Ask any Millennial what childhood terrors made them huddle under blankets with flashlights, and they’ll give you the same answer: Are You Afraid of the Dark? I’m tempted to call this horror show Nickelodeon‘s greatest success, because it hit all the points:
• It was scary enough to terrify kids ages 6-12, but a smart kind of scary.
• It struck a great balance between having the consistent characters of the Midnight Society and the revolving protagonists and monsters of each episode.
• The casting directors obviously did a good job picking the guest stars, since many of them have grown up to have successful careers, and then we have the treat of unearthing their episodes.
My sister and I would sit rapt in our beanbags and be unable to stop watching this show, chilled to the bone even though it was still light outside when we were watching these episodes. The villains were often random and wouldn’t seem scary in actual horror movies — a radio host? a gallery owner? — but somehow they still represented our greatest fears.
So I figured, with this hurricane approaching the East Coast and with our favorite nostalgic holiday Halloween coming up soon, I’d share with you the five AYAOTD episodes that psychologically scarred me. Some amazing soul has uploaded a ton of full episodes to YouTube, so as long as your power stays on, you can settle in and watch these.
“The Tale of the Chameleons”
Some of the AYAOTD episodes might have seemed less scary if we already knew the stories behind them, but I had never heard of whatever urban legend inspired this episode. Tia and Tamera Mowry starred on the show while they were doing Sister, Sister, and it was a genius move to cast them as opponents. One played a “reckless” (according to Wikipedia) girl who picks up a chameleon from the pet store and gets bitten. The other played the chameleon, which was actually a shapeshifter trying to take over the girl’s life.
When the evil one eats the goldfish? So creepy! Having watched these two played separated-at-birth twins, it was strangely satisfying to see them wrestle over which one of them gets to live.
“The Tale of the Mystical Mirror”
Maybe it’s because I’m a girl, but any of the stories about beauty and age always gave me shivers. Important life lesson here: If you’re a gawky adolescent, don’t trust the former beauty queen to tell you that you’re a secret beauty yourself. Because really, she just wants to steal your youth by tricking you into becoming a vain person, then taking advantage of that puffed-up self-worth.
And then you get turned into a dog! Perhaps the most random AYAOTD punishment. Side note: Can there be a show dedicated to all of the protagonists’ best friends/boyfriends who realize that something’s up and wind up saving their asses?
“The Tale of the Hatching”
This is the AYAOTD episode that most sticks out in my mind! Two siblings are sent to a boarding school where if you eat the oatmeal, you get brainwashed into caring for reptilian eggs in the pool every night. And then when they hatch… well, you go from caretaker to first meal.
I’ve always been fascinated by mind control stories, so it’s no surprise that I obsessively rewatched this episode whenever it aired in reruns. (Remember that this was long before TiVo or YouTube!) But I also liked how it was a brother-and-sister duo instead of some girl and her boyfriend, and how these kids had a lot of angst even before they uncovered the brainwashing plot.
Also, I never ate oatmeal again.
“The Tale of Station 109.1″
I’m surprised that it took them five seasons to put Gilbert Gottfried on this show. His voice alone is enough to send children into fits of terror. (Of course, you have the logic gap that anyone would give someone this screechy his own radio show.) A lot of the episodes were Goosebumps-esque tales of kids getting trapped in bizarre situations — in a painting, as a dog, in the past — but this one had real stakes. Gottfried’s maniacal DJ sent you to the afterlife, whether you were ready or not.
The poor kid at the center of this episode, in addition to wearing a questionable earring, gets mistaken for a dead guy. It’s kind of comical how Gottfried’s character doesn’t get that a kid isn’t ready to die, but his unwillingness to fix his mistake is more chilling than anything else. Also, because Aladdin was the first episode I’d seen in theaters, while watching this the first time all I could think of was, Oh shit, Iago is actually gonna kill us!
“The Tale of Laughing in the Dark”
Often it’s the classic episodes from the first season of shows that are just the best. OK, I gotta just lay it out for you: So you have this corrupt clown named Zeebo from the Great Depression, who hides out with all his carnival’s money but accidentally burns down his spookhouse with one of his cigars. So of course he haunts the place, and when a stupid kid steals his red nose, he goes after him.
This is where shit gets real. Because the ways in which Zeebo stalks poor little Josh are nightmare fodder. When Zeebo calls Josh? When he laughs? THE BALLOON? Rewatching this episode, I started shuddering on that part. I couldn’t find this as one video, but you’ll want to check out part 2 and part 3.
There are nearly 100 AYAOTD episodes, so it’s likely that I missed your favorite. Share it in the comments!