Dec 13, 2016
Top 10 episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark? (#6-#10)
Halloween season is upon us, so you know what that means: Drunk costume parties, an excuse to buy a truckload of candy for trick-or-treaters only to eat most of it yourself, and of course, binging on old horror or Halloween-related media from your childhood.
Growing up in a fairly appropriate content-sensitive household, I didn’t get much of a taste of actual horror films until I was in my mid-teens (the fact that just watching the first half of The Sixth Sense was enough to give me two sleepless nights in a row probably didn’t help matters). So if I wanted to get my horror fix, I had to wait until the very end of Saturday and Sunday morning kids’ shows for that eerie shot of an empty rowboat rocking by itself to signal the half-hour of spookiness that was… Are You Afraid of the Dark?*
[*I grew up in France, so this may not reflect most people’s experience of the show.]
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Created as a co-production between Nickelodeon and Canadian media company Cinar, Are You Afraid of the Dark? was an anthology horror/fantasy show aimed predominantly at preteen audiences, and essentially a kid-friendly version of Tales from the Crypt. But instead of being hosted by a pun-spouting puppet corpse, the show framed its episodes as campfire stories told by a group of middle and high-schoolers who called themselves the Midnight Society. Every episode would start with one kid introducing the theme of the story, often connecting it to some kind of lesson they or some other kid would learn by the end of it, then throwing some powder into the fire and announcing its title just as it appeared on screen. Then, the story would begin.
As you’d expect by 1990s kids’ TV standards, the show hasn’t aged spectacularly well and is hardly scary for anyone over the age of 12, but it still retains a certain charm thanks to its strong atmosphere, creative twists, and memorable monsters, ghosts, and guest characters. Whether or not the planned 2019 movie adaptation will improve upon these tales remains to be seen, but in the meantime, in the spirit of the season, I thought I’d compile some of my favorites and look back at what made them special.
Submitted for the approval of the Agony Booth, I call this list… the top 10 episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark?
We begin with one of the earliest episodes I remember watching as a kid. It certainly makes for a fitting introduction, because it’s a pretty typical story: Like so many Are You Afraid episodes, it revolves around a duo of kids; one down-to-earth and rational, the other bratty or immature. In this case, it’s babysitter Daphne (pre-Sabrina Melissa Joan Hart) and her charge, a spoiled rich boy by the ever-so-spoiled-rich-boy name of Charles Pemberton-Shilling III. Daphne is forced to tag along with Charles as he’s sent to visit two spinster aunts during an exceptionally cold winter. The kid, already pampered into a fretful hypochondriac annoyance, is immediately spooked out by the old house and starts hearing strange whispers. Things get even spookier during the second night when he sees the ghost of a boy outside his window repeating, “I’m cold…” over and over again.
I can tell you those plaintive cries haunted me many a night as a kid, and that first apparition still holds up pretty decently as far as PG-rated scares go. There’s something about the simple setup of an open window and a ghostly apparition that stirs up primal childish fears, and these scenes do it very efficiently. While the story’s resolution is both predictable and forced, it has a nice quasi-gothic atmosphere that sets it apart from most other episodes. Even the hokey child acting, particularly from the kid playing Charles, has an awkward kind of charm that fits right in with the weirdness. If you’re looking to introduce your kids to ghost stories that aren’t Disney’s version of Sleepy Hollow, this episode will do just fine.
Most of Are You Afraid’s episodes tended to fall into either horror or fantasy genres, but there were occasional stabs at sci-fi too. This was the most successful one: Billy and his adopted sister Karin live in an apartment building whose thirteenth floor has been completely uninhabited since its original occupants mysteriously vanished ten years ago, allowing the kids to use it as a playroom. One night, Karin has a strange dream in which a man appears on TV calling for her. The next day, she gets an invitation from the floor’s new tenants—supposedly a toy company—to come in and test their toys. When she goes there along with her brother, she soon discovers the new tenants are actually aliens disguised as humans and must escape their attempts at abducting her.
This is another episode I remember being really creeped out by as a kid, and it’s still pretty effective today. The production design crew was obviously working on a small budget, so it’s impressive to see how they used that cheapness to their advantage by heading straight for the uncanny valley, particularly with unnaturally bright pastel colors for the apartment/spaceship that make it look like a preschoolers’ TV show set designed by someone with only secondhand knowledge of what human kids are and what they like. The actors playing the aliens are effective too, speaking in creepy monotones accompanied by stiff hand gestures that suggest they might not be used to using them so much. It all creates a sense of unease before you even get to see the mannequin faces under the masks.
You’ll probably figure out the twist in the first six minutes, but I won’t spoil it here. I’ll just say that the story’s final shot was one of the creepiest things I’d ever seen at the time, and made quite an impact on me.
I don’t know if it was because of the It miniseries or the Batman renaissance brought on by the Tim Burton movie and the animated series, but for whatever reason, evil clowns were pretty popular in the early to mid-’90s. So it makes sense that Are You Afraid of the Dark? would contribute.
The story opens with siblings Kathy and Weegee [?] and their best friend Josh at an amusement park called Playland. When they arrive at a haunted house attraction called Laughing in the Dark, Kathy and Weegee chicken out due to the ride’s reputation for being actually haunted. Later research reveals Laughing in the Dark was built to replace an older version that burned down in the 1920s, after a clown named Zeebo hid there while being chased by the police for stealing his circus’s payroll, and accidentally set fire to the place with his cigar. Zeebo perished in the flames and a dummy of him was built in the new funhouse, which he’s rumored to haunt. On a dare, Josh sneaks into the ride and steals Zeebo’s red nose as a trophy, only to soon find his own house haunted by Zeebo’s malevolent spirit demanding its return.
This is one of the show’s most popular episodes and with good reason: it has an urban legend, an evil clown, haunted houses, a creepy old amusement park… it’s a whole checklist of cool ghost story tropes brought together in a tale that, while not particularly scary, has a playfulness to it that fits perfectly with both its setting and the campfire story framing device. The design of Laughing in the Dark itself is remarkably creative for a standard-budget kids show, with the bright colors and Caligari-esque architecture of Zeebo’s room adding just a hint of discomfort while also providing a nice jarring contrast to the rest of the house. Keeping Zeebo mostly off-screen was also a nice touch, even if the “cigar smoke” announcing his presence is pretty obviously generated from a machine. If you thought this episode was somewhat lacking in scary clowns, however, the next episode on our list will more than compensate.
An especially strong entry in the “bratty-little-punk-gets-taught-a-scary-lesson” subgenre, this episode sees an insufferable little tit named Sam accompany his elder brother Mike on a shopping trip to find a gift for their mother’s birthday. As Sam goes off to a toy store, Mike finds a porcelain statue in an antique shop, but soon realizes his brother stole his money to buy a video game. Furious, Mike drags Sam back to the store for a refund, but the owner never shows up, leaving them no choice but to go home late with no money or gift. Before they go, Mike tries to scare his bratty kid brother into behaving by pointing to a creepy clown doll and telling him the “Crimson Clown” will get him. Sam, of course, snickers at the whole thing and continues to lie and act like a smug brat for the rest of the evening… until the Crimson Clown actually does show up in his room and spends the whole night terrorizing him.
Of all the Are You Afraid episodes I watched as a kid, this was the only one to actually give me nightmares. I’m not particularly coulrophobic, but even today, just looking at that damn clown with his huge-ass head and thick black eyebrows gives me the creeps. The dissonance between his dollish appearance and deep voice and laugh really don’t help things either. It’s also one of the more visually striking episodes of the show too, with a nice use of blue lighting, artificial fog, and Dutch angles in the climax as the clown bends Sam’s reality to his will.
Aside from the clown himself, I think what makes this episode really work is how proportionate the scares are to the main character’s awfulness. This isn’t just your regular smart-ass kid with an attitude; Sam is a genuinely unpleasant brat who revels in getting away with bad behavior and making his brother pay for it, so there’s an added catharsis to seeing him get stalked and attacked with such demonic intensity, even if we’re experiencing it as strongly as he is. You don’t exactly root for the Crimson Clown. but you damn well hope the kid gets sufficiently humbled by him.
While each story told by the Midnight Society is self-contained and narratively inconsequential, a couple of characters nevertheless got popular enough with both writers and viewers to make multiple appearances in different stories. One of them was Sardo (“No ‘Mister’, accent on the ‘doh'”), a camp magic shop owner who sold protagonists cursed/magical items, often without realizing their actual powers. The other was Doctor Vink, a bearded, wild-haired mad scientist whose job changed with every appearance, but usually involved him using an invention or discovery to harm people for fun and profit.
In this story, Vink is the owner and chef of a restaurant renowned for a $100 dish known as the Dangerous Soup. When a cocky young man named Reed gets hired as a worker, he quickly becomes intrigued by both the mysterious soup and the occasional unexplained resignations of seemingly random employees. After witnessing Vink terrorize a waitress by locking her in a dark room, Reed and fellow employee Nonnie (Neve Campbell) discover the soup’s secret ingredient: fear, generated in liquid form by a demonic statue that creates a lifelike illusion of its beholder’s worst fear.
What the episode somewhat lacks in plot, it more than makes up for in atmosphere. The fear room alone, with its double fans, blue light beams, and empty chair, has a nightmarish eeriness to it that’s a lot scarier than the character’s fears. The repeated closeups on Vink’s eyes and eyebrows through the vision panel as he relishes his victim’s terror also count among the show’s most striking shots.
But the real star of the episode is of course Vink himself. Easily one of the best things about the entire show, Vink is the kind of villain that Vincent Price might have played back in the day: grandiosely theatrical, eccentric and playful, delivering every line with an enthralling musicality that make his moments of menace all the scarier, and blessed with a truly awesome evil laugh. All of this comes courtesy of the underappreciated Aron Tager, a wonderfully versatile actor who also appeared in “The Tale of Laughing in the Dark” as both the voice of Zeebo and a creepy Southern-accented carny. He was one of my favorite Are You Afraid fixtures, and this episode perfectly showcases why.
Coming up in part 2: The top 5 episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, including dream girls, Gilbert Gottfried, pirates, Ryan Gosling, and the episode that inspired M. Night Shyamalan.