It’s hard to imagine growing up in the 90s as a kid without SNICK (Saturday Night Nickelodeon) to look forward to every weekend. And the big weenie of that was the final show at the end of the 2 hour block, at 9:30PM, Are You Afraid of the Dark, the horror anthology show for kids.
It would be easy for me to personally gush about how much I loved this show and would countlessly rewatch all the episodes over and over. So I’ll spare you that embarrassing outpouring of love.
This specific panel was a long time in the making, trying to coordinate the schedule of the two guests, show creator, D.J. MacHale and director Ron Oliver. The stars finally aligned this year, and even the guests mentioned they hadn’t seen each other in 20 years, but played off each other wonderfully during the panel.
Because of the resurgence of 90s media, NickSplat, the night-time block of shows on the cable channel TeenNick, happily provided clips of the show to intersperse between topics of the panel. And the moderator, Scott Markus, had an existing relationship with MacHale, so everything was about as perfect as it could get.
They discussed the genesis of the show as originally pitched, being a direct-to-VHS series of a nearly-retired actor reading fairy tales to kids to help them go to sleep, or “fairy tales for lazy parents” as MacHale put it. Once the topic came up for the genre of stories to be covered, MacHale was asked what kind of stories he was read as a child, and he responded, without missing a beat, saying “scary ones, of course.”
Once that was settled on, they quickly realized having an old man tell scary stories to kids would be creepy in the worst way, so they instead flipped the script and had it become kids telling the stories, making it more palatable. So each element of the Midnight Society was brought about as a necessity.
Those familiar to the show will remember there are essentially two sections to each episode. There is, of course, the main story itself, but it was bookended by the storytellers. And MacHale made note that while the pilot episode, The Tale of the Twisted Claw, made it to air, the campfire segments encompassing that episode were too corny to end up on air, but he did say the footage does survive somewhere.
Beyond that, he also made note that he wrote what he knew. So his episodes were always boy-focused, but to avoid making it entirely male-centric, he made sure to enlist someone to write episodes focused on girls to balance it out. However, due to a self-imposed rule during season one, that no one should direct an episode they wrote, he ended up directing only the episodes that he didn’t write, meaning, much to his chagrin, his episodes were more girl-focused, like The Tale of the Lonely Ghost or The Tale of the Captured Souls.
That was underscored when at the cast wrap party back in 1992, Ron Oliver made dog tags for everyone on the show, highlighting their contributions, and affectionately described MacHale as “Girl director” effectively destroying that self-imposed rule right then and there. MacHale even pulled that dogtag out of his jacket pocket as he told the story, surprising Oliver.
The showed clips from a handful of episodes, and talked about how dark the show was, MacHale constantly reiterating that you couldn’t pull off a lot of the show today because of how dark in tone it was. He also made sure to point out how good the special effects were, and thanked the team that worked on that.
For any anthology show, especially based around child actors, future stars usually become ‘discovered’ on set, and they brought up some of the more famous names to have been a part of the tales. Ryan Gosling was fondly remembered, but mockingly cursed as he left for the Mickey Mouse Club in Orlando, abandoning the shooting location up in warm Canada. Neve Campbell wanted to correct people about, as she was a known celebrity in the time in Canada, so while we were just discovering her in the states from the show, she had previously established herself by then. Hayden Christensen was also mentioned, which made Oliver’s face light up because Oliver worked on Goosebumps following his tenure on AYAOTD, so they quickly traded light tales about working with him on the set of each show.
And as for Goosebumps, Ron Oliver discussed the difference between the two shows, being that Nickelodeon and Viacom, outside of obeying standards & practices, didn’t restrict the show too much in any regard, while Fox Kids, likely because of broadcast TV rules, pushed back far more. It was described that if AYAOTD was a knife with a sharp edge, Goosebumps was decidedly more rounded, and tongue-in-cheek.
MacHale also joked there was enough footage from every episode to shoot it with him as the star, as he had to be very physical while helping young starting child actors to demonstrate to them on how to react in each scene. So while some child stars that he worked with were slightly derided, he seemed to deal with issues with novices as well. During the Q&A, someone asked about working with the rules of child labor in place. With a slight grin, they both quickly responded saying everything they did on set was legal, but added that because each episode was shot over a period of 5 days, you could work much longer hours with the children as opposed to something that shot on a regular basis.
Inevitably, the topic of a successor was brought up. MacHale reiterated that the show itself couldn’t be done today with the edge it was done with in the 90s, but he mentioned he wrote a script and brought it to Paramount, who gave it the thumbs up, but ultimately Viacom declined. The rights, now split 50/50 between Viacom and a Canadian company who has traded hands a few times, has made that even more complicated. Oliver however, playfully suggested, using his connections at Universal, making it focus around a dog or take place in a park, and rename it to Are You Afraid of the Park? While it was mocking, there’s always a bit of hope that some of these half-jokes will eventually come to fruition.
With a silver lining, though, while no new episodes are slated, the fan film tribute is releasing later this year, and while MacHale can’t give a legal thumbs up for it, he mentioned they contacted him for, and he gave, his spiritual blessing.
I’ll end this article on a single fact brought up that made the audience feel dumb. MacHale mentioned that every single episode of AYAOTD was a tribute to The Twilight Zone, a show he called the greatest show of all time. Hard to argue with that. Anyways, he pointed out that the initial panning shot at the beginning of each Twilight Zone episode had Rod Serling eventually uttering the line “Submitted for your approval” while the Midnight Society on AYAOTD would say “Submitted for your approval to the Midnight Society” to begin each tale. It truly feels quite obvious when stated matter-of-factly, but even many of the die-hard fans in the theater had to admit they never caught onto that parallel, including myself.