[Review] The new "Are You Afraid of the Dark?' is a near perfect welcome home for the Midnight Society
“I submit for the approval of the Midnight Society…” If you grew up in the 90s, these are words you probably heard often. As the opening line to each story in the popular Nickelodeon kid’s horror anthology, Are You Afraid of the Dark, I would sit, eyes glued to the TV, waiting to discover what that week’s episode would be. Now, Nickelodeon has submitted for the approval of all Midnight Society fans a reboot of the show, and I’m thrilled to say, they nailed it…
…And look, if I’m being honest, I was pretty skeptical. Be sure, the new 3-part, limited series Are You Afraid of the Dark event certainly has a different vibe than the original show. Gone is the low-budget 90s cheese, replaced by a slick new, sparkly look. As the opening credits played, I found myself worried, because unlike the eerie intro to the original, this felt more like teen horror you might see on the CW, a Penny Dreadful sort of feel. Not that that’s a bad thing, just different from what nostalgic fans might expect. And then came the spooky first scene, with Rachel (Lyliana Wray) wandering a strange environment steeped in foggy blues and dressed in a white gown like Tina from A Nightmare on Elm Street, hunted by an ominous figure, and I knew fans were in good claws.
Developed by BenDavid Grabinski, along with original series creators Ned Kandel and D.J. MacHale, and directed by Dean Israelite, this new Are You Afraid of the Dark takes us away from the campfire and into the daily lives of the Midnight Society as we follow Rachel, the shy new kid at school. She’s the sort of outcast typical to the show, someone who doesn’t have an easy time making friends. Wray brings a sweet though subtle mischievous to the role that drew me in right away, and I think we can all relate to her embarrassment as her super mom, Hannah (Fiona Vroom), tries forcing her to talk to the boy which Rachel practically makes Looney Toons googly eyes over, Gavin (Sam Ashe Arnold). As Hannah says to Rachel in an attempt to encourage her to meet people, “I am your biggest fan”. Barf.
From there, Rachel begrudgingly attends her first day at a new school. Unlike the original series, this new iteration of Are You Afraid of the Dark works overtime to allow us to get to know the members of the Midnight Society, giving each a memorable introduction, in particular, Graham (Jeremy Ray Taylor), a show-stealing kid that represents all of us weirdos who were obsessed with horror, as he exits the bus in slow-mo, wearing a “watch horror movies” shirt. In class, Graham practically loses his damn mind when he learns that Rachel has not only seen The Changeling (impressive for any modern kid their age), but also wears skull earrings, is reading a Lovecraft book, and is working on a wonderfully creepy image of a figure which she deems Mr. Top Hat. I can relate. It’s the same feeling any of us get when we meet someone who shares our love of the weird.
I always wondered how the Midnight Society went about choosing members to consider for initiation, and here we get an entertaining look at how as we watch Graham run from member to member, ecstatic to have found another kid that loves horror and urging the others to give her a chance. These kids have a ton of personality, from confident though dorky cheerleader, Louise (Tamara Smart) to bossy, take no shit filmmaker, Akiko (Miya Cech). More importantly, this cast is a diverse group of ethnicities, sexes, and school cliques that allows for kids to have at least one character they can relate to.
Are You Afraid of the Dark also presents a deeper understanding of the Midnight Society itself. Once the Society decides Rachel has potential, they begin leaving her a series of secretive notes, asking questions like what’s scarier, a vampire or a werewolf? Some of us got love letters in school, but I would’ve killed for something like this instead. The heart of the show lies in this simple exchange. A lot of kids might feel creeped out by the strange letters, but not Rachel. Her excitement for each new note is palpable, bleeding through the screen, and she hardly blinks when she receives a map inviting her to a secret location at midnight. That’s what makes her perfect for the society. She likes being afraid.
Which is a good thing, because these kids, though painfully likeable, are much darker than the original Midnight Society. Like we learned in the 90s show, this is a club that has been around for decades, maybe longer, and the kids in this new series carry a cult-like atmosphere that resembles that ancient history. These kids don’t just blindfold new initiates. They scare them, kidnap them, and appear carrying torches, dressed in dark hoodies and downright creepy murder masks. This Midnight Society can be as scary as the stories themselves, but that’s what makes them so alluring. These kids take this shit seriously, and Rachel gets only one chance to tell her story, warned that if they don’t like it, she’ll never hear from them again.
Rachel’s story, “The Tale of the Carnival of Doom”, encapsulates almost everything that made the original series so memorable. A young, outcast protagonist. Parents unaware of the danger the kid is warning them about. Frightening, untrustworthy adults like the superbly creepy, Riddler-esque Mr. Tophat (Rafeal Cesal). And a genuine threat to children, some of whom aren’t lucky enough to survive. This Something Wicked This Way Comes homage has an adult vibe to it where we actually feel as if something terrible could happen to our young heroes, the way Are You Afraid of the Dark should.
Though rated for kids, this show follows the path of the original series and never pulls punches, tickling our fear bones instead. Some of the imagery in Are You Afraid of the Dark is highly disturbing and will scare the mac and cheese out of viewers. I won’t be surprised if kids have nightmares after seeing Mr. Tophat eat live scorpions, hissing and clawing their way out of his suit in bunches. But, as Graham says in response to Rachel after she tells him she can stop if the story is too scary, he likes to be scared, and that’s who this show is for: kids who enjoy being scared.
Are You Afraid of the Dark helped propel my love of genre back in the 90s, and I’m confident this new series will inspire love for horror in a whole new generation of kids. It’s not as deliciously cheesy, and so far, the stories lack the sort of morality lessons that made the original a good teaching tool for trembling youngsters, but this is exactly the sort of eerie, kid’s horror show that understands its audience and doesn’t talk down to them, instead inviting them to explore darker, more mature themes. There is an obvious and genuine love for the original series in this show. Nickelodeon has a winner here. I can only hope that this limited series gets expanded into a weekly show, because I could watch this new Midnight Society tell scary stories every week. Hint, hint, Nickelodeon.
Are You Afraid of the Dark? premieres tonight on Nickelodeon, and the first episode is also already available on Youtube here.
By Matt Konopka
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