Children’s television, obviously, is not always cute and friendly. Sometimes it can be a little dark or daring. But one children’s show surpassed all others, to the point that it was explicitly nothing but a bottomless source of Nightmare Fuel. Are You Afraid of the Dark? debuted on Nickelodeon in 1990, and was basically a Twilight Zone-style horror anthology series for kids. Each episode was pretty formulaic: a different member of the Midnight Society would tell a story, in which an average preteen would be put into a strange or scary situation. Each episode would generally have a moral about overcoming personal weaknesses, making a sacrifice, or befriending someone you’d previously disliked. All pretty typical stuff for child-oriented storytelling in the ’90s.
Alongside these morals were the scares, which were equally relevant to the target audience (i.e., kids age 7-12). The show was carefully based around their fears, which usually involved middle school, parents, friends, etc. Look at “The Tale of the Vacant Lot” (season 5, episode 10) for example: a girl trades herself away in exchange for everything she needs to be popular. Eventually, though, she has to pay the price in the form of hideous sores across her face, and is only redeemed when she gives up her most prized possession for her sister. It’s pretty straightforward, fable-like storytelling, where selfish behavior leads to negative consequences. The selling point is the sores across her face, and by extension, the money shot of something terrifying at the climax of each episode.
For me, the creepiest of these came from “The Tale of the Ghastly Grinner” (season 4, episode 9), where a drooling Joker-like supervillain stepped out of a microwaved comic book, but everyone who watched the show had their own favorite AYAOTD? moments. (Ashley mentions “The Tale of the Dollmaker,” in which a girl turns into a porcelain doll.) But the show’s opening sequence preemptively beat out everything, since it’s 30 pure seconds of audiovisual terror. It’s the ultimate hook for the whole series, a catalog of everything that makes us afraid of the dark. Creaking swing set? Check. Windows slamming shut in the rain? Check. Childish laughter from nowhere? Shaft of eerie light through a window? Scary clown doll?? Check, check, and double check.
In fact, I would easily describe this as the scariest children’s show opening of all time. It’s so well-made, with every sound and shadow calculated to scare the shit out of you before you even meet the Midnight Society. Granted, the show itself was pretty uneven, and the silliness could often drown out the horror, but it basically kept with the spirit of the opening. It was about normal kids being subjected to the world of “the dark,” where something was always slightly off, and where nothing could quite be trusted. Maybe the girl you thought was your sister was actually an alien, or maybe your best friend’s place had been taken by a chameleon. But no matter what the story was about, that opening had you ready to be scared.
So, dear reader, were you afraid of the dark? And if so, any favorite episodes?