Top 10 episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark? (#1-#5)
Halloween is upon us, which is why I’m counting down the ten best episodes of the ’90s Nickelodeon series Are You Afraid of the Dark? In case you missed it, you can read part one of this list here.
This is arguably the most famous episode even among non-fans. Bowling alley repairman Johnny finds a mysterious ring in his locker and starts getting visions of a beautiful girl calling him by his name and asking him to come with her. Quick research by his sister Erica reveals this is in fact the ghost of Donna Maitland, a girl who got run over by a train while trying to retrieve her ring from her car as it was stuck on the tracks. Thinking the spirit will stop haunting him if he gives her the ring back, Johnny looks for her grave in the cemetery but there discovers the truth: Donna was his girlfriend and he died with her that night, but returned as a semi-amnesic ghost instead of passing on.
As anyone familiar with movie trivia knows, this is the episode that inspired M. Night Shyamalan to write The Sixth Sense. It’s easy to see what appealed to him: there’s always something both scary and relatable in watching someone slowly coming to grips with a truth they’re doing everything in their power to suppress, and the fact that the revelation comes as an extra layer beneath what seemed to be the “real” twist is another great touch. There’s also something suitably dreamy about the soft lighting and ambiance of the episode, especially in the scene where Johnny visits the bowling alley at midnight to find it populated with ghostly staffers and patrons. Think the bar scenes in The Shining as done by David Lynch for an episode of Twin Peaks.
If I had one big complaint, it’s that the twist is even more obvious in hindsight than the Sixth Sense’s, as the episode really draws our attention to the fact that Erica is the only living person who ever interacts with Johnny, but that doesn’t take away the fun of watching the truth unravel. It helps that actors Fab Filippo (now there’s a name!) and Andrea Nemeth have unusually good brother-sister chemistry that lends the ending genuine pathos when they both say their goodbyes. It may not be nearly as poignant as the movie it inspired, but it did bring a little glint to my eye.
Ghosts and monsters are all well and good, but some of the show’s best episodes didn’t work on classic scares so much as creatively bizarre otherworldliness. In this gem, death-obsessed teenager Chris (Zachary Carlin) discovers a mysterious radio station that serves as a beacon to guide the dead to the afterlife. A trip to said station leads to a case of mistaken identity in which Chris is assumed to be a recently deceased old man and has to clear up the misunderstanding before the station’s ghostly staff (headed by Gilbert Gottfried’s Roy) send him into the next world.
The whole episode looks and feels like a low-budget TV version of a darkly humorous John Carpenter fantasy. I always love Beetlejuice-esque depictions of purgatory or the afterlife as some kind of over-regulated bureaucratic nightmare, so this vision of death as a mostly tedious procedure that only gets scary if you’re not actually dead appealed to me a lot. At times, it even reaches something close to satire in how familiar Chris’s interactions with Roy are to anyone who’s ever had to convince a government/company rep that they have, in fact, made a mistake. A lot of this is thanks to Gilbert Gottfried, whose familiar screeching shrillness works especially well at conveying the kind of power trip you might expect from a bored overworked civil servant, while at the same time allowing for surprisingly effective creepiness in the rare moments where he doesn’t raise his voice.
Finally, I would be remiss not to mention the presence of a young, pre-fame Ryan Gosling as Chris’s elder brother Jamie.
There’s nothing special about his performance here, but it makes for a nice curiosity bonus.
If you’ve ever been scared of the water and also happened to attend one of those old schools with an disused room everybody liked to spread urban legends about, boy, have I got an episode for you! Science nerd Zeke (is it me or did every ’80s/’90s nerd have a name like that?) tries to impress disdainful female classmate Clorice by showing her a secret passageway to an abandoned swimming pool that was walled off in the 1950s after a boy tragically drowned. Clorice somehow manages to persuade the school to open the place up again for her swim team to practice. When she takes Zeke for a swimming lesson to help him conquer his fear of water, the pair discover the pool is haunted by an invisible demon that drowns unlucky swimmers.
One of the main issues that plagued even decent Are You Afraid episodes is pacing. It’s hard to pack a whole story’s worth of character development, setup, and payoff into 24 minutes, so characterization would often feel rushed and the plot would skip straight to climax almost immediately after introducing the characters and conflict. This episode, by contrast, takes just enough time to introduce our two protagonists and build their relationship in tandem with the growing menace before danger really sets in halfway. Keeping with that, making the demon invisible is a brilliant touch that builds more tension and suspense until it finally rewards our patience in the last 6 minutes with, by far, the best monster design in the entire show.
Side note: look out for Jay Baruchel in his first-ever screen role as the demon’s first victim. He went on to appear in three more episodes, each one as a different character.
While all stories were self-contained narratives without any sequels, Are You Afraid of the Dark? did have two multi-part episodes. One was the three-parter “The Tale of the Silver Sight”, which I know has its fans, but which I personally found disappointing. The other was this story, in which brothers Rush and Max acquire an old spyglass from a treasure chest in Sardo’s shop. This awakens the spirit of the dreaded pirate Jonas Cutter (Charles S. Dutton) who then kidnaps Max. After confronting Sardo about this, Rush is sent to the man who originally sold the treasure chest, who turns out to be none other than our old pal Doctor Vink, now running a barber shop. Vink informs Rush he’s the descendant of pirate Ian Keegan, who tried to mutiny against Cutter to stop his reign of terror, only to meet his death. With help from Vink, the magic spyglass and Keegan’s ghost, Rush makes it to Cutter’s treasure cave where he must rescue Max and finish what his ancestor started.
Despite its geographic limitations (the whole story seems to take place within a ten-mile radius, tops, with most of part 1 taking place inside the kids’ house), this episode feels epic and big, thanks partly to its length and partly to the presence of both Sardo and Doctor Vink, which makes it feel like a culmination of sorts, and something that just had to happen as soon as both characters got popular. The choice to make Vink an ally instead of a villain is pretty unusual—all the more considering this would be his final appearance—but he still remains perfectly consistent with his previous episodes in that he is, at heart, a romantic idealist (albeit a fairly amoral one) who loves stories, whether he’s telling them or taking part in them. Taking his place as the villain is Charles S. Dutton as Cutter, and he cuts a memorable figure, eating up the scenery with maniacal laughter, screaming, and a weird half-Welsh half-Jamaican accent that wouldn’t be out of place in a kids’ pantomime show—which is exactly what this should feel like.
But what makes this episode feel even bigger and special is the sense of mythology given by the opening flashback, the bay setting, and the themes of destiny and revenge. Think of The Goonies with prophecies and ghost pirates and you’ll get the idea. This was the first episode of the fourth season, but it could just as easily have been its finale.
For all its qualities, I would never go so far as to call Are You Afraid of the Dark? an objectively great show. It was a fun, scary and exciting 24-minute ride that, at best, would leave a few lasting images in your mind, but it never left that much of an emotional impact.
Except for this one.
Stacy has just moved into an apartment complex with her mother and she hates it; her parents have just separated, the apartment is too small, and she’s away from all her friends in a pre-internet age. This changes when she meets her next-door neighbor from apartment 214, a kindly old painter named Madeline Koegel who’s been living alone ever since her nephew kicked her out of his home for being too burdensome. The two become fast friends and Stacy visits her every day, while simultaneously befriending another girl her age named Angela. Soon, Madeline asks Stacy to visit her on a special day on which she’d rather not be alone. Stacy promises to do so but is then offered concert tickets by Angela, and is unable to resist the prospect of meeting new friends. When she returns, she tries to apologize to Madeline but finds the apartment completely empty, as it turns out Madeline has in fact been dead for years and that day was the anniversary of her death. Stacy subsequently gets terrorized by Madeline’s angry spirit as she confronts her about her broken promise.
I’ve come to believe that most, if not all great horror is rooted in some form of pain. This is especially true of great ghost stories, whose terror is usually informed by the trauma that the ghost went through, or that its soul’s presence left upon its haunting place. “The Tale of Apartment 214” understands this intuitively; every scene involving Madeline’s ghost is tinged with sadness that makes her appearance all the scarier. It’s the hurt in her disembodied sobs, and much of this is due to actress Beth Amos, who has one of those grandmotherly faces on whom anger, sadness, and pain look so wrong and out of place it becomes inherently terrifying. It’s the profoundly human source and cause of these fears—of dying alone and of hurting someone you love —that makes it so potent. No other episode of the show humanizes the horror quite like this one, and no other still sends shivers across my body every time I watch it.
Want to read more about Are You Afraid of the Dark? Check out our episode recaps!