As a twelve-year-old, I wanted two things: a copy of Tobin’s Spirit Guide and a membership for the Midnight Society.
As we approach All Hallow’s Eve, Are You Afraid of the Dark is perfect for anyone who wants some Halloween atmosphere without giving yourself nightmares. It was part of Nickelodeon’s classic SNICK lineup and while it contains legitimately spooky sequences the show is mostly silly and fun. After years of being available solely through Canadian DVDs it’s all streaming on Amazon Prime. Wait, not so fast! The streaming episodes are scrambled and shuffled among non-sequential volumes. That’s no way to enjoy a television classic, so this guide will help you watch them in proper broadcast order.
I’ll avoid major spoilers for the tales themselves: the point is to whet your appetites and motivate you to track these gems down for yourself. Instead, I’ll stick to summarizing the general quality, spoopiness level, and my first impressions. That’ll leave me plenty of time to chat about the meta-narrative of the host segments and rave about the glorious 90s fashion on display.
Let’s get started.
Episode Grade: B
Spoop factor: low
Awkward attempt at slang: “lamewad”
We start with a campfire, and a voice. Gary introduces us to the Midnight society with an inspiring monologue about how a diverse bunch of 90’s stereotype kids were brought together by scary stories. They’re considering a new member tonight – Frank, the 90s street tough archetype, who launches in to a story about stereotype brothers in the spooky woods – lost on the most clearly-marked and well-maintained path ever. You’ll be getting Blair Witch premonitions in no time.
This is a pretty iconic episode – in part because a clip from it was used extensively in promos, but it also does a great job of letting you know what the series is going to be about. We’re in for some twisted teenage takes on urban legends and spooky stories, sometimes more focused on atmosphere than internal logic. There’s still a substantial amount of pilot-related awkwardness and a bit of clunky writing, but the show hits its stride pretty quickly.
At the end of the episode, it’s settled – Frank will be back, and so will we.
Episode Grade: A
Storyteller: Betty Ann
Spoop Factor: MAXIMUM SPOOP
Awkward attempt at Slang: “Feeb”
In the cold open, two girls wander through a carnival haunted house called Laughing in the Dark, only tobe confronted by a scary clown. Cut back to the campfire where Kristen attempts to nope outimmediately, which is the response that a lot of my friends have to scary clowns. Interesting historicalsidenote: Laff in the Dark is the name of a large number of early carnival dark rides. Betty Ann tells the story of an asshole redheaded kid (in the 90s, all redheaded kids are assholes) who decides that it’d be fun to taunt the ghost of an evil clown. This episode plays on two primal fears: clowns, and something trying to get you. The former doesn’t scare me at all but the latter used to give me nightmares. Overall quality is further enhanced by Betty’s sweet and gleeful narration, and the fact that the main actor grows up to be some dude from Battlestar Galactica.
Kristen deals with her coulrophobia by cuddling up to two of the boys: Eric, who clearly wants no part of this, and Gary, who is 100% cool with it. Oh Kristen, twelve-year-old-me thought you were totally the mac. Twelve-year-old-me used a lot of inappropriate slang.
Great foley work, solid directing, decent acting, and clowns make this a clear season 1 standout. Minor spoiler: I will admit to having been legitimately scared by a balloon. I’m not taking about as a kid, I was scared by a balloon when watching this episode today.
The Tale of the Lonely Ghost
Episode 3 (Vol1.E2 on Prime)
Episode Grade: A-
Spoop factor: high
Awkward attempt at slang: “Zeeb”
This week we get a host segment again instead of a cold open, as David flirts with Kristen. My point about her from last episode still stands. We get to the campfire, and he begins the tale of Beth, a red-headed girl who is the meanest human in the history of all time.
Our main character is Amanda, played by another future Canadian Sci-Fi star. She’s spending the summer with her monstrous cousin next door to a house that definitely looks super haunted. As soon as I saw it, I got a chill… if this is the story I think it is, then we ares starting season one with two of the most legitimately terrifying episodes I remember. Eventually Amanda ends up in this room and yep, it’s that episode. The foley in this episode is super effective, and we get some really marvelous spooky piano. Even going back a second time to get this screenshot creeped me out a little.. This episode is the one I have the strongest memory of, all these years later. When you say “Are you Afraid of the Dark?” I think of that room.
90s fashion field notes: The bangs, oh god the bangs. I thought that hairstyle was terrible even back then, and I feel so vindicated to be proven right. TAKE THAT, everyone who was actually fashionable in the 90s!
The Tale of the Twisted Claw
Episode 4 (Vol2.E1 on Prime)
Episode Quality: B-
Spoop factor: low to moderate
Awkward Attempt at Slang: “snotball”
After a quick cold open, we’re back at the campfire. Gary, looking like a young Egon Spengler, informs us that nobody has told a full story tonight. Have I mentioned yet that I had a huge crush on Gary as a kid? If not, there’s no time like the present.
David jumps in with his story about some kids who decide to harass a witch, because that’s always a good idea. As a kid this entirely failed to spook me, because I grew up in New England and there were several legitimate pagan families in the neighborhood where I trick-or-treated. It was pretty clear they reveled in messing with kids’ heads on Halloween, but my reaction was always more “cool!” than “eep!
Nobody in this episode goes on to acting stardom, and it shows – the performances are the weakest of the season by far. Doing a little research, I learned that they pulled a “Menagerie” on us here: this is actually the original pilot, with new host segments shot with the final cast. The story holds together at least, with one sequence I remember finding completely terrifying as a kid, and a few legitimately cool ideas in the third act. But despite the cold open that does not f**k around, this is the first episode that’s kind of skippable.
90s Fashion Field Notes: Everyone’s Halloween costumes are pretty accurate portrayals of the amount of time and effort that went in to costumes back in the day. These kids are not the main characters, but they’re the main characters in my heart.
Tale of the Hungry Hounds
Episode Quality: C-
Spoop factor: MINIMUM SPOOP
Awkward attempt at slang: “Feeble.” I think this and “feeb” are trying to sidestep some offensive slang which is actually kid of sweet.
Kristen is telling this week’s story, so of course everyone is incredibly well-dressed and nothing is scary. Other than the gorgeous 80s fashion retrospective, this episode is entirely skippable. It’s a shame, because the two main actresses have really good friend chemistry. Even Gary disappoints, whinging about making up new rules during the opening segment and capping the episode with a terrible pun. Ugh, Gary… tween me is SO breaking up with you if you keep that up.
First impression: These girls are totally aspirational for tween me, quoting Shakespeare and combing through a spooky attic. Bonus: their outfits resemble actual human clothing that I would wear. Unfortunately they aren’t given anything scary or interesting to interact with. The story’s logic is barely coherent, and it doesn’t even work on the “kid-logic story mashup” level the first episode did. In fact, the episode is so uninteresting, I’m going to devote the entire rest of the summary and review section to fashion.
90s Fashion Field notes: I would totally wear every item of clothing in the opening scene, even that blouse. Heck, especially that blouse. Outfit set #2 is also pretty great – other than the sweater that absolutely does not fit, everything is shockingly wearable. Outfit set number three is the weakest of the bunch: Amy’s hair is dated, and her vest is so 90s it hurts. Pam is totally business casual by way of Eddie Bauer – but this turns out to be designed to work with the accessory that takes them into the third act, so I’m not docking them too many points.
We’re a little more than a third of the way through the season, who knows what evil lurks in the tales that remain? I do, because I’m already halfway through them. Join us tomorrow for part two, where we’ll meet up with good old Sardo in “The Tale of the Super Specs”.