Editor’s Note: This month, we're looking back, and reflecting on how influential films, TV shows, and celebrities changed us — and the impact they've had on our lives and pop culture...
I hate to say this in my best old man voice, but kids today don't know the television they're missing. Back in my day television shows catered to children. Heck, there was an entire network devoted strictly to thinking like a kid, not honing the content to selling the next big thing. (Although several of these shows directly inspired consumer products, for the purpose of this article my point stands.)
If you were a '90s kid you probably watched the trio of anthology horror shows that populated the airwaves: Are You Afraid of the Dark, Goosebumps, and Eerie, Indiana. All three have become cult classics in their own right, but each catered to different facets of the horror genre. Each had its own unique type of fans. And the fact that all three existed at one time is a painful reminder of how children's programming has transitioned into something different.
Are You Afraid of the Dark was the first show out of the gate, airing in 1992 on Nickelodeon. In the late '80s, Nickelodeon was the progenitor of children's television. It was a safe space for kids to learn and explore with every show being presented through the prism of being for kids, not created for kids (with consumer purposes in mind). Are You Afraid of the Dark was a co-production between Nickelodeon and the Canadian company, Cinar, giving many their first glimpses of Canadian stars like Ryan Gosling and Elisha Cuthbert.
The series followed a group of kids known as the Midnight Society, who told spooky tales of their own imagining around a campfire. The show was aimed more at older kids, generally 14 to 16, with tales emphasizing love, friendship, and cooperation. Episodes like "The Tale of the Lonely Ghost," "The Tale of the Final Wish," and "The Tale of the Hatching" looked at the concept of being an outsider or moving to a new place, examining an individual's identity in a time where, for many adolescents, they were questioning who they were. Some episodes could be sappy, others silly, but there was a desire to tell an overarching moral within the horror itself. Unlike other series of the time, the show was also a fan of diversity, with characters of all races popping up. In a landscape where we're often talking about the lack of people of color onscreen, it's remarkable to go back to old episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark and see so many non-white actors.
Are You Afraid of the Dark's biggest contribution, and maybe its most traumatizing factor, was that it was the first kids show to really put an eye on death. "The Tale of the Dream Girl" and "The Tale of Station 109.1" both presented an uncompromising eye towards death and dying, alluding to the afterlife and the ultimate inevitability of dying. It's worth wondering how kids of this era responded to these episodes in the moment. For me, I have to think I subconsciously internalized this fear, as these two episodes were the ones I remembered the most prominently before the series was semi-available to watch. Fun fact, "Tale of the Dream Girl" also acted as inspiration for M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense, so never let anyone tell you kids' shows are silly.
But despite being aimed at the then-unknown "tween" market, Are You Afraid the Dark's cast and storylines were aimed at older kids, leaving a void for younger children. It was a void filled by the Master of Horror himself (for kids, at least), R.L. Stine. Based on the popular book series, Goosebumps was an anthology series that ran for four seasons starting in 1995. Goosebumps didn't have an introductory element of kids telling scary stories. It was more like The Twilight Zone, featuring standalone stories with a central inspiration: Stine's books. The kids in the series were younger and the stories campier. Gone were the morality tales involving love and friendship and in there place were haunted masks and a killer puppet named Slappy. Goosebumps was in a vein similar to Stephen King's Creepshow or Tales From the Crypt, more like living comic books than tales you could deconstruct. This, coupled with the lack of solid DVD releases, might explain why the show isn't remembered as well as the more recent film adaptations.
Every great trend in television or film needs an outlier. A cult classic only the coolest of the cool remember. And if you wanted Are You Afraid of the Dark to be a little weirder or Goosebumps to be a taste more esoteric, your best bet was to watch Eerie, Indiana. Running for just one year, between 1991-1992, Eerie, Indiana told the story of Marshall Teller (played by a pre-Hocus Pocus Omri Katz), who moved to the titular town and ran into all manner of weird things ⏤ from Bigfoot to twins who stayed young in life-sized plastic containers. With director Joe Dante as a creative consultant, Eerie, Indiana was littered with references to old films and generally acted like a Twin Peaks-level horror show for kids. It was fun, it was smart, it was doomed to last just 19 episodes.
For kids today, what TV shows are equivalent to these three Nickelodeon knockouts? There's a pervasive wave of nostalgia with all the reboots and revivals onscreen, and it's inescapable. It's clear that Hollywood is reminiscing about the things that remind us of our childhood, but not actually creating anything for the new generation to moon over. Have creators avoided the horror anthology because the real world's issues are too pervasive? That because kids have the internet there's nothing to truly scare them anymore? I don't know what the excuse is but it's time to bring back the children's horror anthology. Or, better yet, make the three above more easily available for kids ⏤ both new and old ⏤ to revisit. Either way, the '90s love for kids' horror anthologies was a magical time. Now get your ball off my lawn and go seek them out!