[Review] 'Are You Afraid of the Dark?: Curse of the Shadows' Offers Gateway Horror with a Terrifying New Creature
Are you afraid of the dark?...
…I was. Okay, am. To this day, and just like when I was a kid, if I’ve just watched a scary movie, I need some kind of light in the room to feel comfortable. Even if it’s just the soft glow of a television. Because when we can’t see what’s in the dark, anything can be lurking there, waiting for us to close our eyes. It’s a terrifying thought, wondering what’s in the dark, and a question that Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? has been asking kids to ponder since the 90s. With the season 2 premiere of their reboot series which came roaring back in 2019, Curse of the Shadows: The Tale of the Haunted Woods, the gateway horror classic delves deeper into the terror of the dark than its ever gone before.
Set in an eerie seaside town, The Tale of the Haunted Woods opens with Connor (Parker Queenan) being taken by a frightening creature known as the Shadow Man. Determined to find out what happened to him, his friends, all members of the Midnight Society, a group which tells scary stories to each other after dark, set out to find Connor, uncovering the mystery of an ancient curse, and the creature of darkness which haunts their town.
For those that missed the 2019 reboot, this is not the Are You Afraid of the Dark? you may or may not have grown up with in the 90s. Gone are the bright colors and cheap but fun sets. Gone is the campy vibe, and goofy (though occasionally frightening), creatures.
But that doesn’t translate to “bad”.
Because what creator BenDavid Grabinski and showrunner JT Billings have done is modernize one of the best gateway horror shows ever, and updated it to feel much more gothic, and much scarier. And The Tale of the Haunted Woods nails that skin-prickling atmosphere with chilling precision.
Following spooky credits featuring a lighthouse enveloped by fog and monstrous shadows lurking about, we’re introduced to our new set of Midnight Society kids. There’s Connor’s best friend and night owl, Luke (Bryce Gheisar), extreme environmentalist, Hanna (Beatrice Kitsos), the spirited Gabby (Malia Baker) and Jai (Arjun Athalye), a comic kid who steals every scene he’s in with a charismatic charm. All of the young actors are likeable in their roles, but—and keeping in mind this is just the first episode—none stand out as much as the cast from the 2019 reboot. With this episode so immediately focused on the mystery of the Shadow Man and the story within a story format, we don’t get to know our kids much outside of surface level tropes, but I expect that’ll change as the series goes on.
And besides, the entire cast is delightful regardless, including Sardo (Ryan Bell)—not that Sardo from previous AYAOTD episodes, but his nephew—whom the kids come to for answers in finding their friend, and Bell hams it up with glee, taking an absolute joy in mocking the kids and cementing himself as a character you love to hate.
As per usual with the tales of the Midnight Society though, the true standout is the monster, and the Shadow Man (Kyle Strauts) may be one of the most terrifying creations to ever scare its way into the Are You Afraid of the Dark universe. A combination of earthy roots and a skeletal frame, this grumbling, groaning, crackling thing is pure nightmare fuel, and will have your kids—and you—screaming for the nightlight. While it lacks the unnerving presence of other AYAOTD classic creeps such as Zeebo the Clown or the Ghastly Grinner, the Shadow Man frightens because of how little we see, and how quickly it strikes. Wadlow uses more modern scare techniques, giving the thing a Lights Out set of rules, in which light will make it disappear, but the second the lights go out, it can be anywhere. Don’t tell me jump scares aren’t effective. And besides, if sudden shocks don’t get you, Wadlow has other ways to work under your skin.
The Tale of the Haunted Woods oozes an eerie atmosphere, taking us from rusty playgrounds to a desolate lighthouse, strange magic shops and forests filled with a spooky mist, all of it overcast and grey and ripe with the possibility of terror around every corner. If I were judging by looks alone, I’d say it would be fair to call The Tale of the Haunted Woods Nolan’s Dark Knight to the original series’ Batman Returns vibe. Wadlow goes heavy on the brooding eeriness of it all, accompanied by a spine-tingling score. More importantly, it plays into the advantages of its creepy villain, often plunging viewers into the darkness and letting the absence of light instill the worst in our imaginations.
This episode plays into every fear of the dark we had as kids, but it is the kind of show that can scare kids of all ages and their parents.
But don’t let the Dark Knight reference make you think that The Tale of the Haunted Woods doesn’t have any fun, because you’d be wrong, dead wrong. Between the energetic cast and imagery like glowing skeleton keys and a few pranks I’m tempted to pull on my wife, there’s a sense of magic blended with the scares that beautifully captures the same magic I felt as a kid watching the Midnight Society gather for a new tale of terror every Saturday night.
Wadlow appears to have that same love for the series that so many of us adore.
While The Tale of the Haunted Woods is mostly welcoming to newcomers—albeit a few Midnight Society “inside jokes”—there’s plenty of adoration for the original series on display for fans to appreciate. Wadlow drops references to random episodes like The Tale of the Super Specs, and beloved favorites like The Tale of the Ghastly Grinner, allowing fans of the original series to relish in nostalgia and that long ago feeling of watching the show as a kid, in the dark, with a flashlight by your side.
Or maybe that’s just how I watched it.
With both The Tale of the Haunted Woods and the 2019 entry, the premiere episode packs a bit too much in by trying to introduce us to our batch of characters and their mystery, while also telling a story within a story. It doesn’t help in this case that the Tale of the Haunted Woods doesn’t have all that interesting of an origin story. But there is still a great deal of mystery here for young fans and adults alike to switch on their flashlights and search through the dark for answers. With some more expansion on the terrifying Shadow Man’s tale and some deeper insight into the cast, The Tale of the Haunted Woods has every chance to stand in the dark with other iconic episodes.
Are You Afraid of the Dark? Season 2's premiere episode of Curse of the Shadows: The Tale of the Haunted Woods, comes to Nickelodeon on February 12th.
By Matt Konopka
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