Did you ever think that something was so awesome when you were a kid and still imagine that it is so awesome? Well, usually it’s not so great anymore. Take Alvin & the Chipmunks—I can’t believe I really sat through all that chirping in those tiny voices. And Scooby Doo—they barely could color in the lines and Mama Cass made a cameo as a poorly-drawn character. Really? Watching all of this stuff as an adult made me doubt my ‘90’s kid self's good judgment.
But then I found a show that redeemed me. My very favorite show from childhood, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, actually withstands the test of time. I’m not ashamed to say that I re-watched the entire thing on YouTube recently (OK, I’m a little ashamed to say that because I probably could have written the Great American Novel or vacuumed my apartment in the same length of time) and it is still good. The clothes and hairstyles are a little outdated, but the dialogue isn’t corny, the storylines aren’t predictable, and—most surprising of all—it’s still scary.
Are You Afraid of the Dark? followed the model of other creepy shows like The Twilight Zone (along with some of the same plots) and featured introductory sections with characters that stayed the same from week to week followed by a spooky story that never featured the same characters.
Each week’s episode would begin with the meeting of a group of teens called “The Midnight Society” who would hold their meetings in the woods, in front of a campfire. “The Midnight Society” was comprised of a bunch of people who probably wouldn’t be hanging out together in normal society—the geek and his little brother, the pretty blonde girl, the sporty tomboy—but came together because of their love of telling scary stories.
The beginning of the meeting would segue into that night’s tale with the storyteller saying, “Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society, I call this story…” followed by the title of their tale and by throwing out a handful of “midnight dust” from a leather pouch. The tales encompassed the whole scope of scary tales from ghosts and haunted houses, to aliens and curses. Occasionally, the story would relate back to the teller’s life and he or she, along with the entire Midnight Society, would learn a lesson from it.
At the end of the episode, Gary, the nerdy leader of the group, would throw a bucket of water on the fire and say “I declare this meeting of the Midnight Society closed.” Sometimes the group had already dispersed because they were so scared of the woods after the night’s spooky tale.
Part of the reason that Are You Afraid of the Dark? is still so good is because of the mythology it creates. Teens go out into the woods and tell a tale—they made it up, perhaps, but with the jumping around and the storytelling aspect, viewers of the show never really knew where the story originated. And that was what made it creepy—it could very well be real. It was also just really clever—it took old ghost story tropes and made them interesting and relevant to kids: weary readers were entombed in a library and forced to read books for centuries, the boy gets the girl after he kills the monster in the school swimming pool, a sister is really an alien.
It’s really specific to kids, yes, but my grandma always liked it as much as I did. And probably—influenced a bit by a nostalgia wishing I could spend my Friday nights at my grandma’s house again—I like it now even more than I did then.
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