The spooky new film from Norway’s André Øvredal, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, is based on a classic trio of folk tale collections first published in back in the 1980s and early ‘90s. And then banned from many American libraries for being too intense.
Writer Alvin Schwartz gathered together dark myths and legends, rewrote them in a kid-friendly format, and then brought in illustrator Stephen Gammell to supply the terrifying, trauma-inducing artwork.
Seriously. Look at these things. I read these books at age 5 and still see this whenever I close my eyes. WHY DOES EVERYTHING HAVE DIRTY ROOTS?!?
Anyway, these stories are often very short, and many of them don’t even have third acts, or even main characters. So bringing them to the screen involved a LOT of creative reinterpretation. Also stringy black hair. Lots of stringy black hair.
NEW FOR THE FILM
The first challenge facing director Øvredal and his army of screenwriters — hey, including Guillermo del Toro! — was figuring out how to turn the stories into a single cohesive movie.
The solution? Create a group of teen protagonists — led by the plucky, horror film-obsessed Stella — to get terrorized and chased around by various supernatural menaces.
The kids live and go to school in the real-life town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, in the year 1968, well before Schwartz published the first “Scary Stories” collection in 1981.
The writers also created an entirely original mythology, involving a vengeful ghost named Sarah Bellows and her creepy storybook that seems to write itself.
Sarah’s backstory contains a number of elements that run through a lot of the Schwartz originals — like haunted houses, ancient curses, cruel family members, setting right old injustices and angry poltergeists. She also has some roots in the original story “Haunted House,” which also centers around a ghost who spent much of her life locked in a cellar.
Many of the stories that Sarah writes, however, are taken directly from the “Scary Stories” anthologies.
A story about an abused scarecrow named Harold, who comes to life and attacks his tormenter, Tommy, shows up almost exactly in the film.
And looks almost exactly as he appears in Gammell’s classic illustrations: the same angry grimace is locked on his face; he hangs from his pole in the same position, and he’s even wearing the same shirt. The only difference is that the drawing of Harold still has a belly whereas Movie Harold is missing his midsection… which is much creepier when he comes to life.
In the written story, Harold kills Tommy and then appears to remove his skin. (Yeah, this book was for kids, what about it?) Sensing that this maybe wouldn’t work ideally on screen, the filmmakers made some alterations, giving Tommy and Harold a different — but equally chilling — shared fate.
One classic story titled “The Big Toe” is brought to life in the film in gruesome fashion when Auggie finds a big toe in a pot of stew…. Then has to deal with a corpse coming to look for its missing digit.
Both the movie and the drawing in the book REALLY emphasize the nail on that Big Toe. Because just finding a toe in your garden and/our soup isn’t all that chilling, but if it hadn’t been pedicured in a while? GROSS!
The corpse who appears to Auggie after he eats the stewed toe isn’t taken from “The Big Toe” story, but actually accompanies the Sarah Bellows story, “The Haunted House.” In the movie, we get a full-body shot of the monster whereas the book’s illustration is just a close-up on her sunken-eyed skeletal face, which looks to be rotting away.
The original story — as with a lot of the folk tale versions of these narratives — culminates in a jump scare, rather than a traditional “conclusion.” A ghost just shows up, asking “Where’s my toe?” and scares the young boy, possibly to death. The movie REALLY puts Auggie through the wringer; he’d have probably preferred a quick little toe-related Q&A.
The film’s memorably nightmarish pimple is taken directly from a tale called “The Red Spot,” which is also about a teenage girl named Ruth who believes she has a zit, only to realize that a spider has laid eggs in her face when they hatch and baby spiders explode everywhere. Lovely.
The first line of the story — “While Ruth slept, a spider crawled across her face” — makes a cameo appearance in the film, but that’s where the resemblances end. The story in the book cuts off right after it gets good and spider-y, while the film goes much, much further. Yeah, this will definitely be all I think about when I try to go to bed.
Ruth’s brother Chuck may be less lucky – if that’s even possible. He features in an adaptation of, “The Dream,” a story about a girl named Lucy who ends up in a strange room she had dreamt about, face-to-face with a gruesome creature.
Gammell’s drawing of a large woman with too-far-apart eyes from “The Dream” also makes an appearance in the film. She’s the one chasing Chuck down the impossible-to-navigate hospital hallways. Unlike Harold the bummed-out scarecrow, though, The Dream lady almost seems to be smiling. She’s happy to see you, and/or absorb your essence into her being. How sweet.
Ramon faces off against a creature the film calls the Jangly Man. This isn’t a direct reference to the books, but the sequence was inspired by not one but TWO different stories.
The monster who chases Ramon first appears when body parts tumble down the chimney and arrange themselves into a humanoid form. This is a nod to a story called “What Do You Come For,” which includes the same strange image, of arms and legs and heads and torsos falling down a chimney, only to eventually congeal into a corpse.
But the creature’s head then says the strange phrase “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker,” which is taken from a different story.
In that one, a disembodied head says “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker,” and then a kid’s dog sings a similarly nonsensical response: “Lynchee kinchy colly molly dingo dingo.” Yes, that’s right, there’s an evil singing dog in this book and they decided NOT to adapt that part.
The Jangly Man who chases Ramon appears to be an original creation — he lacks the beard and expression of the original “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker,” and of course is unaccompanied by a singing dog — but his odd, wrinkly, twisted design is still reminiscent of Gammell’s art style, and a good example of how the tone and feel of the books made it into the film even when the filmmakers changed around the specifics.
LITTLE FUN THINGS
In that same spirit — eh? Eh? See what I did there? — the movie also contains a lot of little references or shoutouts to elements from the books.
In the introduction to his very first volume, Alvin Schwartz wrote that sitting around a campfire was a classic venue for hearing scary stories, dating all the way back to pioneer days. In the movie, Ramon mentions that he first heard about the Jangly Man as a campfire story.
When the kids visit Lou Lou, maybe the only surviving person who knew Sarah Bellows in life, she’s singing a lot of random phrases to herself, like “the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out.” There are largely taken from a traditional song that’s included in the first “Scary Stories” book, called “The Hearse Song.”
Two ghostly black dogs appear in the film, possibly in reference to a number of Schwartz’s stories that involve undead or mysterious black canines. One story, “The Black Dog,” is specifically about a ghost dog who appears and disappears from a haunted house, seemingly at will.
Though the movie did make use of a bunch of selections from the “Scary Stories” books, there are plenty of dark tales left that have yet to be adapted. Read them all in Alvin Schwartz’s original “Scary Stories” books, and be sure to check out the big-screen adaptation when it hits theaters on August 9.