Thursday, November 14, 2013

Bobby's Top 10 "Are You Afraid of the Dark" Episodes

If you were a fan of Goosebumps during the 90s then chances are you also watched Are You Afraid of the Dark. It's almost like a sister-show to Goosebumps. Though if I may say so, AYAOTD wins every time. I always found the acting and plots to be much better, as well as less emphasis on special effects. This show really got creative when it came to trying to scare people. It was honestly very difficult to pick just ten episodes I loved but eventually I did it. Anyhow, AYAOTD revolves around a group of preteens called the Midnight Society. Every week they meet up in the woods around a campfire. Each of the kids tells a different spooky story each week, which takes up the majority of the episode. Each kid had a particular theme they favoured, which made for a variety of stories. The series got a re-tool several years after it first aired - with four new cast members as the friends of Gary's younger brother Tucker. The tone of the stories changed, though a few managed to be memorable. So let's get this train running then.

10 - The Tale of the Night Nurse:

The first item on the list is from the latter seasons. It's told by Vange and the theme is a rather unorthodox one. The fear of needles. We've all been there when it's injection day at school and you all line up like you're facing the gallows. This story gets brought on by Vange trying to convince the others that there's nothing wrong with getting a flu shot - though telling them a story where needles get someone killed isn't really the best way to make anyone feel better about them. But anyway we follow two sisters - AJ and Nikki - on holiday with their grandfather for a month. One afternoon while having a snowball fight, they see a woman and her child carrying birthday presents into the house. But their grandfather tells them no one came inside. AJ then sees a little girl carrying presents fall down the stairs and disappear. Their grandfather eventually cracks and tells them the gruesome story. The child was named Emily and she fell down the stairs while carrying her birthday presents. She injured her leg rather badly so the parents called in a nurse to care for her. But the legend goes that the nurse was a bit touched in the head and injected Emily with poison while she slept. And Emily's ghost has haunted the house ever since. Gramps warns the girls not to meddle and to leave the dead in peace. Poor guy, he thought that would actually work. Naturally AJ and Nikki decide to figure out what Emily's unfinished business is. But in doing so, they inadvertently conjure up the ghost of the Night Nurse. And she seems to think AJ is Emily - and it's time for her medicine. I did a bit of research and it turns out this was the last episode of the series, apart from The Tale of the Silver Sight finale. It's one of the stronger episodes of the retooled series. For ages I actually had no idea how it ended. The commercial break always came in just after AJ and Nikki discovered Emily's party dress could send them back in time. At the time I thought the way it ended was a bit lame but nowadays I can really appreciate how cleverly it's done. Especially if you take into account what we know about treatment of children in the 1950s. The two sisters have some nice on-screen chemistry and provide good comic relief while screaming at the right times too. The actress playing the Night Nurse is suitably creepy as a cross between Annie Wilkes and Nurse Ratchet. All she really does is brandish the syringe and order the girls to open the door but damn if she isn't one of the eeriest ghosts in the series. And before I move on, does anyone recognise a pre-24/Girl Next DoorElisha Cuthbert playing Midnight Society member Megan? Herself and Rachel Blanchard (who played Kristen in the first two seasons) have arguably done the best out of all the Midnight Society cast.

9 - The Tale of the Dream Girl:

This story in particular is less famous for being scary. It's more known as a tragedy. It's told by Sam, who describes true love as something scary in and of itself. She's got a point if you think about it. But I should warn you that there's no real way to talk about this episode without revealing the end so skip to the next entry if you don't want to get spoiled. Our hero is a teenage boy called Johnny who is very close to his sister Erica. When the story starts, he seems to be a bit down on his luck. His mother is ignoring him and his boss doesn't seem to appreciate the work he does. One night he gets a vision of a stunningly beautiful girl called Donna - and believe me she is stunning. For a series made in the middle of the 90s, she manages to survive the Fashion Dissonance. He also finds a ring belonging to her in his locker. After some careful research, Erica discovers something shocking about this girl. She finds a newspaper clipping about her - an obituary. Johnny has been getting hit on by a ghost. She seems to want Johnny to go with her, despite the fact that he has no idea who she is. Or does he? The climax of the episode has Johnny and Erica going to cemetery to lay the ring on Donna's grave. Johnny oddly enough seems to know where it is. There's something he isn't remembering. As he brushes away the leaves covering the grave, it reveals a second name next to Donna's - his own. Erica sadly shows him the rest of the newspaper clipping and he finally remembers. Donna was his girlfriend and they both died the same night. He has been a ghost all this time, that only Erica could see. And Donna has come to take him into the afterlife with her. I included this episode on the list because of how well done it is. It's not exactly scary but it's still very haunting. To realise you have been a ghost all along. I know we should mention the big elephant in the room now - yes it's eerily similar to M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense". The director has been quoted to have gotten the inspiration from this very episode. What makes this episode work is the tragedy of it. It is both a happy ending and a sad one. I personally like it because it isn't simply 'the bad guys win' or 'the monster is defeated - everyone live happily ever after'. It's practically the definition of a bittersweet ending.

8 - The Tale of the Super Specs:

Here we have a very early season 1 episode and the only episode to feature a scene outside the campfire. There's a small Midnight Society subplot about how the rest of the gang don't think Gary's stories have been too scary lately. But Gary gets some nice inspiration for this week's tale. It features the introduction of a recurring character in his stories - Sardo the magician. He runs a shop filled with all sorts of trinkets that numerous people in Gary's stories will end up buying and getting their lives ruined over again. The two customers are a practical jokester called Weeds and his girlfriend Mary Beth. Weeds buys some magic dust and casts a spell unknowingly on Mary Beth and a pair of funky glasses called Super Specs - that don't look too different from Luna Lovegood's Spectre Specs. Whenever Mary Beth puts the glasses on, she can see a figure dressed entirely in black. But when she takes the glasses off, the figure isn't there. Every time she puts the glasses on, she sees more of the strange black figures and also other things that aren't there. As they go to Sardo for help, they discover that Weeds somehow accidentally opened a gateway to a parallel universe. The figures that Mary Beth has been seeing are people from that dimension attempting to cross through the gateway. The only way to close this gateway is a classic s ance like ceremony in Mary Beth's house. The main problem is that it seems the other universe doesn't want to lose the battle either. I thought this episode was really trippy when I was younger but I've come to like it a lot more these days. There's a creepy vibe to it that I can't quite describe. I mean, it's incredibly disturbing that Mary Beth is seeing these people and she's not sure if they're real or she's going crazy. And it's one of the AYAOTD episodes that doesn't feature a straight up villain or typical monster as the antagonist. TV Tropes would likely call this a Cosmic Horror Story - y'know for kids. And I'm going to spoil the ending now so skip on ahead if you don't want to read on.

It turns out in the end that the other universe won the battle and Mary Beth, Weeds and Sardo are apparently trapped in a crystal ball for eternity. It makes a brilliantly dark ending to an already creepy tale. And AYAOTD usually ended on a somewhat happy note. We also get a nice after-story segment where Gary pranks the other Midnight Society members (except Kristen) by having David dressed in black when they put the Super Specs on.

7 - The Tale of the Final Wish:

Kristen is the teller of this week's tale and she really goes all out. In all her stories (except 'The Frozen Ghost' for some reason) she brought a prop or some kind of costume for dramatic effect. This week she comes dressed in a medieval inspired dress, accompanied by a book of fairy tales. Frank and Kiki turn up their noses at this, not knowing the truth behind fairy tales. It seems they're only familiar with the modern Disney versions, as most viewers probably were at the time. But the original fairy tales well the storytellers in those days had a "scare em straight" mentality when it came to lessons for children. In the originals

*Cinderella's stepsisters cut off parts of their feet to fit into the slipper

*Sleeping Beauty's prince rapes her in her sleep and she wakes up by giving birth to his babies

*Rapunzel gets caught by asking Mother Gothel why her dress is getting tight around her tummy (after the prince climbs up her hair almost every night)

*Little Red Riding Hood gets tricked into eating bits of her grandmother and is asked to undress and get into bed with the wolf

*Snow White's wicked stepmother (who is really her biological mother) is forced to wear red-hot shoes and dance until she dies

Kristen is here to enlighten the rest of the kids and tells her story about a fairy tale lover called Jill. She is thirteen but still loves her fairy tales, even sleeping in a four-poster bed and being surrounded by unicorns and dolls. Her brother terrorises her by hiding under her bed and jumping out wearing scary masks. Her parents constantly tell her to grow up and her friends aren't that helpful either. After one day of being ridiculed and humiliated by everyone, she makes a wish. She wishes that she could live in a world where dreams come true and for everyone else to leave her alone. As you can expect, the wish comes true in a very literal way. Jill finds herself transported to the realm of the Sandman where everyone she knows is trapped in eternal sleep forever. And she herself is trapped in her own fairy tale - which is a lot Grimmer than the ones she's familiar with. I always love stories with fairy tale motifs and I'm glad that AYAOTD did one about the originals. The episode reminds me of the film Snow White: A Tale of Terror as something that tries to bring fairy tales back to their original gothic roots. The production design team did a nice job with the Sandman's realm and I liked the overall atmosphere of it. The young actress playing Jill was quite good and I could really feel for her character. Let's face it - aside from the guy at school she liked - all the people who got punished really had it coming. Especially that nasty brother and those two rotten friends. Oh and we have a guest appearance from comedienne Bobcat Goldthwait as the Sandman.

6 - The Tale of the Mystical Mirror:

Here we have a story that's similar in spirit to "Many Faces" and I had always thought of the latter as the better one. Then I got a chance to watch this one back and I was really happy with it. Betty Ann once again takes the reigns and this story is brought about by her parents wishing her to wear make-up for a family photo. Odd - it's normally the kid wanting to wear make-up while the parents refuse. Anyway we open with a girl called Tanis running through the woods, someone hot on her tail. She finds herself by a bonfire and a strange occult altar. Next is a shot of the full moon, a scream and some howling (trust me this isn't headed where you think). We then cut to a beauty shop where they have a job opening - the last girl somehow ran away (I'm sure it's just a coincidence). One of the workers Laurel is bringing her friend Cindy for an interview. The owner Mrs Valente is positively gorgeous (and she's another beauty on this show that's survived the Fashion Dissonance). She agrees to give Cindy a job and also a bit of pampering, including her own personal make-up mirror. Mrs Valente seems strangely obsessed with beauty and make-up - and what is with that ornate golden mirror in the shop? She invites the girls around her house to look at the new line of fashions that have come in - and they go positively apeshit over clothes that are 20 years out of date now. She also gets Laurel to look into that golden mirror and the girl suddenly can't look away or think of anything other than gazing at herself. When Cindy goes to the bathroom, she's surprised there are no mirrors. So she pulls out her own and discovers the ugly truth. This is a very effective and eerie tale about the depths some people will go to for beauty. It's a classic fairy tale type story but it works. Mrs Valente is a very fitting Vain Sorceress character type and she pulls it off a little better than Madame Visage from "Many Faces" in the later seasons. The actress playing her is very good and has a nice presence. She's very attractive and yet also slightly creepy. She has a lovely air of mystery about her that makes her a very effective antagonist. The four other young actresses are quite pretty and do a good enough job. Other things I like about this episode are its pacing - opening with the chase scene - its subtle use of camera work and the way it's written. It seems like a plot that would otherwise be handled lamely but the show really pulled it off. And when it's revealed what Mrs Valente is actually planning to do there's just something especially off-putting about a plan like that.

5 - The Tale of the Pinball Wizard:

Gary's up again this time and his theme is video games. Before the story begins, we get some nice nostalgia by seeing the Midnight Society going bonkers over a Gameboy. Anyway Gary's protagonist (because he sure as hell ain't much of a hero) is a teenager called Ross. He appears to be a bit of a scab as his introduction is him fighting with a homeless person over a coin from a fountain. We're told he's a bit of a video game addict, almost on the level of Arcade from the X-Men chronology. Now besides that, he's also after a job in Mr Olsen's shop. I'm not sure what they sell in there because he's got sculptures on the shelves, a pinball machine in the back and he's currently repairing a girl's music box. Mr Olsen won't hire Ross because he's likely to not do any work and just play pinball all day. And when Mr Olsen leaves him in charge of the store for an hour, that's exactly what he does. The only time he tears himself away is to talk to a girl called Sophie - the aforementioned music box owner. He keeps playing the machine but when he runs out of quarters, it appears he lost track of time. The mall has closed and everyone is gone. Or so Ross thinks

It starts raining quarters, there are creepy guys in suits marching around and the payphones ring to give Ross instructions. He has somehow gotten himself transported inside a game - the very same themed one he was playing in Mr Olsen's store. He's now got a wicked witch to contend with as well as an executioner and some kind of evil prince as the main villain. Sophie has now assumed the role of the princess. Ross must first get her tiara and throne before advancing to the final level and crowning her queen. I've always had a fondness for the idea of characters getting transported into video games and being forced to play them out. This is probably where it comes from. The producers really got creative with this episode and it plays out like a very stereotypical 90s video game. But that's all part of the fun. I get a great kick out of watching Ross play through the game - though it's more like a video game than a pinball game. For the feminists out there, Sophie isn't the complete damsel in distress. The plot of the game is all about helping her rather than rescuing her and Ross doesn't end up getting married to her (though I won't spoil you any further). She even manages to save Ross from trouble once or twice. On a more superficial level, her actress is very attractive and yes has survived the Fashion Dissonance of the 90s. The episode isn't really scary at all and it's more meant to be a fun fantasy type story. Though if they wanted to go down the scary video game route, I'm sure a Silent Hill or Resident Evil themed episode wouldn't be out of the question. Anyway its ending is quite famous among AYAOTD fans but as always, I'll leave it to you to figure it out.

4 - The Tale of the Thirteenth Floor:

We get an especially eerie wraparound segment to open this episode as Betty Ann, David and Kristen ask the rest of them (in the creepiest way possible) do they really know who any of them actually are. The truth is out there, the answer is among you etc. Yep that's the theme of this story. It's Betty Ann once again and she brings us to the world of two children - Billy and Karen. Karen is Billy's sister but she is adopted, though he loves her all the more. Their favourite hangout is the vacant thirteenth floor of their apartment building. They play there almost every day; well, it's mostly Billy beating Karen at everything. One day however something changes. New tenants have moved into the thirteenth floor and they send Karen an invitation. Apparently there's going to be a toy factory established there and they want Karen to come and act as a test subject for new toys. She's thankfully not as Genre Blind as most AYAOTD children and thinks there's something suspicious going on. She's quite right to think so as the people in the 'factory' don't like the idea of Billy coming in with her - and do their best to stop him. They don't seem to like Billy beating Karen at all the games either. One of their machines seems to make him lose his energy. With Karen now by herself, they strap her into a chair and start talking about "home planet". Yep, they're aliens from another planet - and they want to take Karen home with them. She won't go without a fight and in the end discovers the shocking truth behind their attempted abduction. This episode is one of my favourites, first because it features the twin brother of one of my favourite actors (Aaron Ashmore as Billy) - and secondly because of how effectively creepy its atmosphere is. I've never been one to get scared by aliens or the idea of them. However these ones manage to be nice and creepy. You see, their faces are flat dull things with no eyes, nose or mouth. But the way they move

The director came up with the idea that a creature with no facial features would have to communicate through body language entirely. And that's how he directed the actors. So you have them moving in an odd manner, like puppets or dummies. And we all remember from Goosebumps Night of the Living Dummy how creepy those kinds of things can be. And the ending of this episode yeah it's one of the more famous AYAOTD endings. Betty Ann sure does love her cruel twist endings, not to spoil too much for you.

3 - The Tale of the Chameleons:

Betty Ann is up again and has brought along a mysterious new pet for help. She theorises that there are hundreds of species of animals out there that we humans know nothing about. And that is something to be scared of. Her protagonist is a girl called Janice ("Mystical Mirror" featured a girl called Tanis - I guess she likes her theme naming) and her best friend Sharon. One day at the pet store, a creepy ginger kid shows her an exotic chameleon (that's actually played by an iguana but we won't talk about that). It bites Janice on the finger and then scampers off. The creepy ginger kid rattles of this catchy little rhyme.

"Bite you once, bite you twice, bit of water, pay the price"

As you can expect, the chameleon shows up again at Janice's house. We find out what happens when it bites her a second time. It transforms into a human. An exact duplicate of Janice to be specific - it's no coincidence this episode features identical twins Tia and Tamera Mowry. Janice is convinced she's dreaming for a moment but she finds out about the "pay the price" part of the rhyme the next day. The chameleon sprays her with water - and Janice turns into a chameleon herself. Now the chameleon goes around impersonating her - though Sharon is still incredibly suspicious. It's not too bad because the real Janice has a chance. She can turn back into herself if she bites the chameleon twice as well. But that's the problem when you have two people that look identical. Sharon has to spot the impostor and she's not sure which one to spray.This was an episode I'd only seen the end of when I was younger and I finally worked up the nerve to watch the full thing only recently. I was very impressed with how well it was put together. As someone with a big dislike of creepy crawlies, I felt the episode was done really well - with a creature as small as the chameleon (disguised as an iguana) acting as the antagonist. The scenes in Janice's bedroom where the thing is creeping up at her trying to bite her just remember you never really know what's crawling around in your room. And when the chameleon has transformed and is trying to kill the real Janice - you wouldn't think Tamera Mowry walking around with a meat cleaver could be scary but go figure, universe. And that's not to mention that little scene with the garbage disposal. Sharon was literally seconds away from having her fingers whacked off. There's a lot of little things that make this episode really work and it's almost impossible to list them all. But this is another one that has a famous ending. Of course I'm not going to spoil it for you. Nor will I reveal the identity of Betty Ann's mysterious new pet Spike.

2 - The Tale of Dead Man's Float:

This episode comes to us just after Frank has moved away - which means no more Dr Vink in stories. Tucker brings along his friend Stig - who repulses everyone. He seems to have taken that to heart and it makes up the theme of his initiation story. I've talked previously about episodes that have famous endings. Well this one has a really famous opening. It begins at a swimming pool in the 1950s. The young lifeguard has attracted the attention of a young strumpet who has brought her brother to go swimming. The sister and the lifeguard get frisky in the office while the boy swims. If Friday the 13th taught us anything, it's that leaving children alone in the water while you're busy playing tonsil tennis is a big no-no. The boy suddenly starts screaming and splashing wildly. It's as if something is pulling him under. We now cut to the present day to follow a chemistry nerd called Zeke. He's played by Kaj Erik Eriksen who also tried to save someone from drowning in Goosebumps's "Welcome To Camp Nightmare" - dude doesn't seem to have much more erm 'depth' in his roles in children's horror. As we said, Zeke is a chemistry nerd and that's why he's unpopular. But he approaches a pretty girl on the swim team called Clorice - I assume she's named so because it sounds similar to 'chlorine' (she's a swimmer, get it?) - and wants to show her something in the boys' locker room. Get your minds out of the gutter, folks. He wants to show her that the school has an entire pool closed down - the same one from the episode's opening. Clorice pulls a few strings and gets them to reopen it. The swim team have a ball there but there's always an odd smell coming from the pool. Zeke eventually asks Clorice to teach him how to swim and for some reason they go there late at night. While out in the pool, something invisible grabs him and tries to pull him under. They just barely manage to get out thanks to Charlie the old janitor. Charlie also happens to be the lifeguard on whose watch the little boy drowned at the start. Charlie reveals that the pool was built on top of a cemetery. The builders were supposed to move the bodies but they must have missed one. And the malevolent spirit drowned several more people until the pool eventually closed down. But of course, since it's now reopened, it has to be stopped. This episode has gone down for having one of the darkest openings in the series - opening with a little boy being drowned. And its villain still looks creepy as hell. Initially it's invisible but Zeke comes up with a way to see it - and immediately wishes he'd left it alone. Whenever a horror show does an episode themed around the water, there's always plenty of potential for good stuff. And this one made kids afraid of public pools where everyone thinks they're safe. Imagine the very idea of being drowned in a place where it's so easy for help to come but they're always too late. Add that to the already high amount of people afraid of drowning in general. No joke; I've known numerous people who have never learned to swim because they're terrified of drowning. Either that or they just watched this and decided to play it safe. It's pretty accurate to call this episode the Jaws of children's television.

1 - The Tale of the Quicksilver:

This may cause a few scratched heads among fans. "Laughing In The Dark" tends to be voted the scariest episode by a lot of people. Personally I'm not afraid of clowns so that episode doesn't do much for me. It's good but not great in my opinion. This one however .well I'll get to that later. The teller of this story is Kiki, who catches Tucker playing with a magical flute that's supposed to bring rain. She reminds everyone that magic can be very useful as long as you do it right. But if you don't know what you're doing bad things can happen. And so the story opens in a very dark fashion. A young girl has created some kind of ritual with candles, chalices, chalk etc. She draws a doorway in her wall and reads the incantation:

"creature of darkness come to me"

She tries to keep the creature at bay and make it enter an amulet. But she has done something wrong and one of her candles falls over. The demon locks her inside the room and the girl is implied to have burned to death. We skip forward through an unknown time frame to the same house but with a new family moving in. Our protagonists are Aaron and his younger brother Doug. On their first night in the house, they are woken by the furniture in the room rattling around. All their things have been stacked on top of each other and someone has drawn a Q on the wall. The next day when they start their new school, Doug become unusually ill for no reason. Also Aaron keeps having a lot of bad luck with things around him seemingly getting knocked over. Things aren't too bad when he hits it off with a cute girl called Connie - who looks remarkably similar to the girl we saw at the start of the episode. And that night, Aaron has a dream witnessing what happened at the start. After waking up, he finds a yearbook hidden in the wall. It shows a picture of Connie and the same girl whose name is Laura Turner. It turns out Laura was Connie's twin sister - who burned to death trying to get rid of an evil entity in her house. Which is also the same house Aaron and Doug are now living in. And it's that entity that's causing Doug's illness. Connie and Aaron are going to have to face their own personal demons in order to cleanse the house and save Doug. It might be just my nostalgia talking but this is an episode of AYAOTD that holds up very well these days. When watching it back, I was expecting the creature to look very cheesy. But it didn't - I was still creeped out by it. Back in the day, this episode legitimately gave me nightmares. I couldn't sleep out of fear of that thing coming out of my wall. It's the only episode of AYAOTD that genuinely scared the crap out of me. Some of the scenes are so well done; Laura's attempt at banishing the creature is up there with the boy drowning in "Dead Man's Float", especially as an opening to the story. She probably received one of the darkest deaths in the series. How many other children got locked in their rooms and burned to death? On a completely unrelated matter, I found the relationship between Aaron and Doug incredibly heartwarming. Too many times on this show and many others, the two brothers are at each other's throats. It's always nice to see an older sibling who loves and will do anything to protect their younger sibling. It makes for a deep episode that gets dark but the happy ending feels very much earned.

The original Midnight Society - Frank, Betty Ann, Eric, Kristen, David, Gary & KikiNew additions - Tucker, Samantha & Stig

The New Midnight Society - Tucker (all grown up), Vange, Andy, Megan & Quinn
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