Like the plucky young heroes of The Monster Squad, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a gateway horror film with a protagonist obsessed with horror. From the moment the film introduces Stella, played by Zoe Margaret Colletti, we recognize her as one of our own. Save for a major arc involving her father, Stella’s entire persona and narrative is crafted around her being a horror fan. An aspiring writer with a boundless passion for genre, Stella was me as a young teen. For an entry point into genre, there’s nothing more powerful than seeing yourself represented on screen as a protagonist battling seriously spooky monsters.
Growing up, one of my most formative horror movies was The Monster Squad. I related most to Sean Crenshaw (Andre Gower) and his love of monsters. I coveted his treehouse, littered with movie posters and merch. I desperately wanted membership into that club, filled with other like-minded friends. The downside? The Monster Squad didn’t seem interested in letting girls join their club. Little Phoebe (Ashley Bank) begged to be let in, much to the annoyance of her brother, Sean. It was only when she brought home a genuine monster that she’d befriended that they took her seriously.
Even still, the movie was the closest to capturing my interests and who I was at the time, and I wore the tape out. The movie will forever hold a special place in my heart, even if I didn’t always think its heroes would accept me into their club.
That’s why Stella resonates so strongly as a character. She’s an outcast at school, mostly related to her mother’s abandonment, but also for her nerdy horror fanaticism. She seems downtrodden when the film introduces her, but her friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) convince her to come out with them on Halloween. With a smile, she gets to work making herself up as a witch- with black warts and a red lipstick slash across her throat. Her room is cram-packed full of memorabilia like posters, books, and horror movie magazines. They’re not basic titles either; many are deep dive titles demonstrative of a serious level of fandom.
When the trio are fleeing from angry bullies, they take refuge at the drive-in theater and pop into a stranger’s mostly empty car. It belongs to Ramón (Michael Garza), a town newcomer who quickly bonds with Stella over the film playing on screen – Night of the Living Dead. It’s a movie she’s seen many times already, and can quote it from memory; and not just the most famous lines like “They’re coming to get you, Barbara,” but literally all of them. She’s no novice.
Later, when Stella has brought Ramón home with her to give him a place to crash, he finds one of her unfinished stories on her desk. It’s about a sewer rat. It’s a nod to “The New Pet” story from the books the film is based on, but it also provides insight into the stuff Stella likes to write. Which is why she’s so drawn to the dilapidated home of Sarah Bellows in the first place; she’s interested in the ghostly tales Sarah used to tell from the depths of the house’s basement. While that means Stella is directly responsible for unleashing the horror, her horror aspirations also play just as vital a hand in stopping it.
Truth be told, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark doesn’t wholly work for me as an adult. The core narrative is one I’ve seen before, and I could predict the solution to the ghostly problem from the opening’s narration about the power of stories. But the film isn’t targeting adults. It’s a horror story for young adults, and it’s one that doesn’t talk down to its younger audience. The scares are scary, and there are serious consequences for its characters’ actions. Above all, though, I saw my 12-year-old self reflected in Stella, something that would’ve have made me fall head over heels for this movie had I seen it then.
The horror nerd isn’t a supporting sidekick in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, she’s front and center. That might not seem like a big deal to fans who have been with the genre for decades, but for a burgeoning fan it’s a huge deal. That’s why The Monster Squad has amassed a cult following in the decades since release. It’s why Scary Stories has the potential to do the same.
“Stories are what make us,” Stella tells us in the movie. It’s a simple statement with a lot of weight. We each found horror through different stories and movies; there’s no one size fits all or wrong way to begin. Horror helps us connect, to process the world around us. For the budding fan, gateway horror helps shape us and our fandom. To see yourself reflected in one?
That can be everything.