Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Look Back at 'Are You Afraid of the Dark?'

10/13 Update - Just wanted to let everyone know that if you enjoyed this post, my podcast Hey, Do You Remember...? just devoted our latest episode to Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Submitted for the approval of The Midnight Society...

Since Halloween is right around the corner, I wanted to revisit a series that was probably responsible for 70% of my nightmares as a kid. I was going to say 90% at first, but then I remembered how into alien abductions I was after reading Communion and holy fucking monster balls you guys... just do a google image search for the cover. Anyways, where was I...?

Right. So I think I was in fifth grade when my younger sister Erika came home from a sleepover and asked me if I'd ever heard of Snick. It was a block of programming that aired Saturday nights on Nickelodeon (get it?) and at this point in time the line-up included Clarissa Explains It All, Roundhouse, Ren & Stimpy, and... Are You Afraid of the Dark?

I wasn't familiar with any of these shows, but it was the title of that last one that really piqued my interest. I asked Erika what it was about and she said, "It just shows you monsters and stuff." I interpreted this description waaaay too literally and imagined a huge slot machine that just kept rotating and displaying different creatures for thirty minutes. Let's be honest, though - I would have watched the shit out of that show too.

The following Saturday, I sat down with Erika to break my Snick cherry. I rolled my eyes at Clarissa's annoying brother Ferguson, pretended to understand the appeal of Roundhouse's sketch comedy, and laughed my ass off at Ren & Stimpy's flatulent pal Powdered Toast Man - but the whole evening was essentially just a warm-up and a waiting game for this final show.

It only took thirty seconds for Are You Afraid of the Dark? to completely win me over. That's how long the opening credits ran for. I'm sure anyone who grew up with the series remembers them vividly, but just in case...

When you're in fifth grade, that is legitimately unnerving imagery. The episode hadn't even really started yet and already I was pulling my feet up so that anything hiding under the couch couldn't grab me. On a brief side note, do you realize how impossible it would be for something like this to air today? I'm so thankful that I grew up in an age where it was still okay to give kids a good scare from time to time. But I digress...

You can find nearly every episode of AYAOTD online and after revisiting more of them than I care to admit, it's pretty obvious that the majority do not hold up all that well. There were definitely more clunkers than nail-biters, but the episodes that did deliver were so memorable that it's easy to see why I anxiously tuned in each and every week hoping to beat the odds.

The premise was simple - a group of kids who called themselves The Midnight Society gathered in the middle of the woods and took turns telling scary stories around a campfire. Each member's story was that week's episode. It was a cool framing device and a neat way to have an anthology show in the vein of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits aimed at kids. 

As it turns out, my inaugural meeting with The Midnight Society featured a story that's widely regarded as one of the series' best. It was an episode called The Tale of the Dark Music. Here's the synopsis: A boy, his mom and his bratty little sister move to his uncle’s old house in a new neighborhood where things don't start out well with a neighborhood boy until he figures out that there's something evil hidden inside his basement that comes out to feed everytime he plays music on the radio. 

Let's be blunt - he feeds people to the monster. Seriously. This is a show for children where the protagonist feeds human beings to the monster living in his basement. Oh, and he's rewarded for it. I can't even express what a mind fuck this was to me as a kid. I also never looked at the little metal door in our basement's crawl space the same way ever again. It probably wouldn't have much of an effect on you if you watched it today, but I love the fact that in regards to its target demographic, this was an episode that didn't pull any punches.

Needless to say, I was hooked. After that, it was the same routine every Saturday - patiently sit through the other Snick shows until it was time for the main event. I saw just about every episode (although I had outgrown it when it came back with a new cast in 1999) and some of my other favorites include The Tale of The Dollmaker, The Tale of the Quiet Librarian, The Tale of Midnight Madness, and my personal favorite... The Tale of Laughing in the Dark. If that title doesn't ring a bell, its antagonist certainly will...

Zeebo the Clown. Pants, meet shit.
This is probably the most memorable character from the show. They tried to recapture the success of this episode with several other stories that featured creepy clowns, but none of them ever came close to instilling the same level of fear that Zeebo did. What's impressive is that I'm pretty sure he only actually appeared in two scenes very briefly. That was all it took.

Ordinarily, Erika and I would discuss each episode during the commercial breaks. During the weaker entries, we'd do our best Statler & Waldorf impression and laugh at the goofiness of what we were watching. But Laughing in the Dark was a different story. I vividly remember how quiet both of us were throughout its entire running time. As soon as we realized that Zeebo was stalking the main character, we looked at each other with genuine concern.

There was also a quiet excitement that started to build the moment Zeebo was introduced, because I was not a kid who put on a front and acted like nothing ever scared him. I loved being scared. I welcomed it. I didn't read the title of AYAOTD as some sort of a challenge to prove how much of a man I was. I wanted it to make me piss all over my Batman underpants. Well, maybe not literally... but if it had scared me that badly, it would have been epic.

That's what I loved most about the show and why it still sticks with me after all these years. Sure, the silly episodes outnumber the good (the one where aliens are living on the top floor of an apartment building is astonishingly stupid), but it wasn't about the stories that disappointed me. It was about the nights that I'd shut off the TV, go up to my room, and hesitate just a second before turning the light off.

Was I afraid of the dark? Not typically. But on those nights I was. And that is so awesome.


Post a Comment