The Tale of a Cult Classic: Are You Afraid of the Dark?

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Submitted for the approval of The Midnight Society, I call this story...

(throws non-dairy creamer onto the campfire)

The Tale of a Cult Classic: Are You Afraid of the Dark?

(cue spooky music)

Iconic title screen from 'Are You Afraid of the Dark?' with a lit match held in the foreground and the show's title in a bold yellow font against a dark background
Iconic intro to 'Are You Afraid of the Dark'

What was the first horror movie you ever saw? How about the first horror show? First horror book you read? There's a lot of firsts like those. I don't know if I could answer those because, for me, they've all seamlessly blended into early memories of horror. I do remember some that stand out, though. Like the first time I saw the original Pet Sematary, binging Full Moon Entertainment VHS films on the weekend, and regularly curling up on the floor to watch a mini-marathon of shows on Nickelodeon.

My parents were divorced, and I split my time between weekdays with my mother in a rural area and weekends with my father, closer to the city. In the rural areas, cable T.V. wasn't really a thing. It was so far out that the cable companies didn't have lines. But on the weekends, I had access to cable television. At some point, Nickelodeon began a two-hour programming block on Saturday nights called SNICK (Saturday Night Nickelodeon) that ended with a horror anthology show called Are You Afraid of the Dark?

From the very first episode, I was hooked. Before catching Are You Afraid of the Dark? for the first time, I don't remember ever seeing anything quite like it. At the time, I didn't know anyone else who watched it, and almost everyone in my age group wasn't into horror. And, even if they were, their parents wouldn't let them engage with horror in any way.

Childhood experiences, including influence from television shows, stick with you for your entire life. So, thank you to everyone involved in making it because it left a lasting impression on me, just like the first time I saw Pet Sematary. Over the years, I've encountered quite a few horror pieces across various mediums that have also been inspired by it. It wasn't until recently that I realized it was popular and is now considered a cult classic.

Gathering Around the Campfire: The Birth of a 90s Nightmare Classic

The pilot aired in the early 90s in Canada on YTV and in the United States on Nickelodeon. It marked a significant departure from typical children's programming at the time. The creators, D.J. MacHale and Ned Kandel, pulled an impressive balancing act that delved into horror and the supernatural (along with elements of fantasy and a dash of humor) while keeping it appropriate for a younger audience.

Group photo of the six young cast members from 'Are You Afraid of the Dark?', portraying varied expressions of excitement and fear, with the show's title in yellow at the bottom
The Midnight Society.

The concept centered around The Midnight Society, a group of teenagers fascinated by the macabre who somehow sneaked away from home every Saturday night to meet in the middle of the woods like some dark cult. Each show episode began with this gathering, and one member would grab a (possibly leather?) bag and make bold claims about scaring the group. Then, they'd toss a handful of mystery powder from the bag to the campfire, causing the fire to flare, and then proceed to tell a tale scary enough to unnerve some members and cause others to drop a s'more in their pants.

The Midnight Society gatherings were, of course, a narrative device, but they also served as a way to connect viewers with the storytellers, which made the show more relatable and engaging. For many of us, the show spurred a darker aspiration: to forge our own dark storytelling coven for midnight woodland rituals.

A cat with a stern expression sitting in the dark, illuminated by the light of a single candle, with text above and below that reads "The Meowdnight Society" and "The Tale of the Empty Bowl".
Everyone had their own unique vision for our dark storytelling covens. This is mine.

Instead of hand waving around to create this campfire framing device, the show put a lot of effort into making it believable. Each member of The Midnight Society brought their distinct personality and storytelling style to the show. Gary, the group's unofficial leader, was known for his affinity for magic, the supernatural, cursed and enchanted objects. Kiki, with her bold attitude, often told stories of horror brought on by carelessness or deceitfulness. Frank's tales were typically intense and leaned more toward traditional horror, often with a recurring villain named Dr. Vink. Betty Ann told bizarre and twisted stories of aliens, the supernatural, and other realms similar to The Twilight Zone. Sam, a girl with a mutual crush on Gary, told stories of love beyond death. Tucker (the youngest member and Gary's brother) told tales of family relationships and accidentally unleashing evil.

That's a lot of character development for a brief framing device at the beginning and end of each episode, but it worked incredibly well. Much like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, each episode was a new horrific adventure, except the stories from Are You Afraid of the Dark? reflected the personality and perspective of the characters narrating them. As a result, there was a diverse range of stories, from eerie hauntings and evil creatures to tales of clowns, cursed objects, and time travel.

The stories were a mix of adaptations from folklore, urban legends, and original concepts. Given the era and budget, the special effects were decent. Some held up, while others didn't at all. But the work as a whole turned it into a cult classic. Let's look at some of the specific stories to see why.

Campfire Chills: Unforgettable Tales from The Midnight Society

I will try to do this without revealing spoilers, just in case you want to go and watch them.

The Tale Of The Ghastly Grinner

A kid who wants to be a comic book artist brings a villain to life. 

Screenshot from an episode featuring a character with exaggerated clown-like makeup, a jester hat with blue and yellow patterns, and a matching jester costume.
The Tale of the Ghastly Grinner

This episode came out in 1994. It has some similarities to the 1989 film A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child—which has a character who gets pulled into a comic book and fights Freddy.

The Tale Of The Dead Man's Float

A swimming pool is home to a swamp monster.

A screenshot from 'The Tale of the Dead Man's Float' showing a character covered in a viscous, red substance resembling blood or slime, with a ghastly appearance and a background of cardboard boxes.
I just took a photo of a random public pool for this one because they all look like this after closing for the day.

Clearly, this one drew some inspiration from characters like Swamp Thing.

The Tale Of Laughing In The Dark

A carnival haunted by the ghost of an evil clown named Zeebo.

Animated GIF from an episode showing a scene where a child in a green sweater is facing a colorful clown figure inside a dimly lit tent. The clown is dressed in a multi-colored costume with a large ruffled collar and emerges from a dark corner, looking at the child.
The Tale of Laughing in the Dark

Evil clowns come up in horror occasionally, like in Stephen King's It from 1986. And, if you haven't seen the absolute masterpiece 1988 film Killer Klowns from Outer Space, drop everything right now and watch it for free on YouTube.

The Tale of the Lonely Ghost

A girl spends the night in an abandoned house and finds a ghost trapped in a mirror.

Image from an episode depicting a young child with shoulder-length hair, wearing a simple nightgown, standing in a room with the words 'HELP ME' repeatedly written in reverse on the walls, while extending one hand with a locket hanging from it
The Tale of the Lonely Ghost

The pairing of ghosts and mirrors is the mark of a true horror story sommelier.

The Tale of the Dollmaker

A girl staying with relatives for the summer finds a dollhouse in the attic and ends up trapped inside it.

Close-up image from an episode featuring a young girl with bangs, long hair, large expressive eyes, and a red dress with a white lace collar and a wallpapered background.
The Tale of the Dollmaker

I have a collection of "inhabited" (aka possessed or 'haunted') dolls. So, as you might imagine, this episode was one of my favorites. I'm not really sure why people are afraid of dolls. I've asked my dolls this several times, and each time, I've received different answers like these: disembodied giggles in the dark, blood spatter writing on my wall, and vanishing butcher knives. Now, I'm pretty fluent in the language of possessed dolls, so my read on all these messages is this: 👻🔪🪆😱🩸.

There were 65 episodes across 5 seasons in the show's original run, so there's plenty to choose from no matter what kind of horror you like. In addition to loads of horror, some interesting things happened behind the scenes that you won't learn about by watching the episodes.

Behind the Shadows: Secrets and Spooks of the Set

Here are a few tidbits that you might not know about the show:

  1. The original title was Scary Tales, but it was revised because Nickelodeon didn't like it. The new title was inspired by a Dr. Seuss story called What Was I Scared Of?
  2. None of the characters ever lit the campfire because Nickelodeon didn't want to teach kids how to make fires.
  3. Nickelodeon passed on it—repeatedly. It took a while (and new executives) before the company decided they wanted to try their hand at a scary show for kids.
  4. The dust they threw on the campfire to make it flare was CoffeeMate and glitter. So fancy.
  5. The original concept for the show was a guy sitting in front of a warm fireplace and telling fairy tales.
  6. The opening of each story ("Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society...") was a tribute to The Twilight Zone, in which the host, Rod Serling, spoke directly to the camera and said, "Submitted for your approval..."

That was just a tiny sampling of the show's history, episodes, and behind-the-scenes. D.J. MacHale has given a few interviews over the years, discussing various aspects of the show, so there's a lot out there to learn if you want to go digging further. The series was revived in 1999 for two seasons, and another revival hit in 2019, which ran for three seasons. So, while the show began over three decades ago, it's still going strong in the hearts and minds (and nightmares?) of many people.

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