When Are You Afraid of the Dark? creators Ned Kandel and D.J. MacHale first pitched their horror anthology to Nickelodeon, the studio famously told them, “You can’t scare kids!”
This was not, as you might imagine, a critical response to an advance screening of episode five, “The Tale of the Hungry Hounds.” You’d be justified in thinking that, though, because that episode was The Worst and famished dogs had another 24 years to go before Game of Thrones would make them officially terrifying.
No, this was Nickelodeon’s honest concern over airing a series focused on pre-teens with questionable fashion sense gathering in the woods once a week to tell ghost stories.
Mercifully, better minds prevailed. Beginning in summer 1992, middle-class latchkey kids from Montreal – along with the occasional sad adult actor – battled everything from ghosts to vampires to haunted video games for 22 action-packed minutes.
Today, it’s unclear whether Are You Afraid of the Dark? still holds up. I’m guessing not; this was, after all, a show whose central villain was once “The British.”
But Are You Afraid of the Dark? retains a fond place in my memory. It gave me my first foray into coulrophobia (“The Tale of Laughing in the Dark”), my first bit of enigmatic wisdom from an adult (“What he wants is not what he desires!”), and my first One True Pairing (Gary + Sam = ❤ ❤ ❤ xoxoxo).
To let it go unexamined would be a crime.
And so, submitted for the approval of the Relentlessly Nostalgic Over the 90s Society, I call this post…The Tale of Are You Afraid of the Dark?‘s 25 Greatest Episodes*.
*Which is actually “of Seasons 1-5.” Don’t come at me with that revival excrement, I’m not a heathen.
25. “The Tale of the Shiny Red Bicycle,” (Season 2, Episode 10)
Five years ago, Mike tried to save his friend Ricky from drowning, but failed. Now Ricky’s ghost is back, along with his favorite red bicycle. This episode is a firm reminder that it’s the outcome – not your intent – that matters, and that judgment is swift and eternal.
…Just kidding. Ricky wants to save Mike and remind him they’re still bros. It’s adorable
24. “The Tale of Station 109.1,” (Season 5, Episode 3)
Chris is fascinated by death and when he hears a mysterious radio broadcast guiding him into the afterlife, he goes to investigate. This is perhaps the most star-studded of Are You Afraid of the Dark? episodes, featuring Gilbert Gottfried and Oscar Award nominee Ryan Gosling calling someone a cheesehead.
23. The Tale of the Vacant Lot,” (Season 5, Episode 10)
Like many teenagers, Catherine feels bad about herself. In her case, though, it’s at least partially justified because she once wore this:
All of that changes when Catherine meets a mysterious woman named Marie, who offers Catherine anything she wants from her tent in a vacant lot. Soon, Catherine is as pretty and popular as she’s always dreamed – but she’s about to find out that nothing comes for free.
22. “The Tale of the Unfinished Painting,” (Season 4, Episode 11)
Cody loves to paint and finds herself drawn to a strange art gallery owned by Mrs. Briar. She’s tasked with finishing Mrs. Briar’s incomplete paintings, but quickly discovers that once the piece is finished, she’ll spend eternity trapped inside it. Given that most of Mrs. Briar’s work is of the “crappy seaside motel” variety, Cody is eager to escape and we’re eager for her to manage it.
21. “The Tale of the Ghastly Grinner,” (Season 4, Episode 9)
A comic book villain comes to life and terrorizes aspiring artist Ethan and his geeky friend, Hooper Piccalaro. This episode is delightfully goofy, and worth watching if only for the way the punky comic book store owner says, “Sylvester UNKus.”
21. “The Tale of the Room for Rent,” (Season 4, Episode 8)
Jessie’s grandfather is on the hunt for more cash, so he decides to rent out the spare room in his house. Because this is television, someone takes it immediately and it isn’t long before Jessie realizes the new tenant is actually a ghost who wants revenge on her grandfather for supposedly killing him and stealing his girlfriend. Love may fade, but spite never dies.
19. “The Tale of the Captured Souls,” (Season 1, Episode 7)
Dani and her parents are vacationing at a lake house overseen by an odd young man named Peter, who keeps mirrors in every room and doesn’t like having his picture taken. If the narrative fails to captivate, you can occupy yourself by tracking the expansion of Peter’s hair through the course of the episode.
18. “The Tale of the Dream Machine,” (Season 2, Episode 5)
Aspiring teenage writer Sean Hackett discovers an old typewriter that has the power to make whatever is written about someone become reality. Sean uses the typewriter to convince his crush to overlook his multi-colored vest and fall in love with him, but accidentally puts his best friend in danger when he writes a short story about a ghost named Blind Paul.
Incidentally, Are You Afraid of the Dark? may be the last television show featuring a male Asian romantic lead to have made it past season one. Or maybe I’m just bitter* because I still miss Selfie.
*I’m not just bitter. This is one of many well-documented cases of racism in Hollywood. Blergh.
17. “The Tale of the 13th Floor,” (Season 2, Episode 4)
Billy and his adopted sister Karen spend their rainy days playing on the abandoned thirteenth floor of their apartment building. When a group of aliens disguised as toy manufacturers move in, the truth of Karen’s parentage is revealed. If the picture above didn’t already spoil it for you, let me do so now: Karen’s an alien, too. Sucks for her if she liked Earth, but she’s got killer cheekbones now, so…I’d say she broke about even.
16. “The Tale of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” (Season 1, Episode 9)
Dean doesn’t fit in at school. And like most high school outcasts, he soon turns to magic in a dubious attempt to gain the respect of his peers. Luckily for Dean, he lives in a world where magic is actually magic – not a dorky card game – and the ancient wizard Goth raises him to a position of power. Power comes with a price, though, and it’s up to his friend Alex to save him. I’m not sure if the Are You Afraid of the Dark? creators meant to write a social commentary on the violent tendencies brewing inside the shunned teenage boys of the 90s, but it works if you to want to view it that way.
15. “The Tale of the Quiet Librarian,” (Season 4, Episode 4)
Jace and Laurie don’t like each other much, but they’re forced to stick together after an undead librarian from the turn of the century starts stalking them. Let this episode stand as a clear warning to kids with a fondness for literature and learning – do not engage.
14. “The Tale of the Silent Servant,” (Season 4, Episode 7)
Cousins Anne and Jared awaken a sentient scarecrow who’s bound by magic to do their bidding. It’s all fun and building baseball diamonds until they accidentally order it to kill someone. Which is unfortunate, but that’s what made 90s Nickelodeon so great – they really got in the trenches with you and weren’t afraid to explore the day-to-day problems of a typical 10 year old.
13. “The Tale of the Super Specs,” (Season 1, Episode 6)
The regrettably named Weeds gives his girlfriend, Mary Beth, a pair of “Super Specs” that allow her to see beings from another dimension. Because I pay more attention than is healthy to children’s television, I can tell you the outfits Weeds and Mary Beth wear during this episode are the same outfits Gary and Kristen wear during the first three minutes of the intro sequence. You’re welcome.
12. “The Tale of the Quicksilver,” (Season 3, Episode 11)
Brothers Aaron and Doug discover something strange in their new house that’s shaking and rearranging the furniture at random. Aaron’s classmate Connie seems to know more than she’s telling, and Doug is developing a fever that’s only getting worse. In addition to featuring the creepiest looking demon in the show’s history, this episode stars a young Tatyana Ali, who is all kinds of adorable.
11. “The Tale of the Night Shift,” (Season 5, Episode 12)
Welcome to officially the only vampire-themed entertainment to ever provoke real scares (and yes, I’ve read Salem’s Lot. It was fine).
Amanda starts volunteering during the night shift at her local hospital, and is quickly set on a collision course with death when it becomes apparent that something’s feeding on the hospital’s patients and staff. This is also the episode where Sam finally gives in to Gary’s persistent nerd-charm, and my pre-teen heart exploded. G + S 4EVER, y’all.
10. “The Tale of the Dead Man’s Float,” (Season 5, Episode 1)
Book-smart Zeke and athletic Clorice strike a bargain – he’ll help her raise her chemistry grade if she’ll teach him how to swim at the school pool. Unbeknownst to them, the pool was built on top of a graveyard and it’s being stalked by a ghost determined to drown anyone who disrespects his final resting place. There’s a lot to say about this episode, but what I’m really fascinated by is the process the writers clearly used to name the protagonists. I’m convinced they sat around in a circle and tossed out things like, “Well, Zeke rhymes with ‘geek…’” and “Swimming pools have chlorine, so…Clorice?”
9. “The Tale of the Lonely Ghost,” (Season 1, Episode 3)
Amanda is forced to spend the summer with her cousin Beth, who won’t let Amanda hang out with her until Amanda stays the night in the haunted house next door. Officially the creepiest use of backwards mirror writing since REDRUM.
(Also the creepiest use of 90s bangs paired with dramatic peace sign earrings since Clarissa Explains It All. Beth, girl, what is this?)
8. “The Tale of the Twisted Claw,” (Season 1, Episode 4)
Dougie and his friend Kevin receive a gift from Miss Clove when they decide to go trick-or-treating at her house on Halloween. Alas, no, it’s not an abrupt warning that you’ll get nowhere in life by voluntarily calling yourself “Dougie.” It’s a magical twisted claw. Dougie and Kevin get three wishes each, but the results aren’t quite what they had in mind. This was the first retelling of “The Monkey’s Paw” I was exposed to, and you know how you never get over your first.
7. “The Tale of the Phantom Cab,” (Season 1, Episode 1)
Ah, the pilot episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?. Since it was still testing things out, it features a lot of annoying things the show decided to get rid of later, like “in-story crosscuts to the Midnight Society” and “Eric.”
The story is still great, though, and it introduced us to Hagrid’s evil twin brother, Dr. Vink – with a va, va, va, VA!
Anyway, the story centers on brothers Denny and Buzz, who get lost in the woods and find that their only hope of survival lies with Dr. Vink – an eccentric hermit who wants them to answer a series of riddles. If they get one wrong, they die. It’s kind of like a 90s children’s version of Bilbo’s summit with Gollum. Except the riddles are much easier because, you know, the dumbing down of America.
6. “The Tale of the Whispering Walls,” (Season 2, Episode 8)
While driving home from a carnival, babysitter Louise and her two charges get lost and fall into the clutches of Master Raymond – a soul-stealing phantom who’s only let loose when the full moon coincides with Leap Day. It’s worth noting that if Master Raymond had made his debut in 2006, we probably would have decided he was a hot emo dreamboat instead of a strange, menacing weirdo.
5. “The Tale of Cutter’s Treasure,” (Season 4, Episodes 1 and 2)
The only two-part episode in Are You Afraid of the Dark? history, “The Tale of Cutter’s Treasure” is notable for two reasons: first, it’s literally the only time the Midnight Society is rained out in five years of weekly campfires, and second, somebody actually dies in this episode. On screen!
In the first installment, brothers Rush and Max accidentally awaken the spirit of the deadly pirate Jonas Cutter. Cutter is shown to have killed Rush and Max’s great-grandfather, though you’d be forgiven for questioning this, as Rush and Max are kids in the 90s and their great-grandfather appears to be wearing a leftover costume from the set of The Crucible.
Anyway, after the rain delay, Cutter kidnaps Max and it’s up to Rush to save his little brother, relying on advice from Dr. Vink. What could go wrong?
4. “The Tale of the Prom Queen,” (Season 1, Episode 12)
High schoolers Greg and Jam (exaggerated sigh) are hanging out in the local cemetery when they meet and befriend Dede. Together, they decide to investigate the legend of a young woman who was killed in a car accident on prom night in the 50s. Things quickly turn spooky, but of course love conquers all, and the doomed couple are finally reunited. The only remaining mystery is why a pair of teenagers from the 1950s are playing the 1987 chart-topper “In the Still of the Night” in their vehicle as they drive away toward the afterlife.
3. “The Tale of Watcher’s Woods,” (Season 3, Episode 3)
Also known as the one where an 11-year-old Jewel Staite smokes a cigarette – because while the 1990s were all about D.A.R.E. in the US, Canada was apparently still basking in the rebellious optics of lung cancer.
Anyway, Jewel plays Kelly, a camper who winds up lost in “Watcher’s Woods,” along with bunkmate Sarah. Watcher’s Woods is a Bermuda Triangle-like area said to be guarded by an evil spirit called, appropriately, The Watcher. There’s a strong dose of environmentalism here, but mostly it’s cool to wonder how three lost girl scouts from the turn of the century fit into their uniforms 85 years later.
2. “The Tale of the Midnight Madness,” (Season 2, Episode 2)
Dr. Vink is wreaking havoc again, this time at a failing movie theater. When Vink saves the establishment by lending it a rare copy of Nosferatu, he demands just one thing in return: that the theater play his other films once a week. It’s not a difficult request, but of course the obligatory incompetent adult manager double-crosses Vink and it’s not long before Nosferatu becomes more than just a movie. This episode is good – I don’t even have a smart ass comment to make. Just go watch it, please? Can you do that?
1. “The Tale of Laughing in the Dark,” (Season 1, Episode 2)
Finally, we’ve arrived! “The Tale of Laughing in the Dark” is Are You Afraid of the Dark?’s most iconic episode, and for good reason. Not only do we have the terrifying Zeebo the Clown, we’ve got a ghostly, enigmatic carnival worker, a haunted microwave, and a kid named Weegee – the most Are You Afraid of the Dark? name of all Are You Afraid of the Dark? names.
In this episode, Weegee’s friend Josh enters a supposedly haunted carnival attraction to search for Zeebo the Clown and steal his nose. After he succeeds, however, a malevolent presence begins to follow him, demanding the nose’s return.
“The Tale of Laughing in the Dark” is a study in budgetary restrictions, bad 90s fashion, and the tendency of lesser media to milk Stephen King’s IT for all it was worth (which, if we’re talking about the miniseries, wasn’t much). It’s glorious, and it will forever be the emblem of the Midnight Society’s greatest achievements.
Which episodes did I miss? Tell me in the comment section below!