Can ‘Are You Afraid of the Dark?’ Still Scare Me (an Adult)?

Testing the show’s power on its 30th anniversary

IMAGE: Nickelodeon
being brave

Are You Afraid of the Dark? premiered on SNICK, a two-hour Saturday night Nickelodeon programming block geared toward tweens, on August 15, 1992. That makes today its 30th birthday. Please don’t use this information to “feel old yet”; that’s how the ghosts win.

As a kid, I loved anything scary or having to do with witchcraft or astral projection or teens meeting in the woods for illicit purposes, including Are You Afraid of the Dark? I remember the series having some pretty scary episodes. Hearing it was approaching this 30-year milestone made me wonder whether it still possessed the ability to frighten me, now that I am similarly aged (if not aged to an even greater extent).

Each episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? begins at a campfire in the woods with the members of the Midnight Society, a group of kids who attempt to scare each other each week with a story. They also tend to flirt, which is none of my business. The horror series is now only accessible through Paramount+, a streaming service I have to remember to cancel before my one-week trial period ends. Paramount+ excludes two episodes from the show’s original first season, leaving nine. I watched each of these nine episodes alone and with the lights off to reach maximum scariness. I bring you the results here.

Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society, I call this story … Are Me Afraid of the Dark?

The Intro

For the sake of honesty, I’d like to admit that the intro scared me every time.

The Tale of the Phantom Cab

“Two brothers, while lost in the woods, come across a mysterious cab driver and a very unusual man named Dr. Vink who won’t let any of his victims go unless they solve a riddle: ‘What is lighter than air, can be seen by the naked eye, and if put in a barrel, will make the barrel lighter?’”

A hole. We both know the answer to this riddle, and yet the pair of brothers at the hand of Dr. Vink are somehow clueless. The younger brother — supposedly good at riddles, and eager to redeem himself after he got his older, bitchy brother lost because he didn’t know how to use a compass — is so out of his depth with the hole riddle that he gives up on it immediately and asks for a different riddle. I’m not sure what about this situation has led him to believe Dr. Vink would be amenable to his demands, but alas he is not. Instead, as punishment for not even offering a guess, they have to get into a phantom cab with a dead guy who wants to kill them.

While I dislike the idea of being lost in the words, encountering men, and having to answer riddles under pressure, I do not feel scared by the possibility of it. I don’t think it will happen to me. And in this situation, for example, I would have just answered the riddle. Also the children were annoying.

FINAL RULING: Not scary.

The Tale of Laughing in the Dark

“A kid named Josh decides to prove that a fun house isn’t haunted by stealing the nose of the clown who is supposed to haunt the place. He learns that the story isn’t fiction when Zeebo pays him a little visit.”

A recurring theme in Are You Afraid of the Dark? is the danger of hubris in the face of scariness. While The Twilight Zone offered lessons like “don’t be racist” and “don’t be a Nazi” and “don’t read,” the main lesson of Are You Afraid of the Dark? is: Do be scared. In the world of the show, bravery related to the supposedly paranormal is inextricably tied to jerkiness. Fair enough. We all should remain at least agnostic, in terms of ghosts, et cetera.

Josh, a youthful asshole, commits Are You Afraid of the Dark?’s big sin by refusing to be scared of the dead clown who apparently haunts the fun house at the carnival. Well, he got what was coming to him. Zeebo (the clown) shows up at his house, scares him, and makes him spill a big bowl of pudding.

Without painting myself too obviously as the next target of Are You Afraid of the Dark?’s lesson, this episode did not scare me. I don’t find clowns frightening, and Josh was an asshole. It’s hard to root against someone learning a valuable lesson (don’t be an asshole).

FINAL RULING: Not scary.

The Tale of the Lonely Ghost

“A girl who desperately wants to be friends with her snotty cousin and her group of friends agrees to spend the night in the haunted house next door to become part of the group.”

In this episode, a sweet country girl is shipped off to spend the summer with her huge bitch of a cousin, who does not believe the rumor that the house next to hers is haunted. The cousin, constantly sneering, is extremely cruel both to the country cousin and to her live-in nanny, whom she despises out of a desire for adult freedom. Well, it turns out the house next door is haunted, in fact, by the child daughter of that nice live-in nanny. The child died many years ago, when she and her nanny mom lived in that house together, and her nanny mom has been sad ever since. Hope you’re happy now, bitch cousin.

In the end, the nanny mom finds out her dead child’s spirit is still active in the haunted house, and chooses to live with her there, in death, rather than continue her sad life among the living. It is actually devastating. I would have done the same thing.

FINAL RULING: Too sad to watch while feeling vulnerable.

The Tale of the Twisted Claw

“In a twist of ‘The Monkey's Paw’ story, two boys harass a little old lady the night before Halloween. The next night, she gives them a wooden vulture foot that grants wishes — and curses.”

I’m not sure why Are You Afraid of the Dark? continues to think I’m going to care about the well-being of horrible children. These children harass their neighborhood’s known witch on the night before Halloween. What did they think was going to happen? The answer is nothing, because they were not appropriately afraid of her. Well, guess what — she gives them a claw that “grant[s] wishes” (in a bad way). Good.

FINAL RULING: Not scary and actually too lenient.

The Tale of the Hungry Hounds

“Two girls go to an attic where one of them tries on a uniform that belonged to a dead relative where her spirit lives on.”

Weirdly, this one is also about a country cousin and a city cousin and their disparate coolness and fearfulness. They probably should have spaced these out between seasons. This time, the city cousin is the one who is shipped off to stay with the country cousin, and the city cousin is not appropriately afraid of the country cousin’s attic. But it turns out there are horse girl clothes up there that turn the country cousin into the ghost of her horse girl aunt, who died before she could feed her dogs, and who is actually gorgeous. Didn’t see that coming did you, city cousin?

Not having fed her dogs before she died apparently weighed heavily on this ghost, which I understand, as a dog lover myself. Once again, I can only be happy with the outcome: After inhabiting the body of the country cousin, the aunt ghost gets to feed the ghost dogs, and the city cousin learns that she should have been scared of the attic after all. All is right.


The Tale of the Captured Souls

“A family moves to a small house in the summer where they befriend a young man, and start feeling weaker every day.”

Okay this one is crazy. The family stays at a vacation rental run by an apparent child who is in fact an old man, who is sucking the life and youth out of all of his guests through their mirrors. It’s Old meets The Shining meets modern Airbnb discourse. I was not scared of the creepy old child, however the episode did reinforce the idea that if you are feeling uncomfortable at a rental home, it is in your best interest to leave. Trust your instincts. Maybe find a hotel instead. The episode also functions as commentary about the brevity of life and the fleetingness of youth, something else I already knew and felt appropriately worried about. I did not need this episode to warn me about all that.

FINAL RULING: Knew all this stuff already.

The Tale of the Nightly Neighbors

“Some new neighbors move into a neighborhood. They are originally from Eastern Europe, wear black, collect blood, and are only active at night.”

This one is just like … new people who seemed like vampires move into a neighborhood, and only one kid is willing to say that she thinks they are vampires, and then they turn out to be vampires. Okay.

FINAL RULING: Not scary and actually probably a bad lesson about how to treat people who seem different.

The Tale of the Dark Music

“Andy Carr moves in the new neighborhood where things don’t start out well until he figures out that there’s something hidden inside his basement.”

In this one, a kid figures out that a monster in his basement will give him whatever he wants as long as he offers the monster people to eat. For example, he tricks his bully into being eaten by the monster and then the monster gives him a new bicycle. (The bully had recently thrown his old bicycle in front of a truck.)

You might think this ends in the kid attempting to reverse the death of his young bully in order to rise above participating in murder for a bicycle, but no. He’s actually happy, and it seems like he’s gonna keep feeding the monster people in order to get other stuff. A strange ending. I guess the lesson here is that sometimes nerds are only nice because they haven’t yet gotten the opportunity to be evil. And once they get the opportunity, they can be evil in a much more harmful way than their bullies were.

FINAL RULING: Knew that already.

The Tale of Jake and the Leprechaun

“Jake, an aspiring young actor, is in a play where, during rehearsals, strange things start happening to him when it’s only a matter of time before opening night.”

A leprechaun is not scary to me. However there is nothing on Earth more terrifying than a child actor. This might be considered Are You Afraid of the Dark?’s second main takeaway after “do be scared.”

FINAL RULING: Very scary.