Welcome back to our terrifying trip through the first season of Are You Afraid of the Dark (you can find part one here). Part two is a little less rife with terrible slang, but there are some solid ideas and plenty of existential dread. Haul your big orange couch out of storage and let’s meet up again with the midnight society.
The Tale of the Super Specs
Episode 6 (Vol3.E1 on Prime)
Episode Quality: A-
Spoop factor: low to moderate
So it turns out Gary has a job at a magic shop and is flirting with Kristen, who is using her best upper-crust New England accent to tell him that everyone’s been saying his stories aren’t scary behind his back. We make it to the campfire, and Gary’s tale introduces us to everyone’s favorite magic shop and everyone’s favorite magician slash plot device. Like in the Tale of the Hungry Hounds, we see our storyteller draw on their real life for a lot of the details, and it works.
I know having the different kids tell different stories each week is a construct, but they do a great job varying the flavor and influences based on who tells them, which is something I never noticed as a kid. So is Gary’s story really all that scary? Not compared to episodes 1-3, no, but it’s at least cohesive and well-told. It has setting, and plot, and well-written, distinctive characters.
This also raises the question: if something invokes existential dread, does that technically count as “spooky?”
90s Fashion Field note: The best friends by the tree wearing perfectly matching outfits are so 90s it hurts, but everyone else’s fashion game was pretty on point. Once again, I could pretty much live with the main character’s wardrobe.
So Gary is calculating everyone’s life totals while they wait for Kiki to arrive and tell her story. Her tale takes us on a family vacation to a country inn where all the mirrors are electrified and a creepy teenage boy takes care of the place while the master his parents are away. It’s interesting how many episodes use friends and family in peril as a primary source of tension. Also, I have to say that the horror McGuffin this episode has the worst conversion rate ever. Wait for the scene with the hatch marks and do the math – you’ve got to be losing a lot of waste energy somewhere, people.
Last episode, Gary told a story about a teenage nerd and his girlfriend. Kiki’s main character is a girl like her. The diversity of characters and viewpoints was something I never really noticed watching as a kid. The Midnight Society has a 3:4 Harvey/Renee index of Superhero Diversity score, which is not perfect but not bad at all for kids programming, especially in this decade.
90s Fashion Fieldnotes: Once again, when a girl tells a story the fashion holds up better, especially since our main character is a sporty type who just wears stuff that’s comfortable. I did notice how much more acceptable it was for teen girls to not wear form-fitting clothes all the time, apparently.
The cold open gets pretty meta, but in a cool way. Why do we tell scary stories in the dark? Because you can’t see anything, which means that anything could be out there. Then we get more meta, as the kids complain about each other’s storytelling styles again. Apparently Betty Ann’s style is gross and gory, but with a happy ending. This… doesn’t actually track very well with what we’ve seen from her before or what we’re going to see in the rest of the season, but whatever. Let’s get on with the show.
It’s hard to summarize this story, because it’s pretty one note: a kids’ guide to vampire red herrings. Are the neighbors vampires? Or do all their stereotypical vampire things have some other explanation? That’s it. That’s the episode. The scariest bit is the few seconds of Night of the Living dead that a small child is watching on TV in the opening scene.
Proper parenting at work.
Moderate Spoiler Warning!!!
This episode is part of a pattern I’m starting to find frustrating: if an episode ends with the implication that perhaps the evil has not been entirely thwarted, the writers seem to think they can go light on the scares throughout the episode itself. Just saying “oh man, the ending implies someone is doomed!” does not create actual horror.
The Tale of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Episode 9 (Vol6.E5 on Prime)
Episode Quality: B-
Storyteller: Betty Ann
Spoop factor: no spoop detected
We start with a host segment where the kids find a grave in the woods. Spooky! The sequence ends with Gary staring holding a human skull asking who’s going to tell a tale tonight. It’s Betty Ann again, who the kids persistently insist is the master of blood and gore. She starts us off with a hard-to-follow bunch of temporal setup, and onscreen titles tell us it’s the 1960s. We watch someone wander through concrete corridors, and hide something weird in a water-filled ditch, then we cut to the same building today.
Now that we’re back to the present, we are introduced to the most handsome guy ever who is, of course, also a complete loser who nobody notices or cares about. Oh Television. So of course he gets dark sorcery powers and is absolutely crap about hiding that fact, wearing a black turtleneck and making weird faces at everyone. Hey buddy, if you’re going to use dark magic to pass a test, at least sit there for ten minutes scribbling stuff on the worksheet, don’t just walk up to the teacher one second after the test begins and hand her a paper. Amateur hour, kid.
Soon he upgrades from black turlenecks to black leather jackets, so we know he’s gone seriously bad. This is the first episode that I don’t think I ever saw as a kid, or else it was so forgettable that I have no recollection of it. It’s a typical 80s-90s dark magic panic episode. The dark force is even called “Goth” and his followers all wear black, which is a little on the nose, don’t you think?
90s fashion field notes: I like that half the other “Goth” worshipers don’t even have black pants. It’s obvious the extras were told “just wear the darkest pants you have” and one kid still showed up with acid-washed cutoffs.
So after a strong start, we’ve hit a bit of a mid-season lull. But hey, we’ve got four episodes left and believe me, this season finishes strong. Join us tomorrow as we wrap up our little tour of season one, starting with The Tale of Jake and the Leprechaun.