Creepshow. Two Sentence Horror Stories. Into the Dark. The Twilight Zone. The horror anthology renaissance that hit film in the early 2010s has surrounded TV and is ready to deliver the killing blow. The modern landscape offers something for every subgenre of horrorhound, and Are You Afraid of the Dark? has only moved this embarrassment of riches further into the black. Cornering the younger-skewing market, the miniseries is a hand gloved in black lace, extended to the next generation of horror fans. It’s sharp, well-crafted, and should come with a subscription to Fangoria.
Rebooting Ned Kandel and D.J. MacHale’s spooky 90s classic into a miniseries, the latest iteration of Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? leans heavier on those telling its campfire stories in order for the impact to be greater when the stories themselves start escaping their flickering confines. But there’s still plenty of reverence here for old-school fans. The first episode references AYAOTD legacy in its Midnight Society-quoting title: “Submitted for Approval.” Directed by Dean Israelite and written by BenDavid Grabinski, the premiere may not be indicative of everything to come, but I was shocked, delighted, and tenterhooked by its solid groundwork.
Israelite isn’t afraid to inject creativity into the smallest moments, shaking up potentially cliche moments in the frame story with first-person perspectives inside of trash cans and top-down shots of new girl Rachel (Lyliana Wray) making her way through her school’s monotonous crowd of umbrellas. It keeps the fish-out-of-water story energetic and good-humored without edging into the camp claimed by gorier and goofier fare like the aforementioned Creepshow.
Capturing the proper aesthetic, carving out that niche, is more important than ever within the format’s current bounty. Combining the camera moves of horror—90° rotations on a sleeping face; slow zooms on a suburban homefront—with the odds and ends of teen fiction—an alt-rock soundtrack and a cute bad boy neighbor—gives Are You Afraid of the Dark? its unique selling point as a springboard for the genre. It’s also a springboard for its concept and its heroine, inducting its horror-loving newcomer into the likeminded Midnight Society.
The Midnight Society—comprised of Gavin (Sam Ashe Arnold), Akiko (Miya Cech), Louise (Tamara Smart), Graham (Jeremy Ray Taylor), and, now, Rachel—and its initiation process is a sweet way to show the bonding potential of oddball interests. Rachel jumps through a lot of hoops to prove her horror bonafides, pushing Wray to sometimes overdo things, but ultimately it all goes relatively quickly. Taylor, excellent here as he is in It, needs to make sure he’s not typecast as the Nice Guy that gets befuddled around Cool Girls, but there can’t be many roles that let you rock a “Cronenberg for President” shirt. For that, you do whatever you can.
Some of the other members’ stuffy dialogue and acting are minor hiccups in an otherwise smooth machine, but it never lasts for long. Something authentic—like a perfectly executed (and perfectly PG-nasty) effects gag or Arnold’s scene-stealing charm—will demand your attention. The episode is clever in a kid-friendly way, without ever talking down. Its scariness is great because it’s not The Nightmare Before Christmas Hot Topic goth or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre weirdo brag-about-it gore. It’s something more honest to childhood. From its steamy, ‘80s, Nightmare on Elm Street opening sequence (with Rafael Casal’s Mr. Tophat bringing a flamboyant, off-kilter Johnny-Depp-as-Mad-Hatterness to the Freddy Kreuger role) to its final It-esque moments (of a missing child juxtaposed with rain-filled gutters), Are You Afraid of the Dark? attempts to specifically scare kids.
When the campfire story finally haunts the screen, it’s a total nightmare in the best way. It’s disorienting and filled with adults that are either liars, morons, or entirely inhuman. It’s the same space occupied by Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes or much of Stephen King’s work, involving kids on the cusp of discovering or intuiting a dread-inducing falseness about their reality. That the world they live in isn’t the one their parents and teachers told them about. It’s the same feeling that leads to fearing the episode’s clowns and carnivals.
Both are ostensibly nothing but fun, but as kids begin to distrust institutions and the fallible adults that create and protect them, they can’t help but wonder if underneath every pure good is an equally pure evil. Your bed is safe, but there’s a monster under it. The shadows in your closet seem real, but when your parents turn on the light, they tell you it’s nothing. The ringmaster is here to bring joy, but he eats scorpions and steals children.
While the premiere is cluttered with a bit too much table-setting for my tastes (though its speeches about why scary stories are great are endearing and thoughtful during these overly long passages), Are You Afraid of the Dark? does a few difficult things in just a single episode. It stands out in a competitive field of horror anthologies. It stands out in the canon of a long-running show that already weathered one revival. But most importantly, it stands out as a show that is just as enjoyable for the young horror geeks as the nostalgic horror geeks looking back on where they came from. Be afraid of this dark, but know that you’ll be afraid among friends. And as any horror fan knows, that’s when it’s most fun.
Are You Afraid of the Dark? premieres Friday, October 11th on Nickelodeon.
Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.