The 1990s were such a great time to be a child finding their footing in the world of horror. Some kids got into the popular Goosebumps or Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books. If you had parents that had yet to take a turn for the helicopter, you were reading Stephen King. If your parents were really unobservant, you were reading Clive Barker and watching any gore fest you could get your grubby little hands on. All facets spoke to the greater need for children’s horror. Children’s horror is important because it helps a child express not only fears, but ways in which to defeat the monsters that function as metaphors for their own problems. This same end – of harnessing the power of a tale and relating it back to your life – could also be achieved through horror’s kissing cousin, folklore. No two shows better blended the notion of horror and folklore like the 90s gems Eerie, Indiana and Are You Afraid of the Dark?
Eerie, Indiana ran from 1991-1993. It boasted Joe Dante as a consultant and sometime director. The initial run was 13 episodes, after which the show was retooled for the remaining 6 episodes of the series’ run. Eerie, Indiana followed a city boy named Marshall Teller (Omri Katz) who relocated with his family to the small Indiana town (population: 16,661) that’s anything but sleepy. The town boasts a middle-aged Elvis and the presence of Bigfoot as well as a host of strange goings-on. What’s Marshall to do? He joins forces with fellow misfit Simon (Justin Shenkarow). Together the pair solves the mysteries, collects/tags evidence, and documents their findings for posterity. Marshall encounters horrors and mysteries that hold a double meaning, such as:
- A mother that keeps her twins young beyond their years in “Foreverware” by sealing her boys in Tupperware that halts the ageing process, much to the boys’ chagrin
- A mummy that springs out of a movie and into the living room in “America’s Scariest Home Video,” replacing Simon’s obnoxious younger sibling during a night of unexpected (and unwanted) babysitting
- The heart transplant of a romantic rival into the girl Marshall wants to date causing a massive personality shift in “Heart on a Chain”
- A lonely girl without a mother that steals Marshall’s mother with the help of a magic pencil in “Who’s Who”
- Marshall’s refusal to conform to the non-observance of daylight saving time causes him to wind up in an alternate reality with a lone runaway and a pair of homicidal garbage men in “The Lost Hour”
The content of the mysteries and supernatural happenings are age-appropriate for an adolescent. At each turn, Marshall (nicknamed Mars, which is a great touch for a show that sometimes goes out-of-this-world) faces something that translates into growing pains. In some cases it’s a mother that doesn’t want her baby to grow up and leave the nest; other times it’s the loss of a crush to a romantic rival; still others, it’s having to outwit the dangers that head your way when you refuse to conform to social norms and customs. The supernatural happenings all go back to the main theme of children’s horror: the need to conquer the uncharted world of progressing toward adulthood in a manner that is accessible and triumphant. Better still, Marshall is creating a record of these events for posterity – others can continue to learn from him long after he’s reached adulthood and can no longer see the magic as easily.
Are You Afraid of the Dark? was born of the same era, having premiered in 1990 with the pilot episode “The Tale of the Twisted Claw.” Originating in Canada (what is it with Canada scaring the snot out of us when we least expect it?), the series was picked up by Nickelodeon in the United States and ran for 7 seasons, for a total of 91 episodes. The show had a specific formula to it: the Midnight Society – a group of pre-teens and teenagers – would meet in the woods around a campfire and offer a new story each week. Even the introductions and closures became a ritual: a member would throw dust onto the fire, declare the name of the story and tell it, then await approval for acceptance by the rest of the Midnight Society members. Their leader, Gary (Ross Hull), would declare the tale accepted after a brief conference with the other members, then extinguish the campfire.
The interesting part of Are You Afraid of the Dark? stems from the fact that, for the most part, the stories were often retellings of fairy tales and folktales. For example, “The Tale of the Twisted Claw” is a modern reworking of “The Monkey’s Paw,” while “The Tale of Jake and the Leprechaun” takes its basis from the myth of the Will O’ The Wisp. The stories were far more horror-themed, but nonetheless predictable in their format: hero encounters the horrible, hero solves the mystery, happy ending ensues. Occasionally the happy ending eluded the characters of the tale, such as “The Tale of the Pinball Wizard,” which saw a disobedient worker confined to a death sentence in a pinball game as punishment for playing when told not to at work in an arcade. Each one reinforced a valuable lesson to help make the audience a better person – morality enforcement of the folktale at its finest. The stories told are approved if they are deemed appropriately creepy for campfire retelling by a committee of peers, making the act storytelling far more social.
In fact, it’s the act of storytelling and documentation that ties these two series together. Eerie, Indiana and Are You Afraid of the Dark? are unique in that they not only make horror and folklore more accessible to children – the shows place the adolescent into the role of the linguist cataloging the tales for posterity. Marshall keeps detailed records of his exploits, going so far as to tag and bag evidence to support his experiences. He provides the physical evidence, turning him into the participant-observer known in archeological circles. Marshall and Simon not only experience the oddities, but make damn sure to write down what’s happening so that someone will one day believe them with the overwhelming body of proof they’re gathering. These two treat mystery as a job and, in a sense, they become the historians of these tall tales. In a similar fashion the Midnight Society takes actual folk and fairytales and submits them for group approval. The stories are updated to a modern setting and made applicable to a new generation, thus carrying on the tradition of the passing down of social mores through oral tradition. The members of the society then approve the offering and will presumably ensure that the tale is passed down to later generations. What the Midnight Society lacks in evidence, they more than make up for in gathering and storing.
The message of these two shows thereby changes the role of the adolescent viewer significantly. This isn’t just an exercise in telling a child coming of age that they can handle life’s knocks – these shows effectively hand the young viewer the keys to the kingdom. Stories are traditionally told by adults: the adult writes the books, and tells the tales around the campfire or at the bedside. The power here shifts from the adult to the child, making the child the gatekeeper of this knowledge and tradition. It’s up to the child to view the situation with fresh eyes, to bring forth the evidence, and to grant approval as to what information passes from one generation to the next. It’s a subtle paradigm shift to the casual observer, but for those of us watching the shows intently, we know that these kids are now the ones in charge. It’s up to them to solve the mysteries and pass along the knowledge as they see fit, which is the ultimate rite of passage – they replace the old as the keepers of ancient, sacred knowledge. It’s witnessing the Fool become the Hierophant.
Now more than ever children need horror shows to articulate the discomfort of the world around them, to escape for even 22 blessed minutes. Shows like Eerie, Indiana and Are You Afraid of the Dark? have stood the test of time – they’re applicable, they’re memorable, and they boast cult followings in an age where nostalgia rules. Most importantly, both shows recognize the power given to the young: the fresh eyes, the innocence and the willingness to both question and carry forward. It’s the passing of the torch by making the children the linguists and gatekeepers. Even if they don’t quite realize the gravity of such a task.