Lately, it feels like every movie has us thinking, “What the fuck did I just watch?” In this series, we will break down exactly what happened in all those wild, mind-bendy, and just plain strange flicks…in a way that’s much easier to understand than the actual film.
This post contains spoilers for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
In yet another round of “who was this made for,” I have to ask: who was Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark supposed to scare? The PG-13 movie feels way too innocent for any 13-year-old with access to to the Internet, and made no horrific or unexpected adjustments for ’90s kids who were traumatized (and obsessed) with the original book by Alvin Schwartz.
For one, the anthology of horror was written to be read out loud, like campfire tales, allowing the mind to concoct images beyond on-screen capabilities. (Check out YouTube creep star Poppy reading them aloud in this Cosmo vid, for an idea of what I mean). But that’s not the real reason the movie counterpart left me cold.
What made the original SSTTITD so terrifying, is that there were never any explanations. No rhyme or reasons, no morals to be learned, and good never triumphed over evil. Weird, bad, unexplainable things just happened, and that was that. That doesn’t really work for Hollywood, I guess, so this version had to find a way to not only weave these individual stories together, but make it mean something in the end. Anyways, here’s WTF you just watched.
Set in the Nixon-era for some reason (the book didn’t even come out until 1981), a group of young Stranger Things knockoffs explore an abandoned haunted house, because that’s what kids are wont to do on Halloween. Legend has it that one hundred years ago, Sarah Bellows was locked in her basement by her family. She would read her book of scary stories to children through the walls and they would die. Oh, and the stories were written in kid’s blood. Charming.
So what does our protagonist Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), a budding writer herself, do? She takes the book. Good going. All of a sudden, stories begin to appear. Stories with the names of people Stella knows.
Scary Story 1: “Harold”
Racist bully Tommy (Austin Abrams)—who painted a slur on their mysterious new friend Ramón’s (Michael Garza) car—heads into his family’s corn field to deliver some eggs to a neighbor, or something like that. It was like 10 P.M., but whatever, sure. He passes by a creepy scarecrow, which he takes the time to kick. TBH, “Eat shit, Harold” is the best line of the movie.
Then he passes by the scarecrow again…and again…and again. Honestly, fuck cornfields. The last time he passes by the post, Harold is gone. Tommy is rightfully freaked, and tries to run away, but Harold finds him. That pitchfork Tommy tries to use for protection? Well, it ends up in his own gut. But that’s not the end.
Arguably the most effectively scary part of the movie, Tommy starts to regurgitate straw. Like, a lot of it. Tommy becomes Harold, and is never seen again.
Scary Story 2: “The Big Toe”
Stella figures out pretty quickly WTF just happened. Apparently, “you don’t read the book, the book reads you.” Sarah Bellows is clearly a gay icon.
Stella’s horrified when her friend’s name pops up in the next story, “The Big Toe”. She desperately calls Auggie (Gabriel Rush) over walkie talkie (it’s the ’70s) and warns him not to eat anything. Too bad he’s already chowing down on a stew that contains the body parts of an angry, vengeful corpse. The whole thing’s really gross. Auggie gets dragged away for reasons.
Stella gets the whole haunted house gang (minus Auggie and Tommy) together to warn them and burn the book. It doesn’t work. Neither does trying to return it. Low budget Gaten Matarazzo—I mean Chuck (Austin Zajur) starts freaking out, but his older sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn) doesn’t believe them. Which leads us to our next story.
Scary Story 3: “The Red Spot”
Ah, the story that sparked so many of my nightmares… Ruth was bit by a spider during the Scooby gang’s break in. What starts off as a lil’ bite the size of a zit grows and grows until thousands of spiders break out of her cheek. Honestly, I don’t even want to talk about this.
Ruth lives, but she’s sent away to an asylum. Can I come?
Scary Story 4: “The Pale Lady”
Chuck’s turn! The group discovers that Sarah also spent some time in an old asylum (now home to an actual hospital), so they head right over to see if they can find some info and break the curse. Chuck admits he’s been having dreams of a “pale, fat lady” ever since the haunted house, and he can’t go anywhere near the “red room.” It just so happens that there’s a R.E.D. room at the hospital, which stands for Records and Evaluations Department. Ramón and Stella leave him behind as lookout.
Bad plan! He ends up getting chased around by a monster that looked terrifying as an illustration but super silly on screen. Meanwhile, Stella and Ramón find tapes of Sarah’s own brother administering electro-shock therapy on his sister. She wasn’t killing those kids, there was something in the water poisoning them, caused by the Bellow’s family business! Sarah was trying to save them, so her family tortured her to cover it up.
But suddenly, Sarah starts telling Chuck’s story through the recording. He can’t escape the pale lady and gets sucked into her stomach through a hug. I have no jokes for this.
Scary Story 5: “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker”
Yeah, I’ve got no clue what that means either. Next up, Ramón.
Turns out, our mysterious friend is a draft dodger. He and Stella are locked in jail for the night because of their connections to the disappearances and the ruckus they caused at the hospital. Honestly, the cop just has a racist hate-on for Ramón (it’s a recurring theme that never really goes anywhere) and Stella just…doesn’t want her dad to come pick her up? IDK, seems like that’s a better option than staying locked up when monsters are on the loose.
Anyway, Ramón remembers a story his parents used to tell him about “The Jangly Man.” Sure enough, there’s a new story in the book and body parts start falling into the county sheriff’s office through the fireplace. The corpse pieces himself together and chases after our kids on all fours, like any self-respecting contortionist demon.
Thankfully bad cop gets knocked out, so our pair can use his keys to get out. Ramón runs one way to distract the Jangly Man and prove he’s not a coward (because not wanting to fight in a pointless, deadly war makes you a coward, I guess?), and Stella heads back to the haunted house to stop the killings.
Scary Story 6 — “The Haunted House”
Long story short, because frankly it made no sense and this recap is getting hella long, Stella gets sucked into the past, kind of becoming Sarah in the process, but not really. The Bellows fam locks Stella in the basement, where she struggles to convince the spirit to stop killing her friends because the truth is out now. They know Sarah didn’t kill those kids, so she can stop hurting people. Sarah’s like, “it fun tho.”
Sarah tells Stella to write the true story of what happened in her own blood. It works and the curse is lifted, but I have a complaint: Stella only pricks her finger once, but is able to write a whole damn page…not buying it.
Unlike the original anthology, this version wants you to have hope. The movie ends with Sarah, her dad, and Ruth riding off into the unknown with a plan: get everyone back. Honestly, I would have preferred a Netflix mini-series.