It’s almost Halloween, which means that it’s time for lists upon lists of the spookiest and scariest television shows ever made. But there’s one show that traumatized more children than any other: Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark. From 1990-2000, kids everywhere tuned in to hear the Midnight Society tell the scariest stories they could come up with, and often found out that the answer to the titular question was “yes, now please turn on the light.”
In honor of Halloween and the scariest show to ever grace television screens, we (Casey Rackham and Julia Emmanuele) are listing out the episodes that personally terrified us as children, and still give us the creeps.
Julia’s Picks, ranked from “OMG” to “I’m Never Gonna Sleep Again”:
“The Tale of Many Faces”
The show was not particularly well known for its special effects, but this episode would not be nearly as scary if they weren’t so good. The story goes that Emma, an aspiring model, goes to work as an intern for Madam Visage, a former theater actress. However, it turns out that Madame Visage is stealing the faces of pretty girls to wear on her own head, and keeping them in her stately home dressed in robes and masks. This episode is definitely one of the creepiest things I have ever watched, and to this day I am still freaked out by the weird featureless masks the girls wear. And it always bothered me that Madame Visage was able to hold almost a hundred girls hostage, and nobody came looking for them. Surely there are enough weird things happening at that house that someone would have called the police long before Emma even arrived.
“The Tale of the Crimson Clown”
This episode combined my twin fears of clowns and possessed dolls in a tale about a boy being attacked by a possessed clown doll after stealing money from his brother. The doll itself is terrifying enough, but what really made the Crimson Clown scary was the demonic, high-pitched voice and weird, wheezing laugh. It’s the kind of episode that makes you wonder if the writers wanted to scare their children into behaving, as the threat of a possessed clown doll grabbing you with its weird ribbon arms is enough to get any child to change their attitude. Thanks to Are You Afraid of the Dark, I’ve spent most of my life being wary of strange dolls, as this episode hammered home the idea that they’re all inhabited by demons.
“The Tale of the Midnight Madness”
In this story, Dr. Vink, Are You Afraid of the Dark’s favorite villain, saves a failing movie theater by selling a 1922 edition of Nosferatu in exchange for the theater manager allowing him to show his films once a week. But the manager doesn’t honor his contract and so the original vampire himself comes to life and starts terrorizing the theater. It may not have been as traumatizing as some of the other episodes, but the scene where Nosferatu menacingly makes his way toward the unsuspecting kid working in the projection booth was almost as suspenseful as a Hitchcock film. This episode was the reason that I always checked behind me whenever I had to walk up stairs in the dark, and why I was wary of movie theaters at night for years afterward. It’s the perfect episode to watch in a dark room, as the building suspense made me jump at every noise and shadow when I was a kid.
“The Tale of the Ghastly Grinner”
The Ghastly Grinner is a comic book villain who comes to life when Ethan attempts to dry off his comic book in the microwave. The premise is pretty ridiculous, but once the bus driver’s head spun around and he started drooling blue goo, things got a lot scarier. The scariest part of the episode, by far, is the Ghastly Grinner himself, who looks like a slightly unhinged serial killer that works at a Renaissance Fair. Plus, he never seems to blink, which only adds to the terror, because it felt a bit like he could see into people’s souls. Every time the Grinner popped out from behind someone, I screamed my little head off, and, like with so many other episodes, his scary, maniacal laugh haunted me for several sleepless nights.
“The Tale of Laughing in the Dark”
Are You Afraid of the Dark set the bar for terrifying children impossibly high with only its second episode. Even if you don’t already have a fear of clowns, there’s no denying that this is one of, if not the scariest episode of all. The tale is about Josh, who decides to prove that a carnival isn’t haunted by stealing the nose from the statue of Zeebo the Clown. Zeebo died in a fire in the Great Depression, and did indeed haunt the carnival thereafter, which Josh found out the hard way. This is the kind of episode that crosses the line from scary to traumatizing, and Zeebo barely even had to appear in it to ruin carnivals and funhouses for me forever. This is another episode which resulted in me jumping every time I heard a noise in my house, and the combination of Zeebo’s laugh and the creepy funfair music kept me awake for a long time after I watched it. I’m still not completely over this episode, and while I can watch many of the tales that scared me as a child now and laugh, there will probably always be a tiny part of me that’s terrified of Zeebo the Clown.
Casey’s Picks, ranked from “I Don’t Like This at All” to “I’m Never Leaving My House Again”:
“The Tale of the Water Demons”
Lesson learned: “Don’t mess with the dead, and no matter what you do… don’t mess with their stuff.” In “The Tale of the Water Demons,” two cousins and an old man are haunted by the ghosts of drowned ship passengers who were robbed by the old man. The episode effectively made me completely terrified of going anywhere near fishing docks, because without a doubt, water demons cloaked in seaweed will try to drown you in the depths of unknown waters. Also, I’m never going to steal from dead people.
“The Tale of the Shiny Red Bicycle”
So in this episode, a boy named Mike is so overwrought with guilt for not being able to save his friend Ricky from falling off of a bridge that he’s haunted by the ghost of Ricky (talk about deep, psychological issues). While this episode isn’t necessarily one of the scariest of the bunch, it definitely made me feel sick to my stomach when I watched it. Poor Mike clearly needed serious help getting over his friend’s death and no one was there to comfort him. Leave it to Are You Afraid of the Dark to teach us about life through the use of ghosts.
“The Tale of Lonely Ghost”
First of all, the real-life related premise is nightmare worthy in its own right: A girl (Amanda) desperately wants to be friends with her bratty cousin (who is seriously awful) and her group of friends, and lets them torment her so she can be a part of their gang. (Teenage girls, you suck.) But things get even worse when Amanda is forced to spend a night in a haunted house and comes face to face with the mute ghost who died there, and who apparently lives in a mirror on the wall. Worse yet, it turns out the ghost is Amanda’s grandmother’s daughter (aka Amanda’s aunt). In the end, the ghost and Amanda’s grandmother go through the mirror and live there together for forever. The fact that there is the potential of an alternate reality in mirrors that ghosts can suck you into is just plain creepy. I’ll tell you one thing: I’ll never want friends badly enough to put myself through that horror.
“The Tale of the Doll Maker”
Everyone raise your hand if one of your worst fears is being turned into a porcelain doll and getting trapped inside of a doll house. Okay, good — I’m not the only one. In “The Tale of the Doll Maker,” a young girl goes to visit her friend only to find that she’s been trapped inside of a haunted doll house. After seeing this episode, I could never look at the doll house that my grandpa had built me the same way. What if my dolls were real people who were forever stuck in a doll’s body? No thank you.
“The Tale of the Dead Man’s Float”
So I’m not embarrassed to admit it, this episode is the root of one of my lifelong fears: the drain at the bottom of pools. Let’s just talk about this for a second. A geeky boy and a popular-but-secretly-nice girl hangout in an inflatable boat in their school’s pool, you know normal teenager stuff. But then, it’s revealed that one of the most terrifying looking monsters — it resembles a mop soaked in blood — haunts the pool and attempts to drown people who swim in it. I mean, come on. What kid isn’t going to be completely terrified of going for a swim. To this day, I can’t be alone in a pool because, unless someone can prove otherwise, there is definitely a ghost in the drain waiting to grab onto my ankle and kill me. You think I’m joking, but I’m not.
So thank you, AYAOTD. You have successfully scared and scarred the children of the ‘90s for life. Are you happy with yourself?