turmoil, things remain relatively sleepy in Mill Valley. That is until outcast teenagers Stella, Ramon, Chuck and Auggie dare to explore their town’s infamously creepy haunted house—the cobwebbed former home of the reportedly murderous Sarah Bellows—and discover within a book that proves to have colossal supernatural powers. Almost immediately, the book changes their fates. One by one, they find themselves living out the stories Sarah chooses to tell…Harold, The Big Toe, The Red Spot and more… as each is inexorably summoned to do battle with their own most uniquely terrifying dreads.
“We wanted to recreate some of the most cherished, scary, fun and entertaining horror tales that are found in Alvin Schwartz’s books. But we do it in a way that is seamless within one story about a group of friends in the 1960s,” explains Del Toro, who has explored the power of horror to move, thrill and illuminate throughout his Oscar-winning filmmaking career.
Often dubbed “king of the monsters,” Del Toro has long pursued the heights of invention and emotion dark tales inspire. He so adored the Scary Stories books that he bought several Gammell sketches decades ago. Now, he relished the chance to create something fresh with them.
“The beauty of these stories is that they have the eternal appeal of campfire tales that invite people to shiver together in anticipation, even when you hear them again and again,” says Del Toro, “In our movie, we add to the fun of that themes of friendship, belief, compassion, and the idea that stories can damage, or they can heal.” Del Toro continues: “There are two types of horror movies. First are the ones that sort of scar your soul. But then there is the horror movie that is like a roller coaster ride. It’s fun, entertaining and thrilling but ultimately has a humanistic spirit. And that’s the type of movie André has made—one where you have fun getting scared.”
For Øvredal, Scary Stories was not only a chance to take on his biggest film to date. It was equally a much-desired opportunity to pay homage to those wonder-inducing, kids-on-amission movies that formed his own cinematic education. He was drawn to making a PG-13 horror movie that would reach a wide age-range of people fascinated by the creepy.
“I approached Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark as a mix between a horror tale and an ode to the Amblin adventures I loved growing up,” Øvredal explains. “So, you have these very grounded, funny, real characters battling evil forces from the realms of fables and monsters. I wanted to try to balance the energy and adrenaline you get from horror with the positive vibes I found in the Hollywood adventures that made me fall in love with movies as a kid.”
While the film is bursting at the frames with bloodcurdling creatures and nightmares come to life (but no gore), Øvredal notes it is equally about the real anxieties of growing up in a challenging world. A human element drives the action from the start. This comes to the fore as Stella and friends discover the notorious Sarah Bellows may not have been the psychopathic monster that they were led to believe by town myths. Now, righting the wrongs committed against this outsider not so different from them becomes their one hope of surviving the stories she’s concocting in revenge.
“We had fun creating the monsters on screen, but the worst monsters in this movie are lies, deceit and untrue stories,” Øvredal sums up. “That’s what starts the story’s cycle of fear.”
The Frightening Book
Urban folklore, campfire tales and accounts of the chillingly inexplicable suddenly disrupting ordinary life have left children and teens cheerfully terrified for centuries. They have long been a rite-of-passage as kids develop the confidence, and even the need, to face off with their fears, to draw the lines between good and evil and discover how to cope with intense situations. But it was in the early 1980s that author and journalist Alvin Schwartz actually collected some of these nightmarish legends from old anthologies, magazines and folklorists in a series of books that would become a runaway phenomenon.
His Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark was such a hit, it was soon followed by More Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark and then Scary Stories 3: More Stores to Chill Your Bones. Originally illustrated by Caldecott Medal-winning artist Stephen Gammell, the stories came to life not only in words but in wildly surreal, unapologetically hideous ink drawings that seemed to leap from the pages straight into the imagination, where they lingered.
Though Schwartz passed away in 1992, Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark became one of the most-loved book series of the 90s, selling millions of copies on its way to becoming a cultural touchstone for an entire generation. The passion for the books even sparked a controversial movement to ban them from school libraries. Yet, it seemed that the harder the books were to find, the more and more their popularity swelled. As Del Toro puts it, “the banned books became catnip for adventurous youth.”
Perhaps what kids loved most about them is that these stories didn’t hold back. They were genuinely designed to press all your buttons and bring all your wildest fears into the light. The first time you read them was a bone chilling blast. But you could read them again and again and the scares stayed fresh.
For Guillermo Del Toro–who has always seen monsters as metaphors for what humans try their best to hide away and who believes scary stories are vital to children’s forming psyches—the Scary Stories books were ironically a source of pure joy. When he heard that CBS Films had acquired the rights, he immediately wanted to join in on the creation.
“This was a chance to honor the book by telling a bigger story that would be very scary but also full of the playful spirit of youth,” says Del Toro. “It was also a chance to look at the weight and responsibility of storytelling, so relevant in our world of social media today.”
Producer J. Miles Dale, who worked with Del Toro on his acclaimed The Shape of Water, had already had his own personal encounter with the potency of the stories. “My son read them,” Dale recalls. “My wife had bought them, and I remember looking at them thinking ‘this is not bedtime reading.’ But it turns out that a lot of people found these stories to be formative in their childhoods, so it felt like fertile ground for Guillermo.”
Del Toro started with the idea of the supernatural book that writes itself—and shifts reality in the process. “The book basically customizes a story before your eyes to tap into fears of the person reading it,” Del Toro explains. “This give you the delicious thrill of seeing a story coming for each character you’ve gotten to know and then bracing yourself in preparation.”
He also knew he wanted a retro vibe for the story. But rather than going back to the 80s setting of so many teen adventures, he kept going, all the way back to 1968, as American soldiers battled in Vietnam and protests erupted at home. In a presidential election year that involved assassinations, riots and cultural upheaval, a growing sense of profound national division and change was even beginning to hit remote towns like Mill Valley.
For Del Toro, 1968 allowed for a world without any hint of mobile phones or the internet, where life was truly local, and you definitely couldn’t post your weird experiences on Instagram. But also, the time period felt catalytic. “The whole ideal of the American Dream and American innocence was shifting as the world became much more complex, and scary in new ways,” describes Del Toro. “The Vietnam War itself is sort of a ghost that looms over the town. It’s a very unstable time for these kids to undergo this extreme rite of passage.”
To color in the outlines of his story with deeply inviting characters, Del Toro turned to the screenwriting duo of Dan & Kevin Hageman. Known for their work on the boisterously imaginative LEGO Movie, they had just collaborated with Del Toro on the Netflix series Trollhunters. He liked the idea of their joyful, high-energy style counterpointing the dark allure of Schwartz’s scary legends. The Hagemans, in turn, couldn’t wait to tackle their first scary movie.
“We’d never before read the books because I think they were banned at our school,” muses Dan Hageman. “But when Guillermo pitched us this story, we absolutely leapt at the idea of it. We’ve always wanted to write a real coming-of-age adventure and this finally gave us a chance to do that while mixing in these truly frightening scares that people of all ages love.”
Adds Kevin Hageman: “From the start, Guillermo made it clear that while he wanted the visuals to follow in the style of Gammell, he wanted the film’s heart to be founded on the characters, on three-dimensional, real friends who you care about and relate to, which makes the ride that much more frightening. That’s what really excited us—because those are the kinds of films we’ve always loved most: the kind where you have more than one feeling, where you’re thrilled and scared but then maybe also amused, romanced and moved.”
Their first task was simultaneously exhilarating and tough: choosing which handful of stories from the books they would tie into the narrative. “Guillermo told us go get the books and read everything,” remembers Kevin. “Then we all got together for dinner and shared which stories really jumped out at us individually. It turned out all three of us loved a lot of the same stories that the fans do. Of course, there were lot of stories we all enjoyed that we couldn’t put in this film, but we also added plenty of Easter eggs that fans of the books will recognize.”
Each of the main stories were adapted to link up with the film’s four central friends and their own personal journeys and anxieties. “While the stories are very much recognizable from the book, we also put some twists into each of the stories to keep the audience on their toes,” Dan explains. “So, even if you’ve read the books you don’t know exactly what’s coming. A lot of the stories also end very abruptly which is spooky on the page, but we needed to find ways to weave their endings back into the lives of our characters without disrupting the action.”
As they got deeper into the writing, the Hagemans couldn’t help but ask each other what makes adolescents crave scary tales with a passion. “We talked a lot about how we all remember those stories that scared us the most for the rest of our lives,” says Dan. “They leave a mark on you, but I think in a good way, because you realize that it’s OK to be frightened and overwhelmed with emotions at times. That’s the essence of coming of age: figuring out all the things people have to overcome to function in the real world. But with stories, you get to face your fears first within the safety of a book or a film.”
The Hagemans also poured over all their favorite spooky movies, from Poltergeist to The Ring, in preparation. But they eschewed all blood and gore, following Del Toro’s lead in taking a purer psychological approach. “Gore isn’t necessary to create something absolutely terrifying,” notes Kevin. “But we still wanted to make it as scary as you can push a PG-13 movie.”
When it came to the characters, the Hagemans decided to make the inquisitive, lonely Stella the lead role. “I think what we loved about Stella being the lead is that she’s the mirror of our villain Sarah Bellows in so many ways. They’re both outsiders, and Stella feels compassion for Sarah. We loved having some heart in the middle of a horror tale,” says Kevin. Dan adds: “With each of the characters, we wanted you to really root for them and to understand what they mean to each other so that the stakes are really, really high.”
The legend of Sarah Bellows was inspired by a single sentence Del Toro uttered, which became the hinge of the entire film: stories can hurt, and stories can heal. “That idea inspired us to write Sarah as a woman who is harmed by stories that are malicious, stories that are lies, stories that drive her to become the monster people say she is,” says Kevin.
The direction of the characters, notably the kids, gratified Del Toro. “These characters are real kids whose lives, like most of our lives, are messy. They’re dealing with problems at school, problems at home and fears of the future as they become adults,” says Del Toro. “Feeling fear is natural; vanquishing it is extraordinary. And these kids have to be extraordinary to make it through the tests they face.”
For Øvredal, receiving the script was the start of his own fantastic adventure. “I was not familiar with the Scary Stories books before,” he admits, “so learning about them started me on the very joyful experience to get to know this incredible world of Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell.”
The chance to work with Del Toro in this realm of monsters that they are both drawn to so passionately was also something Øvredal won’t soon forget. “Guillermo is a master storyteller that I’ve learned so much from,” he says. “Just his understanding of how to tell a story on screen, not to mention his brilliance with creating stunning creatures, was crucial to doing this film. He has an acute sense of how to heighten everything he touches.”
A deep rapport opened up between Del Toro and Øvredal, says producer Dale. “When Guillermo produces, he is very supportive and brings in a lot of ideas, but he also really wants the director to be able to put their own fingerprints on the movie. Luckily, André is also a very visual guy, so, he and Guillermo spoke that language with each other. They were constantly talking about things like palette and camera style in a very detailed way.”
In taking on Scary Stories, Øvredal knew he faced the considerable responsibility of bringing the chills associated with the books. He describes his approach to scaring audiences as “suspension-based horror.”
“I like to build dread slowly,” he explains. “I like to let the audience know something’s coming and build the tension that way and then hold them hostage to that tension for as many
minutes as I can,” he chuckles. “Ultimately a lot goes into building that tension: the performances, the photography, the design, the editing, the music and of course the sound, too. But it all has to add up to dread.”