There are a lot of unexplainable things about Sarah Bellows, a mysterious character and tragic figure in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark who develops dark, magical powers. But there are some parts of her origin story that are rooted in reality, including the supernatural rumors about her condition, which have real-life parallels even darker than the story depicted onscreen.
Mild spoilers for Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark ahead.
Bellows’ origin story begins generations before the main plot of the movie, as she’s locked in the basement of her family’s home (that’s the haunted house in the movie’s contemporary timeline). During her imprisonment, she develops powers that allow her scary stories to wreak havoc hundreds of years later. But part of the reason she is hidden from the world by her rich, corrupt family in the first place is because she has a condition called achromasia albinism, which is mentioned in the movie.
What Is Achromasia Albinism?
There are a few different kinds of albinism (also called achromasia), but the one that is most likely affecting her is oculocutaneous albinism (OCA). OCA is a genetic condition in which one of several genes that control the production of melanin — the pigment responsible for skin color — aren’t fully functional. Because of it, a person’s skin, hair, and eyes can appear far lighter than they otherwise would.
There are several types of OCA, each caused by a mutation in a specific gene, that cause slightly different skin discoloration patterns, but the one Bellows has is most likely type one or type two. According to the National Institutes of Health Genetics Home Reference, people with type 1 OCA often have “white hair, very pale skin, and light-colored irises.” The characteristics of type 2 are a bit less severe: the skin is usually a “creamy white,” and hair can be blonde or light brown.
Bellows is imprisoned because her family is intolerant of her condition. Ironically, OCA is an autosomal recessive genetic condition, which means that to show outward signs of it, you have to have two copies of the mutated gene that causes it — one copy from each parent.
Sarah’s corrupt parents are most likely OCA carriers, which means that they each have one functional gene related to skin pigmentation and one non-functional one (it probably just has some DNA missing, according to the NIH). But because the gene is recessive, they probably would have never known it.
It’s also likely that some of Bellows’ siblings also carry the mutated gene but only inherited one copy of them. Sarah, on the other hand, inherited both copies of the non-functional gene — which is why she looks visibly different that the rest of her family.
Real-Life Stigma Against Albino Individuals
OCA affects about 1 in every 20,000 people around the world. As sad as Bellows’ harrowing story is, it isn’t too far off of the real-life experiences of some other albino individuals around the world who have been persecuted for their condition in real life.
In 2008 in Tanzania, albino individualswere routinely murdered in part due to stigma around the condition, but also because of circulating rumors that their body parts could be used for witchcraft. At the time, the Guardian reported that nearly 30 albino people were killed within 10 months. A United Nations report released in 2013 noted that in some areas, these ritualistic killings continued years after the first wave of media coverage in the late ‘00s. For instance, in 2016, the UN released a statement showing that albino killings had reached dangerous proportions in Malawi:
The atrocities in Malawi render persons with albinism an endangered people group facing a risk of systemic extinction over time if nothing is done to stem the tide.
Since then, there have been efforts made to raise awareness of the science behind albinism, dispelling legends like the one suggesting that albino people are ghosts. The UN has designated Ikponwosa Ero, a Nigerian lawyer with the condition, as its independent expert on albino rights.
With that in mind, depicting an albino girl with dark magical powers does have concerning parallels to the mystical narrative that has had harmful effects on albino individuals in other parts of the world. That’s a far scarier, real-life story to tell.