“Submitted for the approval of The Midnight Society, I call this story…”
If you were of Nickelodeon-watching age in the 90s, just reading that gave you a little chill. Every Saturday night you’d turn down the lights and lean in to the screen, holding your breath as the flames blazed up and the night’s tale began. Whether the stories were about objects with strange powers, unnatural creatures, or evil living or undead, every single one delivered a good scare and the thrill of vicarious membership in The Midnight Society.
Are You Afraid of the Dark? premiered 25 years ago this year (27 in Canada). Popular enough to last five seasons, and still well-loved enough four years after its cancellation to be revived for two more. Its popularity was well-earned: Drawing on classics from The Monkey’s Paw to Nosferatu to The Twilight Zone, AYAOTD served up suspenseful, memorable stories that followed kids to sleep and creaked behind their closets and under their beds after the lights went out. And even though (with a few famous exceptions) the tales’ characters changed from week to week, the individual members of The Midnight Society, the storytellers, were consistent, defined characters whose stories reflected their own personalities, interests, and experiences. And these personalities looked and sounded startlingly normal. There were crushes, sibling rivalries, and mutual dislikes – all the small familiar dynamics of any group of kids. The most unusual thing about them was their ability to meet at a secret spot in the woods after dark at some unspecified safe distance from adults who might fuss over their campfire or their monsters.
And what monsters they were. There were restless ghosts, haunting the living and haunted by their own past misdeeds. There was Zeebo the Clown, an apparition so terrifying you’ll have to hear about him in an upcoming edition of This Week’s Episode because I value my sleep too much to revisit him. There was the Nosferatu-esque thing that could climb out of the movie screen or snatch you into the stuttering black-and-white world behind it. There was the creepy neighbor who could trap you in her dollhouse, dooming you to eternity as an even creepier porcelain doll. There were the monsters inside us, vanity and greed and fear, dark impulses given substance by something just that side of supernatural. And underneath it all, beyond the claws and the fangs and the menacing mad grins and the shimmers of sinister magic, there were the singular horrors of late childhood and early adolescence: Peer judgement. Unrequited love. Untrustworthy adults. And the creeping terror that everything is so wrong, no amount of magic can save you.
The timelessness of this fear combined with riveting storytelling make AYAOTD a classic. It should be harder to explain the appeal of a horror anthology series whose special effects budget consisted primarily of a fog machine, inventive makeup, and some impressive low-budget resourcefulness, but its genius wasn’t in any of these things (although they were remarkably well-executed). AYAOTD spoke to us because it didn’t pull its punches. It didn’t tell us everything would be all right. It didn’t promise happily ever afters. Your friends could move away, your crush could reject you, your soup could be made of fear. But whatever happened, you could still tell stories that would make sense of it, and in the telling confront and exorcise the demons that thrive unnamed. It was fun and brilliant and scary, but most of all AYAOTD showed us how the fellowship of storytelling could define and defy the darkness.
I declare this meeting of The Midnight Society closed.