Tales Like Midnight Dust: Five Episodes to Reignite Your Love For Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Are You Afraid of the Dark? was a crown jewel in 1990s Nickelodeon programming. As part of the Saturday Night Nick (SNICK) lineup from inception, it usually followed Ren & Stimpy as the last show of the night. When that wacky, wonderful Ren & Stimpy credit music started playing, my entire body would bristle. I knew I’d see that rocking boat soon, that creaking door, that evil fucking clown in the attic, and then… the match.

Nickelodeon was actually blocked on our downstairs TV for years, but my parents allowed me to watch SNICK upstairs in their bedroom… alone. It was both an exciting and dreaded part of my Saturday every week.

If I looked back on every show I’ve watched in my lifetime with regard to my writing career, I’d be remiss not to cite Are You Afraid of the Dark? as a massive influence. When I write young adult (YA) horror, I also try to figure out which kind of Are You Afraid of the Dark? episode I’m writing, ending-wise. For me, that’s the best part about Are You Afraid of the Dark? episodes. They’re varied, but tend to fall into two umbrella categories.

Episodes like “The Tale of the Dollmaker” and “The Frozen Ghost” have happy endings because a tortured spirit is freed, a wrong is righted, or the protagonist learns something important about themselves or someone they love. Then, you have the twisted endings that either doom our protagonists or bequeath temporary happiness. In tales likes “The Nightly Neighbors” and “The Curious Camera,” we are shown that despite victory, the horror isn’t over.

Now, I freely admit I have a natural bias to Betty Ann episodes and that I haven’t watched all of Season 7. I considered all the episodes I saw in the last two seasons, but except for “The Tale of Many Faces” and a few others, those tales are pretty weak.

All that considered… Here are my Top Five Greatest Episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, based on creepiness, character development, story creativity, and re-watchability. I have eliminated multi-part episodes like “Cutter’s Treasure” and “The Silver Sight.” So, let’s throw some powder on this campfire and get started!

[Note: Full episodes are available for purchase on YouTube.]


#5: Episode 1.07: “The Tale of the Captured Souls”

Hey, what’s scarier than aging several decades in a day? How about going through puberty in a day? This story centers around a family on vacation in a house tended by an eerie, and rather dickish, teenager named Peter. Are You Afraid of the Dark? tackles the notion of image obsession in lots of stories, but this is a unique tale. This isn’t about a girl who’s punished for wanting to be beautiful. Danielle — Dani, really — is a sporty girl who’s accepted by her parents for being exactly who she is. It’s kinda great to see a YA story about a girl like Dani who never questions who she is. No one around her questions it, actually, except for that wiener, Peter. Although Dani tells Peter she prefers being called “Dani” several times, he continues to call her “Danielle.”

So yeah, we’re not supposed to like Peter. No problem there.

The vacation house is filled with mirrors, part of a collection, Peter explains. Dani’s father flops down on a bed and looks into the mirror on the ceiling while saying, “I kinda like it.” Dirrrty, SNICK.

The next day, while Peter attempts to throw a ball like a human and show just how much of a “sportsman” he’s not, he freaks out over having his picture taken. It’s ridiculous how obvious Peter is about being fucking evil, but hey, the characters are prematurely graying and getting sleepy, so I guess aging makes you not question super-obvious evil shit. Her previously sweet and attentive parents are like, “Shut up about your cameras in mirrors crap, Dani, I need a nap.” I just hope they got to use that mirror over the bed before Peter sapped all the pluck from their fuck.

While exploring the house, Dani stumbles into Peter’s room where he says a whole bunch of creepy shit like “I’ve always admired a girl with great physical strength.” Um…K. Then he points out a giant zit on Dani’s face like a total jerkwad. Once Dani’s gone, he reveals his crazy mad scientist lab where he monitors the family through the mirrors. Locked inside a chamber, he laughs like an utter zeeb as he steals time from the family, causing them to age rapidly. The parents get significantly older, and Dani is breaking out like crazy. Her mom notices the change in her daughter’s complexion, but not that Dani’s grown an impressive pair of tatas in less than 48 hours.

Her parents actually treat her like shit as they age. But we need to remember that Dani is going through accelerated puberty as well. Maybe her parents’ dismissal is heightened because everything is heightened during puberty. I might be reaching, sure, but if we’re already giving ourselves over to a world where we’ve encountered this gross guy Peter and not turned tail for any other place not run by a total creep, maybe we need to think about the deeper message. The intro tells us straight up that people aren’t always who they are on the surface. Obviously, this is about Peter, but Are You Afraid of the Dark? plays with the mirror imagery a lot. Beauty, doppelgangers, hidden personas, even the Mowry twins as chameleons. Some of us disappear into mirrors. Others find strength. This is where Dani and Peter face off. He uses mirrors to steal people’s power, and she resists disappearing cuz fuck image.

Dani eventually traps Peter in his dumb old man tube and hits reverse on his machine. She and her parents get their strength back, and they leave. One of my favorite lines of any Are You Afraid of the Dark? episode is the last line of this one. Dani looks at the Polaroid of Peter’s true, decrepit self and says, “It’s just some sad old man.”


#4: Episode 4.12: “The Tale of the Closet Keepers”

A plot involving interdimensional beings kidnapping children from all over the world for an underground zoo is fun in itself, but it’s Stacy, a deaf basketball star, and her evolving relationship with Billy, the dickish male jerkwad, who makes this story special. After Billy humiliates Stacy about being deaf, she ducks into an abandoned building. Like most abandoned buildings, it contains a gravitron elevator covered in veins that leads to a freaky underground lab. The beings who run this lab use sound-based alarms and weaponry, so Stacy’s deafness is something of a superpower here. Here, Are You Afraid of the Dark? follows the tradition of beings not from Earth thinking Earth children can subsist on weird, sloppy vitamin paste without complaining. Silly fucks.

However, the beings running the zoo aren’t as terrifying as the ones who visit. The dude in charge even insinuates that certain visitors will pay handsomely for “such an educational experience.” And I don’t wanna know what that means cuz I’m already assuming some horrible answers. The costuming and set designs are intriguing, peppered with details that about a world of which this episode only skims the surface. As one captive says, “We call it the future. They call it the past.”

Though Are You Afraid of the Dark? is most known for its ghost stories, I find that episodes dipping into sci-fi and magical realism are some of the greatest. The social conscience shines bright here too, especially when Stacy explains why she won’t attempt escape without Billy. He doesn’t understand why, since he’s never been nice to her. Her response, “Because I can’t hear, but you don’t listen,” is a powerful message that finally reaches our ol’ Lucas Barton lookalike. I was sad to learn that the actress portraying Stacy isn’t deaf, as she also played one of Bethy’s bitchy friends in “The Tale of the Lonely Ghost,” but the statement is important nonetheless. Plus, I really dig the idea of the brainevator that can transport you to any specific point across the globe when you smash your fingertip against an unlabeled map.


#3: Episode 1.03: “The Tale of the Lonely Ghost”

I had a tough time choosing between this and “The Tale of the Frozen Ghost,” but the way this story tackles topics like bullying and the death of a child clinched it for me. Plus, as the third episode of season one, it’s the first to end happily. Our main character, Amanda, is staying with her aunt and bitchy cousin Bethy for the summer, and she’s pretty desperate for bitchy Bethy’s friendship. Of course, bitchy Bethy has bitchy friends that make Amanda prove she’s not a “zeeb,” because cool people use the word “zeeb,” by going into the haunted house next door. If you didn’t already hate Beth, she proceeds to scold Amanda for talking to and almost shaking hands with Beth’s live-in nanny.

It’s really fun to hate Beth.

So Bitchface and her cohorts mirror (*snort*) a group of bullies from decades ago who locked a young deaf girl in the bedroom of the house next door. Since her mother was out of town tending to her sick soldier husband, no one knows she’s there, and she starves to death. When Amanda enters the house, she discovers the words HELP ME written in reverse on the walls. Beth’s mother forces the girls to clean the walls, but there’s way more of it when they go back.

Oh, and there’s a ghost now. She’s not evil, though. I mean, she switches places with Bitchy Bethy and traps her in the mirror, so we gotta love the poor dead chick for that.

The deeper story about the young dead child and her mother (Nanny) is the heart and soul of this episode. Nanny is frequently described as “crazy” by Bitchy Bethy because HER FUCKING CHILD STARVED TO DEATH, YOU MONSTER. When Amanda has to literally pull Nanny up the stairs to reunite with her daughter, your heart breaks for her. She’s terrified. She feels guilty for not being there to protect her kid when the bullies got to her. But the reunion gets even better, as the mother and child step into the mirror and are transported back to their happiest days. Together, forever.

Side note, my brother spied on me the first time I watched this episode and actually tagged my bedroom with a backward “Help Me,” which was waiting for me upon finishing the episode.

What a zeeb.


#2: Episode 4.11: “The Tale of the Unfinished Painting”

This episode has a Roald Dahl The Witches vibe for me. It also has some of the coolest jump scares in the series. Kaylee from Firefly (known as Cody in this tale) is an artist who wants to find inspiration and improve her craft, so she takes a job working at The Hunter Gallery completing one of many unfinished paintings Mrs. Briar keeps around to remind her that “art is a struggle.” And the biggest struggle in the Hunter Gallery is painting 80% of someone else’s piece with only a single brush. Oh, and the whole getting trapped inside your painting thing.

At this point, you might be like, “Oh that Briar bitch is a liar witch,” and hey, maybe she is, but it’s more complex than that. You see, like most professional artists, Briar keeps a decapitated head in the same cabinet as her art supplies. We never find out who this head dude is, but Briar does admit to being a “hunter” who’s been alive for centuries. Not one of the Winchesters‘ ilk, I’m assuming. After Cody signs her name with one of Briar’s cursed paintbrushes, she disappears into the ballet scene she’s been painting for the last few weeks. What follows is a literal dumpster fire.

Briar attempts to burn Cody’s painting, and her inside it, in a dumpster, but when Cody escapes and discovers the brushes are to blame, she incinerates them in the same dumpster.  Please don’t ask me to explain how this works. Of all the top episodes, I’ll say this has some of the biggest plot holes, but you do get an awesome CG fire of a screaming/laughing Hunter and the Head Honcho.

And… shout-out to one of the coolest fictional brothers, too. He’s ’90s hot and supportive, which made me feel weird in the pants.

AHEM…NUMBER ONE.


#1: Episode 2.04: “The Tale of the Thirteenth Floor”

The perfect blend of Are You Afraid of the Dark? horror, sci-fi, and heart. Right away we’re given a sweet and complex relationship between the main character Karen and her adoptive brother, Billy. Karen and Billy use the vacant thirteenth floor as their personal playground, where Karen struggles to compete with her brother’s natural talent. Karen is understandably obsessed with the fact that she’s adopted, citing her real parents often, even that they must be klutzes like her.

New tenants move in and invite Karen to the toy company opening on the thirteenth floor. She begs Billy to go with her. There are bright colors and cool gizmos galore like bobblehead dogs and large sentient dice, for reasons. For the first time in the siblings’ relationship, Karen beats Billy in many of the tests. Oh, and she uses telekinesis and shit.

As a girl with two older brothers who dreamt of being Matilda, I was cheering for Karen like crazy. But we also know something’s not right here. The toy people are pretty weird, and one of them keeps fiddling with machinery that makes Billy sleepier and sleepier. The fiddly dude explains he’s changing the atmospheric pressure to simulate the atmosphere of his planet, and then HE TAKES OFF HIS FACE. The alien design is really creepy and cool. As are the robots that look like the aliens. Cuz this isn’t just a fake toy company run by aliens. They have alien-looking remote-controlled robot slaves. Yeah. Let that sink in.

To be fair, the alien planet sounds rad. You can fly and see through to other worlds. But Karen’s not an asshole, so when the aliens offer her the chance to go home with them, she chooses to save her dying brother.

They escape and the aliens leave, but Karen receives a message on her TV from aliens who confess that this was Karen’s rescue. They accidentally left her on Earth years ago and had been waiting all this time to return. Now that they’ve gone, they can’t return for her for another ten years.

Much to her brother’s terror, Karen’s human face has now vanished, leaving behind a pale, featureless, alien noggin that’s possibly the most bone-chilling final frame of an Are You Afraid of the Dark? episode.


Most of these shouldn’t be considered the scariest episodes, though I did stress way too much about compiling this list. As I told my husband, “I want to make the right decisions,” to which he said, “But it’s an opinion.” He’s right. It is just an opinion, but I also believe Are You Afraid of the Dark? is one of the greatest horror anthology shows of all time, and it doesn’t get its due. There are some gruesome practical effects, and many of the episodes are possessed by atmosphere that swells more deftly than shows for the older demographic, like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. Complex stories, solid acting, and creative camera work made Are You Afraid of the Dark? one of the greatest, most intriguing shows on TV at that time. And maybe the greatest and most creative RIGHT NOW.

No, that’s silly. There’s way better shit now. Black Mirror, for one. But Are You Afraid of the Dark? holds up, and most episodes are excellent “inspirado” for any of my arty cohorts out there. If it’s been a while since you watched, I recommend starting with the five listed above and the honorable mentions below:

“The Tale of the Dangerous Soup” (Episode 3.13): Dr. Vink (with a VA VA VA) is making a soup laced with the fear of his shitty employees. Neve Campbell at her 90s best.

“The Tale of Badge” (Episode 5.13): It isn’t particularly scary, but there’s some masterful makeup and background world-building. There’s also really cool matriarchal lore and a demon tied to their bloodline and music. It’s silly but unique.

“The Tale of Dead Man’s Float”(Episode 5.01): If you ask most Are You Afraid of the Dark? fans which episode still scares the shit outta them, it’s this one. The gore is cranked up to eleven in this episode, and it’s cool how the characters use chemistry to defeat the ghost. Unfortunately, the story is weak. Uh, there used to be a graveyard under the pool or something, and um yeah, I guess they forgot to move one body. That said, there’s a solid relationship between the main characters, and the practical effects are on point. The pool corpse is scary as fuck.

It’s weird that this is a flawed episode that remains good. Because it’s actually Stig’s audition piece for the Midnight Society, and… he doesn’t get in. He is given another chance, however, so…I don’t know what it means. It’s just a thing I noticed.

“The Tale of Laughing in the Dark” (Episode 1.02): Zeebo the Clown. ‘Nuff said. (WAIT, IS THIS THE ORIGIN OF “ZEEB?” WHAT THE ACTUAL CIGAR-SMOKING FUCK?)


Jessica McHugh is a novelist and internationally produced playwright running amok in the fields of horror, sci-fi, young adult, and wherever else her peculiar mind leads. She’s had twenty-one books published in nine years, including her bizarro romp, The Green Kangaroos, her Post Mortem Press bestseller, Rabbits in the Garden, and her YA series, The Darla Decker Diaries. More information on her published and forthcoming fiction can be found at JessicaMcHughBooks.com.

5 Comments

  • Erin Bales October 27, 2017 at 4:16 pm

    Yes! Great choices! I was OBSESSED with this show back in the day, but I haven’t seen any of episodes since they aired. I might just have to head on over to YouTube for a rewatch…

    Reply
  • Shara White October 27, 2017 at 8:45 pm

    What a great post! I never had cable growing up, so I never watched this show, but after reading your post, I feel like I have! Now I want to!

    Reply
  • Casey Price October 28, 2017 at 11:55 am

    I’m pretty sure I saw some of these, but not all of them! I neeeed to go back and watch these! And I hope a streaming service picks them up, because purchasing them isn’t really on the table right now. I had pretty much forgotten the existence of this show until your post. It’s definitely a major source of my teenage obsession with scary stories; I can’t believe that it had slipped out of my mind like that. Perhaps I, too, am a zeeb.

    Reply
    • Shara White October 28, 2017 at 4:37 pm

      I think I would love to watch these…. they really sound familiar to me, like I did watch them, but I know for a fact I never had cable, so unless I caught an episode or two at a friend’s house and didn’t realize what I was watching.

      Reply
  • Nicole Taft October 28, 2017 at 11:37 pm

    Man I remember ALL of these! It took a bit to dredge them up because it’s been so long, but I absolutely do! Dead Man’s Float was super freaky and no joke, even though I haven’t seen It Follows, when I read the summary and the whole bit about the entity being in the water, I totally thought of this episode.

    I’d say some of my top ones include, “The Tale of the Frozen Ghost,” “The Tale of Apartment 214,”The Tale of the Jagged Sign,” and my absolute favorite, “The Tale of the Dark Dragon.” Fun story about this one – I always thought the main guy in that one was cute. Cut to many years later when I was watching Stargate Atlantis (which also featured Jewel Staite!) and about fell out of my chair because there he was! The same guy! And he was still super cute! Also, another character accidentally called him by his real name during filming (Chuck), so they just went with it. So in SG-Atlantis, he’s Chuck! 😀

    Reply

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: