‘The Twilight Zone’s Surprising Connection to ‘Are You Afraid of the Dark’

Movies


The Big Picture

  • Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone set the blueprint for anthology shows with its blend of genre fiction and social commentary.
  • Are You Afraid of the Dark was heavily influenced by The Twilight Zone and used a similar framing device and moral messages.
  • Are You Afraid of the Dark aimed to inspire young people to become storytellers and provided them with moral perspectives, just like The Twilight Zone.


It’s impossible to overstate Rod Serling’s incredible impact on television when he created The Twilight Zone in 1959. It’s the blueprint, the gold standard many anthology shows owe to their existence. The Twilight Zone is the granddaddy of all, not only in its various remakes across the decades that seek to modernize the source material, arguably needlessly, or its feature-length adaptation. The formula of a host presenting each story may have begun with Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1955 but it was perfected with Ron Serling’s iconic monologs, both in telling the audience to unlock a door with a key of imagination or in giving them the set-up of each episode. The show masterfully blended pulp horror and science fiction with political, social, and existential commentary that had a firm grasp on using outlandish stories to send a message in a way that was both accessible and endlessly creative.

When we think about shows that held this masterpiece series as an influence, there are a few that instantly come to mind. Charlie Brooker‘s Black Mirror is the big one, with Brooker himself referencing the downer ending of the episode ‘Time Enough At Last’ as something that strongly resonated with him. The audience can immediately make that connection by using genre fiction to express concerns about modern life, technology, and humankind. Shows that continued to use the host framing device, such as Tales From The Crypt or Guillermo Del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, veered toward straight horror stories. No matter the genre, every story has some kind of message, but we wouldn’t get back to the days of those surreal morality plays until the 1990s.


‘Are You Afraid of the Dark’ Gave Us Anthology Horror for Kids

When channels and programming blocks geared specifically toward children, chiefly Nickelodeon, were establishing themselves and rising in popularity with what are now considered classic cartoons. When it came time to expand their horizons further, not only into live-action television but other genres, this is when more and more anthology horror shows for children appeared. Tales From The Cryptkeeper served as a kid-friendly spin-off, Goosebumps adapted the seminal work of R. L Stine, and across the pond in the UK there was the animated Grizzly Tales For Gruesome Kids, all serving as a first taste of the macabre.

Arguably the best of the bunch is Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid Of The Dark, airing from 1990 to 2000, quite an impressive run for children’s programming. Following The Midnight Society, a revolving door of kids with their individual lives and personalities that share one thing in common: they love a good spooky story. They huddle around a campfire, and each week someone spins a tale that’s somehow relevant to something going on with them. This is the framing device for each episode, which moves on to the story proper. While they may not all be masterpieces, there are some genuinely good and even frightening episodes, which makes it a solid entry point into the genre, even for adults dipping their toes in.

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The 10 Scariest Episodes of ‘Are You Afraid of the Dark?’

Ostensibly made for kids, ‘Are You Afraid of the Dark?’ has some terrifying episodes that hold up.

Co-creator and young adult fiction author D. J. MacHale cites The Twilight Zone as a significant influence for Are You Afraid Of The Dark. Including regular nods to the show, the original leader of the Midnight Society, Gary (Ross Hull), giving us his best Rod Serling, and the quote spoken at the opening of every episode “Submitted for the approval of The Midnight Society” is a direct Twilight Zone reference. The setup also feels akin to Serling’s sequel show The Night Gallery, with each story being the presentation of an artistic piece. Why does this matter? After all, as previously established, many horror and science fiction anthology series owe a lot to Serling. Despite children’s horror being perceived as tame or cheesy, Are You Afraid Of The Dark is a show that best harkens back to the heart of The Twilight Zone.

How ‘Are You Afraid of the Dark’ Understood ‘The Twilight Zone’

Despite The Twilight Zone being full of downer endings, in its way it intended to make the world a better place. To leave the audience different from how they started watching. Conversations were had in each episode about paranoia and prejudice, identity, morality, life, and death. The concepts were equal to, or even better than the consistent stream of inventive ideas — this is what made The Twilight Zone so special. There is always a lesson to be learned, whether the characters learn it or not. This is something that anthologies after lost sight of for a time. Tales From The Crypt was more concerned with frightening the audience and showcasing the genre’s stars, as did 2003-2005’s Masters of Horror. It wasn’t until Black Mirror that we got the cautionary tales of doom once again.

It’s argued that adults don’t need to learn these lessons from television anymore, with them moving on to the so-called school of life, but kids still use fiction as a way to learn and grow. This is why Are You Afraid Of The Dark stories usually follow the formula of one good kid as the protagonist, and another troubled kid, with the latter either getting punished or learning the morals of the day. They stop bullying, or they’re nicer to their friends or family, or they learn the negative effects of a Faustian bargain. While this may seem juvenile, it also had its fair share of downer endings where they didn’t shy away from making children suffer. This is horror, after all.

A solid framing device that invites the audience in, a blend of creative ideas and cautionary messages, and its fair share of unexpected misery. When unpacking each show, it’s clear to see that the influence is far deeper than a few references here and there. Are You Afraid Of The Dark not only sought to inspire young people to be storytellers, and treat the act of storytelling and getting in touch with their darker sides as a social and affirming act, but it also gave them some new moral perspective in the same way Serling’s classic creations did.



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