by Ash Darrow
The art for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark gave me nightmares when I was a kid. Years later, the shifting, translucent faces of morbid ghouls still often fill my dreams. But they’re no longer the tortured figures of Stephen Gammell’s artwork—they’re the confident visages of the Fortune 500 crowd. Those hands on the levers of power have worked society into a churn of endless war, endless consumption, and endless franchised growth. History isn’t over; it’s haunted by this repetition. The new Scary Stories movie bottles every aspect of this haunting. We are beset by the ghosts of war, racism, and the slavering maw of capitalism as it devours every bastion of culture. This movie manifests a peculiarly modern horror: the sequel hook.
The ghosts that haunt Scary Stories are tangible. A being. A former somebody. The haunting itself is much less secure. As fictive elements, ghosts are tensions mediated through character. An absence of resolution made semi-manifest and driven by the threat of closure. Hauntings are the transient actions of those apparitional “dead un-dead.” A ghost is a character. A haunting is a condition. ‘Hauntology’ is the term coined by the French theorist Jacques Derrida in his 1993 book Spectres of Marx to signify the condition that results when one’s stable sense of presence is disjointed and replaced by “non-origin.” We live in the age of ghosts. The art our culture produces is increasingly obsessed with the aesthetics of the past and the futures those aesthetics implied. Like phantoms knocking around a gothic manor, hauntology is the agonized rumble of what could have been. Or, as Andrew Gallix wrote in 2011, hauntology can be thought of as a “nostalgia for lost futures.”
That’s where we can find Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, which is based on three anthologies of children’s short horror stories by the same name. They were written by Alvin Schwartz and were a perennial star at every elementary school book fair. Perhaps more infamous than the stories themselves are the illustrations. Stephen Gammell’s artwork was simultaneously visceral and surreal. A Hieronymus Bosch for the late 80’s Scholastic crowd.
I remember the first time I saw Gammell’s cover art. I can still feel the tension, sitting at the table in my school’s library, arguing with myself about whether or not I could I handle it. I peeled back the first pages and fell in. I read those books cover to cover. They lead me down into the winding catacombs of horror literature. It’s hard to reduce one’s life narrative to singular inciting incidents, but from the point I read those books, I set off on a path that culminates here, writing about the movie version, with the added benefit of a leftist perspective. I’ll never lose the searing childhood memories of how much those books scared me, how consequentially they influenced my path.
But that’s the point. I’ve grown; we all have. Yet thanks to a bewildering concoction of copyright law and studio executive calculations, our media hasn’t. We are imprisoned by our youth. The media we grew up on was never allowed to become a sepia-toned collage under our own control. It instead ossified into a panopticon of disjointed memories, policed by a weaponized micro-audience of rage-baited “nerds.” All tilting in the service of capital.
The film winds up nostalgic for a past no one experienced, existing in a present that’s been denied a future.
We wind up haunted by the very media that helped raise us. A soft or hard reboot comes for us all in time. Ultimately, these tend towards failure more often than success. Nostalgia means you can never go home after all, and while the phrase “ruined my childhood” evokes the impotent rage of the worst corners of YouTube, it does point us towards the idea that a memory can be spoiled retroactively. The constitutive elements of our past can be reanimated, grotesque and horrible, and made to shamble before us once more. One of the myriad specters haunting American media is the looming threat of a ‘grimdark’ reboot of Big Bad Beetleborgs.
This incessant cultural photocopying came for Scary Stories once before in 2011. The series was slated for a re-release by publisher HarperCollins with updated cover art. Much to the outrage of 30-something adults who had vague childhood memories of these books, the new art was decidedly neutered, compared to the classic. Think less Zdzislaw Beksiński and more Edward Gorey. HarperCollins ultimately relented to the frothing crowd and reissued the series with the original art.
2019’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark adaptation resides in this same paradoxical space. The movie, like all art, is agential and yearns to break free of the stultifying bonds of copyright law and Disneyfied intellectual property. But this desire goes unmet. The film winds up nostalgic for a past no one experienced, existing in a present that’s been denied a future. The conceit of the film is a linked chain of spooky vignettes adapted from the short stories—The Haunted House, Harold, The Big Toe, The Red Spot, The Pale Lady, and Mi Tie Dough-Ty Walker to be precise—tied together with a narrative about a ragtag band of nostalgia kids: Augie, Chuck, and Ruth, lead by the bookish Stella. It’s Stranger Things with different ghosts, down to the walkie talkies and the clunky, dated jingoism. If you have strong feelings about your formative book or movie series, then this is the kind of film you may already be obsessed with—or, rather, possessed by.
The plot picks up when the kids (interchangeable with those from Stranger Things, Monster Squad, The Goonies, etc.) get revenge on the town’s racist bullies for years of torment. The kids are chased into a local drive-in, where they meet Ramón, a greaser on the run. The bullies reveal their bigotry with some pretty serious slurs aimed at Ramón, which instigates the film’s awkward attempt at handling racism. It’s around this point in the runtime that the movie mercifully tempers reality with some ghosts. Invoking the ethos of childhood dares, the group winds up in the haunted house from the story of the same name. After being locked in the basement, they encounter the ghost of Sarah Bellows, the principal antagonist. As it turns out, Sarah shares a MacGuffin with R. L. Stein and the recent Goosebumps films—a magic book that can bring monsters to life.
One by one, the characters of Scary Stories are picked off by the monsters from the eponymous books. The movie wants to be an anthology film. Each vignette is scary and works as a screen translation of the source material, but the overarching plot and franchise setup demands that they come and go without much weight. In the end, even Sarah Bellows, the most powerful of the film’s monsters, is denied an earned gravitas. In short, the ghosts in the film aren’t doing the movie’s haunting. Capital is.
The movie exists for someone who doesn’t. It’s a film that is a product of a larger struggle to imagine our way out of an absent future. Like all art near the center of hegemonic power, it struggles to look anywhere but back in on itself.
In his essay “What is Hauntology?,” Mark Fisher writes, “The disappearance of the future meant the deterioration of a whole mode of social imagination: the capacity to conceive of a world radically different from the one in which we currently live.” The plot lines that circumscribe our two main characters suspend them in this hauntological realm. Ramón and Stella are trapped in a Vietnam War-era America that feels just as bleak and finite as 2019.
Ramón’s character arc is an initially strong take on racism in America capped with a jingoistic twist. Throughout the film, Ramón is dogged by both his tormentors and police. Ramón’s first few encounters with the law in this film fold into his clashes with the racist bullies. It’s a grim referendum on American life that even while battling literal demons, Ramón must also contend with a much more corporeal evil. Until the climax, the film makes the correct assessment that racism is systemic and doesn’t merely comprise the actions of a few bad actors.
Once we reach the end, however, Ramón’s backstory is revealed, and the impact of his earlier scenes is dampened as a result. Ramón, as it turns out, is a draft dodger. That’s why the cop was after him to begin with. Rather than echoing the racism of the bullies, the local police chief just had a hunch that Ramón was making the—morally correct— decision to skip out on the Vietnam War. The Jangly Man, the monster specifically designed to play on Ramón’s worst fears, calls him a “coward.” Racism winds up being the narrative contrivance that drives some early action and forces Ramón to stay in town.
His real problem, according to the film, is not supporting the war effort. In the end, Ramón relents and goes off to Vietnam. Scary Stories makes the utterly baffling decision, in the Year of Our Lord 2019, to double down on the Vietnam War. The film is clearly concerned with America’s crimes in Vietnam. Besides Ramón’s status as a draft dodger, the background is full of news clips. Even the town’s spooky radio announcer has an opinion on the war—he’s against it—and so, ostensibly, is Ramón. But the film as a text closes in univocal support.
Towards the end of the film, Stella, our protagonist, finds out the truth behind Sarah Bellows and cuts a deal with the ghost to end this entire nightmare. Sarah Bellows’s backstory is truly painful. She was tortured and ultimately killed by her own family for threatening to blow the whistle on the family business, which was poisoning the town’s water supply. Stella’s deal is that she will tell Sarah’s story in exchange for ending the curse. Sarah relents and Stella and Ramón are freed. Yet after the creation of the exonerative book, Stella admits that not many people cared to listen to the story. Sarah Bellows lived a tragic life, and, it would seem, got conned out of true resolution in death. Like Sarah Bellows’s ghost, we wish to hear our stories told but are betrayed by these would-be bards. Scary Stories is set in a past haunted by the Vietnam War, made for adults haunted by eternal remixes of their youth, and aimed at a future straining to reconcile the ghosts of its past. This is a film about layered hauntings— and the horror derives from the fact that, in every case, resolution is denied.
With Scary Stories, another franchise is born. Another immortal, monstrous media property, straining against the bounds of capital until we have on our hands a cartographer’s task the size of a Marvel Universe. The film ends with Stella clutching Sarah Bellows’ cursed book, commenting that the way to free Augie and Chuck from their ghastly deaths must be within its pages. She drives off with Ruth, who has made a miraculous recovery after having spiders erupt from her face, and Sarah’s estranged father, whom the movie hopes we have forgotten was estranged. Sarah Bellows’s rest is ephemeral, and her vindication is an empty gesture. The end leaves you less with a hopeful nod to a better tomorrow and more of a lingering worry that, based on nothing more than the whims of studio execs, we will either get a glut of reboots, prequels, and the origin story of Harold the Scarecrow, or nothing at all. No closure. No end.
Our media landscape is one of eternal work. Augie and Chuck may never rest in their graves. They are damned to be exhumed for a spun-off future. They are made the Sarah Bellows of a tomorrow that is not guaranteed. Our childhoods can never end. We are forced to watch them twist and reform, like the Jangly Man, adapting to new and increasingly distorted forms in order to pursue us. Because Scary Stories struggles to exist in any one time—written in 2019 for late 80’s and early 90’s kids but set during the Vietnam War—the movie exists for someone who doesn’t. It’s a film that is a product of a larger struggle to imagine our way out of an absent future. Like all art near the center of hegemonic power, it struggles to look anywhere but back in on itself. ♦
Ash Darrow is an independent scholar, resident spooky nerd of critical media and theory, and co-ghost and producer of Horror Vanguard, a podcast about Gothic Marxism and horror films. When not traveling the country looking for the next cemetery to post up in, he likes to watch French arthouse films and rail against the evils of the Disney Corporation and the Marvel Universe.