Everyone gets into horror in their own way. For some of us, it was a fateful night at the video store, back when fateful nights at the video store were a thing we all had. For others, it's an evening spent skimming streaming libraries for something interesting. For still others, it's a close friend or relative pushing a movie into our hands and saying “Try this, you'll love it.”
Of course, if you're the kind of parent who's paying attention to what your kids watch, you might want to be the person who pushes that movie toward your child, particularly if that child is starting to show an increasingly passionate interest in things that go bump in the night. So, let's say that's your situation this Halloween, your kid has seen all the horror “kids' stuff,” and wants to move on to something a little more PG-13. Where do you go?
Fortunately for you, there are starting points galore depending on your child's age, temperament, and particular tastes, but if you want something that'll cover the bases nicely, 2019's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark just might be your winner.
What is Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark?
As the title suggests, Scary Stories is based on the beloved children's books of the same name, written by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell. Like the original books, the film takes on an anthology format, telling a series of scary stories within a larger narrative framework, including some of the most famous creepy moments from Schwartz's books.
The larger narrative framework, devised in part by producer Guillermo del Toro, finds a way to rope all of these stories into the film while delivering something satisfying all on its own. The film version focuses on Stella (Zoe Colletti), a horror-obsessed young girl who dreams of being a great writer of scary stories one day. When she encounters a young drifter named Ramon (Michael Garza), Stella thinks she's finally found a kindred spirit in a world that doesn't always understand her, but together they've also found something darker. When a Halloween prank goes wrong, Stella and her friends stumble upon a book once belonging to a local legend, containing scary stories that seem to write themselves and come to life, with deadly consequences.
So, you get the emotional thruline of a single story about a group of friends who act as a kind of chosen family, and the variety of an anthology film, all wrapped up in one stylish package that's beautifully directed by André Øvredal. It's basically like getting a half dozen horror movies in one, and they all work!
How Scary is Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark?
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for "terror/violence, disturbing images, thematic elements, language including racial epithets, and brief sexual references." It's an accurate rating, as the film delves into all the kinds of things teenagers talk about while also touching on the divisions inherent in its 1968 small-town setting, giving viewers a dose of adult-adjacent content without ever diving into full-on R-rated territory.
As far as the horror goes, we're talking about a step up from more kid-friendly horror fare like Nightbooks or Hocus Pocus. Each of the stories present in the film brings with it a different kind of disturbing image, from a living scarecrow to a spider bite that explodes on a young girl's face to The Pale Lady, a massive, slow-moving specter with the ability to absorb people. Speaking of which: Yes, characters actually die and disappear in this movie, so keep that in mind as you're preparing your kids to watch it. It's not gratuitous, and most of the death is framed in a very clear fantastical context, but it does happen, as does frank discussion of stuff like The Vietnam War. Basically, if your kid is under 13, use caution, but any horror-curious teenager watching should be reasonably comfortable.
Why is Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark a Great First Horror Movie?
Just as the source material proved to be kid-friendly nightmare fuel for generations of schoolchildren getting into scary stories, so too does the film embrace a sense of childhood adventure and darkness that every teenager who's ever stayed out just a bit too late will understand. It's a film potent enough to send chills down the spines of the adults, but it's clearly made with a young audience in mind. In modern terms, it's YA Horror for the teens in your life who are getting ready for the heavier stuff in the genre, and it works perfectly along those lines.
More than that, though, it's a film that deftly weaves in lots of emotional honesty about what it's like to be a teenager who's just starting to find their way. Stella and Ramon are both a bit lost, still figuring out who they truly are, as the film begins, and as they endure the terrors of a magic book of scary stories, they start to get a better idea of what they want to be, what they're meant to do, and how to authentically be themselves. That's something every teenager can understand, and something kids of all ages could use a reminder of now and then. So, this Halloween, consider feeding this film to your kid who's just beginning to consider the idea of a steady diet of horror movies. You'll both have a good time.