When it comes to spooky, the ’90s just did it best – and ’90s kids couldn’t get enough of it.
We grew up the last decade when being a witch was cool thanks to that “hippie witch” grunge aesthetic and the popularity of Twin Peaks. Bizarre puppet-driven movies like The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and The Neverending Story seemed to endlessly play on TV, meanwhile, were you even a 90s kid if you didn’t have the full set of Goosebumps books and a few of the real scary ones… Point Horror!?
With the resurgence of slasher flicks thanks to Scream, television shows such as X-Files, Buffy and Charmed and “real stories” found on Strange But True in the UK and Unsolved Mysteries in the US, horror had gone mainstream and kids were more than aware of it – we were hooked on it. If you weren’t sharing urban legends at slumber parties or sneaking downstairs to catch the late night horror film on TV when your parents were asleep, you weren’t living.
What’s more, watersheds were pretty lenient back then not to mention what was acceptable for children. The ’90s didn’t only produce some incredible adult entertainment, but it created some horror-heavy, and often questionable, kids content too. These gateway horror shows sparked millennial curiosity into the darker side of tv and film, and unfortunately, these days there is a distinct lack of newer shows that embrace children’s love of spooky stories due to growing concerns over innocence and increased censorship and media laws. In the ’90s however, we didn’t know how gruesomely good we had it, even if we did turn out a little bit strange because of it. Here are 10 of the most terrifying kids shows to spawn from the decade – and they still haunt our nightmares to this day.
Based on the hit book series by R L Stine that was a staple on every 90s kids bedroom shelf, Goosebumps saw the books come to life on your super small screened gigantic box of a television set. The episodes are truly mini horror movies, albeit with terrible special effects. Although it is hotly debated which ones are the most terrifying, frontrunners include ‘Welcome To Dead House’, where a family is lured to a town populated by undead folks who plan to kill them, ‘The Mask’ where the mask in question looks very Buffy the Vampire Slayer and is essentially a more sinister version of the Jim Carey film, and ‘Say Cheese And Die’ about a killer camera that foretells your demise. Another standout episode is ‘Cry Of The Cat’, where a girl decapitates a cat with her bike only to discover the cat is evil, has nine lives and turns her into a werecat type creature.
Century Falls (1993)
Century Falls was a British children’s serial drama (something that doesn’t appear to exist anymore) written by Russell T Davies, who would later become known for his work on Queer As Folk and resurrecting Doctor Who. The show followed up Davies’ sci-fi thriller Dark Season, which had aired in 1991 to critical acclaim. While Dark Season focused on school kids attempting to stop a group of sinister adults from taking over and destroying the world, Century Falls had a far eerier rural gothic vibe – making it all the more creepy. In short, it’s a kids folk horror complete with all the tropes of the genre, weird pagan rural village, odd elderly townsfolk, scary spectral children, old occult ritual gone horribly wrong, terrifying pagan gods… It’s comparable to the ‘70s cult kids tv classic, Children Of The Stones.
Round the Twist (1990-2001)
Let’s get one thing clear: Round The Twist wasn’t supposed to be scary, it just was. It was marketed a quirky Aussie show about an eccentric family who live in a lighthouse where weird shit happens… but some of that weird stuff was utterly disturbing. Alright sure, the catchy theme song spells it out for you (“have you ever, ever felt like this? When strange things happen, are you going round the twist?”) but it all looked like it should be fun and frolics – there’s no dark gothic horrors presented in this bright, sunny Australian show. But, turns out, the Victorian lighthouse where the three siblings and widower dad live is haunted, from there it just all keeps getting more and more bizarre. In one episode, the eldest son was impregnated by urinating on a tree, talk about disturbing…
Animorphs wasn’t exactly horror, but the backstory was absolutely horrific to say the least. Based on the Scholastic books of the same name (see a pattern emerging here? Those Scholastic book fairs were mint), the series follows Jake and his sort-of mostly friends who take a shortcut one day only to bump into an alien and be given powers – the power to morph into animals. But why? Because the world is being secretly taken over by a race of other aliens who seek to take over the earth. The worst part? These evil aliens are parasites that look like slugs and are inserted into human brains via their ears (à la The Faculty), oh, and if the kids morph too long they are forever stuck in their animal form. It’s honestly all pretty bleak, but wouldn’t it be cool to be able to turn into a tiger?
Eerie, Indiana (1991-2)
Eerie, Indiana is essentially the X-Files for kids. The series follows new kid in town, Marshall (played by Omri Katz aka Hocus Pocus’ Max), who moves from New Jersey to Eerie. Turns out the town lives up to its name, and just like Mulder, Marshall collates his evidence of strange goings on, storing it safely in his basement. Not everything is downright terrifying in Eerie, but it sure is strange – think The Burbs strange. The pilot, ‘Forever Ware’ sticks out in every 90s kids memory as being possibly the most disturbing. It features a Tupperware saleswoman who is quite literally stuck in the past, and seals her children up in airtight containers every night to preserve them as children – an utter nightmare to any kid who is desperate to make it out of eighth grade!
Are You Afraid Of The Dark? (1990-96)
The OG of all 90s spooky kids shows is of course, Are You Afraid Of The Dark?. The Canadian show kicked off the careers of Ryan Gosling, Hayden Christensen, Neve Campbell and Melissa Joan Hart. It’s been revived not once, but twice – because it was just that good. And, most importantly, it was down right scary. The Midnight Society would meet in the dark, gathered around a campfire, toasting s’mores and telling utterly terrifying stories such as ‘The Tale Of The Dollmaker’, a nightmare-inducing story where a girl gets stuck in a dollhouse and transformed into a doll, ‘The Tale Of The Nightly Neighbors’ where a girl suspects her next door neighbors are vampires and everyone laughs it off, and ‘The Tale Of The Super Specs’ where a pair of glasses allow the wearer to see shadowy figures invisible to the human eye.
Tales From The Cryptkeeper (1993-99)
Anthology horror and sci-fi tv shows were huge in the 80s and 90s, there was Tales From The Darkside, The Outer Limits (resurrected in 1995), Monsters, Freddy’s Nightmare, Deadly Nightmares, The Twilight Zone (the remake), and of course the young adult programs mentioned above: Goosebumps and Are You Afraid Of The Dark? In fact, anthology shows have always been pretty popular with the horror crowd. But there is no horror anthology quite as famous as Tales From The Crypt. While many of us would happily watch the original (uncut versions were on constant syndication during the day in the UK – God bless the lack of 90s censorship), a kid-friendly animated version of Tales From The Crypt, Tales From The Cryptkeeper, was available for those of with a more delicate palette. Tales From The Cryptkeeper still boasted some scares if you were a young ’un. Introduced by an animated verions of the creepy skeletal crypt keeper from the adult show, it was a rite of passage into the classic horror worlds of vampires, zombies, phantoms and more – and was a tad creepier than Scooby Doo.
So Weird (1999-2001)
This one only just makes it into the 90s, as it began in 1999. So Weird was the darkest show to ever air on the Disney Channel at the time, and it quickly drew comparisons with cult favorite The X-Files. The protagonist, teenager Fiona Phillips, investigates everything from ghosts and will o’ the wisps to bigfoot and aliens which she keeps a record of via a website entitled Fi’s So Weird Webpage. The show was particularly creepy thanks to its foreboding atmospheres and inclusion of real life folklore and paranormal conspiracies. The show even got downright conceptual in some of its horror, like the episode ‘Strange Geometry,’ which uses the Fibonacci spiral as a premise for multi-world portal traveling.
Courage The Cowardly Dog (1999-2002)
Courage wasn’t supposed to be scary but he was supposed to be scared. All the time. Hence Courage The Cowardly Dog instilled a lifetime’s worth of anxiety on every kid who watched it. For starters, the titular Courage lives with two pensioners in the middle of absolutely nowhere. The place is actually referred to as Nowhere. Pretty terrifying. If that wasn’t scary enough, Nowhere attracts weird stuff and the poor pup is often dragged into disturbing and/or paranormal situations that explain why Courage is oh so scared all of the time. Like a number of 90s kids tv shows, most of which found their home on Cartoon Network, it is full of surrealism and the kind of dark humor that is pure nightmare fuel, leading it to scar numerous younger millennials for life. From Courage’s owner Muriel’s creepy as hell Nephew with a permanent sneer on his face to The Exorcist homage episode, ‘Demon In The Mattress’, somehow the anxiety-ridden Courage managed to make it through them all. Lord only knows how he is doing today, poor pooch.