The ’90s were a great time to get into horror for kids. Are You Afraid of the Dark? was the pinnacle of horror properties aimed at children. And although the show lasted for five seasons before being canceled and then revived for a short (and unmemorable) two more seasons, it’s one of the defining pieces of horror pop culture from the ’90s.
In honor of the spookiest of holidays, and submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society, here are the 13 best tales from Are You Afraid of the Dark?
“The Tale of Laughing in the Dark” (Season 1 Episode 2)
The second episode of the series is often the one most people remember. That’s probably because the clowns are utterly terrifying.
“The Tale of Laughing in the Dark” involves a ghostly clown named Zeebo whose spirit lives in a funhouse. When a bratty kid steals the clown’s nose, Zeebo decides to hunt him down. You don’t see tons of Zeebo in the episode but maybe that’s for the best.
The series would return to creepy clowns with “The Tale of the Crimson Clown” but it didn’t quite match this one.
“The Tale of the Super Specs” (Season 1 Episode 6)
Are You Afraid of the Dark? occasionally stuck its toes into more sci-fi ideas and “The Tale of the Super Specs” is one of its best. A girl buys some magic shop glasses that show her shadow beings from a parallel dimension. The idea of other entities standing right next to you is creepy enough, but wait until you get to the twist ending. It’s a doozy. This was also the first appearance of magic shop owner Mr. Sardo (“That’s Sar-DOH! No Mister, accent on the do!”)
“The Tale of the Dark Music” (Season 1 Episode 11)
Are You Afraid of the Dark? wasn’t afraid to go in for some rather chilling endings, and “The Tale of the Dark Music” has a fairly unnerving one. A boy discovers that there’s some kind of monster living in his basement that is summoned by music. He uses this to his advantage to get rid of his neighborhood bully and is rewarded with a new bicycle. When the monster tells him that he’ll grant his wishes if he continues to be fed, the boy remembers his bratty little sister and… Well, you’ll have to watch to find out if she makes it out alive.
“The Tale of the Pinball Wizard” (Season 1 Episode 13)
Even though it was primarily a horror show, Are You Afraid of the Dark? had its fair share of more fantastical stories. “The Tale of the Pinball Wizard” is about a game-obsessed boy who gets sucked into a pinball game and has to complete the adventure in the game. It’s a pretty silly but fun episode with a killer ending. If you or your kid needs a break from the frights, this is one to watch.
“The Tale of the Midnight Madness” (Season 2 Episode 2)
Season two wasn’t full of lots of memorable episodes, but “The Tale of the Midnight Madness” stands out as the clear MVP.
Dr. Vink — another recurring character — brings a special copy of Nosferatu to a failing movie theater and it drums up tons of business. Too bad that the vampire in the movie starts popping off the screen and attacking people.
This episode is such a wonderful love letter to horror films and the old theater experience. It’s also worth seeing for Christopher Heyerdahl (Hell on Wheels, Stargate: Atlantis) as the villainous vampire.
“The Tale of the Bookish Babysitter” (Season 3 Episode 6)
Admittedly, this one isn’t very scary but the story is good. A stubborn kid who loves TV is made to withstand a babysitter who loves books. However, her books have a very special quality: they come to life when you read them. When the kid starts picking up too many books, the stories begin to cross over and chaos ensues.
This episode is worth it for the babysitter. Her weirdly styled hair and devilish love of reading might have made her a formative crush in some little kid’s life… Ahem, moving on.
“The Tale of the Quicksilver” (Season 3 Episode 11)
Are You Afraid of the Dark? was surprisingly good at coming up with some nifty low-budget monsters. “The Tale of the Quicksilver” is a good example of that. The story involves a pair of brothers who move into a new house. The younger brother gets sick and soon discovers that there is a spirit that is draining his life. The actual demon is just a guy in a tattered cloak with some simple makeup but it works for the age range it’s aimed at. Sometimes, simplicity allows for the scariest of creatures.
“The Tale of the Silent Servant” (Season 4 Episode 7)
Scarecrows are inherently scary. They are humanlike figures dressed in tattered clothes. “The Tale of the Silent Servant” takes advantage of this and makes a decently creepy scarecrow. It’s a magical being that comes to life and does the bidding of two cousins. However, soon their wishes get twisted and the scarecrow is going to kill someone.
The episode is pretty standard horror fare but it’s more than effective for a young audience. And that scarecrow is still creepy.
“The Tale of the Ghastly Grinner” (Season 4 Episode 9)
Let’s get personal for a second. “The Tale of the Ghastly Grinner” was the one episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? that I couldn’t watch. This story of a comic book villain come to life was too much for my adolescent brain. His ability to turn people into giggling idiots that drooled blue slime can still get under my skin. I actually wrote to Stick Stickly one summer and asked him to play this episode so I could get over my fear of it. He never answered me. So, I guess I’m still afraid of this one on some level.
“The Tale of the Fire Ghost” (Season 4 Episode 10)
In “The Tale of the Fire Ghost,” two siblings are hanging out at the firehouse where their dad works when a call comes in. Left alone, they discover that fire apparently can manifest as a spirit and it is freaky. The above shot is ambitious and well-executed for a kid’s TV show. And that fire ghost is legitimately terrifying.
“The Tale of the Dead Man’s Float” (Season 5 Episode 1)
The last season of the original Are You Afraid of the Dark? went out with a bang. The effects budget was raised for certain episodes and the filmmakers made use of it.
The best-looking monsters are in the fifth season and it starts with this monstrosity. “The Tale of the Dead Man’s Float” involves an invisible pool ghost that is eventually revealed thanks to some acid. And that thing is what it turns into. This one probably sent a few kids to counseling.
“The Tale of the Night Shift” (Season 5 Episode 12)
Vampires were a staple of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, but the series saved the best for last. “The Tale of the Night Shift” tells the story of a vampire who feeds on patients at a hospital. When the vampire is revealed, he is a monster worthy of a feature film.
The makeup effects are fantastic and blood-curdling. Those red eyes! This is one of the best TV vampires ever and it’s on a Nickelodeon show. Man, this show was special.
“The Tale of Badge” (Season 5 Episode 13)
The final episode of the regular series gave us one last awesome monster in Badge. Badge is an ancient creature that has been trapped for 12 lifetimes. Only a magical family heirloom can seal him away before he can use his dark magic.
Badge is a wonderful way to end the series. He’s proof that there used to be entertainment that really tried to scare kids without patronizing them. We just don’t get that these days.
Are You Afraid of the Dark? is a milestone in horror history that helped make many kids fans of horror and genre stories for life. There’s no better time than now to revisit the series or show it to kids in your life. Everyone can use a few scares in their life.
A version of this article was previously published on October 27, 2016.