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‘Scary Stories’ and the Spirit of 1968

With a holiday-laden month left to go in 2019, it’s likely that we’re going to see more and more “best of the year” wrap-ups every week. That’s understandable in any year, and 2019 has born an unusually rich crop of excellence. This is especially true if you enjoy the work of Stephen King, whose art has been surreally ubiquitous. The year was a veritable clown car of King projects: Pet Sematary, It Chapter Two, Doctor Sleep, and In the Tall Grass, not to mention a new season of Castle Rock and a few Joe Hill projects (Hill is King’s son). And those are just on-screen adaptations; King also published his new novel The Institute. Our buddy Stephen wasn’t the only one hard at work in the horror field, recently, either. From Us to The Dead Don’t Die and Zombieland: Double Tap, Midsommar to Marianne, the year has provided something for just about any sensibility. A few of these offerings stood out more than the others for one reason or another, and one such project was Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark were originally a trilogy of books released from 1981 to 1991, written by Alvin Schwartz and memorably illustrated by Stephen Gammell, whose spidery ink drawings have traumatized countless millions of children the world over. Indeed, there have been intermittent attempts to censor the book on the grounds that Gammell’s illustrations are “too scary” for kids. You be the judge:

2019’s Scary Stories film plays out a few of Schwartz’s more beloved tales, adapted for the screen by none other than Guillermo del Toro, and does an eerily good job of transferring the Gammell aesthetic from ink to film, where it could blossom into nightmare fuel like this

But the film’s cleverest trick isn’t its brilliant use of practical effects or the narrative’s framing device, which emphasizes the importance of the stories we tell ourselves and each other. Instead, its secret weapon is a perfectly subtle, subtly perfect setting: a small Midwestern town during Halloween week of 1968. That was a week, as a sprinkling of understated details reveal, that the draft was sending American teenagers to Vietnam, that Richard Nixon was about to be elected President, and that George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was playing at the drive-in. None of this is belabored; there’s just enough going on in the background to remind the audience that in 1968, America was a boiling pressure cooker of social, cultural, and political upheaval. Racist rural cops, the politics of an unnecessary foreign war, and the rights of disabled people: by the end of Scary Stories, it’s clear that when Guillermo del Toro was working on the script, he was likely thinking less of the America of 1968 than that of 2019.

(Nor is Scary Stories the only project to tackle 2019 by invoking the ghost of Richard Nixon. HBO’s exquisite Watchmen, for example, extends and expands the story written by Alan Moore in 1986 – 87 and brings it into a radically different 2019 than the one we inhabit.)

The frictions and divisions of 1968 provided the fodder for some truly amazing art. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was published that year, as was Ursula K. Le Guin first Earthsea book. 2001: A Space Odyssey blew minds around the world; Planet of the Apes roared through theaters, as did Rosemary’s Baby and Herschell Gordon Lewis’ She Devils on Wheels. The ghastly specter of the Nixon/Agnew ticket, war, and racial strife – all of these things found their way, in one way or another, into the art of the time.

2020 will see America face a different election of great import, and we’re in the process of dealing with divisions new and old. Del Toro’s script – with its take on the spirit of 1968 – is a reminder that times of social strife often produce great art.

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