Next to reading Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and using public restrooms, watching Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? was my first foray into horror.
The final slot in the studio’s programming block SNICK, Are You Afraid of the Dark? was an anthology television series that told a succession of scary stories targeted at children.
With its C-movie visual effects and plotlines borrowed heavily from better media, the show wasn’t winning any awards for children’s programming. Once it went off the air in 1996, it quickly became one of those awkward, sad things from another time, like Bob Dole or the white grand piano.
But with its TV-Y7 audience, Are You Afraid of the Dark? was a hit. And when those viewers grew up and began immersing themselves in nostalgic malaise as an escape from the crushing doom of the post-2008 job market, Are You Afraid of the Dark? was part of the zeitgeist.
This includes me, of course. And as a tribute both to my roots and my ongoing ennui, I’m launching an episode-by-episode revisit and review of Are You Afraid of the Dark? for this blog.
Instead of swallowing the content whole, though – the way I did as a child – I plan to relish the cheese and pulp the way suburban housewives did at the midnight premiere of Twilight: New Moon.
Your first task, if you choose to join me, is to reacquaint yourself with our Are You Afraid of the Dark? companions: the Midnight Society.
For the uninitiated, the Midnight Society was Are You Afraid of the Dark’s explanation for its anthology conceit. Each week, this group of hilariously earnest teenagers met in the woods to build a campfire and tell scary stories – presumably because they were the kind of people who preferred discussing ghosts and leprechauns over attending football games and being impressive to their peers.
That sadness is all to our benefit, however. For a bunch of 15 year olds, the Midnight Society churned out carefully constructed three-act dramas at a rate that would make even Stephen King jealous.
So let’s take a moment to revisit our 10 old friends. After all, we’ll be spending a lot of time together in the coming weeks.
Gary (Seasons 1-5)
Every group needs a leader, and the Midnight Society had Gary. I’m not sure they were particularly glad to have Gary, but one of life’s great truths is that the joy of escaping adult supervision to sneak around in the woods supersedes the inconvenience of hanging out with someone who’s essentially a grown-up milk monitor.
Gary was the avatar for “geek” in the 90s, and he embraced a lot of features of that lifestyle: parted hair, absurdly large glasses, and dorky polos tucked fussily into belted trousers. His devotion to rule-following was absolute and he tended to come down hard on other members of the society when they started doing things like showing up late or having fun.
Unsurprisingly, Gary was super into magic and computers, and his stories often featured them in some way. He also wrote poetry, which is hilarious.
Frank (Seasons 1-4)
Frank was Gary’s foil – or he would have been if Are You Afraid of the Dark? was interested in literary convention rather than checking off boxes on a list of stereotypes for kids’ shows.
The Midnight Society’s resident tough guy, Frank often wore torn sleeves and bandanas to distract from the fact that his face belonged in Gap ad. He bullied the other male members of the society – particularly David – and tended to blink rapidly while delivering the Nickelodeon-in-the-90s’ equivalent of withering remarks.
That being said, there are two surprising things about Frank: one, he was afraid of the dark. And two, he told pretty rad stories. Frank invented the iconic Dr. Vink – with a va, va, VA! – and despite once telling a story called “The Tale of the Dangerous Soup,” he’s pretty much always on his A game.
Kiki (Seasons 1-5)
The actress who plays Kiki also voiced Francine Frensky on Arthur, which tells me she was typecast at some point because the two characters are exactly the same. Kiki was tough and outspoken, and she brought a lot of bravado and several backwards hats to the Midnight Society.
As you’d expect, Kiki and Frank spent a lot of time together turning their “Rebel with a Heart of Gold” thing into a double act. It was sort of cute, but mostly forgettable. As a kid, I actually thought Kiki had a crush on Frank because A) they both wore bandanas a lot and B) Kiki was kind of terrible to Kristen and Sam, both of whom were potential love interests for Frank.
This was never explored, though, and in retrospect I was probably reading too much into the six minutes of screen time the Midnight Society gets each episode.
Betty Ann (Seasons 1-5)
Like a fine wine, Betty Ann improves with age – that is, your age.
When I was younger, I often forgot Betty Ann existed because she mostly sat around, smiled, and made supportive comments when other members of the Midnight Society started arguing about something. If 90s Nickelodeon had been a giant summer camp, Betty Ann would have been the nine year olds’ favorite counselor.
Once I got older, though, I realized all that wholesome, booster-club-president appeal was masking a seriously cool teenager. Betty Ann told the best stories, featuring villains ranging from porcelain dolls to karma-obsessed clowns to comic book characters that come alive in the microwave. The girl was low-key freaky, and it was awesome.
Betty Ann probably grew up to either become a graphic novelist or to murder the other members of the Midnight Society before calmly returning to her knitting.
David (Seasons 1-2)
If reality ever started imitating art and a member of the Midnight Society had been revealed to have been a ghost, that member would have been David.
Shy, quiet, and introverted, David floated in and out of the forestry without making too many waves. Appropriately, his stories were atmospheric and often featured misunderstood ghosts with unfinished business – though he’d occasionally dive into the realms of the weird and bring back something more remarkable.
In one of his first episodes, David was revealed to have a crush on Kristen – which seems to be requited? – but it was never mentioned again and they both moved away at the end of the second season without too much fuss.
Kristen (Seasons 1-2)
Also known as “One of Two Midnight Society Members Who Went On to Become a Working Actress.”
Kristen – who would later star in FX’s Fargo and my favorite BBC comedy, Peep Show – offered up a convincing portrayal of a pretty, popular 90s girl only to subvert the stereotype in a few different ways.
Kristen was cute, blonde, hated dirt and clowns, and wore the most period-specific clothing of any other cast member. But she was also genuinely nice, accepting of David’s awkward affections, and into ghosts, monsters, and bringing props and costumes to go along with her stories. All of which was pretty cool, considering Third Wave Feminism wouldn’t be a thing for a couple more years.
That being said, Kristen was often late to Midnight Society meetings and tended to interrupt stories when she got scared – something I never understood, considering that she joined a club that existed to frighten other members.
Eric (Season 1)
Eric had the shortest tenure of any Midnight Society member on Are You Afraid of the Dark, and the world is better for it. Scrawny, snarky, and smirking, Eric was – like many such people – also undeservedly confident.
He told just two stories as a society member, neither of which were anything to keep R.L. Stine up at night. He spent the rest of his time baiting kids who were bigger and brainier than he was, and generally just getting under foot and ruining everything.
Who invited him into the Midnight Society is a mystery, because it would require wanting to be around him on a weekly basis for a full half hour. I can’t imagine even Gary is that hard up for friends.
Regardless, whoever it was came to their senses fairly quickly and Eric vanished without a trace sometime mid-season.
Tucker (Seasons 2-5)
You may know Tucker as Gretchen Wieners’ douchey boyfriend on Mean Girls. Before he was creeping on teen LiLo, though, Tucker was getting his start on becoming a human landfill by torturing members of the Midnight Society.
Tucker joined the group at the beginning of season two, when he threatened to tell his parents that his older brother Gary was sneaking out of the house at night. I somehow doubt Gary and Tucker’s parents would have believed their eldest son did anything as interesting as running a secret club, but the plan worked and Tucker became an official society member.
Unfortunately, he turned out to be a pretty garbage storyteller. His contribution to show canon included such non-hits as “The Tale of the Phone Police” and “The Tale of the Fire Ghost,” and he exhibited no interest in improvement.
Instead, Tucker spent his time harassing his older brother – blackmailing him, stealing his possessions, threatening to expose his angsty poetry and, in general, serving as a reminder that family is only a word.
Sam (Seasons 3-5)
Introduced midway through the series as a replacement for David and Kristen, Sam quickly established herself as the Midnight Society’s token tomboy: she had a tough grip, wore lots of oversized flannel, and mystified group members by choosing to go by “Sam” rather than “Samantha.”
Apparently, unlike me, the Midnight Society didn’t have moms who spent summer afternoons watching reruns of Bewitched.
As a storyteller, Sam was the definition of hit or miss. Half her entries were solid gold, and the other half were terrible paranormal romances that make me question her self-proclaimed tomboy status. Presumably the latter is influenced by the fact that both Gary and Frank had a crush on Sam, and she didn’t make her final decision between the two until one of them moved away (ouch).
Overall, Sam was the kind of person who would verbally hate on Twilight but secretly be envious she didn’t write it first. She was also the kind of person who, if you passed her a note in class reading “Do you like me? Circle Yes/No,” would have circled the dash mark.
Stig (Season 5)
The term didn’t exist in the 1990s, but Stig was a neckbeard. Greasy, large, and constantly pleading for recognition of his nonexistent “good qualities,” Stig was nominated for Midnight Society membership by Tucker during the show’s last season.
Stig actually told two pretty good stories, but because the Midnight Society was prejudiced against people who ate the magic dust they threw on the fire each week, they didn’t initially accept him.
Instead, Stig was told to audit a few group meetings before he was allowed to tell his second – and, what turned out to be his last – story, which earned him membership.
Maybe it’s due to his short tenure on the show, but Stig was pretty unremarkable apart from doing something weird or gross about once an episode. The actor who played Stig disappeared, though, so that’s something.
A recurring character of Gary’s, Sardo was the inept yet devious owner of Sardo’s Magic Mansion. Because this was the 1990s, he had several catchphrases, including:
- “That’s Sar-DOH! No mister, accent on the DO!”
- “Have you seen our vomit?”
- “Alright! But I’m losing on the deal!”
Sardo mostly cropped up to sell apparently worthless trinkets and potions to the rotating cast of protagonists, only to realize later the objects actually possessed magical qualities.
Apparently the actor who portrayed Sardo, Richard Dumont, was eager to return as the character in the Are You Afraid of the Dark revival in 1999, which makes me feel sad but also better about my own life.
BONUS: Dr. Vink
By far Are You Afraid of the Dark’s greatest character – recurring or not – was Dr. Vink. Unlike Sardo, he didn’t have a consistent occupation, appearing as a filmmaker, mad scientist, chef, and even a barber depending on the needs of the storyline.
He also had catchphrases: “Vink. With a va, va, VA!” and “I am not a nutbag.” I’m okay with this, mostly because it’s funny to remember that people would occasionally call each other nutbags in the 90s.
Dr. Vink was physically imposing and on the knife’s edge of sanity, and kept viewers guessing by appearing both as friend and foe throughout the series’ run. You were never quite sure what his endgame was, but it was always a lot of fun to watch.
And so we beat on, boats against the current…
And there we have it – an in-depth look at the recurring cast of Are You Afraid of the Dark! Soon, we’ll dive headfirst into the series that stole sleep from a countless number of children and put the “camp” in “campfire.”
And in the process, we’ll answer the question…are we still afraid of the dark?