*Note: This is an analysis, not a review. There are spoilers throughout.
Horror literature and horror films are characterized by the return of the repressed. The monsters represent the horrors of discrimination, abuse, violence, and oppression; the terror is expressed by mainstream society that those they’ve repressed will return to take vengeance. Difference in American horror has contextual layers, often couching monstrosity in terms of departure from the (white, straight, male, patriarchal) mainstream. As a result, queer, feminist, class, and racial theories reclaim monsters as sympathetic, an “eruption of the chaos world” that’s a rebellion against the oppressions of the mainstream. Many horror films even allow the monster success and agency in fighting back against mainstream oppressors. Monsters do not spring fully formed from the earth to rampage across the countryside. They are the horrific creations of a patriarchal society.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, directed by Andre Ovredal and produced by Guillermo del Toro, interrogates the nature of monstrosity through the telling of scary stories themselves. It opens the discussion not just about monsters as “return of the repressed,” both a communal and individual psychological response, but with questions about who makes the monsters and who tells the stories. It contains numerous monsters, both human and ghost, and numerous layers of narrative, peeled back to reveal the creation of monstrous Others based on disability, race, and gender as a cover for patriarchal violence.
Scary Stories centers around a group of adolescents on Halloween night, who break into a house previously owned by the Bellows family, the industrial magnates and founders of the town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania. The Bellowses abandoned their home many years before, after the deaths of a number of children were ascribed to Sarah Bellows, whose image has been erased from all family portraits. An urban legend says that Sarah was an “albino witch,” locked away in the cellar by her family, where she told scary stories to children through the walls. When Stella (Zoe Colletti) finds Sarah’s notebook of horror stories, she asks Sarah to “tell her a story,” releasing the ghost to write Stella and her friends into frightening narratives.
In gradually revealing Sarah’s backstory, the film creates complex interplay between the stories told about her, the reality of her history, and her relationship, as the film’s central monster, to the other monsterized or Otherized figures. The kids enjoy the excitement of prowling around the haunted house and telling each other the stories of Sarah Bellows’s monstrosity. When Stella discovers Sarah’s notebook, she’s excited by the prospect of raising a ghost. Horror, for them, is about fun: they’re scaring themselves with urban legends and campfire stories, and enjoying it. But the removal of the book results in them being written into the horror stories they enjoy; they are faced not with the fun of horror, but with the actual horror of it. It’s only through the revelation and telling of Sarah’s true story, and thus the uncovering of the true monsters, that Stella will be able to put a stop to the horror she’s begun.
Through research into the town’s history and archives, Stella, Ramon (Michael Garza), and Chuck (Austin Zajur) discover that Sarah was used as her family’s scapegoat when their paper mill poisoned the drinking water and caused the deaths of children. They use her visible difference—albinism—as a cover for their monstrosity. Her brother, Ephraim, tortures her into “admitting” the truth of her monstrosity in a sequence formed via several levels of narrative. Stella and Ramon discover a wax cylinder that’s a recording of her transformation. Stella remarks that they’re going to get to “hear Sarah Bellows”; in other words, they will hear her as her own self, not the stories that others tell about her. But the recording is a narrative, too. Ephraim, an authority figure and representative of the patriarchy, forces Sarah to accept a narrative that he knows is false, imposing it as truth. The narrative then becomes Sarah’s—tortured beyond endurance, she accepts her brother’s story of her culpability. She becomes monstrous, fulfilling his story of what she is. As Sarah undergoes her transformation on the recording, the story is externalized—she narrates what’s happening to Chuck, elsewhere in the hospital, her voice from the past imposing itself on the present.
The nature of story in creating monstrosity and making it real forms the crux of the film—this is, after all, scary stories to tell in the dark. But what makes a scary story, and who tells it? Who is forming the narrative? Via Sarah’s abuse and transformation, the violence of white male patriarchy is revealed as the true monstrosity. Sarah, a disabled, “different” woman, is transformed via patriarchal violence into the monster that they say she is. Her family removes all traces of her, heightening her monstrosity by making her invisible—literally imprisoned, without light, in the walls of the house. Her invisibility is necessary to the imposition of their narrative, because in not seeing her she can become more monstrous, the unseen evil rather than the abused victim she truly is. When Stella (and the viewer) finally sees Sarah, she’s not an inhuman monster bent on consuming children, but a ghost with pale skin and a surfeit of rage and pain from her inhuman treatment at the hands of her family. Sarah is made into a monster who then uses the power of story, learned in violence, to create monsters. She expresses her rage by imposing her will on the children, feeding into the cycle of lies and violence perpetuated by her family and, by extension, the entire town.
But this element does not stop with Sarah Bellows. The entire film compiles narratives of monstrosity created through the lies and violence of white patriarchy. Scary Stories establishes this at a macro level with the background of 1968, the presidential election, and the Vietnam War. During his campaign, Nixon promised to end the war in Vietnam—which had been superintended by Kennedy and LBJ—and cease the draft. The 1968 Democratic National Convention was characterized by violent crackdowns on protestors, many of them antiwar. But Nixon’s promises were ultimately lies—he escalated the war and later invaded Cambodia, resulting in more boys like Tommy and Ramon dying. The patriarchal narrative of white saviordom would ultimately prove false—Nixon’s stories were shown to be lies, but not before many more people died.
The monstrosity of patriarchy reveals itself through the background of Nixon and Vietnam as it comes to bear on the reality of individuals. The film introduces Tommy, a jock and a bully, voluntarily enlisting. Chuck explains his later disappearance as him leaving for the war early, in his eagerness to “go kill Commies.” Tommy is at once a victim, the first to be targeted by Sarah’s stories and the target of patriotic war narratives, and an abuser. But his status as an enlisted soldier and angry young man lays bare the violence of stories. He’s bought into the patriotic line that he’s going to go save the world for democracy, though he’s far more likely to die in the war than come home a hero. His monstrosity is pathetic—he’s enraged at the world, taking it out on those he perceives as lesser (everyone from children to scarecrows), because they can’t fight back. But he’s victimized by the stories told by patriarchy and the stories imposed by Sarah, herself the creation of patriarchal violence. Tommy is a part of the cycle of violence and abuse, victim and victimizer.
The background of Vietnam and white patriarchy also feeds into racist narratives. Ramon’s presence in Mill Valley immediately raises suspicions because of his skin color. Police Chief Turner (Gil Bellows) profiles him in his first scene at a gas station, questioning why he’s there and recommending that he leave quickly. Later, Tommy targets him with slurs and racist violence. He then becomes implicated in Tommy’s disappearance, resulting in his unwillingness to speak with the police about the suspicions that Tommy has been murdered. Ramon is made into the racial Other by representatives of the white mainstream, pushed into narratives of their creating. He’s an outsider, literally and metaphorically, who “doesn’t belong” in Mill Valley, which visually has few people of color at all. Stories are imposed on him, all of them vague but threatening.
Ramon constructs narratives about himself to conform to white expectations and protect himself: he tells the chief that he’s “following the harvest,” presenting himself as a migrant worker. It’s later revealed that he’s an American citizen, drafted into the army after his brother was killed in Vietnam. Ramon believes that because he doesn’t want to die in a war that killed his brother, he’s therefore a coward. Although he’s suspected and abused by white American society, he’s still expected to fight for it, and himself internalizes the narrative that he’s a coward for refusing to.
Even Stella, who accepts Ramon after he saves her and her friends from Tommy, conceals his presence from her father, telling him to sleep in the basement and to be gone before her father wakes up. Ramon is related to Sarah here—he’s marked out by his difference from the mainstream and transformed into a monster responsible for a boy’s death, concealed in a basement to avoid the anger of an authority figure. Ramon is acutely aware of his difference and the violence that stories can impose due to difference. Stella is aware of this, too, though in a different way—she knows that her father will not accept Ramon as someone who needs help, but will see him through both a racial and a gendered lens, discriminating against him because of what people say he is, not what he actually is. Ramon and Sarah are imprisoned and concealed because of the monstrosity the white mainstream associates with their difference.
The introduction of a second racial component further complicates Scary Stories’s relationship to Otherness and monstrosity. After their research into the Bellows family’s past reveals newspaper stories about Sarah’s relationship to magic, Stella, Ramon, and Chuck go to visit Lulu Baptiste (Lorraine Toussaint), the daughter of the Bellows’s maid. The initial inquiry is racially tinged—the newspaper stories from the period accuse the Baptistes of teaching Sarah “black magic.” Lulu’s appearance here fulfills the cinematic trope of the “magical negro” and the connection between racial difference and supernatural abilities. But Lulu and her mother disprove the trope–they have been monsterized by white narratives and used as scapegoats to conceal white violence. When Stella asks if Lulu’s mother taught Sarah “black magic,” Lulu responds that magic does not exist. They were just trying to protect an abused child, for which they were violently punished. Later, as Stella literally becomes Sarah in her own scary story, she meets the young Lulu, who conceals Stella’s presence underneath a table and is then hauled away by the family and beaten for helping the girl. The film undercuts its own use of the “magical negro” trope in revealing that the narratives surrounding Lulu and her mother are complete fabrications, another story told to conceal the reality of white, patriarchal violence.
Unlike Sarah, Ramon, and the Baptistes, who are marked out by white society for their visible differences, Stella herself is not visibly different. The film uses her as a lens through which to read and understand monstrosity as a matter of perspective. She sees herself as a monster, responsible for her mother leaving her father, and comes to identify with monstrosity, obsessed with monster movies and stories. It is her simultaneous identification with and misunderstanding of monstrosity that launches the plot. The excitement of the stories surrounding Sarah Bellows and the temptation of Sarah’s notebook releases the fury of the ghost, resulting in violence and death. Stella has treated monstrosity as nothing more than a scary story, failing to understand the power of her own narratives. In one scene, she remarks on the brilliance of Night of the Living Dead, but fails to recognize its undercurrents, in which the majority of the transformed zombies are white, rural people, and the hero is a black man later killed by a white posse who see him as a monster. Stella subconsciously identifies with monsters but still accepts the stories told about monstrosity at face value, failing to interrogate who is telling the story and why.
Stella is the only character whose scary story forces her into her monster’s perspective. She becomes Sarah Bellows, experiencing horror from within Sarah. Once she’s identified fully with monstrosity, she’s able to save herself, Ramon, and even Sarah. She recognizes the reality of monstrosity—that scary stories are dependent on who’s telling them and that monsters are monstrous based on a particular perspective—and is able to use her privilege as a writer and as a member of the white mainstream to tell the truth. She promises to tell Sarah’s story, but also shows Sarah that she has become the monster that others claimed her to be. The point here is not that Sarah’s anger is unjustified, but that she is perpetuating the very violence that was done to her. Stella does not ask Sarah to disown her suffering or ignore her abuse, but to let go of the anger that has prompted her to abuse others. The cycle of violence and fear has to end, and Sarah, through Stella, gains the power to stop it.
At its best, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark asks the audience to participate in the interrogation of storytelling, narrative, and horror, questioning what real monstrosity is. Scary Stories reveals the mainstream as the true monsters that seek to conceal their monstrosity by imposing it on those who are disenfranchised and largely unable to fight back against patriarchal violence. The danger is also to internalize the stories told about difference and to turn that difference into what mainstream culture claims it to be, the monstrous Other. The characters have to break away from the narratives told about them and that they accept as reality—to let go, Sarah has to finally deny her monstrosity and end the cycle imposed on her, while Stella will go and tell the truth about scary stories. The monster isn’t the Monster at all—it’s Frankenstein.