[Review] Nickelodeon's "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" Revival is a Love Letter to the Original Series
As any good poet will tell you, it’s paradoxically hard to write about something you love. Beautiful as your words may be and plentiful as your erasers are, you know you’ll never capture the object of your affection in its entirety. Most of the time you’ll only manage to give vague details, enough to describe the shape of your love but never the whole. Other times, you’ll describe it well enough that a sketch artist could create something similar with a gun to their head…and that’s always refreshing. But it’s very, very rare that someone can perfectly communicate the ways in which a certain thing has moved their soul.
For me, that thing is the early '90s Nickelodeon show "Are You Afraid of the Dark?".
Like many of you in your late 20s or early 30s, I got my first true love of horror from this show. Every week had something new to offer, whether it be Zeebo the clown, the ghastly grinner, Quicksilver (suck it, Marvel!) or any of the other campy-yet-creepy terrors told by The Midnight Society. In romance, they say your first love is the one which all others are compared against, and I think it must be the same with horror, because no matter how many other horror shows I watched throughout my youth ("Tales from the Crypt", Goosebumps, "The Outer Limits", "Supernatural"), none of them could ever usurp that place in my heart where "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" made its home.
So, when I saw Nickelodeon has decided to revive the series for only three episodes…I was pretty alarmed. Not to sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but television these days isn’t nearly as good as it was back in my day, particularly not Nickelodeon. Things weren’t so overly-sanitized, and Nickelodeon was full of shows that were made for kids but also snuck in the occasional joke that only adults in the room would get. "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" meant a lot to me as a kid, and if it’s to return even for a brief moment, I want it to carry that same unique magic that’ll capture the imagination of today’s kids the same way it captured mine.
The three-episode revival is directed by Dean Israelite, and I’m pleased to say that he shows nothing but respect for the show I grew up loving.
Israelite’s three-episode revival plays like a movie, which, though surprising, was ultimately satisfying. One of my biggest worries up front was that he’d try to reboot individual episodes, or smash together characters from fan-favorite moments like a child smashing together his older brother’s action figures. Instead, Israelite’s story focuses on the latest iteration of The Midnight Society, which has carried on throughout the years with new members coming and going. There are plenty of Easter eggs throughout the revival, things that serve as a subtle wink to eagle-eyed viewers who’ve seen the original series, but none of these things overpower the core storyline.
The story follows Rachel (Lyliana Wray), the new kid in town and the latest inductee into The 2019 Midnight Society. In order to join The Midnight Society, she must come up with a story scary enough to chill the horror-savvy group of creative misfits. She’s particularly inspired by the recurring nightmare she’s had about a sinister carnival and a figure she knows only as The Top Hat Man…but she and her new friends soon realize the line between imagination and reality is quite blurry, and the characters from Rachel’s imagination are out to get them, one by one.
The story also stars Jeremy Ray Taylor, who’s recently starred in IT: Chapters One and Two and the sequel to the Goosebumps movie. This kid’s really grown as an actor over the last few years, and he’s appeared in so many throwbacks to my childhood by now that I view him as an honorary '90s kid.
The entire cast of young actors is fantastic, and their sense of comedic timing and sincerity to the moment is what makes this story work.
Also, Mr. Top Hat (Rafael Casal) looks a lot like Brandon Urie from Panic! At the Disco’s "I Write Sins Not Tragedies" video, so there’s yet another great reason for the kids of yesterday to check this revival out.
Though it’s spread over three episodes, the story never feels insincere or stale. It really does feel like "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" for a new generation, an honest homage to the campiness of the original with respect to the intelligence of kids who’ve already seen everything horror has to offer. If we’re to appreciate this change, we have to all agree that horror has changed a lot over the years, particularly its accessibility. While I’m sure many of us would kill to see "Return of the Ghastly Grinner," Israelite seems to understand that the things that scared my generation aren’t likely to scare young viewers nowadays, not while kids are growing up with access to everything in the palm of their hand. When I was watching this show as a kid, I saw maybe one or two horror movies a month, because my only access to them was through video stores (which wouldn’t rent movies to me without my parents’ permission) or sneaking into the living room late at night to watch the Sci-Fi Channel with a blanket wrapped around me and the screen and the volume low enough to not wake mom and dad. That’s no longer the case for kids; kids now have probably seen more by age seven than I did by age twelve, and the "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" revival caters to their sophisticated (yet still budding) knowledge of horror.
If you’re looking for a way to bond with your kid over something you loved when you were their age that you want them to have a similar appreciation for, this miniseries is a great introduction to our old world. If your kid loves this show and wants to see more, then maybe you can show them a few episodes of the show we grew up with, and you can get that warm fuzzy feeling of knowing you’re raising a future horror hound in the making.
I don’t usually thank directors who touch my childhood relics (because most of the time it’s only “bad” touch), but watching this revival made it very clear to me that Dean Israelite really did love "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" at some point in his formative years…and, impossibly, he’s found a way to effectively communicate that love.
So thank you, Dean Israelite, for giving us a few great weeks of nostalgia while providing a gateway film for horror fans of the future.
Watch the entire first episode below!