Are You Afraid of the Dark?
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Credit: Nickelodeon

How Are You Afraid of the Dark? created a generation of feminist horror fans

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Dec 13, 2019

In 1992, there were plenty of young girls who loved horror — but most horror producers just didn’t seem to care. Take my word for it; I was 10 then, with a newly minted taste for the creepy, and a potent combination of parental neglect and basic cable left me free to surf the airwaves each night. I couldn’t get enough of the era’s goofy, gory horror on shows like Amazing Stories and the syndicated Nightmare on Elm Street spin-off, Freddy’s Nightmare. But as I wiled away my nights watching ghosts terrorize horny teens and Brad Pitt get shot with an arrow, I noticed a pattern: On TV, girls were almost never the heroes.

The horror films of the late ‘80s and very early ‘90s were hit-and-miss when it came to female characters — though many of the movies were misogynistic messes and almost none were ethnically diverse, the era gave us some great heroines, like Nightmare on Elm Street’s Nancy Thompson and OG Buffy Summers. But we were a long way from the feminist horror of today — especially on TV, where being a girl generally meant that you didn’t get to save the day; more likely you just got to shriek photogenically while some creep tried to kill you.

What was an emerging feminist horror nerd to do? Luckily, a new show had just come out — one where girls got to be the imperfect heroes as often as the boys did. Are You Afraid of the Dark? premiered on Canadian TV in 1990, though it only became a tween phenomenon when it appeared on Nickelodeon in the summer of 1992. Each episode followed the Midnight Society, a group of tweens who loved horror as much as I did, as they met in some suitably atmospheric woods and told each other genuinely scary stories. The stories did more than just give an entire generation some trauma around clowns, though. They hinged on regular problems and fears that didn’t have anything to do with ghosts trapped in mirrors or gross bloody pool-monsters — bullying, peer pressure, family trouble. Several issues addressed female experiences, like being bullied by other girls, or having boys resent your presence in an all-male space. It was the first time I realized that horror didn’t just have to be about a boy’s fears or problems; it could be about my fears and problems, too.

Series co-creator, writer, and director D.J. MacHale hadn’t consciously set out to create a work of feminist horror —“I wrote about strong characters and many of them happened to be girls,” he says. But telling inclusive stories was part of the show’s mission from day one.  “I write about kids who find themselves in challenging situations, and ultimately solve the problems themselves ... no matter their sex, race, or age,” says MacHale. Like his other work (including the girl-centric Kirsten Dunst vehicle Tower of Terror), Are You Afraid of the Dark? focused on “the theme of self-empowerment” — and for the show’s many female characters, that meant blowing past stereotypes of how young girls should act, and finding the strength to be heroes.

When MacHale first developed the show with partner Ned Kandel, they had planned it as a series of bedtime stories. But the pair hit a roadblock: They realized bedtime stories were actually incredibly boring. What had they actually liked as kids? “Scary stories,” says MacHale. So they changed course, shifting the show’s focus to horror and thrillers for kids — a practically nonexistent genre at the time. It took a year to sell Nickelodeon executives on it, but by 1992 the show was airing weekly in the U.S., just in time to be part of a kids’ horror golden age that included Beetlejuice the Animated Series (1989-1990), Eerie, Indiana (1991-2), the original Addams Family films (1991 & 1993), and Goosebumps (1992).

But Are You Afraid of the Dark? differentiated itself from the pack not just by including real scares, but by taking kids’ problems and feelings incredibly seriously. (MacHale, not coincidentally, worked on ABC Afterschool Specials years before developing the show). “I wanted stories about real kids who were facing challenges that had nothing to do with the supernatural situation they ended up in.” Though the Ghastly Grinner might be what pops into our brains when we think of the show, the emotional punch of watching kids face and conquer their fears is probably what really embedded the series in our brains. “If I had set out to make a flat-out scare-fest, the episodes would all have been much scarier,” says MacHale. “I wanted to make eerie stories that also touched you on a more interesting, human level ... like The Twilight Zone did so brilliantly. Those are the kinds of stories that stick with you.”

The show worked hard to be inclusive at a level rarely seen in the early ‘90s; the Midnight Society included a diverse group of actors, as did the stories themselves— in fact, it was actually nominated for an NAACP Image Award in 1996. The show’s mission toward exploring a broad array of experiences also extended beyond the camera; in the first season alone, says MacHale, half of the scripts focused on female characters and were written by female writers.  “We wanted to depict a wide variety of stories, characters, and situations. It was all about diversity,” says MacHale. “We didn't play to stereotypes.”

MacHale now works as a YA novelist ("I can just sit in my cave and be creative.”). He’s the author of the New York Times bestselling Pendragon series, and says that in his books, “the strongest characters are the girls.” Reflecting on the lasting legacy of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, he notes, “I can't say for certain that there has been any hugely dramatic influence on our culture. But I'd like to believe that by depicting kids taking charge of difficult situations, it opened up kid-viewers to the idea that they aren't powerless in their own lives.”

Today, girls who feel the allure of ghosts and gore don’t have to worry that the world of horror doesn’t want them — from Monster High to Hotel Transylvania to the Disney Channel’s Vampirina, horror culture now opens its arms to young girls as well as boys, says Kate Hagen, director of community at screenwriting site the Blacklist and creator of the site’s 31 Days of Feminist Horror Films. “It definitely feels like there's been sort of a reckoning, like, ‘Hey, little girls love this stuff, too!'”

The series reboot debuts into a wholly different world. I mean, most kids watching it now have never lived in a world without Buffy or Dana Scully or the desperately-needed critical reclamation of Jennifer’s Body. Today’s ghoulish girls wouldn’t find their jaws on the floor, like I did, after watching “The Tale of the Watcher’s Woods,” and realizing that their fears and pains weren’t trivial; they were the stuff of horror tales. Horror culture has changed vastly and for the better over the past 29 years, and the new Are You Afraid of the Dark? will doubtlessly take on new problems. I’m glad to see that the show, like all our great stories, can be changed and adapted for new generations. But I also hope we never forget the impact of the original series, and how it beamed into people’s houses, a few minutes after Ren & Stimpy, and let young horror fans who didn’t look like the heroes on other shows understand that their stories were worth telling, too.

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