The following contains light spoilers for Are You Afraid of the Dark?.
“We’re called The Midnight Society. Separately, we’re very different. We like different things; we go to different schools; and we have different friends. But one thing draws us together: the dark.” This is how a group of teens introduce themselves in the first episode of Nickelodeon’s horror anthology series Are You Afraid of the Dark? in 1990. “Each week we gather around this fire to share our fears, and our strange and scary tales. It’s what got us together, and it’s what keeps bringing us back. This is a warning to all who join us: You’re going to leave the comfort of the light and step into the world of the supernatural.”
A spooky Breakfast Club, these misfits would gather around a campfire long past curfew and throw something on the flames to make them shoot up as they traded scary stories. When they were done, they would return to their normal lives, until the next meeting of The Midnight Society and the next tale. That’s what made it special—they were just stories, set apart from their tellers’ real lives. Until Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? reboot, which has taken a cue from modern creepypasta in breaking down the barrier between fiction and reality… and in doing so, extinguishes any scares, like The Midnight Society putting out their fire.
Written by BenDavid Grabinski and directed by Dean Israelite, this three-part miniseries is a contemporary reboot that introduces young audiences to The Midnight Society via Rachel, its newest member. But when her audition story, “The Tale of Mr. Tophat and the Carnival of Doom,” manifests the actual carnival in their town, and kids start going missing, Rachel and her new friends must confront the sinister Mr. Tophat, a leering ringleader who loves to remind those he tortures that “it’s all part of the show!” That taunting phrase proves ironic, as the young storytellers-turned-final-girls-and-boys come up against evil clowns, drowned ghouls, creepy-crawly scorpions, and magical mirrors.
It’s a grab-bag of horror scares all stuffed under one circus tent, and it amounts to an uninspired tale with little to no stakes. By inverting the original series’ formula of stories versus tellers, the reboot loses any chance for nuance.
The original Are You Afraid of the Dark? storytellers are only glimpsed for two-minute bumpers at the start and end of their tales, yet it’s enough time to at least get a broad-strokes sense of their ‘90s archetypal dynamics: The jock puts the outsider into a headlock. The high-maintenance blonde gets a birthday gift from the shy one. Invariably that week’s storyteller gets scared by another member, or dons a mask at the end for a final jump scare. The nerdy leader tries to keep everyone in line.
Yet where their personalities really come through are in what kinds of tales they bring to the campfire (props to the Wikipedia page for compiling this info). Squeamish Kristen is big on ghost stories about unfinished business and often likes to incorporate props, like costumes or even her dog. Punk Frank regales the group with the recurring villain Dr. Vink. Peppy Betty Ann makes the case for alien invasions counting as horror. Then there are brothers Gary and Tucker: the older, bookish leader who founds the group and is obsessed with magic, and his obnoxious younger brother (and eventual leader of the group after Gary ages out of the series) whose stories are often about duos who start out contentious but must learn to get along in order to defeat whatever evil.
It was this barrier between truth and fiction that made the original series so affecting. Despite describing the light as comforting, these kids clearly felt more at ease sitting in the dark sharing these insights into their psyches. The Midnight Society was a respite from their daily lives and whatever adolescent trials they might contain: bullying, dating drama, schoolwork stresses, the everyday horrors of growing up. A more effective take in 2019 while still invoking the spirit of the source material would have been for today’s Midnight Society to tell each other fictional stories in order to stave off the truly frightening era in which they are currently coming of age: practice drills for the very real threat of school shootings; confronting the sins of their parents’ generation through movements like #MeToo; and the terrible inheritance of climate change.
Interestingly, Grabinski did address this to some extent. “I do think … you have an obligation when you’re making horror for kids to try to keep in mind that there’s a different degree of things that kids can tolerate,” he told io9 at New York Comic-Con. “There’s some kids who have been exposed to a lot more of a violent or scary media, or dealt with more things than some kids who haven’t. So there’s like a tricky balance there because there’s a lot of kids today who, they may watch Get Out or Us, or [are] dealing with the current political climate and a lot of things have made them maybe grow up quicker, or be a little more desensitized to things. But at the same time, I don’t want to assume making the show that kids can handle anything, because it could be a little irresponsible probably.”
Unfortunately, in playing it safer, the reboot manages to reduce the kids to greater stereotypes despite their lives in the light getting even more screen time. Neurotic Graham’s germaphobia is rivaled only by his obsession with obscure horror. Impossibly cool Akiko cuts class to make zombie movies in the park. Louise is… a cheerleader who might have previously been a loser? Gavin is… the hot boy next door? And then there’s Rachel, who had to mysteriously move towns for reasons and who sucks at making friends. Until, that is, she wins over this disparate group with her tale of Mr. Tophat—and then immediately puts all of them in danger.
Rachel’s tale takes up the entire miniseries, so that we are never able to learn about the other Midnight Society members through their stories (aside from offhand mentions of vampire leprechauns and, in a nice throwback, aliens). What’s more, Rachel’s story clearly comes out of her in a way that differs from how any of the others’ do. She compulsively scrawls countless pictures of Mr. Tophat in class seemingly without realizing it; she suffers nightmares in which he writes her messages using her pencil or drops his scorpion coin on her from the ceiling, yet when she wakes up these corporeal objects haven’t transferred to the real world. Although she is initially introduced as a pretty blonde who is misunderstood as a horror buff, the tale moves through her in a way that reduces her to a mere vessel for the Carnival of Doom’s evil reach.
Rachel would seem to embody a modern creepypasta storyteller—that is, someone who begins sharing a story, only to realize (or reveal) partway through that they are not just the narrator but also an active participant. Rachel’s story has the hallmarks, from describing an event that no one but her remembers (the Carnival of Doom) to the late-stage reveal that she was the little girl from her own story. Add in the discovery, from side-switching carnie Bartholomew, that the Carnival of Doom has existed since 1944 and that Mr. Tophat lives in fear of the one child impervious to his powers, and Rachel’s tale becomes the sort of horror that is passed on to its listeners, embedding them within its dangerous weaving.
By breaking down the barrier between story and teller, both components lose all specificity, instead falling into familiar bits of narrative shorthand rather than unique elements. They are two sides of the same scorpion coin, yet together they are worthless.
So why does this iteration fail, when creepypasta adaptations such as Syfy’s Channel Zero have succeeded? The latter was inspired by Kris Straub’s online epistolary story Candle Cove, written as forum postings about a mysterious program of the same name that only a select group of adults remember from their childhood. By setting Candle Cove before the height of social media, Straub taps into (as Alec Bojalad describes in this creepypasta explainer) the collective experience of a generation “consuming media they didn’t always fully understand or confronting real-life mysteries they couldn’t quite contextualize.” There is none of that conflict nor uncertainty for the new Midnight Society; they simply accept their supernatural reality and leap right into confronting it, so that there’s no question of whether or not they’ll succeed.
The key to Nick Antosca’s adaptation of Candle Cove, and subsequent installments based on other creepypasta, was to preserve the atmosphere of each story rather than dramatize it, then build on that. “Every season of Channel Zero is supposed to be like the nightmare that you have after you read the story that it’s based on,” he told Den of Geek. It helped that season 1’s protagonist Mike Painter quickly reveals himself to be an unreliable narrator, making the audience doubt not only his experience watching Candle Cove but whether they want to continue the six-part miniseries in his shoes. Aside from withholding her involvement in the Carnival of Doom, the character of Rachel does not inspire that same intriguing ambiguity.
Perhaps Grabinski and Israelite weren’t aiming for creepypasta at all, and instead were trying to retell a classic story from nearly twenty years ago: “The Tale of the Silver Sight,” a.k.a. the only arc of the original Are You Afraid of the Dark? where the story became real. In 2000, the seventh and final season kicked off with a three-parter that brought back fan favorite Gary, who leads The Midnight Society in solving the mystery behind his and Tucker’s grandfather’s death. Initially there’s pushback, with one of the new members protesting, “We tell stories here. Made-up stories. This is real.” Tucker shoots back: “Exactly. This is why we have to do something—because it’s real.”
By piecing together broken pieces of a record filled with mysterious clues (like listen to the music and not all the eyes are brown), they learn that Grandpa Gene and his four friends founded the original Midnight Society in 1937, only for the group to get disbanded because of an evil charm called the Silver Sight. While only one tale encompasses these three episodes, the kids’ search conjures up smaller stories concerning the fates of each member. Initially bringing each person some form of good fortune—popularity, riches, success—the charm eventually reversed their luck and killed some of them through tragic accidents, or sent others literally living underground for fear of further vengeance.
The conclusion, while incredibly cheesy in terms of 2000-era special effects, still holds together as a decent ghost story—and even ends on a winking flashback to the original Midnight Society. But what most makes “The Tale of the Silver Sight” work is Gary’s plea to the group he had to give up when he grew up: to finish the story. Despite Rachel and her new friends outwitting Mr. Tophat and dismantling the Carnival of Doom, they never actually seem to have agency in their own story. They’re just a means to a particularly unsatisfying “The End.”
The Are You Afraid of the Dark? episodes that still stick with Natalie Zutter are “The Tale of the Hatching” (scary!) and “The Tale of Badge” (unforgivably ridiculous). Share your favorites with her on Twitter @nataliezutter!