In the last half decade, D.J. MacHale has noticed a significant uptick in interest in Are You Afraid of the Dark?, the Nickelodeon anthology series he co-created nearly 30 years ago. Though he spent much of his career as a television writer, director, and producer, he’s had a successful second act as an author of sci-fi, fantasy, and supernatural novels. When fans of his novels put it together that he also produced all 91 episodes of the original run of the Nickelodeon classic, he started receiving an outpour of appreciation.
“Suddenly this wave of social media came to me about Are You Afraid of the Dark?,” MacHale told Den of Geek. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t speak to someone in some way, shape or form about [the show].”
Are You Afraid of the Dark? premiered on Nickelodeon on Oct. 25, 1991. Each episode started with a member of “The Midnight Society,” a group of teenagers who gathered at a secret location in the woods, offering up a scary story around a campfire. The anthology tapped into a range of stories that touched on the supernatural, classic monsters like werewolves and vampires, and a nightmare inducing clown named Zeebo. The series kicked off a golden age (an upcoming documentary dubbed this successful time period the “Orange Years”) of live-action and animated shows for the network. Yet during the series’ original run from 1991 to 1996, MacHale says there was “no mechanism to get feedback” like there is now for TV showrunners who are bombarded with instant social media gratification or scorn from viewers.
“I wasn’t that kind of person who every week I’d try to get the ratings,” he says. “I was too busy making the show. Everyone seemed to like it. But I didn’t get any real feedback from viewers. I didn’t feel in the moment that this ground swell of this revolutionary thing was happening. It wasn’t until maybe the late ‘90s. It wasn’t until Nickelodeon stopped being that way, that I realized what we had back then.”
These days, interactions with fans or media attention often comes with questions about what the scariest episode is. Initially Nickelodeon rejected MacHale and co-creator Ned Kandel’s pitch out of fear that scaring kids would result in backlash from parents. It took another pitch meeting and three script proposals to convince the network that the tone of the series was not overly scary for a young audience.
“Our goal wasn’t necessarily just to be scary,” MacHale says. “Are You Afraid of the Dark? sprang more from the kind of short story spooky tradition, of which I’d put Twilight Zone in that category. I tried to come up with [different] types of stories, whether some be more dramatic, some maybe romantic, some flat out scary, some with vampires. Each season was crafted to have a whole range of stories. And that’s straight out of the Twilight Zone. They always made you think a little bit, and there’s always a little bit of a twist to it, and it was more unsettling and weird than it was flat out scary.”
MacHale notes that there was no traditional boogeyman in The Twilight Zone, though Willam Shatner might disagree. He suggests Are You Afraid of the Dark? was likely the scarier of the two shows.
“I would argue that we were scarier than Twilight Zone, because we did have those episodes where there were monsters coming at you. But that was more the guidepost for me, to be able to tell a wide range of different types of interesting stories, and that was the big Twilight Zone influence.”
MacHale’s direct homage to Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone is unmistakable. The storyteller in Are You Afraid of the Dark? begins each tale with “Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society,” before midnight dust is tossed onto the campfire. The phrase “submitted for your approval” is closely associated with Serling and The Twilight Zone, though it was only used in the opening monologues of three episodes: “Cavender Is Coming,” “In Praise of Pip,” and “A Kind of a Stopwatch.” A 1995 American Masters documentary film on the television giant was titled Rod Serling: Submitted For Your Approval.
The Twilight Zone and Are You Afraid of the Dark? are intertwined through more than direct homage and the anthology structure. The Midnight Society itself functions as a narrative device in the vein of Rod Serling as the narrator of The Twilight Zone.
“I smartly created the Midnight Society that becomes a through line through the whole thing,” MacHale says. “It’s amazing to me that The Midnight Society is as important to people as it is, because to me the Midnight Society was like Rod Serling.”
It’s been 61 years since Rod Serling first introduced viewers to The Twilight Zone. Its legacy is immeasurable. But even by the most basic metric, proof of its enduring longevity is in its revivals. After years of tussling with network executives over censorship, budgets, and advertising, Serling decided not to fight the cancellation of The Twilight Zone in 1964. Since then, the series returned as a feature film in 1983, and has been revived three times, in 1985, 2002, and most recently by Jordan Peele in 2019.
Are You Afraid of the Dark? is following in the footsteps of its forebearer. The original run ended in 1996 after five seasons, but was revived with a new Midnight Society in 1999 and ran for an additional two seasons. In recent years, Nickelodeon saw an opportunity to bring back its classics for a new generation of kids whose parents likely grew up with grand dreams of being slimed. It led to revivals for ‘90s hits All That, Rocko’s Modern Life, Double Dare, and an Are You Afraid of the Dark? mini-series.
The 2019 return for the horror anthology was a hit and the network decided to greenlight a second season. MacHale himself is not involved with the revival and says he was not asked to be part of it, which left some bittersweet feelings and bad blood with the network. But he did offer advice for the revival’s producers.
“One of the things I said to the producer was, ‘Be careful because you’re making a show that people who are in their 30s have great memories of, and chances are you’re not going to live up to those memories.’ And those memories are probably better than the show was, frankly. You’re not really making a show for them because they’ve moved on. You’re really making a show for the same age group that we made it for. And they did. I think they’ve just hit the right tone. I think they’ve done the show a good service. I’d be really upset if they somehow ruined it, but they didn’t, so that’s good.”
The new Are You Afraid of the Dark? is more of an anthology in the mold of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, a departure from MacHale’s original vision. Yet The Midnight Society has become something bigger than MacHale could have ever imagined during the early days of making the show, and clearly his creation still resonates with scores of fans around the world. And much like The Twilight Zone, the mark of a show that stands the test of time is that new storytellers continue to want to put their own spin on it.
“I did see a Twilight Zone episode the other day, and it ticked me off,” MacHale says with a laugh. “Only because it went to a place that I wanted to go with Are You Afraid of the Dark?, and I couldn’t come up with a good story to do this. And it turns out they did it on The Twilight Zone.”