How we faced much more than the dark in 'Are You Afraid of the Dark?'

This post is part of Mashable's You're Old Week. Break through the haze of nostalgia with us and see what holds up, what disappoints, and what got better with time.

It was the show whose very name was a dare — a trial of courage, testing your mettle to stay up past bedtime, hang with the older kids, and listen to terrifying tales without squealing. Were we afraid of the dark? You bet your ass we were.

But that never stopped us from watching.

In retrospect, Are You Afraid of the Dark? was Twilight Zone for millennial kids: an anthology series that, through a twist ending, made you question the very fabric of your reality in awed horror. And that’s exactly why the collection of ghost stories has had such a lasting impact. It explored the fears of a young psyche like no other show.

As part of Nickelodeon's SNICK programming, Are You Afraid of the Dark? was aimed at the teen and preteen audience that was watching TV at 9:30pm on a Saturday. While later revived for two seasons in 1999, the series was at its height during its initial five season and sixty-five episode run from 1991-1996. It even featured many child actors who would later skyrocket to adult fame, like Ryan Gosling and Seth Rogen's oft writing partner, Man Seeking Woman's Jay Baruchel.

Employing a premise as old as time, the show centered around a diverse group of kids who snuck out to tell scary stories in the woods around a campfire. The Midnight Society took its rules and membership very seriously: You could only join if everyone voted that your spooks were worthy enough.

Thus, kids were both the tellers and subjects of the tales, uniquely grounding Are You Afraid of the Dark? in teen perspectives at an important time in their maturation. That's why it's had such a lasting impact on our generation. From oral traditions to cognitive behavioral therapy, communal narratives serve a powerful functions in  society. And AYAOTD gave that power of storytelling to kids, helping them confront the real horrors of teen life with its plots, villains, and moral resolutions.

Image: Nickelodeon, giphy

In an interview with Complex, co-creator D.J. McHale explained how the writers “rarely played [the horror] for laughs; there was some humor in there, but we didn’t go the Goosebumps route of over-the-top silly scares. We tried to make it feel real, to make the characters feel real.”

If you're doubtful of just how real Are You Afraid of the Dark? got with its subject matter, let’s go through a brief list of things that happened to children (children!) in the series: a lovestruck kid is violently drowned in the school pool by a swamp monster ("The Tale of the Dead Man’s Float"), a teen is haunted by the ghostly trauma of his dead best friend whose life he failed to save ("The Tale of the Shiny Red Bicycle"), a girl gets locked in a room and forgotten until she starves to death ("The Tale of the Lonely Ghost"), and yet another ghost boy freezes to death after hiding in the woods to get away from a criminal ("The Tale of the Frozen Ghost").

Many of the tales in Are You Afraid of the Dark? can be seen as mixed metaphors for the sense of displacement wrought by puberty, making things you used to like now seem childish and repulsive. One villain, the Ghastly Grinner, is a comic book monster who infects the protagonist's teachers, friends, and family with a grotesque distortion of juvenile humor.

It's a monster that, in the end, can only be stopped when the protagonist realizes his potential future as a comic book artist and storyteller himself.

The show also captured an even uglier, darker reality from the coming of age experience: only you can save yourself. Adults were regularly portrayed as so comically ineffectual they needed to be saved by the kids whom they'd previously disregarded. 

That's why we love horror, and why its been a mainstay since the first stories ever told. We use scary stories to reconcile with the unknowable. In the case of AYAOTD, it's the uncharted fears of youth, like rejection, isolation, neglect, powerlessness, and the loss of innocence.

Crucially, AYAOTD was also willing to let their heroes fail. Not every story told by the Midnight Society ended happily. Sometimes, protagonists fell victim to an evil too big for them to overcome.

You may not remember every episode of AYAOTD, but you likely remember how it made you feel. Terrified, yes, but braver after the story ended. You reminded yourself that it was just a story, and you went on to get through another day, weekend, unrequited crush or bad grade. In essence, you battled your own Grinners and won your agency in the process. 

The Ghastly Grinner finds your childhood woes laughable

The Ghastly Grinner finds your childhood woes laughable

It's easy to see why Paramount Pictures would sign off on an upcoming film adaptation of the series, tapping the writer from 2017's It to once again use nostalgic IP to explore the nightmares of growing up. 

The horror genre has been and always will be about facing primal fears, manifested into physical monsters. Great horror addresses the cultural fears of its audience: Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The latest golden age of horror increasingly uses the genre as a vehicle to wrestle with the real world, with It Follows, Get Out, and The Babadook all being examples of tackling a darkness that's close to home.

At its heart, Are You Afraid of the Dark? was about the Midnight Society gathering around a campfire to collectively hash out the nightmares of watching childhood fade away into something more uncertain and sinister.

We put out the fire and mustered up the courage to find our way home through a blackened forest. Alone — but ready to face the new fears that the darkness of adulthood promised.

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