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Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark promises to be eerily faithful to the kids’ horror classic

Guillermo del Toro’s fun new production promises a return to your terrifying childhood.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Sunday night’s Super Bowl gave us a tantalizing glimpse of many of this year’s upcoming movies — including the highly anticipated feature adaptation of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the iconic anthology series of horror tales for children.

CBS Films dropped four tiny promotional tidbits for the film, which is being produced and developed by Guillermo del Toro and directed by Trollhunter’s André Øvredal. The promos aired throughout the game, with each one offering a quick look at a different horror moment from Scary Stories. Although they’re each only a few seconds long, they still deliver the creepy atmospheric horror for which the series is known.

1) The Pale Lady

“The Pale Lady” appeared in the first Scary Stories book, published in 1981. An eerie figure visits the dreams of a very unlucky artist to warn the artist about a nightmare — only to ultimately reveal that she is the nightmare.

2) Red Spot

This gross-out moment comes to us from a story by the same name in 1991’s Scary Stories 3, which gave us a classic moment of body horror that reveals an ordinary zit to be hiding a nest full of — well, we won’t spoil you. (And yes, these books were and still are marketed and sold to kids.)

3) Jangly Man

This Jangly Man teaser gave me pause, because I’m not actually sure whether he’s from an existing Scary Stories tale, or whether he’s a new, Slender Man-esque monster invented for the film. However, it seems likely that he’s at least partially inspired by the scary intruder in the Scary Stories tale “What Do You Come For?” who dangles terrifyingly from the chimney.

4) Big Toe

This teaser, like the Jangly Man, may also put a new spin on an old Scary Stories tale. It seems likely the film is merging the old folk tale “Taily Po” (sometimes called “Hairy Toe”) with one of Scary Stories’ most famous terrors: the wronged eyeless ghost from the story “Haunted House.”

So far, it looks like the new film will stay faithful to Scary Stories’ beloved and complex history

In the Scary Stories book series — a trilogy formed by Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (1981), More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (1984), and Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones (1991) — writer Alvin Schwartz created chilling new tales based on classic tropes from folklore and urban legends.

The series is particularly beloved for its unforgettable artwork, done by the Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator Stephen Gammell. Ranging from garish to gross, from gothic to ghostly, the images in Scary Stories and its sequels have instilled nightmares in generations of kids, ever since the first of the three volumes debuted in 1981. In fact, during the ’90s, undoubtedly because of its dark, frequently gory subject matter, Scary Stories was the most-challenged banned book of the decade, and it’s still in the top 10.

For most Scary Stories fans, it’s impossible to extricate their love of the stories themselves from the popularity of Gammell’s artwork, which has arguably spawned its own cult following. But perhaps because the books were so controversial, the series’ publisher, Simon and Schuster, decided in 2012 to repackage them with new illustrations.

The job of creating those illustrations fell to the talented but non-scary children’s book illustrator Brett Helquist, who’s best known for illustrating Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. And the result justifiably outraged a whole lot of people because, honestly, there’s really just no comparison between the two artists’ interpretation of the books. The reissued art was scrapped five years later, when a 2017 edition of the book trilogy restored Gammell’s original illustrations to their rightful place.

So the obvious question on the minds of fans since the film adaptation was first announced in 2016, was: How well would the film’s art direction and effects design capture the dread-inspiring aesthetic of its source material?

Thankfully, del Toro is a well-established master at creating atmospheric horror, especially as seen through the eyes of children in films like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. And the Scary Stories Super Bowl spots, though brief, suggest that he’s in his element with this film. In fact, an apparently satisfied fan’s side-by-side comparison of one of Scary Stories’ original illustrations to the movie’s “Pale Lady” spot shows just how aesthetically faithful the film looks to be, at least so far.

The plot of the new film will incorporate its anthological source material by uniting a band of kids in a small town to fight a series of scary events in their community, encountering a host of monsters and plenty of jump scares along the way. And the film’s first official poster teases another one of those events, featuring one of Scary Stories’ most iconic characters, a malevolent scarecrow named Harold.


The poster is another piece of evidence that the film is poised to give fans a fun, creepy nostalgia trip through their childhoods.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark opens in the US on August 9, 2019.

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