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Gothic Themes in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the trailer (2019)

The trailer for the upcoming Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) is here, and I wanted to provide my initial impressions. In other words, how is it Gothic?

Note: Spoilers! Watch the trailer before reading this!

Before I start, a synopsis: The trailer begins; small town images fade and disappear, on-screen. You might recognize the locale, if only by reputation—the kind with a creepy old house on the corner (the star attraction for many-a-novel, from Clara Reeve, to Poe, to R. L. Stein). On Halloween (note the clown outfit), a group of youngsters go inside. For them, it's probably a rite of passage, the kind ridiculed by Joe Dante, in The 'Burbs (1989): "They're daring each other to ring the doorbell." The children trespass, breaking into, by all appearances, an old, vacant home. Inside, something insidious awaits them: a black book.

Watching the children stumble to their doom, I recalled the words of Ellen Ripley during her inquest: "It was a derelict spacecraft, it was an alien ship. It was not from there, do you get it?" Ostensibly ancient, the derelict from Alien (1979) felt occupied, bringing with it horrors from elsewhere. So, too, is the house in Scary Stories a repository for local legends. In it, the town buries its past. In Alien, the derelict bore an uncanny resemblance to the home-like craft used by the human explorers. Its cargo is a nasty surprise waiting to be found; the Nostromo harbors a gruesome secret, as well: Special Order #937. This parallel mystery is not only tied to the alien craft; it currently iterates what has occurred 936 times, already.

In Scary Stories, the black book symbolizes a mirrored predicament. Its attack polycephalous, it upends the children's normal world by revealing something monstrous, post-discovery. Once found, it's brought back—away from the exotic wild and into a cheerful town. The latter becomes liminal, infused with a monstrous presence imparted by the book. Such bugbears may (or may not) be lurking in the shadows. The children spook, regardless. Some scream, others die. The division—between the old house and its sunny counterparts—has been dissolved.

C. S. Lewis likened this to Dread. For him, being told there was a tiger in the next room would suggest danger. Imperiled, this would probably (according to him) make the recipient feel fear. However, if that person were told "There is a ghost in the next room" and believed it, "they would feel what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is 'uncanny' rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread." For Lewis, this uncanny lurked on the fringes of the Numinous, the sort of dreadful awe a viewer might experience in the presence of a "mighty ghost," or god.

However, there's a specific kind of ghost the Gothic explores: the ghost of the counterfeit. Coined by Jerrold Hogle, this concept involves a sinister "past-feeling" encountered through serialized, cryptic replicas. Ghost stories are, in one sense, copied from others, with small differences to separate them. They nevertheless promote a sense of freighted age. Older Gothic novels feature castles, stuffed to the ramparts with what Bakhtin referred to as "castle narrative," of the historical past suffused with monstrous legends. In Gothic tales more generally, such legends come alive to attack the viewer—not as a tiger would, necessarily, but to overwhelm the senses, sending them into a liminal, even rapturous state.

Should the person onscreen be torn asunder (as many often are), such dismemberment cannot kill the viewer. Often, the violence is occluded—hidden behind walls, but also media, itself, as continuously revived. And each time, something is different. One variant connects the viewer to a murky sensation all impart, in some shape or form: a presence of danger attributed to the past as mythical, superstitious. Even when directly viewed, the danger cannot destroy the viewer. It merely expands or annihilates their imagination. Feelings, of a "mighty ghost" or "past-feeling," are experienced through media as a kind of "Gothic castle," a tenebrous monster's lair. The castle doesn't appear in front of you like Castlevania (1986): out from the mist, and mists of time. Instead, you experience it through an arrangement, a series of materials, or counterparts thereof. Once assembled, these are perceived and engaged with, producing various feelings experienced in the here-and-now.  This, dear reader, is the antidote to boredom.

I would know. I grew up in Chelsea, Michigan, a small American town. The town itself was, and is, innocuous, insipid. We had (and still have) dime stores, gas stations and post offices; there was (and is) a graveyard and a clock tower (no bullshit). In 1991, I was a first-grader at North School, one of Chelsea's two (at the time) elementary schools. It featured a small, private library hosted by Mrs. Locks, the librarian. A stout, smiling woman with long, mousy hair, she loved telling horror stories. As the children gathered 'round, a great horned owl would loom overhead, stuffed and standing inside a glass case ("He'd flown into some power lines," Mrs. Locks promised us). I loved the owl, but the stories more. And on the shelf sat one of my favorites: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (1981).

By the time I was old enough to read, the books were already banned in many public libraries. Yet, Mrs. Locks had a penchant for ghastly things, and the library was a private one. Under her care, the books were allowed a home. For all I know, they're still there. Outside of private libraries and private ownership, however, the book's public distribution was ardently stymied. It became something of a legend in its own right, a relic out of the past. I easily imagine it a collector's item, stashed far from prying eyes. M. R. James' ghost stories leap to mind. Concerning antiquarians beckoned to haunted curios, their discovery was always unfortunate.

The big difference, between older editions of Scary Stories and newer ones, is the art. The original illustrations were by Stephen Gammell, a self-taught man whose goal in life was to scare people. Who better than unsuspecting children reading scary stories for the first time? The books were not banned because of the stories, but Gammell's artwork. For their 30th anniversary, the books featured new illustrations by Brett Helquist. Consequently they "enjoyed" a lifting of their decades-old ban. I say "enjoyed" because their "mighty ghost" had been traded for a flimsy impostor, a cheap knockoff; these were not the same books that scared so many children from the '80s and '90s. The situation is not unlike Milton's "Areopagitica" (1641). While Milton advocated for the free circulation of all published material, this did not necessarily involve insertion within public schools. For Milton, anything should have the right to exist as a published work, be it Mein Kampf (1925) or Onision's self-published This Is Why I Hate You (2015).

In any case, the book Scary Stories became the stuff of legends, scaring entire generations of children (according to the 2019 trailer) with its ghastly pictures. The movie attempts to recreate Gammell's gallery. It starts in the past. While I know little of cars, those in the trailer look to be of 1960s make. True to form, the legends conveyed by the book come out of a timeless, nostalgia—an uprooted past writers share and contributes towards. Steven King's novels and short stories, for example, concern a similar past—his own childhood, carried forward on pages crawling with nods to material culture: movies, clothing and music, but also other books. Stranger Things (2016) is no different, nor is Scary Stories (the book, or the movie). They recycle monsters and ruins to convey a legendary past. The once-upon-a-time takes place in an older version of the same room, or town, the audience inhabits. Their ticket to a liminal state—of the past invading the present—is pastiche; the familiar is deliberately arranged to better remind the viewer of their own past, or a legendary past they've either heard about, or experienced through taboo media.

Some kids weren't allowed to read Scary Stories or H. P. Lovecraft. I was. My family let me (and my grandfather read me Lovecraft); every weekend, my mother went to the local rental store, bringing home Fred Dekker's The Monster Squad (1987). In it, Andre Gower wears a red t-shirt with yellow font: "Steven King Rules." He and the other kids love monsters. Yet, Dekker's monstrous past (and the monsters associated with older depictions of those legends) were delivered to 1987 from the silver screen of older cinematic depictions; his versions of Gilman, Dracula, and Frankenstein's Monster were, in fact, replicas of the Universal Studios variants (which, themselves were variants of even-older versions).

In the movie, many of King's novels and short stories—too many for me to list—had already been adapted into feature-length films. Sean and the Monster Squad weren't just fighting monsters; they were surrounded by depictions of them from older historical periods. These different iterations all portray a Gothic concept: the living miniature. The monsters, and the past they evoke, come alive in the present; they step out of the screen, off the page, as simulacra: identical copies of the thing that never existed. While the monsters themselves are fictitious, they point to real-world counterparts. They evoke more than parallel monsters, though; they describe parallel childhoods, themselves replete with monstrous depiction: movie posters, toys, and books—the kind you shouldn't be reading but do anyways because horrifying things lurk on the horizon (war) and in the shadowy recesses of small-town life (serial murder).

In this sense, past-feeling amounts to a shared experience populated by circuitous replicas. Placeholders for real-world atrocities, perennial beasts occupy a nostalgic territory. Rooted in the historical-material past, this can also invoke various time periods: the 1950s, '60s, '80s, etc. Each depicts its bestiary—the vampire, zombie, and werewolf—as something unique. The original Scary Stories is a notable case. On par with Giger's xenomorph, its monsters come from the mind of an artist, are pointedly not cinematic canon. The books also feature "timeless," undated tales, notably bland save for the presence of their unique illustrations. More curious still, the upcoming Scary Stories takes material printed in 1981 and relocates it to a mysterious black book, whose inner cover cryptically reads: "This book belongs to Sarah Bellows." The diary is found by a small, bespectacled girl, living in a 1960s small town. For us, everything—the girl, the book, the town—is viewed on a computer screen, in 2019. The monsters, themselves, digital recreations of Gammell's notorious "offspring."

Monsters needn't solely reflect real world fears—serial killers, nuclear war, racism. They can also reflect popular attitudes regarding media, itself, as legendary. The original use of the symbol is distanced in favor of generating a nostalgia conducive to Gothic feelings: the hero lost in the fabricated castle, the haunted house populated with relics of the "ancient" past. Such Romances circumscribe the audience with caricatures animated partially through an overstimulated imagination. The audience is clearly meant to recognize the uprooted material. Much like a Dracula removed from his Transylvanian homeland, Gammell's symbols are orphaned. Plucked from their parent texts, they are clumped into a doubled arrangement, a small town the likes of which consumers of media can recognize, if only through other media. Be it Halloween (1978), Scream (1996) or Super Dark Times (2017), the nostalgia becomes cohesive, an enveloping nebula meant to unite audience members through a common sensation—of a shared past connected by replicated time periods, but also their affiliate symbology.

The audience trembles at a spectral presence: the ghost behind the counterfeit material. Over time, this feeling is nurtured, sustained. What better way to bring it to life (again) than through the mind of an artist? Luckily the animators treatment of Gammell's work is meticulous. With technology denied to past filmmakers, they faithfully restore the infamous collection—the image, itself, but also the legend surrounding it as sordid, dreadful. I cannot speak for the impact, on-screen, as this hinges on a combination—of music, lighting and venue that presently do not exist, will not until the movie debuts. All the same, I've been excited about this project for a long time, discussing its prospects when reviewing The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016). I always thought del Toro's Oscar win might yield clout—the sort required to jump-start expensive horror projects. If Scary Stories performs well, maybe we'll finally see him make At the Mountains of Madness.

One can hope.


About me: My name is Nick van der Waard and I'm a Gothic ludologist. I primarily write reviews, Gothic analyses, and interviews. Because my main body of work is relatively vast, I've compiled it into a single compendium where I not only list my favorite works, I also summarize them. Check it out, here!

I'm an artist and a writer. If you're interested my work and are curious about illustrated or written commissions, please refer to my website for more information. If you want to contact me about a guest article, please use this contact form or reach out to me on Discord (vanderWaardart#5394)!

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