Even if you’ve never read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, you know its stories. The books — classics of children’s literature famed for their spooky tales and sinister artwork by Stephen Gammell — aren’t so much written by Alvin Schwartz as they are recounted by him. The stories are a mix of folklore, tall tales, and myths. If you grew up anywhere in this country you’ve heard at least a few of them at sleepovers or around a campfire — and then maybe even told one or two yourself. A good scary story is self-perpetuating in that way; it’s passed from person to person like a virus.

That’s essentially the premise of the very clever film adaptation of the Scary Stories book series by director Andre Ovredal, producer Guillermo del Toro, and their team of writers. Rather than make a simple anthology film, Scary Stories adapts the notion of stories taking on a life of their own and echoing through communities for decades — while also weaving some of the more famous Schwartz pieces (and more gruesome Gammell illustrations) into a creepy teen horror flick. This is about as smart an adaptation of tough source material I’ve ever seen. It’s ingenious, really — and very scary to boot.

At the center of the film is a supernatural version of Schwartz and Gammell’s book; a journal of scary stories that supposedly reads its readers. New stories keep appearing in it, each with the name of a young person who’s come in contact with it. Once your name is in this book, you’re in serious trouble. You might find a nasty surprise in your bowl of stew, or discover the giant pimple on your cheek isn’t a pimple at all.

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This journal once belonged to a woman named Sarah Bellows, who is the infamous bogeywoman of a small Pennsylvania town named Mill Valley. Sarah was insane and maybe a witch, as the story goes, and after children began going missing in Mill Valley around the turn of the 20th century, her wealthy family locked her away in their mansion’s basement. To pass the time, she wrote stories. On Halloween 1968, her journal gets out.

That’s when it’s found by aspiring writer Stella (Zoe Colletti) and her dorky buddies Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur). To get in the Halloween spirit — and to hide from some bullies— they bring a young drifter who’s just passed into town named Ramon (Michael Garza) to the Bellows House. The kids trade local legends, never realizing their connection to reality. Then Stella stumbles on Sarah’s book and takes it home, and its stories begin coming to life. So do Gammell’s haunting images. Readers of the Scary Stories books will recognize Harold the Scarecrow and the Pale Lady, who have been turned into unforgettable prosthetic creatures.

To most horror fans, the genre’s scarlet letter is actually two letters and a number: PG-13. Supposedly, no truly scary movie can be made without an R rating, and any alleged horror movie with a PG-13 rating is a cop-out concession to the money men hoping to attract a wide audience. But Scary Stories is rated PG-13, and it is very scary. Rather than focusing on blood or guts, Ovredal emphasizes surreal, nightmarish imagery: Zits filled with spiders; children dragged from their beds into oblivion. One sequence in particular, with a kid fleeing from a monster that keeps getting just a little bit closer no matter where they turn in a series of endless hallways, is about as well-shot and edited a horror sequence as I’ve seen in the last couple years. Scary Stories is absolutely “appropriate” for a teen audience — as it should be, given its source material — and it is absolutely going to freak the hell out of them.

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It might also give them some things to think about. Befitting the movie’s literary roots, Scary Stories is more than a mindless scare factory. Ovredal and del Toro set their movie in the lead-up to the 1968 Presidential Election, with ominous news about the Vietnam War blasting out of every television set. If this evil book doesn’t kill these kids, there are plenty of mundane things that might anyway.

The period details of this small Pennsylvania town are just right — the characters’ bland, beige high school reminded me of the one I went to in New Jersey, which was built around the same time — and the actors, refreshingly, all look like actual, awkward high school students. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is drenched with symbolism and layered with ideas about lost innocence and the power of stories — and the power of creating something that resonates with an audience for years and years. I suspect this movie will do exactly that.

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