It’s hard to believe that it’s been twenty five years since “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” premiered on Nickelodeon in the US. The anthology horror series is one of the most fondly remembered kids shows of the 1990s mainly for its creative premises, surprise twists, and deeply entrenched moral lessons that were found in many episodes. The history of “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” is just as interesting as the show itself. It was the launch pad for many very well known actors, and displayed a shocking sense of edge with every episode.
The show thankfully still holds up today as a creepy and creative horror series, and despite some camp here and there, it’s a still a well written anthology with a ton of memorable monsters including Zeebo, The Ghastly Grinner, and the Frozen Ghost. Here are my top five episodes.
The Tale of the Twisted Claw
I’ll freely admit that “The Tale of the Twisted Claw” earns its place in as an Honorable Mention because it’s literally the first episode of “Are You Afraid…?” I’ve ever seen. Long before I had cable, my brother and I sat down to SNICK one night and were awestruck at the series and genuinely loved this episode. It’s another iteration on the claw that grants wishes, and every wish has some kind of consequence that always turns out disastrous or horrifying. The ending is spooky enough, but it’s nice to see that the episode is technically a Halloween episode.
5. The Tale of the Water Demons
Forget those “Partnership for a drug free America” PSA’s. The best way to let kids know not to steal is to warn them that water logged zombies will rise from their aquatic graves every night if you steal. When Shawn and his cousin Dean break in to a local museum and steal an antique, they realize with the precious cargo its curator plundered from a sunken ship comes the curse of water demons that rise from their grave every night to pull him in with them. This has prevented him from sleeping as he always as to be on guard. When the cousins begin getting terrorized by the water demons, they have to set out to right their wrongs, or else be pulled in to the water with them forever. “The Tale of the Water Demons” was on constant rotation in my house as a kid as it’s one of the very few episodes featuring genuine zombies, along with an episode with a stern message about taking what isn’t yours.
4. The Tale of the Dream Girl
Many people have accused M. Night Shymalan of stealing the concept for “The Tale of the Dream Girl” for “The Sixth Sense,” but I am kind of in the level where I think it’s wholly coincidental. Either way, both twists are pretty damn brilliant, even for a Nickelodeon show aimed toward kids. The episode focuses on very tightly bonded brother and sister Johnny and Erica. Johnny lately has been felling insignificant noticing that his mom is ignoring him, his classmates are treating him like he doesn’t matter, and his boss at the bowlarama he and his sister work at isn’t giving him credit for his work, lately. After experiencing haunting visions of a young girl calling out to him at night, Johnny and Erica try to find out where his ghostly visions and haunting calls are coming from and what significance they hold toward his life. It’s a creepy and gut wrenching episode about loss and grief.
3. The Tale of the Night Shift
This is one of the very few kids’ shows on television that ever admitted to the fact that vampires suck blood. Yes, they suck blood, they love blood, and they’ll murder anyone for it. Including kids. “The Tale of the Night Shift” is a spooky story set during the night in a children’s hospital where the newest volunteer nurse turns out to be a bloodsucking ghoul. As she makes her way through various staff members and kids, it’s up to character Amanda to stop the vicious vampire before he makes a buffet out of the entire ward. It’s a creepy and very suggestive episode that once again aces the idea of the vampires as terrifying ghouls that creep in the darkness and consume humans.
2. The Tale of the Laughing in the Dark
Sometimes some of the scariest and most sinister villains are those that we can’t see, and “The Tale of the Laughing in the Dark” is very good about barely showing its villain at all. When young Shawn is challenged to visit a supposedly haunted fun house that’s occupied by the spirit of a clown named Zeebo, he’s told to steal the clown prop of Zeebo’s nose as proof he made it all the way to the end of the funhouse. When Shawn manages to make it home that night, he realizes he’s being terrorized by a mysterious presence who may or may not be Zeebo.
Sure it’s a metaphor for nagging guilt about stealing and taking what doesn’t belong to you, but it’s also very much the heinous ghost of Zeebo who is making Shawn’s life a living hell the longer he holds on to the nose of the clown. The fact that we only see shadows of Zeebo and hear Zeebo at doorways and over phones is still pretty damn creepy, and the episode is rather great about playing with fear of the unknown. It also sports a rather neat surprise ending that I still dig.
1. The Tale of the Midnight Madness
Movies have a life and a magic to them, and it’s never made more apparent than in “the Midnight Maness” where a movie comes to life to wreak havoc on its owners. This is one of the many episodes that scared the life out of my little sister, and she spent years dreading the imagery of Nosferatu, as his visage is one of the primary sources of terrifying imagery in the entire episode. The local revival theater The Rialto is known for playing old black and white movies and barely brings in any business. That is until the enigmatic Dr. Vink appears one night with a classic silent horror film that he swears will bring in business. Lo and behold the theater is resurrected with rabid movie fans that want to see the movie.
When the theater manager goes back on his bargain with Dr. Vink to play more of his classic movies, the movie itself unleashes a curse where the film’s monster, the dreaded vampire Nosferatu, creeps forth from the film and begins hunting for blood. This iteration of Nosferatu is a vicious monster who even makes lunch of the episode’s manager character, so takes the team work of our pair of heroes to bring the vampire back in to its film prison. “The Tale of the Midnight Madness” is a particularly spooky episode with a great concept that also ends on a neat surprise ending. I wish we’d seen a sequel for this episode somewhere down the line, but the closest we get is more of Dr. Vink wreaking havoc in future episodes.