Are You Afraid of the Dark rode the crest of horror-for-children media in the 90s, and its time slot at the end of Nickelodeon’s SNICK programming block was like a dare: you had to stay up until the ungodly hour of 9:30 to see it. It ran for seven seasons, and is known for having one of the creepiest theme songs this side of Unsolved Mysteries.
Obviously, most of the show won’t “hold up” if you decide to revisit it while drunkenly browsing YouTube at 3am. Most episodes pull their punches, favoring happy resolutions over endings that would fall more in line with horror genre tales, and the production is atrociously cheap, which would be forgivable if most scenes weren’t shot in searing, eyeball-melting daylight.
That said, the writers occasionally used the format of a children’s anthology show to sneak in some legitimately scary ideas. By suspending my disbelief just a little, I found that some of these episodes still have the power to creep me out 20 years after I first saw them.
The Tale of the Super Specs
Synopsis: Weeds, a composite of every obnoxious comedy relief character from the Friday the 13 films, turns to voodoo for his April Fools’ Day prank. In doing so, he and his longsuffering girlfriend Marybeth accidentally open a door to a world full of parasitic life forms who punish Weeds for being a dork.
The story is like a Little Golden Book version of H.P. Lovecraft’s From Beyond; humanity’s inability to perceive the totality of the universe is a frequent theme in horror. The parallel dimension angle adds fun flourishes like the idea of being trapped in limbo while a revenant from another plane takes over your life. But these monsters aren’t crass enough to eat you — they’re existential vampires, assuming your life, knowing that your friends and family won’t be able to tell the difference.
This is also one of the first episodes to feature Sardo, a recurring character who looks like a Renaissance Festival Tim Curry and habitually sells children things that will kill them.
The Tale of the Dark Music
Synopsis: Andy moves into an old house that was owned by his now-deceased warlock uncle. After being bullied by his neighbor, Andy discovers that listening to music in the basement unlocks a door to a dimension that feeds on human flesh. Oh, the possibilities!
At its core, this story is a cycle of abuse. Koda, Andy’s neighbor, is screamed at by his shirtless (and definitely alcoholic) dad, and he responds by bullying Andy. In turn, Andy feeds Koda to the demon in his basement and is rewarded with a new bicycle. Drunk with dark power, Andy sets his sights on his bratty younger sister.
Other than being one of the few episodes that implies the death of a child, this story stands out for its pessimistic message: damaged people sometimes inflict their suffering on others, and they will gladly trade their innocence for a feeling of control. This was definitely one of the edgier episodes for the show’s creators, as seen when they try to dance around Andy sacrificing his sister. When we come back to the campfire, the narrator assures the rest of the Midnight Society that Andy was only going to use the basement to scare her. Sure, whatever. I know what happens to kids like Andy. They grow up, join the tech industry, and cling to their underdog nerd identities even as they turn their communities into gentrified, misanthropic dystopias.
The Tale of Apartment 214
Synopsis: Stacy moves into a new apartment and befriends an old woman next door. After breaking her promise to keep the woman company on a very special day (insert thunderclap!), she experiences a guilt trip from beyond the grave.
Horror often addresses ideas that can’t be spoken about openly. In the case of this episode, it’s that your grandparents (symbolized by the old neighbor) are going to die. It may have already happened to some of your classmates’ grandparents, and it’s going to happen to yours, too. This transgressive theme draws the viewer into the story because they share Stacy’s torment. The stakes are identical on both sides of the screen.
That message, at odds with the “safe” nature of the rest of the series, changes a boilerplate ghost story into something special. And few things look scarier than a creeping old woman who isn’t constrained by the laws of time and space.
It can be disappointing to revisit things from your youth, only to find that their power to affect you has been sapped away. But it’s also fun to look for tiny pieces that still resonate. In the case of Are You Afraid of the Dark, there are threatening, slavering specimens of horror to be found, couched insidiously in a format that should be safe for a young audience. Nickelodeon slipped children quite a few razor blades during the series’ six-year run.
Article by contributor Bill Rodgers. Hit him up on Twitter if you’re not afraid of the dark.