The October Country: an Appreciation of SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK
“For these beings, fall is ever the normal season, the only weather, there be no choice beyond. Where do they come from? The dust. Where do they go? The grave. Does blood stir their veins? No: the night wind. What ticks in their head? The worm. What speaks from their mouth? The toad. What sees from their eye? The snake. What hears with their ear? The abyss between the stars. They sift the human storm for souls, eat flesh of reason, fill tombs with sinners. They frenzy forth....Such are the autumn people.”
So incants Ray Bradbury in his immortal masterpiece—one of several—Something Wicked This Way Comes, stringing together words that, such as they fall, are worth an ocean of pictures. Bradbury was a poet, going far beyond the banality of reality and always managed to evoke a greater truth from feeling. When you close your eyes after reading that passage, what colors are painted on the undersides of your eyelids? I’m willing to bet they are the autumnal brushstrokes that are very difficult to see in life, but very easy to conjure from memory. And they are a little easier to invoke thanks to movies like André Øvredal’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
I believe that everyone on this site, reading this piece, can identify with the nightmarish “Autumn People” that populate Bradbury’s more sinister work. In terms of aesthetics if nothing else, that is. The older I grow, the more comfort I get out of the comfort blanket that was the season of fall. Leaves golden, crimson, and orange in the trees; crunchy brown on the ground. Cider and the first truly appreciated hot cocoa. The first day you pull a jacket from your closet. I think about it every day and yearn for it all year. And, living in Texas, I get to enjoy these days for about a week every year, usually in January, before it all freezes over, usually in February, and then we begin another ten-month season of Spring-Summer. It wasn’t always this way; at least that’s what my memory tells me. I have vivid memories of riding in the backseat of my parent’s car, watching the colorful leaves fall, and needing to bundle up on Halloween night. But was it really ever this way down South? Or was it just my malleable young mind taking images from the things I loved and mixing them with my own sweltering reality?
I would have absolutely killed, or died, for a movie like Scary Stories . . . when I was a little one. Not that we didn’t have them around, but this particular movie is so far up my alley that it’s one of those rare movies that feels tailor-made for you. In this case, you being me. It’s based books of folklore I devoured as a child, has an incredibly likable young cast, bullies in Letterman jackets, fantastically-designed and executed monsters, including a scarecrow (THE scarecrow to all of us haunted by the image of Harold drying the farmer’s skin on the roof) in a cornfield. It takes place in a Midwestern town on the days surrounding Halloween, which was a setting as magical as any ever found in a Disney movie to this kid from Southeast Texas. And it also takes place in 1968, a year I have a pretty strong interest in. Unlike similar “kids on bikes” media that is made today, this feels like a deliberate choice for reasons other than a scattering of recognizable references. 1968 is said by many to be the darkest year in contemporary American history, hanging a pretty heavy cloud over the proceedings of the film.
In my opinion, it is foolish to try and compare this to the source material it is based on. I’m right there with everyone else who says they were disappointed when they first heard this would not be an anthology. Instead, it is a more traditional narrative, using iconography from the words of Alvin Schwartz and, more intensely, the disturbing art of Stephen Gammell, to tell their own story. I’ve heard many grievances about this in the weeks since the movie’s release and, I have to say, these criticisms are mostly misjudged at best. I’ve asked the most vocally critical of my coworkers and friends point-blank when the last time they’ve actually read the stories was. Their answer: when they were kids. And that’s fine. But as someone who went back and read all of them before the movie came out in early August, the stories you remember would not translate well to screen other than as online mini-webisodes. They are simply too short, too simple, and oftentimes lacking in any or all resolution in favor of a fun “Turn to your neighbor and yell BOO!” scare. This is not a critique on the stories themselves. They work marvelously on the page, especially as stories for children to tell to each other by flashlight. But anyone thinking the movie is a missed opportunity by not adhering closer to the source is, in this case, wrong-headed.
The monsters that we see are beautiful in their rendering. They are gleeful recreations of the things that haunted our nightmares, including Harold the Scarecrow, the Pale Lady from the story “The Dream”, and the spider-bite from “The Red Spot”, all of which are from Volume 3 of the series. The other two monsters, the Toe Monster and the Jangly Man, are composites of similar beings found in four stories from the first collection; “The Big Toe” and the ghastly visage from “The Haunted House”, and the dismembered and re-assembling corpses from “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker” and “What Do You Come For?” respectively. Each one of them completely owns the screen every moment they are given. It’s unlikely to happen given how the movie’s box office trajectory plummeted during its second week, but should they continue the story further I think we would all love to see how our characters find themselves inside classic urban legends like the ones seen in “The Hook”, “High Beams”, “The Wreck”, or “The Girl Who Stood on the Grave”. And I have my own personal wish list of monsters I would love to see including the ones from “The Thing”, “The Ghost with the Bloody Fingers”, or that terrifying monstrosity from “Is Something Wrong?”
The movie does get a little repetitious and fall into a similar formula we as genre fans are more than a little familiar with at this point. I will admit, these things would bother me if I were not entirely won over by the cast. I absolutely adore Stella and Ramon and Chuck and Auggie. So much so that I didn’t have to look up their names while typing that; I genuinely can’t remember the last time I saw a movie and knew all of the characters’ names after leaving the theater. But that is entirely subjective. Feel how you will about the second half of the movie, but can we all collectively marvel at the beauty of the first two-thirds of this thing? My God, it’s like everything I’ve ever dreamed of. I basically love any family movie set around Halloween, but seldom do they really look like fall. Hell, even Hocus Pocus, a personal favorite to myself and many like me, can’t help but look flat in the early day scenes. And it was shot IN SALEM! All this to say, lighting and color play a huge role in setting the mood and ambience of a movie. The first twenty or so minutes of Scary Stories… is a Halloween special that I want to live inside. They absolutely nail the dappled peaches, striking oranges, and soft blues of Hallow’s Eve at twilight. That color palette and aesthetic is carried on all throughout the movie afterward. Leading, as always, to that comfortable feeling. Years ago, as a little kid intrigued by darkness but afraid of everything, I never would have believed a movie like this could feel like a blanket. But it does.
We crave stories today as much as we ever did. As escape from reality, of course, but we are also more keenly aware of how stories pervade reality and often change it, but in many ways, we’re still just the naked ones standing around a campfire, using our bodies and language to tell each other tales, tall and small. Things aren’t so different, really, and that’s something we can all take comfort in. Thousands of years ago, what kinds of stories do you think they told around the fire at night? I think maybe we’re all Autumn People at heart.
But to answer my earlier question, yes we definitely used to have seasons in Texas but the world is too hot now, so I say all of us southern Autumn People move the hell up north.