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Guillermo del Toro's ultimate guide to 'Scary Stories' for kids and teens

  • August 07, 2019


A group of teens face their fears in order to save their lives after taking a haunted book.
CBS Films

Oscar-winning filmmaker Guillermo del Toro laughs when boasting that he’s been a horror fan since “still sleeping in a crib,” but the monster-movie maven is only half-joking.

The Mexican director has unleashed everything from a high-end fantasy (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) and a robots-vs.-kaiju throwdown (“Pacific Rim”) to a Gothic thriller (“Crimson Peak”) and a love-story best picture winner (“The Shape of Water”). But his newest project, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” (in theaters Friday) definitely leans toward a younger set (though older kids can enjoy it, too).

Based on Alvin Schwartz’s popular children’s horror-tale collections, del Toro’s “Scary Stories” centers on a group of small-town teens in 1968 who dig around a haunted house and find a book belonging to Sarah Bellows, a long-dead girl with a spooky urban legend behind her. When young Stella (Zoe Colletti) opens the tome, she and her friends face menacing creatures while also dealing with real-life horrors, such as racism and war.

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“The movie is the equivalent of a young-adult book: Not exactly for little kids, but it’s almost like a family horror movie with a very good spirit, a very kind heart at the center and a very pertinent message for today,” del Toro says, who co-wrote and produced the project. “The set pieces are intense but they are never ever gory or profane.”

In other words, “Scary Stories” is like a roller coaster where you take the big plunge, “but you know there’s a safety bar. You keep your hands inside the vehicle at all times.”

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By age 4, del Toro was already a horror fan and really into TV’s “The Outer Limits,” though the itch didn’t prove hereditary with his two daughters: Mariana, who’s in her early 20s, and teenage Marisa.

“The older one is a little more into it, but neither of them is a complete crazy fan of the genre like I was,” says del Toro, 54.

Read on for his guide to introducing your children to scary stories.

Fantasy might be best for little ones

The filmmaker admits that some of the scariest stuff he saw as a kid was in Disney movies.

“The donkey transformation in ‘Pinocchio’ was pretty harrowing for me, and the death of Bambi’s mother (too),” he says.

One series del Toro recommends for younger children is Lloyd Alexander’s “The Chronicles of Prydain,” which offers great adventures and scary bad guys.

“They were lighter somewhat for me to read than ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and I enjoyed them when I was a kid,” he says.

But give your kids a chance to try different things

Del Toro finds that what truly freaks out children has changed over the years.

“My kids didn’t get scared with ‘The Exorcist.’ ‘The Shining’ is still a very scary movie, but a lot of younger kids don’t find it scary,” he says. “The taste buds in horror have changed quite a bit.”

Because of that, when del Toro works on a movie like “Scary Stories,” he’s trying to create exciting visuals never seen before: “You’re trying not to emulate something from the past.”

Classic creepy tales are an excellent place to start

When it comes to horror novels, especially for teens, there’s plenty of well-known works worth the read: “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson is “a perennial for me,” says del Toro, who also loves Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend.”

As for movies, there are four “pinnacles” of the genre, he says: “Jaws,” ‘The Shining,” “Alien” and 1963’s “The Haunting.” 

But he’s also a fan of also the old-school “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein,” “which kids find more amusing than horrifying but are nevertheless really good movies.”

Dark tales can be good for the soul

Fables and horror stories “can help kids talk in absolutes,” del Toro says. His own “Pan’s Labyrinth,” rated R because of violent sequences, has nevertheless “found its way into classrooms to teach the Spanish Civil War or to talk about world history.” “Scary Stories” explores what happens when you repeat stories about people blindly, reflecting the hazards of modern social media.

“It allows you to address the point that that the things that we hear about someone are not always true,” he says.

And while the horrors of real life are “abysmal” and reflect the tragedy of human nature, del Toro adds, “fantastic horror is almost the antidote to becoming cynical, because it allows you to actually talk about moral and ethical tales and about big concepts in a way where you’re going to articulate them better.” 

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