So I just saw Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark recently and surprisingly, the story of the film wasn’t what I remembered the most coming out of it.
When the opening weekend reared its head, all I had on my mind was to just have some fun with a movie or two that I’d been looking forward to for months. For this particular weekend, the long-awaited film adaptation of the popular children’s horror books, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, was finally coming out and with involvement from Guillermo del Toro of all people!
Needless to say, my love for both the Scary Stories series and Del Toro’s work made the anticipation for the film so much more palpable and come the weekend, it was my main priority to see it as soon as I could. Eventually, I found the time to go, packed theater and everything, and I was ready to experience a large part of my childhood on the big screen.
Minor spoilers ahead for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, so proceed at your own risk.
What I wasn’t ready for was the social and political climate that would be the backdrop of Scary Stories. Not only was this set in the autumn of 1968 (conveniently placed close to Halloween), but the climate of the film’s setting had a heavy political atmosphere, taking place in the heat of the 1968 American Presidential Election that would eventually be won by Richard Nixon.
It’s this climate that bears heavy weight on the shoulders of Scary Stories’ co-main protagonist, Ramon Morales (Michael Garza), as he has to deal not just with the infamous book of Sarah Bellows bringing her scary stories to real life, but a whole town that is seemingly against his very existence, from some of the locals to the local sheriff of the police department. As the only lead character that is colored, Ramon is, of course, subject to moments of prejudice and racism hurled his way in the form of racial slurs and a consistent sense of side-eye looks from the sheriff.
Considering that Scary Stories takes place towards the tail-end of the 1960s, a regressive attitude towards people of color is expected and not a bad way to address an aspect of the social climate that was prevalent at the time. America was in a cynical post-JFK world, so beating around the bush isn’t exactly a viable option when exploring 60s American culture. In fact, I’m pleasantly surprised to see a Latino-American character in a mainstream horror film get this much depth, standing out in front of some of the other prominent cast members, no disrespect to them and their entertaining performances in the film.
But as I pondered Ramon’s role in the film and the story’s overall treatment of his character arc and personality, I found myself conflicted over what I saw. Yes, it was nice and a little cathartic to see a mainstream American horror film prominently feature a Latino-American character (specifically a Mexican one), but at what point does his inclusion cease to be a genuine attempt at representation and morph into a glorified character-enhancer? To put it bluntly: is this really the best we can do in terms of Mexican representation in American horror?
Whether it be Tommy the Bully’s miserable and racist nature or Stella (lead character)’s fascination with horror and somber home life, Ramon seemingly exists solely as a character-enhancer for other characters in the film designated ample time for development and narrative importance. Ramon’s background is something that is explained to the audience, rather than shown like with the rest of the main characters. Ramon’s story insists a level of importance by the end, but the story’s treatment of his identity and background rang hollow and ultimately underutilized by film’s end.
What’s the problem though?
After all, Hollywood has seemingly become gradually more open with the idea of highlighting stories about Mexicans BY Mexicans. The emergence of Mexican filmmakers like Alfonso Cuaron, Robert Rodriguez, Alejandro Innaritu, Eugenio Derbez, and of course Guillermo Del Toro has seen a rise in Mexican representation in American cinema. Cuaron, Innaritu, and Del Toro are all Oscar-winning directors, Rodriguez continues to land gigs directing high-profile blockbusters and Derbez has experienced a blistering amount of success in America as both an actor and director over the past 6 years.
These directors have done wonders in including Mexican talent for their films, big or small, but it’s no surprise that the majority of their most successful films mostly cut back on Mexican presence. Innaritu’s break into the mainstream came with Babel in 2006, which had Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett to balance the international narrative being told, but his true mainstream success didn’t come until 2014 with the impressive (and largely white-casted) Birdman, which finally landed him the Oscar that had evaded him for over 10 years. Cuaron had the success of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Gravity to propel him into fame and Oscar glory. Del Toro’s Spanish-language films have a large cult following on their own, but his work on the Hellboy films, Pacific Rim, and the Best Picture-winning Shape of Water is what helped him become a household name.
Derbez and Rodriguez still work hard to include a distinct Mexican voice in even the most mainstream of their films. Rodriguez’s connection with his culture shines through in films like the Spy Kids films with their large Hispanic casts and Planet Terror with its distinct Southern atmosphere and tone. Derbez, on the other hand, has made and starred in films largely targeted towards mainstream Mexican audiences, such as Instructions Not Included, How To Be a Latin Lover, and most recently with Dora and the Lost City of Gold.
All of that sounds nice and dandy until the realization sets in on a couple of important factors. 1: This is basically all that we Latino-Americans have to choose from in terms of popular Mexican filmmaking in Hollywood. 2: Apart from Del Toro and Rodriguez, there is a severe lack of horror for the Latino voice to come through. Planet Terror and From Dusk Till Dawn are uniquely Mexican thanks to Rodriguez’s direction, but his work stands among the few strands of Mexican DNA in mainstream American horror.
When it comes to Mexican representation, a domineering cast of Mexican actors isn’t solely what I’m referring to. Representation is broad and can go a long way in paving the road for future films to take bolder risks in telling stories about an underrepresented group of people. Specifically, representation in American cinema has to involve some level of attention being focused on an aspect of life unique to a specific group of people and/or culture.
Going back to Scary Stories, Ramon’s presence in the film can be counted as an attempt at Mexican representation in an American horror film. The story makes it clear that Ramon is Mexican, but despite his sympathetic role, a large part of me still felt invisible while watching the film. Yeah, he’s Mexican, but apart from the racism he endures, there is not much about him that I feel represents something that I can weave into my personal upbringing in a Mexican-American home. In no way do I consider him to be a regressive character in terms of Mexican horror representation, but I’d hardly peg him to be the gold standard or anywhere near that level because the story doesn’t afford him time to be explored and better understood.
This isn’t just a problem with Scary Stories either. If anything, this is actually a major improvement on Mexican representation in American horror, which has largely ignored exploring Mexican culture or Mexican-American life. A recent exception to this is with actor Jose Maria de Tavira in the Shudder Original horror-comedy, DeadTectives, which just released this year on the streaming service.
DeadTectives’ story is focused on a group of ghost show crew members filming an episode of their failing show in an allegedly haunted mansion in Mexico and Tavira’s role within the group exhibited a stronger sense of Mexican representation, what with his character being a disillusioned TV crew member who has lost touch with his Mexican upbringing, spiraling into a self-destructive man with no regard for his friends until push eventually comes to shove.
Tavira’s performance very much emulated that sense of disconnect that I sometimes feel towards my own culture and while everyone is obviously free to view him under their own lens, it was strangely compelling to see a seemingly innocent horror-comedy explore that side of his character. It made him into a much stronger presence as the film progressed and it was satisfying to see him have a lasting impact on the story right up to the film’s end.
That being said, Tavira’s character also highlighted a similar issue I had with Ramon in Scary Stories and that is the issue of the side piece syndrome. Despite its heavy reliance on a Mexican setting and culture, Tavira is very much a supporting character, stepping aside for his American and English counterparts to dominate a good chunk of the film’s dialogue and story. Tavira is very much the comedic relief of the group, using his sharp comedic wit to stay relevant in the various scenes with his other crew members.
The side piece syndrome isn’t exclusive to characters either: American horror tends to shift away the focus from a foreign setting or culture in order to make way for the relatable white characters to serve as audience surrogates. Films like The Curse of La Llorona and The Nun have both prominent Mexican actors and in the case of the former, a story rich with Mexican folklore and culture, yet those films stray away from delving deep into Mexican culture, presenting stories with surface-level understandings of Mexican life and people.
“La Llorona”, for instance, isn’t a clay-faced monster who jumps out at you to give you a minor startle. Her story, in which the woman in life drowned her two kids out of rage over her husband’s infidelity (this is one of the most popular versions of the tale in Mexico), was not only used to scare children into behaving, but it was reflective of Mexico’s attitude towards male-female companionships and served as an ugly reminder of the struggles Mexican women faced in the presence of an oppressive lifestyle. It’s a tough story, but it’s the kind that can be readily made into a film that both respects the legend and its importance in Mexican culture while appealing to an American audience looking for something fresh and new.
It’s this context that feels sorely missed when watching an adaptation of the infamous legend that boils down her legend to jump-scares. As much as Hollywood loves to boast that they’re trying hard to tell stories about different cultures, there’s a stunning lack of a Mexican voice in American horror to call this kind of thing out. There is hardly anybody or any studio willing to present to us a Mexican horror story that fully embraces its cultural context. Despite its lack of hesitance in adapting foreign horror films for American audiences, American horror has yet to truly provide stories that genuinely speak to a Mexican audience, or at least to me.
But why does it bother me and more importantly, why do I feel it should bother more people?
Growing up in a Mexican household in the northern U.S. state of Minnesota, I was constantly stuck in a state of cultural limbo, floating back-and-forth between the traditional customs and culture of my Mexican parents and the rural Minnesotan environment that surrounded my social life outside of my house. Since I primarily speak English, I felt as though it could be easy to fit in and fortunately, I found acceptance among my peers and friends.
However, part of me feels as though this acceptance boils down to comfortability rather than understanding. My accent is full-on American and many of my general interests are familiar to those around me. People seem to be comfortable with me, but their interest in Mexican culture and my own upbringing in a Mexican environment feels limited, even borderline nonexistent honestly (save for some close friends).
Even when talking about a topic centered on Mexican culture, there’s always a certain level of disconnect present due to the vastly different lifestyles and backstories of me and any one of my American friends. Yes, I grew up in America, but my lineage is Mexican and my own understanding of the world will forever be shaped by my Mexican upbringing of which I am very proud.
It’s this state of being that also upsets me whenever I get wind of what America has to offer in terms of horror films. Since I live in America, those are obviously the films I have the most access to and I don’t think I can even count on one hand the amount of times I went to see an American horror movie and came out feeling like a crucial part of me was accurately represented onscreen. Much like with most of my peers in my social circle in America, the movies have enough respect to acknowledge my Mexican heritage, but without the willingness to understand the complexities of Mexican culture.
Mexican representation in American horror is essentially boiled down to either literally nothing or vague references to authentic Mexican culture at best. DeadTectives is a step in the right direction, but far from the endgame, so to speak. Mexican culture is hastily “dissected” by American news channels the minute something happens in the real world involving the Mexican community, but that time is never spent on a film set crafting a truly Mexican story for American audiences.
It is fun to see campy Mexican horror films like any film starring famous luchador, El Santo, or a wild ride like From Dusk Till Dawn, but there comes a point where even these films, in all their Mexican zest, feel limiting in their representation of Mexican culture. There’s only so much I can relate to in a film that sees Santo fight yet another supernatural phenomenon or a horror-comedy like From Dusk Till Dawn use authentic Aztec culture to create a film about vampire strippers hunting a white family. Yes, there’s Mexican culture littered throughout these movies, but I feel like in the eyes of the average American viewer, these movies are considered to be…jokes? They’re considered films that don’t explore the nuances of Mexican culture to the best of their abilities and they’re not the kind I relate to on a personal and cultural level because the culture is very secondary to the story, i.e. side piece syndrome.
Representation is more than just an escape from life for me. Representation presents the concept of someone like me being noteworthy enough to watch and discuss and in this case, someone whose background is worth making a horror movie on. Every once in a while, I get a small sliver of hope that maybe there will come an American horror film that isn’t afraid to tackle Mexican culture in a thoughtful manner and I still hold onto this sliver with the likes of Guillermo Del Toro and Robert Rodriguez still making genre films at this stage in their careers. But I’ve already seen what they have to offer, so who else can really fill up a spot in the land of horror? DeadTectives and Scary Stories showed that Mexican representation, though far from perfect, can have a place in American horror, so what’s stopping anybody from trying it out?
Writing this, it almost feels like I’m simply complaining about not seeing enough Mexican stuff in my scary movies and while that is a part of it, I honestly feel it boils down to the popular status of movies in America. Movies are a large part of how we like to consume stories in America (as well as many parts of the world), but I always feel a little shunted when I request something that may speak to me and my culture in a way that I could relate to it. It’s already difficult to process the types of American films that like to exploit real dangers in Mexico as their way of representing Mexican culture, with films like Sicario, Sicario: Day of the Soldado, and The Curse of La Llorona. But when the horror genre can’t even provide a solid counter-balance to this, the scales are tipped towards films that document Mexican suffering through the eyes of non-Mexicans that have not experienced these events, leading to transparent and watered-down representation being the only thing that American audiences have to consume from our culture.
Seeing myself or a character much like myself on the big screen in America shouldn’t have to be a special event or an exception, especially with America’s reputation as an influential superpower filled with many different ethnicities with their own unique cultural customs. America’s melting pot climate is crucial for films like Get Out, Train to Busan, Let the Right One In, and Ringu to have a popular standing within modern American culture. Yes, Get Out isn’t foreign, but its statements on black identity in America help the film become a stunningly real case of representation in the horror genre for the black community.
The Mexican community doesn’t have something like Get Out to latch onto in America and while Del Toro and Rodriguez try their hardest with behind-the-camera representation, on-camera is a different story. Mexico itself has plenty of horror films for Mexican fans to enjoy, but there is a lack of focus given to the Mexican-American community and the lineup for movies at the movie theater makes sure to remind me of that fact every time I go to see something, which is often. Not to mention, the presence of Mexican horror films is far overshadowed by American horror, which often does quite well in Mexico. In fact, many of highest grossing films in Mexico come from America, leaving many domestic titles in the dust.
It’s understandable to examine the counter-argument to this in saying that American horror films with a prominent Mexican identity may not do well at the struggling box office, but the past successes of films like Crazy Rich Asians, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Instructions Not Included, and Pan’s Labyrinth rectifies that argument. American audiences are not as feeble as studios like to believe and they CAN throw support behind a film exploring a foreign culture. The horror genre in America is ripe for consistently fresh ideas, so the exploration of Mexican culture and representation in an American horror film isn’t far-fetched in the slightest.
I acknowledge that American horror films are at least putting in a stronger effort to include Mexican talent and culture into their films and the situation now is better than it was before, at least in terms of consistency. Despite my criticisms, I am thrilled that movies like Scary Stories, DeadTectives, and From Dusk Till Dawn incorporate Mexican characters and culture in more meaningful ways. But it just feels disheartening to see that my Mexican side of myself still doesn’t feel represented in the world of American horror in spite of a supposedly more inclusive attitude from Hollywood. Mexicans have started making their mark in America through genres and art forms like comedy, drama, documentaries, and animation, so why is horror being left behind? It doesn’t need to be and neither do we.
It’s looking like that time may soon be behind us too.
Recently, the news came out that Mexican director Issa Lopez has finally managed to negotiate a deal that would distribute her acclaimed Mexican fantasy horror film, Tigers Are Not Afraid, in America through a limited theatrical release followed by a premiere on Shudder for streaming. The film, which tells the story of a group of abandoned Mexican children fighting off the gangs and cartels that have ravished their lives and left literal ghosts wandering around in the wake of their destruction, has earned acclaim in Mexico for its inventive storytelling and its obvious homages to Guillermo Del Toro’s work, which can be easily picked up in the film’s official Shudder trailer.
This is, by all means, an incredibly Mexican film simply by its plot description, but the film has gotten a surprisingly big boost in America, thanks to the endorsements from the likes of Del Toro and even the legendary Stephen King. With the Shudder partnership coming through to expose this film to a larger American audience, Tigers Are Not Afraid is the rare opportunity for me to connect with my culture in a horror film that doesn’t beat around the bush or nerf the importance of the story for the sake of demographic appeal. Lopez’s film has the chance to become a surprise success in America and the fact that Shudder is touting this as one of their most anticipated releases (a spot they’ve reserved for films like Mandy, Revenge, Horror Noire, and the recently acquired One Cut of the Dead) shows me that maybe there is hope for the Mexican people in horror. Maybe this is the start of a new wave of Mexican filmmakers telling their horror stories to willing American audiences.
It’s cathartic to not only see a film like Tigers Are Not Afraid receive this level of hype in America, but to see Issa continue to receive international attention with upcoming projects of hers being geared towards a wider American audience. She is currently helming a Guillermo Del Toro-produced project and she is even teaming up with Legendary Pictures to write and direct a supernatural thriller filled with Mexican lore. This represents something I’ve wanted to see in horror films for so long. It’s nice to see Robert Rodriguez incorporate Mexican customs into his horror films and Guillermo Del Toro create dark fairy tales with the likes of The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, but Mexican horror should not have to rely on the works of two directors to appeal to American audiences. Tigers Are Not Afraid tells a story that is very much a reality for many of the gang-driven neighborhoods in Mexico and it’s liberating to see a Mexican tell this story and without Emily Blunt and Josh Brolin to stand in as audience characters (no offense to the two actors).
It doesn’t have to stop here and I have hope that it won’t stop with Lopez. America has demonstrated that horror films focusing on a minority group and struggle can succeed, so this may just be the beginning. Del Toro and Rodriguez don’t need to carry the burden of popularizing Mexican horror with an American audience and Issa Lopez could be the chance we need in order to make ourselves feel heard and seen. Mexican horror filmmakers should not have to sacrifice their cultural tie-ins to become successful in America and hopefully, they won’t have to soon enough.
I’m not asking for much here. If tons of American horror films can comfortably cast white leads and explore their backgrounds, I don’t see why it should have to be a big deal when I request that the same be done for Mexicans. I don’t want these films to pander to me either. I just want them to acknowledge my Mexican story and the stories of many other Mexicans in a somewhat consistent manner. I shouldn’t have to feel invisible in the country I was born in every single time I head to the movie theater.