Beware all ye that enter here: This piece contains major spoilers for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
Bela Lugosi once famously said, “It is women who love horror. Gloat over it. Feed on it. Are nourished by it. Shudder and cling and cry out–and come back for more.” The connection between people who identify as women and the often brutal genre has long been ignored whilst still fanning the flames of horror fandom. An unexpected exploration of female horror fandom and the reasons that we connect with it comes in Guillermo del Toro and Andre Øverdal’s highly anticipated adaptation of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, which is very interested in women and their connection to genre storytelling, horror, and how trauma informs our love for it.
The period chiller centers on a young woman named Stella and her group of ragtag friends as they get embroiled in a supernatural adventure that’s connected to the dark past of their town. From the outset, the film does something rare: it makes Stella the horror-hound out of the group; she’s lonely, sad, and missing her mother who ran out on the family years before. The first glimpse we get of her bedroom is filled with Universal monsters posters and clippings from genre magazines. When the group breaks into the drive-in to escape the bullies, it’s Stella who knows the script to Night of the Living Dead word-for-word. She’s the one who drives the group to head into the local haunted house and it’s her who calls out for the spirit inside, Sarah Bellows, to tell them a scary story, sparking off the events of the film.
Scary Stories trusts the audience to see why Stella might be obsessed with the legend of the local child killer who murdered kids with her terrifying tales. She’s an aspiring horror writer who loves being scared, but to older viewers, there’s a depth and intricacy to the portrayal that is driven not only by Øvredal’s direction but also by Zoe Margaret Colletti’s performance. Stella is isolated and alone in the world, abandoned by her mother and the gossip that her leaving sparked; she’s mocked in school and left to care for her depressed father. Though there isn’t much exposition, Colleti sells her somber nature and never makes you question her love for the darker things in life. It’s an interesting twist to the normal stories of gore-soaked boys or good, popular girls who beat the villain. In this film, Stella’s own sadness and empathy are what help her connect with and defeat the spirit of Sarah Bellows, another woman who’s trauma has defined her and–centuries later–her deadly legacy.
Going into a kids horror film and expecting a subversion of some of horror’s most ingrained tropes is a big ask, but Scary Stories actually delivers a surprisingly refreshing take on the “crazy killer lady” spirit story that it initially presents. Horror films have long offered up tales of terrifying and murderous women. From The Conjuring’s Bathsheba–who was said to have killed neighborhood children–to Nicole Kidman’s killer mother in The Others, there’s something inherently terrifying about women that kill the very things they’re meant to protect. These stories are also often steeped in misogyny and have little interest in the women at their core. At first, Sarah Bellows seems like she fits into this trope, the strange pale ghost who allegedly killed many, many of the town’s children only to end up being hanged for her crimes and left to haunt the town forevermore. But that isn’t the real story of Sarah, as Stella and her friends discover.
Sarah Bellows was, in truth, an innocent victim of her own family’s greed. It’s here that Scary Stories really tips the boat when it comes to horror tropes. In a particularly scary sequence, Stella and Ramon (Michael Garza) find recordings of Sarah being tortured in the local asylum and forced to admit to the murders of the children. It’s a particularly haunting moment as the realities of women being incarcerated in asylums by their families is a very real stain on history. The fact that the film offers up a classic “crazy lady” horror story and turns it on its head is really exciting, showcasing respect for young audiences and their intelligence. The real villain of Scary Stories is actually the horror of the Bellows family and their mill that poisoned the local children. When Sarah dared to speak out she was punished and locked up, forced to take the blame for the crimes of her family and eventually killed.
It is actually Sarah’s rage that has been haunting the town; her anger at what had happened to her and the violence that was enacted on her taking physical form in the stories she tells. There’s a recurring refrain about the power of stories in the film and it’s that power which eventually brings Sarah’s reign to an end. Stella promises to tell the true story of Sarah and what her family did, encouraging the spirit to let go of the anger and hatred she feels, explaining that it’s turned her into the thing that she was originally accused of being. It’s a powerful moment that highlights the core messages of the film: telling our own stories is powerful, and by unquestionably repeating the lies and legends of the past, we can cause great harm.
Images: CBS Films