Sunday, October 11, 2015

Childhood Memories: Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Fitting the theme of the Halloween season, it's finally time to get around to talking about one of the coolest shows from my childhood...

Are you....?

So when I was a kid growing up in the 80s and early 90s (IE before I hit my teens), channels like Nickelodeon and Disney actually had a lot of pretty high quality programming on. Both of them, in fact, featured a lot of shows very early on, from other countries, such as You Can't Do That On Television, David the Gnome, The Raccoons, etc. In fact I'll more than likely cover more of that at a later date, as many of them really were excellent. But being the big fan of dinosaurs and monsters and the supernatural growing up, one show that became one of my absolute favorites of it's era, and that I always looked forward to every Saturday night, was the show Are You Afraid of the Dark?

A Canadian produced show, which debuted on Nick as part of their new "SNICK: Saturday Night Nick" lineup in 1992, Are You Afraid of the Dark was an instant hit. I would eagerly await every Saturday night in those early 90s years, looking forward to the next episode, and as soon as those eerie intro came on, with the spooky music, and the dark visuals showing haunted attics, creepy clown dolls, abandoned playgrounds at night, and more, always, always managed to set the mood.

It was an anthology format show, meaning that it wasn't episodic in nature, not telling a continuing story from episode to episode. In that way it was in a similar vein (and largely inspired by) such shows as Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, as well as others such as The Other Limits. In the case of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, it had a slant more towards the supernatural: stories often featured things like ghosts, cursed or enchanted objects, magic, demonic forces, monsters, other dimensions, etc.

The original "Midnight Society" lineup, along with series creator D.J. MacHale.

One way in which the show differed from other similar anthology shows of it's kind, aside from obviously targeting a younger audience, is the fact that it did not have one host, but several. The show was technically "hosted" by a group of teenagers, who called themselves "The Midnight Society", who would meet up at some unnamed spot in the woods, to light up a campfire and tell each other scary stories. The leader and founder of the group was Gary (in the glasses to the left in the picture above), but each week a different kid would sit on the stone "chair" they had set up, being the official "storyteller" for that night. And what's more, the show even set it up where each different kid had their own unique bent as to what kinds of stories they would usually tell, which fit the character's personality and interests. There actually was a bit of continuity in these "host segments" showing the kids in the woods telling stories, but the real meat of the show, was of course when the given storyteller for that night would start spinning their yarn. The show would then phase into showing the viewer the story being told, playing out like a regular tv show. The group had a bit of an established setup, wherein they would always start, after introducing the concept of their story, by saying "Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society, I call this story 'The Tale of ____". And all of the episodes/stories are thus entitled "The Tale of" whatever, like for instance "The Tale of the Lonely Ghost" or "The Tale of the Dangerous Soup" or "The Tale of Watcher's Woods".

"It's VINK, with a Vuh Vuh Vuh!!"

"That's Sardo! Drop the 'Mr.', accent on the 'Doh'!"

Along with the different members of the Midnight Society trending towards certain kinds of tales, a couple of them also had recurring characters that would pop up in different stories they'd tell. Gary, the leader, has a fondness for magic, and it is often featured in his stories. As such, a recurring character in his stories, is the eccentric (and somewhat doltish) Magic Shop owner named Sardo. Not a villain, or even really a bad guy at all, he's just more interested in money than integrity most of the time, and he just wants to sell people crap from his shop, not often fully understanding what the items he sells really are or do (even though he purports to be a great magician himself). So almost without fail, the stories he features in usually see him talking some poor sap (the main character of the given story) into buying some cursed or enchanted object (or in one case a potion) from his shop, and that object inevitably always has unforeseen results or consequences for the buyer. They always wind up coming back to his shop to try and return said item, or get advice, and to his credit he does always try to help them (in his own bumbling way), though he insists "no refunds, all sales are final". The other popular recurring character, featured in the member Frank's stories, that being the enigmatic and usually sinister "Dr. Vink". In Vink's case, he is portrayed as a mysterious renaissance man of sorts, as he is many things in different stories, from a mad scientist, to a cook and restaurant owner, to a former filmmaker, etc. Unlike Sardo, who is just greedy and vain, Vink is always implicitly insane and always in the midst of some villainous type of activity (kind of). A running gag with his character, besides people always mispronouncing his name "Dr. Fink", to which he always emphatically corrects them, is that characters in the stories always at some point call him a nut-bag behind his back, but he always hears them and later corrects them by saying "...and I am NOT, a nut-bag!"

In the show's first two seasons, the Midnight Society cast consists of the kids seen in the picture earlier in the article: Gary, Kiki, Frank, David, Betty Ann, and Kristen. The lineup at first also included a somewhat prankster-ish blonde boy named Eric, who is only featured in Season 1, leaving without explanation in Season 2. The lineup would change a bit in Season 3, as David and Kristen both left, being replaced by Betty Ann's friend Sam (Samantha), and Gary's somewhat annoying little brother Tucker. Later still, in Season 5 (the final original season), Frank also leaves, being replaced by Tucker's friend "Stig". The show ended in 1996, though it was later revived in 1999, with an entirely new cast except for Tucker, who took over his brother's role as leader of the group, and this "revival" lasted two seasons of it's own, ending for good in June 2000. The show also saw it's share of notable guest stars, such as Gilbert Godfried, Will Friedle, Melissa Joan Hart, Charles S. Dutton and Bobcat Goldthwait. It also featured early career appearances by many young Canadian actors who would go on to success, such as Ryan Gosling, Neve Campbell, Hayden Christensen, Jewel Staite, Jay Baruchel, and Emily VanCamp.

One of the best stories of the bunch.

There are many great stories and episodes that I could talk about, but that would take forever. So instead, I'll wrap this article up by talking about both one of my favorite stories from the show, as well as the first one I remember seeing. The episode "The Tale of the Twisted Claw" was originally the test pilot episode for the show, debuting as a Halloween special in October 1990. Though the internet tells me that it only showed in Canada at that point, I clearly remember seeing this episode quite a bit earlier than the actual show, which debuted in August 1992. It was re-shown as Episode 4 of Season 1 then, but as I said, I very vividly remember seeing it beforehand, so I think it likely was shown as a Halloween special in the US as well.

The episode is heavily inspired by the classic W.W. Jacobs short story The Monkey's Paw. In it, best friends Dougie and Kevin pull a prank on the old woman who is rumored to be a witch, Miss Clove, by knocking on her door, and then spraying her in the face with shaving cream as soon as she answers. She reels backward, accidentally breaking her expensive vase. The boys run off, and she looks furious for a moment, but then starts laughing. The story then cuts to the boys on Halloween night, heading out to go Trick-or-Treating. After getting plenty of candy, they wander by Miss Clove's house again, and Kevin, trying to prove how brave he is, suggests they Trick-or-Treat her, as she won't know who they are. She greets them at the door very friendly-like, and though Dougie wants to get out of there, she insists that because they are the only kids to  Trick-or-Treat at her house that night, that she has a special gift for them. She presents them with what she called a "vulture's claw", though she assures them that it is carved out of wood, and enchanted. She claims it will give them each three wishes, and insists that they take it. But before they leave, she gives them the sinister warning "Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it!"

The titular Claw.

On their way home, Dougie, holding the claw, says he's tired of Trick-or-Treating and wishes they could just go home. And right then, a gang of masked teenagers pop up and threaten them for their candy, sending them running for their lives. They get away and hide, and Kevin realizes that the Claw works, because they got what Dougie wished for. Later on at school, Kevin decides that he wants to use his first wish, to wish to win the 600 yard race during field day, which bully and jock Bostick apparently always wins. Against Dougie's warning, Kevin makes the wish, and the Claw again surges with power and shakes. Kevin takes part in the race, and as it is unfolding, a mysterious, sinister black dog suddenly appears out of nowhere, causing Bostick to fall and hurt his leg, allowing Kevin to get his wish and win the race. Dougie however, saw the dog appear, and though Kevin believes it is coincidence, Dougie is convinced that the wishes are bad, suggesting they just return it to Miss Clove and tell his parents what happened.

Fuckin' Kevin....ya just can't trust people named Kevin.

 Kevin, angry and acting stupid, grabs the Claw and ignorantly wishes (though he obviously didn't mean it), that Dougie would lose his folks (who were out of town for the evening). Dougie freaks out, understandably, and then they receive a phone call informing them that  Dougie's parents have been in a car accident. At this point Dougie is in shock, and holding the claw, wishes his dead grandfather were still alive, because he always knew what to do. Naturally, the Claw glows again, and they are now faced with the prospect of zombie-gramps actually showing up. And sure enough, they look outside, and a creepy old car is slowly driving up to the house, accompanied by mysterious fog. Dougie says that's his grandpa's car, and so of course both boys are petrified and shit is seriously about to hit the fan. Kevin is going to make another wish, but Dougie says they all just turn out bad, so Kevin hands it to him and tells him to make it go away. Dougie does the right thing finally, wishing that they'd never pulled that prank and caused Miss Clove to break her vase, and they're sorry. The claw suddenly disappears, but there is a knocking at the door. Still scared shitless, they open it, only to find Dougie's parents, who forgot the house key. They are alive and safe, and everything seems to be okay, even though Kevin's medal that he won from the race is now missing, because he never won the race. To end the night, the doorbell rings, and when they open the door, Miss Clove's vase is sitting on Dougie's porch, as a gift, with a note that reads "Trick or Treat".

Ultimately, a good story, though kind of "tame" by modern standards. However, when I saw this in it's original airing, or even the re-shown airing during the official Nick Season 1, it was pretty damn creepy. Most of the Are You Afraid of the Dark? stories would end with some kind of resolution and more or less happy ending, though there were also some that ending ambiguously, with a hint of still-present danger, or a limited few with an outright bad ending even. One thing to note, is that while it was a "kids show", aimed at a younger audience, the stories are still mostly really good, and it has many dark moments and deals with some often rather dark themes.

You don't really see kids' shows like this anymore.

All in all, Are You Afraid of the Dark? is a classic show, and while not AS great as, say, classic Twilight Zone or Outer Limits, the storytelling is very strong, and I think even given it's "kids's show" status, it deserves honorable mention up there with anthology shows like that. If you've never seen it, it's certainly worth a look, most especially this time of year. They have all the seasons (that I'm aware of) on DVD, as well as on iTunes and Amazon Prime, etc. There also happen to be some episodes available on Youtube.....but shhh, don't tell anyone. I'll end this article the same way they ended the episode, in the spirit of Halloween and all.

"I officially declare this meeting of the Midnight Society closed. Until next time, pleasant dreams everyone."

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