[15 August 2011]
At the same time a handful of friends Tweeted and updated their Facebook statuses to celebrate the premiere of TeenNick’s The 90s Are All That lineup recently, I was stabbed with my millionth pang of regret that I still can’t afford cable television. As a 23-year-old with an entry-level job, a loan repayment schedule, some credit debt, and a cat to feed, my budget simply cannot account for pricey cable television bills. Thus, I make do with Netflix and an Internet connection, having learned in college the key to any broke couch potato’s comfort in a cable-less lifestyle is to embrace a wireless router.
Although not currently airing during the midnight to 4AM block, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, easily the most iconic series from Nickelodeon’s golden era, is slated to return to the airwaves in a future cycle of programming. But take it from me, you need look no further than YouTube. Therefore, I invite you to join me in revisiting ten classic, creepy Are You Afraid of the Dark? episodes, if not from the comfort of a big orange couch in front of a television, then at least with the lights turned off (it aids the YouTube picture quality).
10. “The Tale of the Nightly Neighbors”
A new family moves into a house across the street. They dress only in black, are seen only at night, and the rest of your neighbors seem to be suffering from some unknown ailment—and wearing band-aids on their necks. Clearly, your new neighbors are either former New Yorkers, or vampires preying on the mail man. Would you invite them in if they came calling after dark? Emma and her brother Dayday wouldn’t, suspecting their new UVB-ambivalent neighbors are after a cup of blood instead of an innocent cup of sugar.
9. “The Tale of the Ghastly Grinner”
Are You Afraid of the Dark at its most disturbing, corn-ball, Twilight Zone-esque, the Ghastly Grinner almost seems to chastise Jack Nicholson for giving the Joker the couple ounces of sanity that he did. The pulpy, cock-eyed world inhabited by comic-book geek Ethan collapses when he releases the Grinner, a bad college-team mascot with a virulent cackle which he uses to put a smile on that face. The Lynchian atmosphere lends the episode a pervasive, unsettling tone.
8. “The Tale of the Midnight Madness”
The performance of Max Schreck in Nosferatu was fictionalized by the 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire where it was suggested the actor was in fact a real-life vampire. That doesn’t seem like an entirely outrageous claim. I mean—good God—look at him! That grotesque human-like monster of the silver screen continues to frighten audiences even today, and here saves a small theater from ruin—but with a price. When the enigmatic and no less menacing Aron Tager, popularly known as the recurring character Dr. Vink (“with a veh—veh—veh”), provides the movie theater with his private collection of classic films, business comes alive—and so do the characters on the screen. That’s no Jeff Daniels stepping out of the picture, it’s Nosferatu himself.
7. “The Tale of the Midnight Ride”
Although the Midnight Society purports to tell original stories around a campfire, the series frequently borrows from classic literature, myths, and urban legends, repackaging them for a younger generation that will hopefully engage with the source material at a later time. One of the most popular of American tales, Washington Irving’s story of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman, is retold here with a ‘90s flavoring. After encountering the ghost of Ichabod and directing him out of the Headless Horseman’s deadly path, two high school students unwittingly become the equine-riding killer’s newest targets on Halloween night.
6. “The Tale of the Dream Girl”
Are You Afraid of the Dark may be just a humble horror anthology series for the kiddies, but this episode served as inspiration for one of the great American horror classics of recent memory. Johnny spends his days tinkering with pin-setting machines at the local bowling alley, palling around with his sister Erica, and getting ignored by pretty much everybody else. Well, all except for this one predatory ghost-girl in a letterman’s jacket who keeps following him everywhere. Johnny realizes none too soon that he’s not the one who sees dead people—it’s his sister Erica, who does.
5. “The Tale of the Lonely Ghost”
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the spookiest one of all? Why, it’s that dead girl in a nightgown looking over your shoulder! Poor Amanda has problems. For one thing, she’s stuck at her aunt’s house for the summer with her hateful cousin, Beth. But when Beth forces Amanda to prove her coolness quotient by sneaking into an abandoned haunted house, Amanda learns sometimes ghosts have worse problems—like being dead. An emotional episode with a rather bleak twist and “happy” ending, it’ll have you avoiding mirrors for weeks, lest somebody other than yourself glance back.
4. “The Tale of the Quicksilver”
The furthest from one of my personal favorites, this episode deserves its slot for inspiring a recurring childhood nightmare and a sense of foreboding around drywall. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s Tatyana Ali guest stars in a dual role as twin sisters. After one twin is killed in a fire while battling an evil spirit in her bedroom, her grieving lookalike is later tracked down by two brothers who have since moved into the sisters’ (now remodeled) haunted house, and need help defeating the evil lurking within the walls. The story is something of a slog, but there are a couple doozy moments of villain imagery which scared the hell out of me in 1994, and have stayed with me to this day. The fact is, for all of its low-budget Canadian production values, this show really knew how to slap some makeup on a non-speaking guest star and terrify some kids.
3. “The Tale of Laughing in the Dark”
There are many clowns you should think twice about before hiring for a children’s birthday party. Pennywise the Clown, the Insane Clown Posse, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and Silly Billy, aka David Friedman of Capturing the Friedmans fame, all immediately come to mind. In the series’ second episode ever, another clown was added to that list. Cocky pre-teen Josh (Christian Tessier, who later appeared in the Battlestar Galactica reboot as Duck) swipes the nose off Zeebo the Clown on a dare inside a funhouse at the local carnival. The theft prompts the ghost of the real-life Zeebo to terrorize the boy via a series of off-camera threats until the nose is returned, including replacing the boy’s microwaving dinner with a bowl of cigars, and inflating balloons into his bedroom via the crack under the door. For those who aren’t paralyzed by the sight of clowns, the episode gets points for being comical fun rather than frightening.
2. “The Tale of the Night Shift”
In one of the series’ creepier and more violent episodes, Entourage’s Emmanuelle Chriqui guest stars as Amanda, an overachieving teen somehow volunteering for the night shift at a hospital. With a vampire on the loose and feeding on staff and patients, Amanda races to destroy it with the help of a friend, before one of its victims is transformed into a bloodsucker, too. The episode is shot with very little fill lighting to create a dark and foreboding environment, but in so doing joins countless other horror projects in wildly assuming hospitals turn off all their lights after the sun goes down. And for the under-ten crowd, a green-faced, red-eyed vampire promising to drop a girl from a hospital rooftop in order to lick up her splattered blood, only to burst into flame and fall to his own doom, is remarkably more intense than the standard fare carrying the TV-Y7 rating.
1. “The Tale of the Dead Man’s Float”
Poll your friends for the episode that scared them the most and chances are “that one with the red demon thing in the pool that comes out of the drain” will carry the most votes. Boasting the distinction of Jay Baruchel’s first screen credit ever (he’s the little boy who drowns in the opening sequence), “The Tale of the Dead Man’s Float” suggests there’s something worse than being seen in your bathing suit during high school swim class—there’s getting pulled underwater by an invisible entity. And of course, it’s the only boy in school who can’t swim who gets to play the hero with chemicals from the science lab, and get the girl in the process.