The title sequence rivals any that American Horror Story has served up. We open with cliché horror music, disturbed laughter, and filtered shots of images from the Venn diagram overlap between kid's world and creep's. A toy clown. An empty boat at midnight. Park swings, abandoned in Fall. Low-angle shots of an attic.
Someone lights a match. Are you afraid of the dark?
I only watched this a few times, though it pervaded television in the 1990s. If you were living in Canada or channel surfing early Saturday night, if you watched any station that aired reruns (and inevitably gave heavy promotion) you couldn't not be aware of it. Many people I know now who were kids then remember the series with terrible fondness. Like the horror comics of yore, it presented a relatively benign, cut-rate introduction to the often cut-rate world and tropes of the Gothic tale.
A joint production between Cinar (Canada) and Nickelodeon (U.S.), its original seasons ran from 1991 to 1996 and it was revived from 1999 to 2000. Each episode begins with a gathering of the Midnight Society, a group of kids who have apparently been meeting for some time, in secret, once a week in the woods. As members grow older and leave, others take their place. One member tells a tale, which is dramatized for the viewer. Some of these riff on famous stories or popular urban legends; others show greater originality. They sometimes reflect the personality of the teller; a few directly incorporate issues he or she is experiencing. The series raids the storehouse of horror conventions, and softens them for the intended audience. Over the years, teen and pre-teen protagonists encounter haunted houses, vampires, ghosts, witches, aliens, a computer virus, a shop's worth of cursed objects and, of course, an evil clown.
The episodes, filmed in and around Vancouver and Montreal, draw from a broad range of young talent. Jay Baruchel, Neve Campbell, Hayden Christensen, Elisha Cuthbert, Ryan Gosling, Melissa Joan Hart, Mia Kirshner, Tia and Tamera Mowry, Jewel Staite, and Eddie Kaye Thomas, among others, appear. Laura Bertram stars in one episode as a girl named Amanda-- just like her character in Ready or Not. Ryan Cooley appears in the final season, just before being cast in the revived Degrassi series. Older notables who turn up include Bobcat Goldthwait, Frank Gorshin, and Gilbert Gottfried.
Although the tale's cast changes from week to week, some characters reappear. Sardo (Richard Dumont) runs a magic/occult shop in several tales, usually selling a mystic MacGuffin that sets the plot in motion. Dr. Vink (Aron Tager) shows up frequently, usually as a mad scientist. Most famously, Zeebo the Clown (also played by Tager) from "The Tale of Laughing in the Dark" becomes a series Easter Egg. He can be seen in the background as a comic-book character, a videogame avatar, and so forth.
The tales usually have a happy ending or epilogue; only occasionally, does darkness win out. Viewers then return to the Midnight Society, who put out their fire and disband until next week. This format continues, with variations, until the final season.
"The Tale of the Silver Sight" begins the final season, but it might have worked better as the series finale. In this television movie (in the initial broadcast; in reruns, it gets aired as a three-parter), the members of the Midnight Society uncover a mystery involving the original group, kids who met in the 1940s. Gene, the original Society president, dies; he leaves a message for his grandchildren, current members Tucker and Gary. Instead of telling a scary story, the kids find themselves drawn into one. "Silver Sight" ends with what, for a children's show, constitutes a fairly mind-bending twist.
Are You Afraid of the Dark also spawned a videogame and a book series. Reminiscent of Goosebumps, the twenty-three short novels include two tales adapted directly from episodes.
Adults won't consider the show particularly frightening; I found it wore thin after a few episodes. Nevertheless, it won a large audience and many accolades. It continues in reruns and, especially around Halloween, creeps into minds nostalgic for an earlier time, when the fear conjured around the campfire passed safely by dawn.
Submitted for your approval, the Midnight Society:
Jason Alisharan as Frank (1991–1995)
Rachel Blanchard as Kristen (1991–1993)1
Daniel DeSanto as Tucker (1993–1996, 1999-2000)
Joanna García as Samantha (1993–1996)
Ross Hull as Gary (1991–1996, 2000)2
Nathaniel Moreau as David (1991–1993)
Raine Pare-Coull as Betty Ann (1991–1996)
Jodie Resther as Kiki (1991–1996)
Jacob Tierney as Eric (1991–1992)
Codie Wilbee as Stig (1995–1996)
Kareem Blackwell as Quinn (1999–2000)
Elisha Cuthbert as Megan (1999–2000)
David Deveau as Andy (1999–2000)
Vanessa Lengies as Vange (1999–2000)
1. Blanchard's resemblance to both Alicia Silverstone and Kirsten Dunst likely accounts for the incorrect claim that one or both of these more noteworthy actresses appeared in the series. The actress later figured in a handful of film and television projects, including the failed tv version of Clueless and the notorious Snakes on a Plane.
2. Tempestas says of Ross Hull (who also had a recurring role in Ready or Not): "He is now a meteorologist at the CBC... He is much shorter than I expected."
UPDATE: A third incarnation appeared in 2019, a miniseries. Its first episodes also received limited theatrical release.