Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark
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Credit: George Kraychyk/CBS Films

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a reaction to our Twitter horror story, del Toro says

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Jul 23, 2019, 2:09 PM EDT (Updated)

Scroll. Click. Reply. Retweet. It's the hum of our modern lives. We bathe in the electric glow of technology from the time we wake up until we finally put our phones down at night. We have access to more knowledge, more news, and more data than at any other time in human history. A growing field of research, however, questions whether or not humans are truly better off in this age of constant connection. In a sit-down interview with Guillermo del Toro and André Øvredal at San Diego Comic-Con, they told why they slowed down their film adaptation of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, to tell a different kind of story about modern life.

Guillermo del Toro knew he wanted Scary Stories to be set in 1968. A producer on the film, del Toro was always in sync with director André Øvredal on that. There is an ocean of technological change between the America of 1968 and the one we live in today. In the late 1960s, news traveled in hours, not seconds. Removing the story from the constraints of the digital age gave Øvredal and del Toro the freedom to focus on the thematic issues behind the film.

The film takes the iconic anthology by author Alvin Schwartz and illustrator Stephen Gammell and places the stories inside a single contained world. The film centers on a group of teenagers within the fictional suburb of Mill Valley, a small and sleepy city with nothing but cornfields and creepy mansions to occupy a teenager's time; they are miles away from the seismic social and political changes underpinning America during 1968.

America during the late 1960s was a country in chaos. The Vietnam War divided the country, the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. followed shortly thereafter by that of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. shook the conscience of the nation. The foundation was shaken, seams were coming undone, and the country was at war with itself.

"This [1968] is a time when kids were disappearing. This was a time where they were going to a war they had only heard of, like a story, you know? But they didn't really have a reason to be there and die there," del Toro told SYFY WIRE. "And I said, 'I think the death of the innocence of the United States happens in the sixties.' You know, you leave childhood, and you step into a very dark, brutal adulthood. I thought this is the time to do the right of passage."

A right of passage, a coming of age story, is perhaps not how one may initially envision Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Del Toro, of course, believes otherwise. "That's what was great about the books," he said. "Alvin Schwartz tapped into stories that were seemingly universal."

As the film is meant to be a kind of visual graphic novel for young adults, the film needed to be PG-13 rated. On managing and building tension in a PG-13 film versus an R-rated movie, André Øvredal said, "I think the approach would be exactly the same. I think it's just that sometimes in an R-rated film you would go overboard on certain aspects. You would get it very bloody, very disturbing. It's just cutting off that edge, and then you're basically making exactly the same scary scene without that element."

Scary Stories is meant to be a roller-coaster ride of emotions with the ubiquity of fear fueling it. Fear is something all humans implicitly understand and know. Like any good horror film, the movie wants to tap into a person's fears to ask them a question: why does this story matter to you?

Horror films, distilled to their essence, deal with the fear of our humanity. That fear may be wrapped up and disguised in inventive and ingenious ways, but the core tends to be this central thesis: the evil we fear the most is the evil we perpetuate ourselves.

Creating a horror film about the human capacity to inflict harm in a modern-day setting would have failed, according to del Toro. Speaking about the modern age and social media, del Toro says, "It's too fast. I really think that we're getting to a point where what happens to us is almost not real."

He added, "What's happening in the world, we almost think it is a story. And that's why I thought this [Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark] was very timely. I thought we have to tell a story about telling stories and what are the responsibilities it carries?"

A critical character in the film is not played by any actor. Instead, the character takes the shape of the diary of Sarah Bellows. The diary is said to be haunted and will visit untold horrors by any person who read it. These horrors, however, happen to bear a striking resemblance to whatever the reader fears the most. A young woman obsessed with her appearance wakes up to find an inflamed, red spot on her face. The spot grows and becomes inflamed. This pimple is the worst thing that's ever happened to her, or is it?

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Credit: George Kraychyk/CBS Films

Both del Toro and André Øvredal want movie-goers to do a better job of interrogating their fear. There's a superficiality baked into our modern lifestyle, preventing people from sitting with their emotions in meaningful and constructive ways. A lack of engagement with our feelings may be especially difficult for young adults who have grown up never knowing a slower-pace of life.

"I was talking about it with a friend about it [Twitter] the other day, and I said, 'We have so much information,' del Toro explained. "He said, it's not information; it's emotion. People think that all these bits on Twitter are information, but they're not. Each of them carries an emotional hit. The more you become immune to them, the more you're training a very, very dangerous distancing muscle that makes you have a barrier with tragedy, with joy. LOL, an emoji, or people dying in a massacre in Europe, they all carry the same weight because you consume them so fast."

Compared to 1968, people have access to orders of magnitudes more information, but this doesn't mean society is better off. An article in The Guardian suggests the more data we have access to, the more we desire. People not only want information more often, but we also want this information to be new. The implication for consuming knowledge at the speed of light means people spend less time considering facts, emotions, or the nuances of an event or news story. That's a dangerous precedent, and it is one both del Toro and Øvredal are grappling with themselves.

With Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Øvredal and del Toro are asking movie-goers to reject the modern-eras insatiable urge for instantaneous information. Instead, they hope we can slow down long enough to ponder the consequences of our actions and consider the responsibility we have to the person behind the blue glow of a screen.

It turns out the distance between the America of 1968 and the one of today may not be as far as we initially imagined. We are still asking ourselves who we are and where we are going. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark hopes we ask another question, to what do we owe one another?

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark will begin haunting your dreams nationwide on August 9.