If you were a kid of the ‘90s with a burgeoning love of the horror genre, then chances are you watched an awful lot of Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark? This pair of children’s horror anthologies — both with their roots in Canada — were after-school must-sees for children who craved age-appropriate entertainment that wasn't sickly sweet or populated by talking cuddly animals. For many, these were the gateway drugs that led us to old-school monster movies, ‘80s slasher flicks, and the hardcore stuff that truly left us afraid to turn off the lights. The adults may have had The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, but the kids had the Midnight Society and a spooky-voiced author warning us we were in for a scare.
As a kid, my class was fiercely divided between those who loved Goosebumps and those who preferred Are You Afraid of the Dark?, much in the same way we’d been split in half between the readers who liked Roald Dahl and those who liked Enid Blyton. Obviously, I was in the former camp when it came to books, and as a viewer my heart naturally swung toward Are You Afraid of the Dark? But I still watched and read Goosebumps with feverish excitement whenever possible. Both shows were the first step down a path of horror fandom. But which show holds up best? Do they still have the ability to scare us?
Are You Afraid of the Dark? is ahead of its competition in terms of setup and mood. The introduction to each episode alone is the stuff of classic horror, with its perfectly constructed montage of creaking swings, sinister children’s laughter, and a foreboding attic that inexplicably houses an evil leprechaun doll. Following that buildup of tension that has kids on edge before the episodes even start, we are introduced to the crafters of our tales. The Midnight Society, a group of kids who gather around the campfire at night — without their parents’ permission, no less — to tell scary stories was the dream of many a child watching the show. These were kids from all walks of life with seemingly clashing personalities who still found their own little community in which to be the weird ones together. This was old-school oral storytelling, the likes of which mostly bypassed us as kids outside of our teachers reading a book to class, and that never came with the same thrill as the Midnight Society.
Goosebumps came in a more traditional anthology format, but the setup could still keep you on edge. R.L. Stine’s books were the stuff of Scholastic book fair treasures. Your school library wasn’t a real one unless it had a minimum of 40 Goosebumps books on the shelves at all times. These bite-sized reads were endlessly addictive and only became more so once they were adapted for television. There was a true thrill in seeing something you’d read countless times come to life on your TV. For many kids, this was the first time they truly understood adaptation as a process, and it gave us room to nitpick at the things we didn’t think were as good as the book (one of the true geek joys in life).
Watching both shows now is a potent reminder of the mind-bending strength of nostalgia. Your memories cannot help but be warped by the passage of time, and that was no different when it came to re-watching Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark? What seemed so unimaginably scary then was mostly cheesy with the clarity of hindsight. These were shows made on the cheap with lots of hammy acting, questionable effects, and morals delivered with the subtlety of a power drill. Then again, that was kind of the point. As a kid, these shows were completely new, and we watched them without the context of everything that inspired them or everything made with way more money behind it. The references didn’t make sense because we didn’t know what they were referencing, but that only emphasized the newness to us. As a kid, one Goosebumps episode where a young man started to turn into a dog petrified me. Now, an overacting teenager surrounded by stick-on fur is best enjoyed as camp spectacle.
The joys of both series can still be appreciated in the context of the horror genre. The Twilight Zone remains one of the most iconic and terrifying television series ever made, but there are plenty of moments throughout that wouldn’t seem out of place in a drag show. What is Bela Lugosi’s flamboyance as the Prince of Darkness himself in Tod Browning’s Dracula if not a master of unconscious camp? And then, of course, there is the collected filmography of the horror camp auteur himself, Ed Wood. Horror is as much about the absurd as it is the scary, and intentionally or otherwise, both Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark? fulfill that duty in their own ways.
Both shows are also smart in their decision to lean into the occasional wackiness of their child-appropriate concept. Sure, the adults have had their fair share of haunted ventriloquist dummies — and Goosebumps has an infamous one in the form of Slappy — but did they ever go full-on killer garden gnomes like Goosebumps, or evil pinball like Are You Afraid of the Dark?
That’s not to say either show is bereft of tension and creepiness that has withstood the test of time. Both are rooted in classic horror tropes, from gothic ghost stories to the heights of Stephen King’s prime. In the Are You Afraid of the Dark? episode “The Tale of Laughing in the Dark," a moment involving a ghost clown and a sentient balloon is as chilling as anything out of It; “The Tale of the Twisted Claw” is a direct riff on the classic horror story "The Monkey’s Paw"; The Goosebumps episode “Squeal of Fortune” features a girl transforming into a pig in a moment of body horror that still turns the stomach.
In terms of consistency, Goosebumps holds up better today, but there’s something about Are You Afraid of the Dark? that remains gripping beyond nostalgia. The simple thrill of sitting by a campfire and telling spooky stories after sunset with your friends is one that still holds much sway, even after all these years. Sure, the effects are wonky, the acting suspect, and the morals clumsily delivered, but this was the show that smartly blurred the lines between real and fake in a way that kept you on your toes long after the credits rolled. The Midnight Society kids didn’t just tell random stories; they picked elements from their own lives, they molded tales that they knew would appeal to and terrify each other, and those fears ignited by the stories would spill over into reality. More than its competition, Are You Afraid of the Dark? keenly understood how stories impact their audience, and how the sharing of them keeps creativity alive.
Goosebumps has been revived for a new generation thanks to two movies that meld the many books together for a meta-horror comedy in the vein of the Amblin classics. Are You Afraid of the Dark? is set to receive similar big-screen treatment, with It writer Gary Dauberman on screenplay duties and a release set for next year. In the meantime, take a trip into the near past and revisit the creepy tales that scared and inspired a generation.