Are You Afraid of the Dark? showed a generation the spooky magic of storytelling
Submitted for the approval of The Midnight Society, Anne T. Donahue celebrates the iconic 90s show
Anne-iversaries is a bi-weekly column by writer Anne T. Donahue that explores and celebrates the pop culture that defined the '90s and 2000s and the way it affects us now (with, of course, a few personal anecdotes along the way).
Growing up, I approached Are You Afraid of the Dark? the same way I did Goosebumps books: my parents had never explicitly forbidden me from partaking in either, but because of their title fonts, I was sure they'd be too scary for my consumption and therefore banned.
Granted, I was half-right. (My mom couldn't stand the covers of Goosebumps and discouraged me from reading them accordingly.) But because of my tendency to err on the side of unnecessary caution, my choice to avoid Are You Afraid of the Dark? was mine alone — and I realized after the fact how much I'd missed out. The series' premise, its approach to storytelling, and its habit of offering viewers a buffet of up-and-coming Canadian stars made the YTV series one the best Canadian shows ever created. And on the 20th anniversary of the finale of its short-lived second run, I'm here to admit that my life would've been richer had I embraced it, or at least not turned it off so quickly after those spooky opening credits.
Airing from 1990 to 1996 and again from 1999 to 2000, Are You Afraid of the Dark? was built around a simple premise: a group of teens called The Midnight Society would meet at a secret location at night, sit around a campfire, and take turns telling a scary story to the rest of the group. Each story would begin with the preface, "Submitted for the approval of The Midnight Society, I call this story [story name]" before tossing a handful of "midnight dust" onto the campfire. Then, viewers would watch the stories play out before the episode would eventually cut back to the group, a bucket of water would be thrown onto the fire, and the meeting of The Midnight Society would be declared closed. (Until next time. Dun, dun, dun...)
Unsurprisingly, the tales were equally simple: each revolved around elements of the supernatural, demons, urban legends, curses, clowns, vampires, werewolves, or embellished tales inspired by the day-to-day lives of The Midnight Society. These stories existed only in the space allotted in each episode, and each narrator brought their own distinct perspective to their subject matter and delivery (which made it easier to get to know them, since it's not like we'd follow them home after the fire was extinguished).
The thing is, my decision to opt out of Are You Afraid of the Dark? deprived me of learning about the art of great storytelling. Granted, the scripts themselves weren't award-winning and yes, the premise was very much under the same umbrella as The Twilight Zone (a show I was terrified of after catching the demon-on-the-wing knock-off episode of The Simpsons) — but the series educated its young viewers on the importance of set-up, of plot, and of exploring collective fears without showcasing gratuitous violence. Its watered-down exploration of legends and ghosts and all things spooky created an entry level course into the horror genre, led by characters who felt like peers. Boundaries were kept, and viewers could watch knowing that whatever they were seeing would be resolved in under 30 minutes, usually without exposing them to anything salacious. After all, these were stories about kids and teens told by kids and teens, who were in a safe place while they told them. And this made Are You Afraid of the Dark? a safe place, too. The Midnight Society was a club that offered consistency with the safety of its fire pit and a relatively permanent cast of characters. The stories may have been frightening sometimes, but you always knew you were coming back to Gary and that red bucket of water.
And considering how scary the real world actually is, that's a blessing. Not just because it was a reprieve from the day-to-day realities of being a kid or a teen in the world (a world that is genuinely scary), but because the show proved how effective an escape or form of self-expression storytelling could be. Finally, storytelling and creative writing weren't being offered as an arm of an education system that largely caters to standardized approaches to learning (hello, I am a writer, but writing fiction in school made me want to perish) — instead, they were being shown as a means of bonding amongst friends, unpacking innermost worries and fears, and learning to get comfortable with using one's platform to speak and to share. Are You Afraid of the Dark? made creating stories seem cool. And The Midnight Society seemed like the epitome of what it could mean to find your people and to champion your talents and tastes amongst them. Or, as it's more widely known: community.
I know the series wasn't perfect. It wasn't scary in a way that would appeal to anyone who's grown into Actual Problems™ or even navigating the rollercoaster of trying to become a person in a world that's out for blood. The quality of filming wasn't groundbreaking; the acting was fine. But also, who cares? Are You Afraid of the Dark? did what so many TV series should hope to do: it introduced its young fanbase to new things (in this case, the horror genre) in a way that was palatable and felt relevant. It made storytelling seem less solitary and more like an avenue through which to self-express. And it cultivated a safe space where kids and teens could share elements of themselves to like-minded friends who thrived on creativity and camaraderie. I just wish I'd realized this when my friends at school were all watching it.