The 90’s in Review #1: Are You Afraid of the Dark

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Are You Afraid of the Dark

Are You Afraid of the Darkby AGtM Guest Contributor, The Yetti

Like any other period in the history of film and television, people enjoy being scared. Our fascination with the horrifying and the macabre extends even beyond the realm of electronic entertainment, recalling the terrifying tales of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein or even the horror lurking in ancient myths. But for children in the 90’s this fascination with the terrifying and horrible manifested itself in one form. So submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society I call this tale:  Are You Afraid of the Dark.

Premiering in America on the children’s programming network Nickelodeon in 1991, Are You Afraid of the Dark was a joint project between America and Canada. Most of the locations and actors were Canadian, while its primary writing staff and biggest viewer base remained in the US.  Are You Afraid of the Dark was, in the main, an episodic show, where a group of diverse teens (known as the Midnight Society) would sneak into the woods and tell each other horror stories. Over the show’s seven season run they dropped and added several story tellers, but for those of us young enough to remember the original run of the show, we enjoyed the company of: Gary the bookish magician; Tucker, Gary’s younger bratty brother; Betty Ann, the brunette perpetually dressed in sweaters; Kiki, the gruff tomboy; Frank, the punk clad in ripped denim and bandanas; Sam, a girl I can’t, for the life of me, remember anything about; Kristen, the actress; and David; the introvert. Each one of the kids brought something new to the mix and if you care to look at each of their individual stories, you could see themes creeping through. Such as Gary’s liking for supernatural items, or Betty Ann’s obsession with otherworldly beings and far off realms. But no matter what the subject matter it was pretty certain that you were in for an interesting (if not bone-chilling) ride.

One very distinguishing trait of Are You Afraid of the Dark was how dark the stories were allowed to get. A show like this would sadly never be produced in the overly P.C. age we find ourselves in today, the idea of death (or the threat of on-screen child death) would be a little too much for the censors to handle. But such was the weekly fodder for the midnight society. And this was a huge element to why this show did so much better than its cousin Goosebumps. While Goosebumps could be scary on occasion, it never had the stomach to descend to the tension that Are You Afraid of the Dark reached.  If you need a good comparison point, lets look at the opening themes. While Goosebumps is full of minor chord disturbing music, it spends its time, on the whole, floating around the sunlight and making a lot of odd changes to reality. Are You Afraid of the Dark, by contrast, was much subtler, with a lot of dark shots of dolls and spinning fans with ominous sounds of distant laughter and creaking floorboards. Are You Afraid of the Dark’s theme recalls us to the times when we legitimately experience fear, especially as children. Darkness, distant voices, creaking, unfamiliarity; the theme uses these elements combined with it’s slow legitimately terrifying theme song to force our mind back to those fear places and as such terrifies you before the show has even begun.

Now I’d like to draw your attention to a few episodes I feel are of particular note in the “piss my young britches” category. The First is “The Tale of Laughing in the Dark”, a first season story told by Betty Ann. It’s about a jerky kid who steals a clown’s nose in a funhouse only to have the terrifying supernatural clown come back looking for it. For anyone who had read or seen Steven King’s It, this feels very reminiscent and some of the crazy stuff that happens to this poor kid seem to be taken straight from the book. Nonetheless as a kid of maybe three, this episode terrified itself permanently into my memory.

Second deserving of mention would be “the Tale of the Full Moon” told in season 2 by Kristen. This is the story of two amateur detectives who are forced to put their skills to the test when it turns out the new neighbor may just be a werewolf. This was an episode that showcased some of the better writing of the show. It constantly changed what you thought you knew about the episode until the twist happens. Culminating in a pretty frightening chase scene.

Lastly and possible the most frightening of them all “The Tale of the Chameleons”, another Betty Ann story from season 5. This is the story of a girl who learns the secret of the small lizard which hitched a ride home in her shopping bag. She and her best friend have to find a way to reverse the cold-blooded beasts insidious spell before its too late. Another episode with an excellent twist ending, this one had me walking away from it more scared than any other story the show had put out. If you like mind-benders this is one for you.

This is not a complete list by far. There were tons of episodes just as terrifying as this and I wholly recommend you watch every one that you can. You can find all of the season DVD box sets on Amazon.com, however prices vary wildly from $20 to upwards of a hundred. As of yet, Nickelodeon has failed to release a complete box set for all seven seasons.

All-in-all, this is an inseparable piece of our pasts. This show managed to hold me in fascinated terror until the year 2000, and is a legacy of terror the 90’s should be wholly proud of. Maybe someday another show will come along, hell-bent on frightening young’uns out of their Batman underoos. But until then, I declare this meeting of the Midnight Society, closed.

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