Although the rich vein of 1980s nostalgia hasn’t been entirely tapped just yet, it seems like it’s beginning to give way to an even richer source of millennial childhood riches: 1990s nostalgia. Everybody, bust out your Tamagotchis!
Today, the world was gifted with the news that Nickelodeon’s classic horror anthology series, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, is getting a film adaptation from Paramount. Promisingly, the film’s script will be written by Gary Dauberman, the screenwriter behind the recent adaptation of Stephen King’s It, which set box offices aflame with record grosses for a horror film. Now, Dauberman will be turning his attention toward our favorite late-night campfire crew, The Midnight Society.
If you never had an opportunity to watch Are You Afraid of the Dark?, the show functioned as something of a YA alternative to more intense (and raunchier) horror anthologies of the 1990s, such as Tales From the Crypt. Originally airing from 1992 to 1996, and with a revival series in 1999-2000, it centered on a group of cool, diverse kids who all snuck out of their homes at night to do the coolest thing my 9-year-old self could imagine—meeting in the woods around a campfire to tell spooky stories of the supernatural. With tales that veered between the sci-fi and moral notions of The Twilight Zone and the horror focus of Night Gallery, Are You Afraid of the Dark? was a mixed bag that was nevertheless very popular in its demographic, with a spookily iconic opening montage you can view below. Also, one thing is constant and indisputable: Gary was obviously the coolest and best storyteller of these kids. I will hear no argument on this.
In honor of the announcement of the upcoming film, here are five classic episodes from Are You Afraid of the Dark? that Dauberman should at least consider adapting into film form—we’re working on the assumption that this movie will still be structured as an anthology. If it’s not, then we have a serious bone to pick here.
No single story is more obvious to adapt than “The Tale of Laughing in the Dark,” exclusively because it has one of the series’ most famous antagonists, Zeebo the Clown. And considering that Dauberman just came off It, selecting this story is incredibly obvious—you might say too obvious, but you can be sure Are You Afraid of the Dark? fans will want to see it brought to life once again, even if it means seeing it with half of the verve and vitality that It brought to theaters this fall.
The story is about a young boy and his group of friends, who visit an odd little amusement park and dare each other to enter a funhouse reportedly haunted by the ghost of a dead, cigar-smoking clown known as Zeebo. When one of the boys takes his friends up on the dare, he finds a frightening dummy of the clown and steals its rubber nose as proof. But it turns out, as in many classic ghost stories, that the clown doesn’t appreciate having one of his body parts stolen…
Fact: Bobcat Goldthwait is an unnerving presence as “The Sandman” in this bizarre story from 1993. Follow-up fact: Bobcat Goldthwait would only be more unnerving to see return once again in 2017, appearing in a young girl’s bedroom wearing what appear to be graduation robes and a purple beret. He plays the literal Sandman of folklore, although with much less gravitas and dignity than in Neil Gaiman’s version, spiriting the heroine away on a fantastical journey to his realm of sleep after she makes the very bad idea of wishing that “everyone would just leave me alone.”
I can’t overstate what a ridiculously campy portrayal Goldthwait’s is. It really has to be seen to be believed, but if this new Are You Afraid of the Dark? is still supposed to be young adult-friendly, it’s exactly the kind of bizarro comic relief you could stick between two stories that are more legitimately frightening.
This fondly remembered story definitely has a classic horror anthology vibe; it could have aired in Tales From the Darkside or Tales From the Crypt relatively unchanged. It concerns a failing movie palace that is threatening to go out of business thanks to the new multiplex crowding it out, when the business is saved by a strange vendor who offers to host midnight screenings of an old, Nosferatu-inspired vampire movie. These screenings are a huge success, but when the theater owner reneges on his deal with the old vendor, things take a turn for the spooky. It all builds to one of Are You Afraid of the Dark’s most memorable monsters, as the vampire from the film—clearly inspired directly by Nosferatu’s Count Orlok—comes to life out of the film screen and chases around the protagonists. This is the sort of story that made savvier film buffs appreciate Are You Afraid of the Dark?, because it effectively introduced one of cinema’s classic monsters to adolescent viewers who were likely to be entirely unaware of Nosferatu.
Another great Gary story, because all the best stories are from Gary, is “The Tale of the Pinball Wizard.” This one is known among fans for its surprisingly bleak, nihilistic ending, but the whole thing is one of the series’ best works of art, evoking the blurring of lines between reality and dream in much the same way as films like A Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s about a teenage kid who gets a job working at a repair shop that services various videogames and pinball machines, but there’s one machine he’s instructed not to play. You can guess what happens next, and the consequence is that the kid eventually finds himself trapped inside the game, having to fight various elements of the game in order to win and escape. It’s a well-remembered episode for a reason, with imaginative visuals, a Nineties-riffic premise and that very memorable ending.
There are a lot of memorably weird Are You Afraid of the Dark celebrity cameos (see Goldthwait, Bobcat), but few of them could ever top Gilbert Godfrey’s starring role in “The Tale of Station 109.1”—and that’s not even mentioning that one of the other leads is freaking Ryan Gosling as a child! It’s Godfrey who is really great, though, playing some sort of angelic/demonic bureaucrat who processes dead souls and sends them through a terrifying gate into the afterlife. Naturally, this being a story about kids, he screws up and tries to send a boy through the gate who isn’t supposed to be dead yet, and you’ve got to love his explanation: “Alright, let’s not make a federal case out of this! So I made a teensy, weensy mistake and was about to send an innocent young boy to his death. What, none of you ever did that before?” This one is equal parts funny and suspenseful.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer, and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter.