A dilapidated row boat, a creaking swing, a menacing clown doll, and a lit match. These images marked the beginning of Are You Afraid of the Dark? and are forever burned into the psyche and souls of most 20-somethings. Horror/fantasy anthology shows have been around since the ’50s but ones targeted at children never really took off until the ’90s. There were a few memorable ones like the animated Tales From the Cryptkeeper and Goosebumps, but none of them could hold a candle to the Canadian export that had kids gnawing their fingernails raw every Saturday night. AYAOTD was clever, well-acted, and surprisingly scary for a kid’s show. Every episode featured “The Midnight Society,” (MS) a group of teens who must’ve all had neglectful parents who didn’t notice them running off into the woods in the middle of the night. The MS would meet around a camp fire each week and a different member would tell a tale. Most were based on urban legends, folklore, or fairy tales and they usually reflected a fear of one of the MS members or something going on in their personal lives. It didn’t matter where the stories came from though, each week they had kids answering the question posed in the show’s title with a resounding “yes.” So let’s take a look at the creepiest stories told by our old friends Gary, Tucker, Betty Ann, Kiki, and all those other kids who didn’t have a curfew.
10) The Tale of the 13th Floor
BIlly and his adopted sister Karin use the vacant third floor of their apartment building as their own personal romper room. That is until the super creepy Leonid, Olga, and Raymond move in and set up the Toy Factory. These three are drawn to Karin in an off-putting manner; leaving her mail, visiting her through the television while she’s asleep, even forcing her to perform exercises to unlock her telekinetic abilities. The reveal of the aliens and Karin’s ascent to the roof are some pretty unsettling scenes for a young child. The production design of the Toy Factory is some of the series’ best and manages to make a vibrantly colored factory come off as disturbing.
9) The Tale of the Dollmaker
On the weekends, young Melissa stays at her aunt and uncle’s house – which happens a ton on this show. Unlike most kids on the show who do this begrudgingly, Melissa doesn’t mind because she gets to hang out with Susan Henderson, her BFF. But one weekend, Melissa is told that the Susan mysteriously disappeared and the Hendersons moved away. When Melissa sees something in the attic window of the Henderson’s house, she goes in to investigate and finds a replica dollhouse of the Henderson’s. The episode gets pretty crazy once Melissa finds a door that looks inside the dollhouse and she sees Susan, who now has a mean case of vitiligo. Porcelain dolls = never not creepy.
8) The Tale of the Hatching
Augie and Jasmine “Jazz” Wilson are sent to boarding school and quickly discover that something is off about their headmasters. Class changes are signaled by different frequencies going out over the loudspeaker and everyone is fed a gruel-like substance that frankly looks a lot better than some of the “food” served at my old middle school. Augie and Jazz uncover the school’s dark secrets and find out that the headmasters are actually aliens. A pretty unsettling episode overall. They even kill a dog for fuck’s sake.
7) The Tale of the Night Shift
Vampires run amok in a hospital and it’s up to Amanda the candy striper and her tonsillitis patient friend Colin to stop them. The episode is pretty standard vampire fare but features some really creepy moments like Felix being attacked in the basement and the head vampire, Margot, holding Amanda over the edge of the roof, by the throat. The end of the episode is downright brutal for a kids show and would never fly nowadays. (Spoiler alert: Margot bursts into flames and plummets to her death off the roof of the hospital). This episode also developed some more MS subplots as Gary and Sam decide to explore their feelings for one another. Interesting MS fun-fact: Ross Hull, the actor who played Gary, is now a news reporter in Calgary.
6) The Tale of the Lonely Ghost
Bookworm Amanda is sent to live at her aunt’s house for the summer (her parents hate her too) and gets stuck hanging out with her bossy cousin Beth. Beth is like a perfect storm of terrible; she’s a ginger, wears a side ponytail, crimped bangs, and leads her gang of friends through fear. She refuses to let Amanda hang out with her until she can prove she’s not a “zeeb” by spending a night in the vacant house next door. The house is said to be haunted by a mute girl who died inside. The first scene with the ghost is freaky as hell and features a horror device which never fails to frighten: a ghost appearing in a mirror.
5) The Tale of the Twisted Claw
This retelling of “The Monkey’s Paw,” W.W. Jacob’s 1902 short story, aired in Canada in 1991 on Halloween night and was directed by D.J. MacHale, the Orson Welles of AYAOTD. Two friends, Dougie and Kevin, decide to grow some balls and go trick or treating at Miss Clove’s house, the neighborhood witch. After scaring the shit out of her, they return to apologize and she gives them a magical claw which grants the owner three wishes…with consequences. So what would two tweenagers filled with piss and vinegar wish for? Well, Kevin blows a wish to win a track medal, Dougie unintentionally kills his parents and then raises his grandfather from the dead. Super creepy vibe throughout the entire episode and Miss Clove’s laugh still haunts my dreams.
4) The Tale of Old Man Corcoran
Brothers Jack and Kenny are two inner city kids (black) who move to the boring side of town and have a hard time fitting in. They’re approached by a gang of neighborhood hoodlums who invite them to play a nighttime game of hide and seek in a graveyard. That would’ve been my first hint that there’s something off about these kids. But Jack and Kenny go anyway and before the game starts, a raging lesbian named Cissy Vernon tries to spook them off by telling them the story of Old Man Corcoran, the grave digger who wields an axe and plays mouth harp. The scenes in the graveyard are eerie, sure, but
it’s the twist at the end that makes this episode super creepo and memorable.
3) The Tale of the Nightly Neighbors
Emma and her smartass brother Dayday are paranoid that their new neighbors, the Brauns, might be vampires. While they may just have over-active imaginations, you can’t really blame them. The Brauns are from the Ukraine, only come out at night, and keep refrigerators of blood in their basement. Anyone in their right mind would bust out the crucifixes and garlic necklaces. The first and greatest of all the AYAOTD vampire stories, season 1’s “Nightly Neighbors” features one the series’ best endings. It also happens to be an ambiguous ending, something rare for a series flooded with happy ones.
2) The Tale of the Dead Man’s Float
This is the first tale told by Stig, the Pig-Pen of the Midnight Society. This racy tale of teen romance features a chemistry nerd named Zeke who would do anything to get closer to swim team superstar Clorice, who obviously wants nothing to do with him. But Zeke wins her over by showing her an abandoned swimming pool he found while trying to “calculate the volume of the school.” Don’t laugh, Zeke probably hasn’t discovered masturbation yet. But this pool was hidden away for a reason…a bone-chilling reason! It was built over an old graveyard, but one of the bodies was left behind and now their spirit enacts revenge on all those who dare go for a dip. The episode plays on the fear of drowning and hosts a gnarly looking spirit. To a degree, it also plays on Zeke’s fear of taking his shirt off when he goes swimming, which many of us can probably say from experience, does not hide shameful physiques at all.
1) The Tale of Laughing in the Dark
“Pick the right door and free you’ll be. Pick the wrong door and there he’ll be.” This season 1 episode is cited by many as the scariest episode of all time and it’s easy to see why — it’s got a fucking clown in it. The clown in this case, Zeebo, worked in a carnival during the Great Depression. Desperate for money (like every other schlub during this time), Zeebo stole the park’s payroll and hid out in the spookhouse. But Zeebo was careless with one of his cigars and the spookhouse caught fire; burning Zeebo to death. As a memorial to the thieving bastard, the carnival rebuilt the spookhouse and put a dummy of Zeebo inside, dooming the place to be haunted. Years later, Josh (Christian Tessier, who would go on to play Lt. Tucker ‘Duck’ Clellan on Battlestar Galactica) decides to prove how tough he is by stealing the red nose off the Zeebo dummy. Urban legend turns into reality as Josh is visited by the ghost of Zeebo. Everything works out in the end (seriously, where the hell does a 12-year-old purchase a box of cigars?) but not before some seriously scary shit goes down. Everyone remembers the laugh, the balloon, the phone call, and all the other nightmare-inducing tricks that drove many to check our closets before bed. It’s like the writer of this episode was pissed at his kids and decided to scar them and the rest of us for life.
Robert Bricken is one of the original co-founders of the site formerly known as Topless Robot, and its first editor-in-chief, serving from 2008-12. He brought the site to prominence with “nerd news, humor and self-loathing” as its motto, raising it from total internet obscurity to a readership in the millions, with help from his savage “FAQ” movie reviews and Fan Fiction Fridays. Under his tenure Topless Robot was covered by Gawker, Wired, Defamer, New York magazine, ABC News, and others, and his articles have been praised by Roger Ebert, Avengers actor Clark Gregg, comedian and The Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman, the stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rifftrax, and others. He is currently the managing editor of io9.com. Despite decades as both an amateur and professional nerd, he continues to be completely unprepared for either the zombie apocalypse or the robot uprising.