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12 For Midnight: The Best Episodes of "Are You Afraid of the Dark?
Welcome to the Midnight Society...
There's not doubt that for kids growing up in the early to mid 1990s, Nickelodeon was the place where the smart among us went to get our TV fix. It could arguably be considered the glory days for Nick, at least creatively (even though nowadays the likes of ICarly and SpongeBob bring in higher ratings). Nick had shows that seemed like what kids whould make themselves, instead of shows parents wanted kids to see. How else to explain, for example, shows like the ever-quirky The Adventures of Pete and Pete ,which could best be described as "The Wonder Years if created by David Lynch?" Or the cheerfully gross and rude cartoons Ren and Stimpy and Rocco's Modern Life ? Or the "kids run amok at summer camp" irrascablity of Salute Your Shorts ?
Yet perhaps none of the "classic Nick" shows was as atypical for childrens programming as the network's popular horror anthology, Are You Afraid of the Dark? The Canadian export (like a lot of early Nick programs, including the classic You Can't Say That On Television , AYAOTD was produced by our friendly neighbors to the north) debued as part of the original SNICK Saturday night lineup in 1992 (alongside Ren and Stimpy , the Fame meets SNL sketch show Roundhouse and Clarissa Explains it All , which introduced America to Melissa Joan Hart) and remained a mainstay of Saturday night for years to come. It's not hard to see why. Unlike the kiddified and juvenile TV adaptation of R.L. Stine's Goosebumps , AYAOTD was well written, smart and never talked down to kids (it even had the guts to end some episodes unhappily).
AYAOTD revolved around a group of kids called "The Midnight Society," who would meet in a secret clearing in the woods to tell scary stories. Every week, viewers were treated to another tale of terror, some of which were takeoffs on popular stories or legends (there was a variation on The Monkey's Paw , as well as a takeoff on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde , to name a couple examples). Some were heartwarming, some were educational and some were just plain freaky. But what were the best? For one man's personal opinion (and if you have any other suggestions, feel free to sound off in the comments), see below for the 12 high points of the series, one for each stroke of the midnight hour...
The Tale of Laughing in the Dark (Season One)
AYAOTD stuck gold with this episode, only the second of its debut season, which would ensure that an entire generation of children would be forever terrified of clowns. The amusement park Playland's star attraction is the Laughing in the Dark spookhouse, complete with its own real-life ghost! Said ghost is Zeebo the Clown, a carnival clown in the 1920s who stole the park's entire payroll, only to burn to death when trapped in the original spookhouse (his penchant for cigars backfired and set the place ablaze). Now he reputedly haunts the spookhouse which bears his image, namely a creepy-ass dummy that awaits patrons at the end of the attraction. An arrogant kid, hoping to impress his friends, sneaks into the ride and promptly steals the dummy's rubber nose. Big mistake, for Zeebo promptly comes after the kid, aiming to reclaim what was stolen from him. Without question the series' most popular episode (it would be referenced as a running in-joke in numerous subsequent episodes), the Zeebo dummy is still one freaky as hell creation and probably caused more clown-induced phobias than anything this side of Tim Curry's Pennywise in IT.
The Tale of the Lonely Ghost (Season One)
Right on the heels of Zeebo came this ghost story, which has perhaps the scariest scene in the show's history. Bookworm Amanda gets shipped off for the summer to her aunt's house, which would be okay except for her cousin Beth, perhaps the biggest bitch AYAOTD ever feartured. Beth is like a perfect storm of hateful traits: She's ragingly ginger, rude, nasty, snotty and rules her gang of friends through fear. She only will let Amanda hang with the group if she spends the night in the empty house next door, reportedly haunted by the ghost of a little mute girl who died there tragically many years before. Poor Amanda finds out the legend is true and must uncover the connection between the ghost and Beth's poor downtrodden nanny (Canadian actress Sheena Larkin, who would appear in several more episodes). Actually rather moving in the end, but most notable for the ghost's opening scene, where she first appears in a dark mirror, looking like the kissing cousin of Samara from The Ring. Dark-haired, pasty little girls in white dresses = instant nightmare fodder.
The Tale of the Super Specs (Season One)
The first episode to feature the Magic Mansion and its bumbling, scheming owner Sardo (Richard Dumont), the favorite character of Midnight Society boss Gary (Ross Hull, later to become a weatherman and TV reporter in Canada), this Twilight Zone-like episode has magic-loving Weeds (yes, Weeds) accidentally casting a spell on a pair of X-ray specs he buys from Sardo. When girlfriend Marybeth puts them on, she starts seeing frightening figures dressed all in black, apparently residents of an alternate dimension who are starting to cross over into ours. Marybeth and Weeds enlist Sardo to help them close the door between realties, but, given its Sardo, things don't go well. Features one of the darkest endings in the series' history and the black-clad beings are still rather creepy. And it serves as a valuable lesson; when trying to find someone to close an inter-dimensional portal, don't go with the guy who'll do it for only $20.
The Tale of the Dark Music (Season One)
Hoo boy, how this one got past the Nick censors is still a mystery. Dorky Andy thinks his family's caught a break when his mom inherits her dead uncle's house and they move in (he still has to deal with his little sister, a raging brat who can't be bothered when playing video games because she's never heard of the "pause" button). But things quickly turn bad for him, the least of which is a long-haired bully named "Koda" (um, who thinks up names on this show?) who instantly begins picking on him. Far worse is a root cellar in the basement, which contains a ghastly secret; it contains a shapeshifting monster that appears whenever music is played. The good news is, this monster will give you anything you desire (which it did for Andy's uncle). The bad news is, you have to feed it and guess what's it's favorite entrée? Guess what's Andy's final decision? There's some creepy images here (especially one freaky as hell giant doll), but the real horror is of the final scene and a chilling smile on a character's face that signals that evil has won. Again, this was on a show supposedly aimed at children.
The Tale of the Midnight Madness (Season Two)
Ever wonder why stories told by Midnight Society tough guy Frank (played by Taylor Lautner-lookalike Jason Alisharan) are so popular among AYAOTD fans? It's largely because they feature Dr. Vink (familiar Canadian bit actor Aron Tager, who also played Zeebo in Laughing in the Dark), a looney scientist and "adventurer into the unknown" who looks like Santa Claus crossed with the Unabomber and who became the show's most popular character. Here, Vink dabbles in filmmaking, lending a B/W silent vampire movie (Nosferatu:The Demon Vampire, a variation on the classic 1922 flick Nosferatu) to a rundown theater, which is promptly saved from closure when the flick becomes a popular Saturday midnight hit. But when the greedy theater managers reneges on his deal with Vink (Vink would get one night a week to show his other films), the hideous vampire promptly steps out of the film and into the real world to wreak havoc on the theater staff. Vink would be enough to recommend this, but there's also one genuinely horrifying vampire, which looks exactly like the original Nosferatu, right down to the bald head, rat ears, yellow fangs and taloned fingers. Compared to him, Vink's lack of personal hygiene doesn't seem so bad.
The Tale of the Midnight Ride (Season Three)
AYAOTD does Washington Irving with this semi-sequel to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, told as an initiation tale by Gary's obnoxious little brother Tucker (Daniel DeSanto, later best known as the guy in Mean Girls who asks Lindsey Lohan if she'd like him to "butter her muffin"). Wisecracking Ian, recently moved to Sleepy Hollow, crushes on cutie Katie, which puts him in the crosshairs of her jock ex-boyfriend Brad (who, like all douchbag jocks in this type of story, doesn't take "no" for an answer). This leads to a wild Halloween night where Ian and Katie learn the legend of Sleepy Hollow is no legend as they encounter both Ichabod Crane's ghost and the Headless Horseman himself, leading to a wild chase to the Bridge of Souls and safety from the pumpkin-wielding undead jockey. If you like the story or any of its adaptations, you'll like this one and the Horseman looks pretty impressive in this one (especially as he charges out of a wall, sword raised to chop heads). Only downside; given this is a Nick production, there is no scene where the odious Brad gets cut down to size, literally.
The Tale of Watcher's Woods (Season Three)
Another new member of the Midnight Society is initiated, this time cutie-pie Sam (future TV star Joanna Garcia of Freaks and Geeks, Reba and Gossip Girl fame), who quickly becomes the object of both Gary and Frank's affections. But her story is anything but cute. Overachieving Sarah comes to Camp Crindlestone for the summer and runs afoul of bitter rich girl Kelly (Jewel Staite, later Kaylee on Joss Whedon's Firefly), who tries to scare her with tales of Watcher's Woods, a malevolent woods guarded by a shape-changing demon into which three campers disappeared without a trace 75 years earlier. But when a prank Kelly plays on Sarah ends up getting the two of them lost in the woods, they blunder into Watcher's Woods and the clutches of the Watcher and the three missing campers, now a trio of dessicated undead hags who mistake Kelly for the campmate who got them lost in the first place all those years ago. Features some rather gruesome stuff (how did they let that skinned deer's head stay in the episode?) and the camp setting is genius, tapping into the ancient fear of getting lost in the woods. We'll overlook the fact that the Watcher looks like the result of what would happen if a Ent started tapping human ass.
The Tale of the Crimson Clown (Season Three)
Boy, someone at AYAOTD really did not like children. You'd think Laughing in the Dark would be enough, but someone evidentally thought kids hadn't been emotionally scarred enough by evil clowns and so we get this episode. Mike is a nice, decent kid who loves his mom and has saved up money to buy her a nice Christmas gift. His kid brother Sam is a colossal asshole (he's the kind of kid you'd tell to go play out in traffic - at the Indy 500) who steals his brother's birthday fund to buy a video game for himself and then blames his brother for them being late and present-less. Obviously, this little shit is begging for a comuppance and boy does he get it, as the titular clown, who hates bad kids, comes to punish him for his misdeeds. While the clown isn't as scary as Zeebo, he's still pretty unnerving and kids, like Sam, might be checking under their beds later to make sure he isn't there. Only downside is a disappointing ending where Sam mends his ways and becomes a good kid. Shame, I wanted the Crimson Clown to go all Pennywise from It on the little brat and shred him to pieces.
The Tale of Cutter's Treasure (Season Four)
A major event in AYAOTD history, this two-parter (broadcast originally a few nights before Halloween) is told jointly by Gary and Frank, which features the only joint appearance by their special characters Sardo and Dr. Vink. We also get epic scenery chewing by noted actor Charles Dutton (Rudy, Alien 3, Menace to Society, etc.), who portrays Captain Jonas Cutter, a murderous pirate captain back from the dead and looking for "one last battle" against anyone who would dare seek his hidden cache of treasure. He sets his sight on young Russell Keegan (the descendent of the one man who tried and failed to kill him when he was alive) and kidnaps his little brother to force him to seek him out and face him. Fortunately, Russell has help in the persons of Sardo and Dr. Vink, both of whom have their own motivations for helping him find and defeat Cutter. This has something for everyone. Pirates! Buried treasure! Adventure! Talking skeletons! A climactic duel! And the sheer pleasure of seeing Sardo and Dr. Vink share screentime (Vink in particular is at his most likable and helpful, perhaps because Russell is the first to correctly pronounce his name). One of the best written stories of the series, right down to a cool twist concerning Cutter's true motivations.
The Tale of the Dead Man's Float (Season Five)
The first story narrated by Stig (Codee Wilbee), the Pig-Pen of the Midnight Society (and never much liked given he replaced the departed Frank), this one is a doozy, featuring arguably the most horrifying monster ever on the series. Nerdy Zeke attempts to impress hot swimmer Clorice (huh, guess her parents foretold she'd thrive in the water) by showing her his recent discovery, a long-abandoned and forgotten swimming pool in their school, which Clorice promptly gets reopened for the swim team's use. But custodian Charlie knows the reason why it was shut down; the pool is haunted by an invisible spirit that drags swimmers down to a watery end (including, in a flashback, future Jud Apatow favorite Jay Baruchel, who'd later star in three more episodes of AYAOTD during its 1999-2000 revival). When Zeke and Clorice sneak in after hours for a swimming lesson (water-phobic Zeke's price for tutoring Claire in chemistry), they end up battling for their lives against the watery horror with Charlie's help. Good story (who isn't scared by horrors from the deep?), but the main highlight is the water spirit after Zeke finds a way to make it visible. We almost wish he hadn't, because the result is a horrific rotting corpse with a skull face, all detailed in blood red. Have fun taking a bath after watching this one, kiddies.
The Tale of the Night Shift (Season Five)
Warning to the Twilight crowd. Vampires on AYAOTD are never good-looking. No, on this show, they tend to be ghastly freaks who are more interested in noshing on your neck than whispering sweet nothings in your ear. And if you thought the vampire in Midnight Madness was bad, check out the green-skinned, red-eyed, shape-shifting bloodsucker in this tale. Said vampire is an ancient sort who only needs to feed every half-century or so, whereupon he goes on a massive feeding frenzy and binges like a drunk at Mardi Gras. And this time, he's chosen a hospital, posing as a young volunteer aide (yep, this vampire can change into other people, not just a bat) and snacking on staff and patients alike on the night shift. The only hope for the hospital is overachieving volunteer Amanda (future Entourage hottie Emanuelle Chriqui), her would-be suitor Colin and beleagured young maintenance man Felix, who's been infected with vampirism and is trying to destroy the vampire before he becomes one too. Creepy as hell (the empty hospital corridors are a perfect spooky setting) and with some clever touches too (like the method of destroying the vamp by torching his coffin). Oh and the vampire dies damn hard for a children's show. Added note; look for the first and very brief on-screen appearance of Elisha Cuthbert (yep, Kim Bauer from 24), who would later star as Midnight Society member Megan in the 1999-2000 revival of the show.
The Tale of the Silver Sight (Season Seven)
The 1999-2000 revival of the series (coming after a three year hiatus), featuring a returning Tucker presiding over a new Midnight Society, is much less regarded than the original run, which is understandable, given a general drop in quality as well as an unfortunate trend toward the kiddified stories that the original run avoided. But damn, did the show conclude nicely with this three-part saga (which later got broadcast as a TV film or sorts). A bevvy for longtime fans of the show, we get the return of Gary (Ross Hull returning in his old role), the origin of the Midnight Society and the Society getting the chance to finally live a scary tale themselves. When Gary and Tucker's grandfather (who founded the original Midnight Society) dies suddenly, they learn a dark secret from his past was responsible. Seems the original Society got their mitts on a cursed magical talisman called "The Silver Sight," which could grant them whatever you desired, but at a terrible cost. When too much bad things happened, one of the Society hid the Sight and made a record that would lead to its location, breaking it up and giving one piece to each of his friends, so they'd have to come together again to find it (unfortunately, he was killed the very next day). Gary and Tucker and the new Midnight Society must therefore track down the record pieces, find the Silver Sight and destroy it once and for all. Easier said than done, when others are tracking it too, one the lone surviving member of the original Society (the supposed "traitor" of the group), the other a mysterious little kid who may be an otherworldly evil tied to the Sight. If any of the later seasons episodes regained the original series' magic, this is it (largely due to the involvement of series creator D.J. McHale, who wrote this; he's currently best known as author of the popular Pendragon young adult fantasy book series). A treat for all AYAOTD fans, this was a fitting climax to the series.