For many viewers of my generation, no other club on the face of the Earth boasted the kind of elite membership offered by the Midnight Society. The Society featured a motley group of adolescents who abandoned their homes by cover of night to convene in the woods and swap spooky stories. They even got to throw non-dairy creamer onto a campfire! Clearly theirs was a blessed existence.
Debuting on Halloween night 1990, Are You Afraid of the Dark? went on to claim kid and teen hearts alike in both Canada, its home of production, and the States, where it became a staple of Nickelodeon’s SNICK block of programming. It was a series that appealed to ardent horror fans and casual genre toe-dippers alike; if you were seeking out chills either on a regular basis or just the occasional sleepover, Are You Afraid of the Dark? had you covered.
Since its final episode in 2000, the program has continued to exist as a fond memory in the minds of millennials, joining the illustrious ranks of other treasured Nickelodeon programs like Salute Your Shorts, Clarissa Explains It All, The Adventures of Pete & Pete, and The Secret World of Alex Mack. And just as we’ve seen properties of the past trotted out on the current “what’s old is new again” train, so too has Are You Afraid of the Dark? been revived for a new miniseries. Titled The Carnival of Doom, it has aired over the last two weeks on its original channel for a whole new generation of Nickelodeon kids.
Before the new miniseries ends tonight, we thought there was no better time to cast a backward glance and reminisce on the episodes from the original series that left the most lasting mark. Lists of this sort being what they are, the selection is naturally subjective. We’ve opted to go with “most memorable” as it speaks more to the particular staying power of the stories included here, but even in avoiding the rascally descriptor of “best” we’ve undoubtedly left out segments that viewers have potent recollections of (i.e. “The Tale of the Pinball Wizard,” “The Tale of the Hatching”). Memory being what it is, too, the ten episodes below possess a certain “loudness” factor, something strange or worrying or delightful in their visuals and narratives that pushed them deeper into our gray matter. Which is to say those episodes that operated on a quieter, more emotional level (“The Tale of the Shiny Red Bicycle”, “The Tale of Train Magic”) were likely to be passed over within the narrow parameters of this list, fantastic though they may be otherwise.
But we hope that any glaring omissions or bizarre choices made on our part will be heartily discussed in the comments section. One of the greatest things about this show is the intense passion it awakens in people, and so it is only proper and welcome that others should chime in with their thoughts after taking the time to read those of this humble viewer.
Beware yon spoilers, but, other than that, just have fun travelling through the dark one more time.
“The Tale of Laughing in the Dark”
Season One, Episode 2
Directed by Ron Oliver
Written by Chloe Brown
It’s fitting that Are You Afraid of the Dark? should return to a carnival for the new miniseries, as one of its first landmark episodes came from beneath the proverbial big top. The funny thing about “The Tale of Laughing in the Dark” is that, for all it seems to capitalize upon coulrophobia—the fear of clowns—it remains persistently coy when it comes to revealing the face of its central bogey.
The apprehension of clowns, mimes, and their greasepainted brethren is far from a recent phenomenon. Lon Chaney, who himself portrayed a perverse Pagliacci in He Who Gets Slapped (1924), once remarked, “A clown is funny in the circus ring. But what would be the normal reaction to opening a door at midnight, and finding the same clown standing there in the moonlight?” Watching the trailer to The Carnival of Doom, we find menacing stiltwalkers and chainsaw-toting funny-men gracing the scene, figures that have since become de facto staples of any Halloween haunt worth its salt.
But Zeebo, our much-referenced friend from this episode, prefers remaining off-camera, save for one creepy moment when his true figure is glimpsed in the mirrors of his funhouse abode. From there writer Chloe Brown—quite possibly a pseudonym for series co-creator and executive producer D. J. MacHale—and TV veteran Ron Oliver take a more Lewton-esque approach to Zeebo’s presence for the rest of the episode. Clouds of tell-tale cigar smoke waft through sunlit neighborhoods; signature footprints are stomped into piles of spilled pudding; balloons bearing ominous demands slither under doorframes. The show’s creative team took a surprising but ultimately successful bet in denying audiences the sight of Zeebo, relying instead on the aforementioned glimpse, a cartoonish dummy, and the fevered imaginations of young viewers to fill in the rest. A daring move to use such restraint in a show that had yet to really prove itself. Then again, restraint worked out alright for Val Lewton.
The small hints of Zeebo’s existence stab us with equally small thrills of terror throughout the story, right up until the moment our boastful hero Josh (Christian Tessier) returns the funhouse dummy’s nose that he’s robbed as a sign of his bravery. Even this ultimate satisfaction of the dark side’s wishes is seen only as the flashing of dead lights worthy of Stephen King behind a closed door. The episode tells us that if there’s anything worse than the clown you see, it’s the clown you don’t see but know is there all the same. And that the scariest sound in the world truly is laughter in the dark.
“The Tale of the Dark Music”
Season One, Episode 11
Directed by Ron Oliver
Written by Chloe Brown
Restraint is very much the order of the day in “The Tale of the Dark Music.” In stories written for adults, this narrative approach has a more likely chance of wearing out its welcome for some (just ask John Carpenter what *he* thinks of Val Lewton), but it can work wonders in stories written for young people, as it does here.
This restraint is coupled with a knowing evasion that avoids answering too many of the story’s questions. “The Tale of the Dark Music” tantalizes for what it hides just as much as what it shows. There’s the mysterious uncle whose house Andy (Graham Selkirk) and his family inherit after the elder suddenly passes away. Why did the old codger always keep to himself, and where did he get all the money he was said to possess? The answer to all this and more lies in the place of the old man’s death: the basement.
Ah, the basement! A domestic chamber of horrors and catch-all for the terrors bubbling in the mind of every child forced to enter its shadowy depths, in every hunched machine and pile of clothes a hidden menace waiting to pounce. But the source of dread here is actually hidden inside a locked alcove of the basement, a root cellar containing a living force that might as well be fear itself. For once music is played within its hearing, the force manifests itself as a veritable creepshow of phobias: red eyes gleaming in the darkness, a carnival barker turned laughing skeleton, and, worst of all, a life-sized china doll with the kind of keening voice we all know they talk with once we leave the room.
If this bracing display of shapeshifting wasn’t enough to induce goosebumps, the filmmakers leave the story off on a wonderfully distressing note. In the end Andy—kind, gentle, caring Andy—finds himself on the other end of a bargain that he didn’t realize he was making. In an attempt to alleviate himself of a bully, he finds that he has unwittingly participated in an act of evil that would have made his hermit uncle proud. Now paid handsomely by the dark force and promised more in return for future services rendered, Andy considers the petulant voice of his little sister calling him from upstairs and gives the camera a malicious smile.
Eric, our shrimpy Midnight Society storyteller for this segment, pulls an Alfred Hitchcock in the tale’s epilogue by claiming that Andy never did carry out the implicit threat of that bright-eyed smile. But no amount of backpedaling can erase the damning image of our previously stalwart hero signing over his soul to the dark side. And that’s exactly as it should be.
“The Tale of the Midnight Madness”
Season Two, Episode 2
Directed by D.J. MacHale
Written by Chloe Brown
This episode marks a personal milestone. Not only was it my first true exposure to the hand-me-down image of Max Schreck as Graf Orlock from Nosferatu (1922), but it was the first occasion I can recall watching an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? as a boy and immediately bonding with it. The crackling line between fantasy and reality that “The Tale of the Midnight Madness” plays with was one that I always imagined as a child, that I was just a breath and a wish away from entering the monochrome movies I adored, like a loverlorn Mia Farrow.
In this way watching the episode was like having someone tap into my dreams. But it was easy for those dreams to tint over into nightmare, as the image of the vampire here (Christopher Heyerdahl) catching the camera’s gaze and slowly slinking his way towards and through the silver screen was one that I immediately registered as being taken from my worst fears, that the monsters I enjoyed watching were all the while watching me.
Granted, Heyerdahl’s vampire is not quite as potent as Schreck’s immortal vermin—he sports a pair of brown hillbilly teeth instead of true fangs—but the silent performance still has power after all these years, relying mainly on pure physical presence and the occasional snarl like Reggie Nalder before him in Salem’s Lot (1979).
It’s a performance that comes bookended by warm portrayals from the lead actors (Eddie Robinson and Melanie Wiesenthal) who convey a burgeoning romance that feels genuine without dipping too far into schmaltz. They’re bolstered by enthusiastic support from Harry Standjofski as the sleazy theater owner and reliable Aron Tager returning for his sophomore performance as the nutbag Dr. Vink (with a “va-va-va”) from his debut in “The Tale of the Phantom Cab.”
Their efforts, combined with the marvelously antiquated theater overseen by location manager Sylvie Vincent and art director Réal Proulx and a musical score by Jeff Fisher that recalls Robert Corbet’s haunting whistle theme to Dark Shadows, culminate in a finale that sees Robinson entering the vampire’s turf for one last showdown in the monster’s castle.
I never was so jealous.
“The Tale of the Full Moon”
Season Two, Episode 9
Written and directed by Ron Oliver
“What do you do if you got a werewolf living next door?”
While humor had been utilized throughout the series’ previous episodes—including the three shivery yarns discussed thus far—“The Tale of the Full Moon” achieved a level of kitsch that had largely gone unexploited up to this point in the show’s history. (Which is saying something considering that the second season kicked off with Bobcat Goldthwait as the Sandman.) Ron Oliver, a dependable director and creative force on the show who would return in the fourth season for a tale even goofier than this one, penned this juvenile take on the old Fright Night quandary: how do you deal with having a monster as a neighbor? The monster here is of the lycanthropic variety, and instead of trying to steal the hero’s girlfriend the afflicted beast has eyes for his mother.
From the word “go” the story makes its desire to tickle our funny bones apparent. Pet detectives snatch off ladies’ wigs mistaken for missing cats. Divorcees cavort about in bad 60s fashion as if preparing for a Hairspray audition. Bubble baths are taken. The show’s theme song is played on a Victrola. And the one dependable weapon used to battle the forces of the night? A dog whistle. And I bet it wasn’t even made of silver.
Yet for all the rampant silliness the episode still manages to flaunt its share of suspense and sinister implications. A pile of pet collars and a fridge stuffed with raw meat transfer disturbing messages through the synapses. The werewolf itself, designed by head makeup artist Annick Chartier, is a refreshingly gnarly specimen, a hybrid of the hairy-guy-in-overalls model of yesteryear and the bladder-faced, tongue-lolling monstrosities of Rick Baker and Rob Bottin. The climax delivers a one-two-three punch of a shock reveal, jump scare, and tense scenario that finds our boy detectives trapped inside with the target of their investigations.
And yet somehow Oliver manages to bring this all back to a tender moment where lycanthropy is contextualized as a disease and the idea given that there’s room in the world for “lots of different kinds of families.” It’s a testament to the wacky mind of Ron Oliver that the final image of a wolf claw snatching a stick from the air in a game of fetch doesn’t do anything to dull the impact of that tenderness. If anything, it recasts and sharpens it.
To paraphrase Mean Girls, “You go, Ron Oliver!”
“The Tale of the Dangerous Soup”
Season Three, Episode 13
Directed by D.J. MacHale
Written by Chloe Brown
And he is not a nutbag.
In the third season finale we find Dr. Vink up to his old tricks again, this time surfacing as the head chef at the illustrious Wild Boar restaurant. The rich and elderly diners can’t seem to get enough of Vink’s signature dish, a savory soup that comes in a hideous shade of Nickelodeon slime-green and that fetches exorbitant prices for the right to taste. Viewers familiar with tales of epicurean horror like Sweeney Todd might be quick to sniff out a whiff of cannibalism, but although the series would go on to dabble in this subgenre directly with the sixth season entry “The Tale of the Gruesome Gourmets,” the power of Vink’s recipe here derives not from the flesh but from the soul.
Having acquired a talisman from an island tribe during his extensive travels, Vink now uses the little beastie to conjure up his victims’ innermost fears and wring the terror from the charged atmosphere of his scare chamber like a delicious secret sauce. It’s a wonderfully imaginative premise that, like “The Tale of the Dark Music” before it, finds the protagonists confronting not a brand name bogey but the horror that lies within their own minds. But whereas the prior episode had utilized a grab bag of top drawer phobias that were more or less random, “The Tale of the Dangerous Soup” draws a definite link between the victims’ imaginations and the terrifying visions that the talisman invokes. An extremely Canadian man is subjected to a boa constrictor twining over his jeans. A loudmouth waitress has an aversion to knives exploited with some pendulum action straight out of Poe. An intrepid hostess, played by Neve Campbell, feels like the walls are closing in on her—literally.
The story finds an anchor in all this with Reed (Greg Haberny), a taciturn busboy who we learn grew up an orphan under the hand of a strict uncle. Having challenged Vink’s power to frighten him, Reed is subjected to the deepest cut of all, a vision that comes not from nature but from deep within his own traumatic past. As Reed is confronted with the sight of a sealed coffin in the fear chamber, Vink taunts him from the sidelines. “You know you can’t resist,” the doctor chortles, perfectly encapsulating our collective morbid interest as ghouls watching a program called Are You Afraid of the Dark? to see the cadaverous remains inside as well as the need of those altered by trauma to face down their demons.
And face them down our heroes do. Even after the little gargoyle takes flight and begins assaulting the pair with their nightmares, the characters dig deep to cheerlead themselves and each other through the fray. It’s a heartening display, one that shows that even when the monsters live and breathe inside of us we can still come out the better and the braver for it.
And yet somehow Vink still manages to fucking win!
“The Tale of Cutter’s Treasure”
Season Four, Episodes 4 and 5
Directed by D.J. MacHale
Written by Chloe Brown
By their nature, anthologies offer the perfect antidote to boredom and stasis: in their diverse selection of stories, they are the very spice of variety. Some people may find that this variety itself becomes dull, the unexpected of each succeeding story becoming the expected due to the unwavering format of delivery. (These people would be called monsters.) So allow us to bestow another feather upon the cap of Are You Afraid of the Dark? in presenting this, a rip-roaring divergence from the expected unexpected.
While the previous stories had been narrated by a single member of the Midnight Society, “The Tale of Cutter’s Treasure” combines the oratory skills of original members Gary (Ross Hull) and Frank (Jason Alisharan), creating a sprawling narrative that features fan-favorite characters from each of the storytellers’ repertoire: Sardo the Magician (Richard M. Dumont) and that old renaissance man of the Rue Morgue, Dr. Vink, who here takes up a profession as a barber. Naturally.
Frank and Gary’s tag-teaming and the expanded two-episode runtime give “The Tale of Cutter’s Treasure” the feeling of an event, and appropriately enough it also boasts a special guest in noted thespian Charles S. Dutton as the bloodthirsty pirate. The whole enterprise has the air of a boy’s adventure authored by Ray Harryhausen, thanks in part to the rich cinematography of Marc Charlebois. There are fantastical hallmarks aplenty to ignite the imagination: magic spyglasses with views of nocturnal graveyards, cackling skeletons, cryptic ghosts, fabled riches, enchanted blades, prophecies of foretold battles, and a crumbling climax with vine-swinging action to bring it all home. This episode is like the series’ freaking Iliad.
It’s not all swashbuckling and scallywags though. Like in many other episodes there beats a heart of human drama. Rush Keegan (Dominic Zamprogna, all growed up from his pet detective role in “The Tale of the Full Moon”) is desperately seeking quality time with his girlfriend. (In an overt display of desire that would have had Goosebumps phoning for a priest, Rush nervously asks his mademoiselle, “I don’t suppose you think we could make out?”) Young Max Keegan (Andrew Sardella), on the other hand, wants nothing more than to spend some quality time with his older brother. While Rush’s idea of a good time is smooching on the couch while his parents are away, Max simply wants to have an adventure like the legendary exploits of their ancestor, Ian Keegan, the last crew member to fall to Captain Cutter’s sword before swearing eternal vengeance. Both boys are attempting to find magic in their own way. With Rush it’s the magic of adolescence, while Max is a nagging reminder to him of the little boy fancies that he entertained in the past.
When Max is kidnapped by Cutter and his lackey, Rush’s hand is forced into fulfilling the grand adventure that his brother wanted so badly. The spirit of Ian Keegan (Chip Chuipka) provides a telling piece of advice to Rush: “What he wants is not what he desires.” Keegan is referring to Cutter here, whose spirit cannot rest until he has one last worthy battle with a great adversary, but the dictum could easily apply to Rush. The closeness that he wants with another person turns out to not necessarily mean the romantic strain that he originally envisioned, but rather the underlying desire to bond meaningfully with another person, as he eventually does with his brother.
Granted he had to blast a pirate in the face with dagger magic in order to do that, but overall I think it can be agreed that it was time well spent.
“The Tale of the Ghastly Grinner”
Season Four, Episode 9
Written and directed by Ron Oliver
Picking up the gauntlet that he himself threw down with “The Tale of the Full Moon”, Ron Oliver brought the doof factor up to eleven for this lovably inane ode to the world of trashy comic books.
The season had already gotten off to a bizarro start with the depiction of another comic-worthy villain in “The Tale of the Renegade Virus,” but while the silver-skinned monster with the exposed brain portrayed by dwarf actor Paul Cagelet in that episode was certainly memorable, the character design that came together here for the Ghastly Grinner had a searing effect upon the retina. The cloaked jester costume. The jaundiced face and rotting teeth. And, of course, that disgusting flood of toothpaste-blue saliva. Perhaps more than any other creature to have been dreamt up by the Midnight Society, the Grinner is likely the most easily identified and associated character of the entire series.
“I think a person should know what they are and work with it,” says Hooper Picalarro (Heidi Burbela), the nerd who sits next to aspiring illustrator Ethan Wood (Amos Crawley) in science class. A nice bit of philosophy, and one that Oliver attacks wholeheartedly in committing his Merry Melodies vision to the screen. There is very little subtlety at play here. Ethan’s parents are a pair of trashholes shoveling food into their gaping maws. The Grinner is born into our world after his comic book takes a dip in a fish tank and gets dried out inside an overextended microwave, leaving behind a perfect outline of his fleeing body in the kitchen door. Guitar-inflected swipe effects take us from one madcap scene to the next. And over it all is the incessant giggling of the Grinner and his demented victims.
Oliver sustains a fevered pitch from start to finish, rarely letting up on the gas. In between the energetic scenes, the mind boggles at the delightfully goofy logic at play. How did the Grinner “get” his creator before he was officially released from the world of his comic book? Why should hitting the Grinner with a bundle of illustrations transport Ethan and the villain into the pictures? And how is it that the Grinner didn’t bust into the comic shop while Ethan was taking his sweet time to pencil *and* color those illustrations?
In a more serious-minded story, these egregious lapses in logic would be enough to sink the whole ship. But the stupidity is kind of the point and part of the charm here. This is a comic book, and while there are many comic books (pardon, “graphic novels”) that scale the literary heights and revolutionize the form, this isn’t one of them. And that’s okay.
We might dutifully eat our Wheaties every morning, but sometimes we get a craving for Cocoa Puffs. When we step into that comic book store alongside Ethan with its plasma blast of 90s-era fandom (McFarlane Spideys and bronze Wolverines and Fabio Supermen, oh my) for his date with the whacktastic Grinner, we know exactly what this story is. And we work with it.
“The Tale of the Dead Man’s Float”
Season Five, Episode 1
Directed by D.J. MacHale
Written by Will Dixon
Necessity is the mother of invention. As is restriction.
As a program branded with a Y7 rating, Are You Afraid of the Dark? naturally couldn’t broadcast images that might have been seen as too intense or disturbing to its young viewers. But when “The Tale of the Dead Man’s Float” kicked off the series’ fifth season, the creative team decided to give it a shot anyway.
In cobbling together this chiller, Dixon and MacHale turned to genre hallmarks for inspiration: the 50s-era prologue of a young boy drowning partly as the result of an amorous teenager’s negligence was first used in Friday the 13th, underwater footage of tasty human legs seen from the creature’s POV recalls Jaws, and the ultimate origin and appearance of the haint hanging around the abandoned school swimming pool brings to mind the rising cadavers from the climax of Poltergeist.
But, oh, what an appearance that soggy spook makes!
Having contended with the invisible spirit that’s been dragging victims to their watery graves in the pool—just as we always knew there was as kids!—science whiz Zeke (Kaj-Erik Eriksen) and swim team champ Clorice (Margot Finley) put their brains together and devise a surefire way to bring the unseen creature out from hiding: add some methyl orange to the pool to get a “nice red snapshot” of the acid-based bogey. The resulting snapshot isn’t exactly nice, but it is most certainly red. Like the hand-wringing doubt that Eric cast on Andy’s actions in “The Tale of the Dark Music,” the contextual information of the corpse’s appearance—that it’s all just a chemical reaction, like in a science experiment!—is completely overshadowed by the truth of the image: this goddamn thing looks like it just got up from the slaughterhouse floor. Once seen, nothing can convince us otherwise. And it’s my belief that MacHale and company knew this, bless them.
The remainder of the episode plays out in one, long open-jaw stupor. The corpse, played by Marcel Jeannin, is no longer a ghastly shape seen bobbing under a tarp but a thrashing, creeping pile of skull-faced roadkill with child murder burning in his black, empty sockets. Not even Heyerdahl’s vampire from “The Tale of the Midnight Madness” felt as utterly threatening as this swimming scarlet nightmare. Dixon and MacHale give the monster an appropriately goopy destruction, melting down into a fizzy soup after Clorice unleashes the magnetite on him.
But even if the corpse disintegrates in the pool, he isn’t so easily removed from our minds. Once seen it’s likely that he’ll always be there. Floating.
“The Tale of the Night Shift”
Season Five, Episode 13
Directed by D.J. MacHale
Written by Chloe Brown
Speaking of traumatic images.
Not one to rest on his laurels, MacHale rounded out the show’s fifth season with a creature nearly as frightening as the corpse from the season opener. Having dealt with vampires on two previous occasions, the rather tame mystery “Tale of the Nightly Neighbors” from the first season and “The Tale of the Midnight Madness” from the second, MacHale rose the bar for character design substantially for this third undead offering.
One can trace a line of evolution through these three episodes, starting with dimestore fangs and moving on to classic cinema homage before arriving here, with a bloodsucker possessing zero traces of romanticism and showcasing five strains of ugly. The ruby-eyed villain has a personality to match his repugnant form. Played by Andreas Apergis, the vampire is a cackling lord from the Old World intent on sucking down blood bags like Capri Suns and turning every poor soul in the hospital into one of his zombie slaves. The monster reaches the pinnacle of villainy in this and perhaps any other episode from the series when he dangles volunteer nurse Amanda (Emmanuelle Chriqui) from the hospital roof, relishing the moment as he threatens to drop her and “lick up what’s left.”
Aspergis’ performance goes a long way in raising the dramatic stakes of the story, but like “The Tale of the Midnight Madness” the episode receives a boost from likable lead performances and an effective, mood-setting location. The would-be couple here is made up of Amanda, who Chriqui plays as the studious foil to candy corn-chomping goofball Colin (Oren Sofer); both perform admirably as they course the characters’ move from playful flirtation to fighting for their lives. To this mix is added a Renfield in the form of Felix (Jorge Vargas), a teenage janitor who becomes the vampire’s first initiate and forced to battle the overwhelming thirst inside him to help his friends. Hospitals, being the queasy reminders of mortality that they are, make ideal locales for tales of horror, and the dim, antiseptic halls and desolate rooms are put to good use as the heroes try to find salvation from all the bloodshed and hypnotized ghouls that surround them.
While the Nosferatu clone in “Tale of the Midnight Madness” seemed like an isolated specimen of Dr. Vink’s magic, the vampire from “Tale of the Night Shift” is an invading force intent on world domination, and for much of the episode’s runtime it seems as if he just may succeed. MacHale presents him as a formidable foe, scattering effective jump scares throughout before a last quarter twist leads to the final assault. Echoing “The Tale of the Dead Man’s Float,” the monster meets an appropriate end to complement its rough appearance, bringing an era of Are You Afraid of the Dark? to a fantastic, fiery finish.
“The Tale of the Silver Sight”
Season 7, Episodes 1, 2, and 3
Directed by Mark Soulard
Written by D.J. MacHale
Following “The Tale of the Night Shift,” Are You Afraid of the Dark? went into hibernation for nearly three years. The show was effectively cancelled for eternity before a new creative team kickstarted a revival beginning February 6, 1999. All the members of the Midnight Society in the revival series save for Tucker (Daniel DeSanto), Gary’s younger brother, were new to the campfire. Under the helm of their inherited leader, the fresh-faced storytellers welcomed a new generation of viewers looking to get scared when they weren’t laughing along to the nautical adventures of SpongeBob SquarePants.
A preference for four-color gimmickry in the vein of Goosebumps became the defining tone of the revival, and with this move the show began to lose its luster and uniqueness. The entire sixth season was bereft of any stories as memorable as those that had come before; it’s telling that the user ratings listed on the Internet Movie Database for over half of the episodes from this season barely score higher than a “3.” For comparison, only one story from the first series (season five’s “The Tale of Manaha”) earned that same dubious honor.
While it can be said that nostalgia plays an important role in these kinds of approval metrics, it still can’t hide the fact that by this point the show had lost its foothold in the minds of SNICK devotees, and the tales being weaved by the Society weren’t getting the job done of developing a new following of fright freaks.
In that light, “The Tale of the Silver Sight,” a three-part epic that aired as a 90-minute special to introduce the seventh season on April 2, 2000, can then be seen as a cry for help.
In an apparent attempt to link the two iterations of the series, former showrunner D. J. MacHale penned the teleplay and Ross Hull was called in to return as Gary, the bookish leader of the Society from 1990-1996. The narrative, appropriately enough, centers on Gary and Tucker’s family, more specifically their place in the lineage of storytellers who made up the original Midnight Society of 1937. This metafictional layering hearkens back to genre classics such as Peter Straub’s Ghost Story while also heralding the arrival of recent kinder-terrors such as Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) and, well, The Carnival of Doom miniseries. After their grandfather dies from a heart attack, the brothers, along with the new Society members, attempt to track down clues that will reveal to them the location of the Silver Sight, a charm bewitched with black magic that led to the ruination of all those who used it for personal gain.
Taken as a whole, the three-part story remains a favorite, but a bittersweet one. The sense of grand mystery, adventure, and eccentricity that MacHale had made a staple of the first series is apparent here, but the end product at times feels pinched and watered-down. This is most evident in the first episode, which clips along at a breakneck pace in order to deliver the necessary exposition before the scene in which Gary assigns the new Society members their tasks, a moment that DP Pierre Jodoin films as if he’s on a carousel. An appropriate choice given the later turn of events, but the decision doesn’t make one appreciate the allusion in retrospect so much as it does induce nausea in the moment.
Nonetheless, “The Tale of the Silver Sight” still manages to satisfy as a final hurrah as all tumblers of the intertwining narratives click into place. MacHale throws the spooky book at us, recalling the bevy of thrills that he brought to productions like “The Tale of Cutter’s Treasure.” There’s a weird Dickensian urchin running around offering assistance and threats in equal measure. A black-gloved assailant breaks into the home of Gary and Tucker’s grandmother (Sheena Larkin, the tragic mother from the first season’s “The Tale of the Lonely Ghost”), the POV camerawork making us think that we’ve accidentally stumbled into a giallo. Tucker engages enchanted suits of armor in Mortal Kombat. Weird thrills abound underground, including a family of subterranean yuppie phantoms and a giant ghost face that tries to gobble up poor little Vange (Vanessa Lengies) when she goes spelunking in a well.
The special ends on a note of homecoming, as the Society discovers that the object of their search resides—where else?—at an amusement park. It’s here that it feels like the series finally comes to a close, with Gary discovering that the devil wears a pleasing face in a land haunted by the legacies of Serling and Bradbury. The baddie has a Raiders of the Lost Ark moment and the captured souls of the Silver Sight get to enjoy one last ride on the merry-go-round before heading off to the afterlife. Everybody goes home for a peaceful night in, giving the scary stories a rest for a while.
But, as the episode is quick to remind us in a final stinger, the end of one story is merely the beginning of another, waiting to be told.
Those are our favorite episodes. Which ones are yours? What do you think of the new miniseries? Let us know in the comments below. You can take as long as you need. Just remember to put out the fire before you leave.