‘Are You Afraid of the Dark?’ – I Miss Shows Like This

They call themselves ‘The Midnight Society;’ a small group of kids with nothing much in common except for the fact that they all like scary stories. Once a week they meet out in the woods around a campfire to take turns sharing a spooky tale to try to creep one another out.

That’s the premise of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, the classic mid-90s tween-targeted horror anthology. Revisiting it almost on a whim, I was surprised to find how good it is.

It’s a little like The Twilight Zone for kids; a similar sense of unbridled creativity and unpredictability. The stories range from out-right fantasy to subtle ghost stories to shock-fests, covering everything from classic monsters (vampires, werewolves, witches, etc.) to Lovecraftian unknowable horrors to just odd happenings. Sometimes they would even re-work a classic horror story, like The Monkey’s Paw and The Legend of Sleepy Hallow (though the latter is presented as a kind of sequel).

In all their variety, though, the stories follow a few common threads. The protagonists are all teens or pre-teens. They’re almost always set in ordinary American suburbs or small towns, the kind of place that could be almost anywhere in the country and would be immediately familiar to the target audience. In cases where the tale took place elsewhere, such as a summer camp or a country estate, the protagonist at least hales from such an environment. And in each case, the young protagonist finds himself or herself confronted by the supernatural.

I think a large part of what makes the show work is this determined suburban milieu, the fact that these stories capture that timeless, ‘Anywhere, USA’ feel of a genuine Urban Legend. The kids could be any kids, the school any school, the house any home. So when the supernatural intrudes, it carries that much more of a charge for coming amidst the familiar, comfortable trappings of mid-90s middle America. These are emphatically the kinds of places where this sort of thing doesn’t happen.

That, and the stories are generally pretty darn good, with an elegant simplicity that eschews any extraneous details and builds neatly to a climax and, usually, some kind of twist ending. Obviously, as with any anthology, they vary widely, but more often than not they land pretty satisfactorily in the manner of a campfire ghost story. The young actors are often pretty stilted and the low-budget definitely shows with some cheesy effects, but that’s kind of part of the charm; not only does the cheese factor provide a kind of secondary level of entertainment (e.g. even if it doesn’t scare you, it sure won’t bore you), but you also never quite know what you’re going to get. You might have a pay off with an extremely goofy-looking monster that shows where they ran out of money, or you might get something genuinely horrifying. Meanwhile, the audience can laugh nervously as the cheesy effects, taking the chance to assure their friends (and themselves) that they weren’t scared at all.

Because though aimed at kids, the show really does make a genuine effort to scare the audience. They never go too far or deliver anything that would be too much for kids to handle (well, that water zombie came close), but it was a horror show, and they don’t hesitate to deliver some rather heavy stuff. Like the vengeful ghost of a creepy clown, or an unseen thing lurking in the darkness of a root cellar. Or just the fact that it has the kids in the stories actually dying at times.

After all, being an anthology there weren’t many restrictions on what could happen in the individual tales. One might end with the hero beating the monster and getting the girl, the next with the characters doomed to a gruesome demise. Most often there was an ambiguous ending, with the immediate threat stopped, but a strong potential to return. Some of the endings were downright sadistic, like one where a kid ends up trapped forever in a giant pinball machine. But it never feels really nihilistic; more like they were trying to keep the audience on their toes. And in any case, they’re all just stories told by kids to try to scare one another.

Content wise, I find it is mostly pretty positive. We have a lot of loving, intact families (as well as broken families, but ones that show the impact of the break), strong sibling bonds, and close, loyal friendships of the kind we do experience in childhood (remember when we had those in fiction instead of just deviant sexual connections?).

But what I think I like the most is the fact that these tales by and large follow classic horror story morality to the letter. Ignoring the warnings of the past, or breaking promises, or crossing moral boundaries leads to disaster (in this case, said boundaries are usually things like stealing or lying or pulling pranks). A frequent setup is for a bullied or outcast kid to acquire or seek out some kind of supernatural power to get revenge on those who have wronged him, only to call retribution upon himself in the process. Messing around with magic is almost always a bad idea in these stories (though one such kid seems ready to go over to the side of the eldritch horror…which is, of course, even worse).

A nice touch too is that, though the storytellers themselves only show up at the beginning and end of each episode, they’re each given a distinct ‘style’ to the tales they tell; Gary the soft-spoken leader usually tells of kids discovering occult artifacts (his father owns a magic store). Blonde girl-next-door Kristen usually tells emotional ghost stories and fantasies. Sweet-tempered Betty Ann likes gruesome imagery and twist endings (in amusing contrast to her chipper and friendly personality), and so on. It’s a nice little extra touch that helps make the hosts seem more real, as well as allowing for a wide variety of different tales. The kids themselves are lightly sketched, but likable and with that tricky sense of being real people with individual quirks and personalities, despite their limited screen time.

Most of all, there is a purity to the show that I like. Again, it feels very much like a group of friends sitting around a campfire telling ghost stories; there’s not much in the way of trying to teach lessons or push an agenda. Like The Twilight Zone, it really does come across as an exercise in creativity, with a genuine delight in storytelling.

Remember when it was enough just to try to tell good stories? Remember when TV shows could feature likable, quickly-sketched protagonists who got the job done with a minimum of drama? Remember when shows aimed at kids could be smart, fun, and spooky all at once?

If not, check out a few episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark? for a reminder.

Incidentally, if you want to introduce your kids to the horror genre, you could do worse than pop on a few episodes and see how they take it. That’s how a lot of my generation got into scary stuff.

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