Your younger brothers and sisters (ah, hell, let’s be honest: Your kids) may know DJ MacHale as the author of the wildly successful YA novel series Pendragon. But you and I know him as the creator of Nickelodeon’s own version of The Twilight Zone, Are You Afraid of the Dark?
Originally running as an essential terminus to the four-part SNICK Saturday nights on Nickelodeon, Are You Afraid of the Dark? pre-dated Goosebumps as perhaps the first “tween horror/thriller series” on television. Screw Twilight (but not Let the Right One In); this was the real-deal in kids dealing with everything from supernatural monkey paws to devious urban legends and the true beyond.
Guest stars (oftentimes before they were famous) ranged from other Nick show primaries to the likes of: Ryan Gosling, Neve Campbell, Mia Kirshner, Hayden Christensen, and even full-grown comedians Bobcat Goldthwait and Gilbert Gottfried.
Unlike Nick cohort Steve Slavkin (who would go on to make fodder out of his personal camp experiences with Salute Your Shorts, coming to this series in a few weeks), MacHale’s only real “camping” time was spent a few times out of the year with the Boy Scouts.
Although he went on to tell me over our phone and email conversations that he therefore had no real-life counterpart to Are You Afraid of the Dark?’s circle of ghastly raconteurs known as the Midnight Society, he did have much to say about the show that, it turns out, almost never happened at all…
That’s right: The show almost never saw the light of day.
Before MacHale created Are You Afraid of the Dark?, he was a frustrated NYU film school grad who “was getting nowhere writing screenplays” while he traveled around the world making corporate and educational videos. A friend suggested he write for children, and that took him into his career that would begin with ABC Afterschool Specials, episodes of Encyclopedia Brown, and the award-winning Chris Cross.
After meeting his future producing partner Ned Kandel working on HBO’s Encyclopedia Brown, MacHale and Kandel took to creating their own concept for children’s entertainment.
“The idea was bed-time stories for lazy parents,” MacHale said. “We would get some old-time actor who was out of work but whom everyone knew, and put him in an easy chair with a roaring fire and a big book and he’d tell fairy tales. We’d record them and put a home video package together for parents who wouldn’t necessarily want to sit down and do this themselves for their kids.”
MacHale explained that the problem was that Kandel and he couldn’t come up with “interesting” stories for the show… until MacHale realized that the stories he liked as a kid were the scary ones.
“It would be creepy to have some old guy telling scary stories to little kids, though. So, the old-time actor goes away and is replaced by kids sitting around the campfire.”
“Then we thought, ‘Why stop at having them just tell the story?’ Why don’t we see the story?” And that’s when, in his early thirties (1990), MacHale and Kandel went to Nickelodeon with the pitch for Are You Afraid of the Dark?
“They originally said no,” MacHale revealed. “They said, ‘This is crazy, you can’t scare kids.’ And I said, ‘Yes, I can!’ So, we thought we were dead.”
When, a year later, MacHale and his partner brought Chris Cross to Nick, the Powers That Be said no to him once again. But, “in the interim [between the Are You Afraid of the Dark? meeting and the one for Chris Cross], a Nickelodeon executive named Jay Mulvaney had pulled out the original three-page proposal we had submitted, had read it and said, ‘Whoa! Why aren’t we doing this show?’”
“So, in that meeting when we got shot down for Chris Cross, they were like, ‘But, what about this show? Is anyone doing that yet?’ And we were like, ‘No!’, so it was resurrected in 1991. We did one episode — the pilot — and then it went to full series in 1992.”
In a similar vein to Scream’s originally having been called by writer Kevin Williamson Scary Movie (true story), Are You Afraid of the Dark? began life as Scary Tales (a riff on MacHale’s initial concept of fairy tales).
“Nickelodeon actually said, ‘We like the show, but we don’t like the title. We need something that’s more unique, more Nickelodeon-like.’”
“There was a scary story written by Dr. Seuss… called What Was I Scared Of?, and I always loved that story. So, I took that title and thought, ‘Well, I was afraid of clowns and I was afraid of the dark…’ And that’s where the title [of our show] came from: Kind of an answer to that Dr. Seuss title.”
MacHale feels the show was more “thriller” than “horror.”
“It depends on the episode,” MacHale told me when I asked how he would refer to the series’ genre. “There are some episodes that were straight out horror — horror light because it was a kids show. It’s a mix between Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”
“The Twilight Zone wasn’t necessarily scary, per se. It was always some ironic story or morality tale of the supernatural/impossible happening. Then we added the Hitchcock touch, which was tension in there, as well. Which always led to some climactic moment of escaping danger.”
“It was really more of a thriller, I guess you’d call it.”
“I’m not necessarily a horror fan,” MacHale said, “but I’m a fan of good stories with mystery and ironic twists, and that’s what Twilight Zone is about.”
“We paid homage to Twilight Zone in every episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? Rod Serling [in Twilight Zone] would always say, ‘Submitted for your approval…’ So, I had the Midnight Society, when they would reach into that bag of midnight dust, say, ‘Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society…’”
“Midnight dust” was non-dairy creamer.
Forget what you’ve read on Wikipedia and IMDB (both of which incorrectly state that the Midnight Society’s dust thrown into the fire at the beginning of each episode was “sugar”).
“That stuff’s petroleum-based and it actually burns,” MacHale said. “Then we added some pyrotechnics in the fire itself, but Cremora does burn and gives off a little smoke.”
(MacHale later stated in his interview that the non-dairy creamer may not have actually been Cremora — referring to generic non-dairy creamer as such, the way someone might call a piece of tissue a “Kleenex.”)
The comedic aspect of the show was a “natural” element to MacHale’s vision.
When I asked MacHale if the frequent moments of humor in the show were mandated by the network to “lighten up” the thriller elements of the series, MacHale balked at the notion, explaining that — first of all — Nickelodeon rarely gave him notes, and that, secondly: “I think that [the comedy] is also is kind of ‘Horror 101.’ Most horror movies will have that little bit of lightness to it to kind of laugh, wink, and poke fun of it.”
“The funny stuff is a natural component. It’s a tension reliever. Most of the stories are so heightened anyway, it’s natural to add some level of humor.”
MacHale either wrote or re-wrote every episode.
As the show runner of the series’ first of two incarnations, MacHale’s job was to oversee the writing of each episode, and, much like his literary mentor in spirit Rod Serling, was therefore directly involved in each show that aired during that original five-season run. Even when other writers for the show would come up with an idea or script, MacHale would end up putting his own touch on the episode, oftentimes directing, as well.
“Certainly, I was probably most hands-on the first season,” MacHale said. “Doing everything from picking costumes to casting every kid to approving every set. That’s the show runner’s job: Basically all creativity flows through that person. And I held that role through the first five seasons.”
“When we came back for seasons six and seven, the guy who was our editor kind of filled that role, but on a script level, I either wrote or rewrote each script.”
“So, if you liked the show, you can congratulate me. If you didn’t like the show, it was my fault.”
There was some concern from Nickelodeon that there would be “big pushback” on the stories being too scary for kids.
“So much so,” MacHale explained to me, “that Nickelodeon asked me in the beginning, ‘With your stories, see if you could base them on literary antecedents’ so that if we did get those complaints, they could say, ‘Hey, wait a minute: This is Edgar Allan Poe! This is Mary Shelley! This is classic stuff!’”
“But, it never really materialized because I think everyone took it in the vein that it was. We certainly had Standards and Practices issues of ‘You can’t really show that. You can’t go that far.’”
Surprisingly (or maybe not?), MacHale’s own eight-year-old daughter can’t watch her old man’s machinations, finding them to be too frightening. “I’ve often said that the people who are the most frightened by scary movies are those with the best imaginations, because it’s not so much what you’re seeing; it’s about what you think you might see.”
“My daughter has a very vivid imagination, so even at eight years old, watching Dark? is just too scary for her. I keep trying to get her to watch, but she wants nothing to do with it.”
All that said, when I asked MacHale if there were ever any complaints that some of the episodes of the show weren’t scary enough, he admitted to a few such barbs.
“Only from people who didn’t get the show. Meaning, a twenty-year-old who would look at the show and say, ‘That’s not that scary.’ Yeah, but it’s not for you! That’s what I always love when I read movie reviews for what might truly be a children’s movie, and the reviewer gives a really backhanded compliment, saying, ‘It’s good for kids,’ and it’s like, ‘Well, you dope, it’s for kids!’”
There were 91 campfires in 91 episodes, and not once does anyone ever strike a match to light the fire at the beginning of each show.
You know, it’s funny: Each episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? starts with the iconic campfire around which the youthful Midnight Society would gather to tell their scary tale. But, yeah, the fuckin’ fire was always lit.
“They [Nickelodeon] didn’t want to teach kids how to strike matches. They were afraid someone would burn their house down or something like that. So the campfire was always already lit when they [the Midnight Society] showed up.”
“There was one episode where someone did light a match when it slipped by Standards and Practices in an episode I directed. Mia Kirshner was the star in that episode, and in that scene, she had to light a lantern, and she didn’t know how to light a match!”
“We practically had to fake it because she was like, ‘I’ve never done this before!’ Which I guess maybe gives credibility to Nickelodeon’s theory that we didn’t want to teach kids how to light a match.”
Those campfire scenes were actually shot inside a studio in Quebec.
In order to produce Are You Afraid of the Dark?, MacHale and Nickelodeon needed to secure a co-producer that would “fill in the gap” of the show’s budget left after Nick’s initial licensing fee. This “gap” is filled by what is known in the biz as a “deficit financer,” in this case a now defunct Canadian company called Cinar [also responsible for such shows as: The Adventures of David the Gnome, The Busy World of Richard Scarry, Arthur, and Caillou].
Hence, Are You Afraid of the Dark? (as were a few other shows on Nick in the early years, such as You Can’t Do That on Television) was a Canadian-American co-production. The deal with Cinar required that Are You Afraid of the Dark? be produced in Canada.
“When we first started shooting the show [1991-1992], the film industry in Montreal was doing very badly,” MacHale went on to say. “We were the only game in town, so we had the run of the place. All this great stuff for a low-budget show. As the seasons progressed and the film industry picked up in Montreal, the offices weren’t as nice anymore…”
“We had to have all of the shows, if not written, set in stone before we began, because we shot those campfire scenes in one chunk,” MacHale revealed. “We only wanted to build that forest once, and by the end of the seven days, that forest was pretty dry and gamey.”
“Because all of the campfire scenes had to be shot upfront, all of the stories had to be written early on. We couldn’t come on and have the kids say, ‘Tonight’s story is really scary and it’s about a really scary thing.’ We had to know what the story was, because the campfire [scenes] were specifically about what the story was.”
“So, that was a challenge for me.”
In order to find the kids on the show, MacHale toured the entire Northern American continent himself.
“I called it the Magical Mystery Tour,” he said. “I lived in Los Angeles, so then I would go up to Vancouver, then to Toronto, then to New York, and go to Montreal and hold casting sessions in all of those cities.”
“Because it was a Canadian production, we really needed to find as many Canadian kids as we could. But, we were allowed to bring in a handful of American kids, as well.”
“Its being an anthology show, we had to have a new cast for every season, so that was a real challenge.”
“There was one year, when I hit Montreal, I started feeling sick; I had a fever. I came out of the shower in the hotel the next day, I saw a red dot on my chest and thought, ‘Oh no.’ So I called the production doctor and I said, ‘I think I have Chickenpox. I never had Chickenpox.”
“We traced it back — I would see thousands of kids — to some audition in Vancouver. That’s how I got Chickenpox. I was quarantined for ten days in Montreal while prepping for the show.”
When I asked MacHale if his ailment ever turned into shingles, he told me that though it hadn’t, there was another difficult aspect of the sickness with which he had to contend: “This was ‘French-Canadian land’ and there wasn’t a lot of TV on,” he said. “What a nightmare! To be stuck in that hotel room!”
“Being a New Yorker, thank God that year both the Knicks and the Rangers were in the playoffs. Every night I had something to watch. Rather than ‘curling,’ which is what they normally had on.”
And, no, MacHale informed me when asked, this incident did not inspire any episodes of his show.
Despite their potential for being Chickenpox carriers, MacHale still made sure to put the kids first in each story he developed.
“I couldn’t come up with all of these [show] ideas myself, so I had writers who would pitch me ideas. And I think this is the thing that separated Are You Afraid of the Dark? from other shows: A writer would come in and say that they had this idea for, say, a haunted car. And I would say, ‘That’s cool, but who are the kids?’”
“I want a story about a couple of kids that have something going on in their lives that is real and has a real kind of conflict that we would be interested in watching even if we didn’t find the haunted car. Then if we’re with them, when they find the haunted car, we’re really with it.”
“We had real kids with real interesting stories that intersected with whatever the spooky thing was that week. It’s more interesting storytelling. It’s not just about the running around. It’s something that sticks with you a bit more and has a little more of a voice. Something beyond ‘Whoa, the boogie man is scary!’ I don’t want to do stuff just for the sake of ‘the explosion.’ I want to do something that sticks with you a bit.”
“It’s why parents could watch Are You Afraid of the Dark?, too. Because there was something more to it.”
Elisha Cuthbert had once been on the show before she was made a part of the Midnight Society during the series’ second run.
MacHale confessed to me that when he auditioned Elisha Cuthbert to be a part of the second incarnation of the show and thus the second group of the Midnight Society, he hadn’t remembered her when she told him she’d been on the show once before.
Adding insult to injury, when he asked her who had directed her, she answered simply, “You did.”
“As it turns out,” MacHale continued, “she was in an episode that was the last episode we thought we were ever going to produce because we thought we were going to do 65 episodes and that was it. It was called ‘The Tale of the Night Shift’ and starred Emmanuelle Chriqui who people know now [as Sloan] from Entourage.”
“There’s one scene where a nurse walks out of the room [in the hospital where a shape-shifting vampire was shacking up] and sees a little girl [who had shape-shifted from said vampire] whom she follows. And that little girl was Elisha Cuthbert. For all I know, that was the first time she was ever on camera, so that was kind of cool!” [Indeed, he’s right!]
“When we brought her back for the Midnight Society, we knew, ‘This girl is going places.’ There were a number of kids like that. We originally wanted Ryan Gosling to be in the Midnight Society, but he went onto The [All New] Mickey Mouse Club instead. We did get him to be in one of the episodes, though.”
MacHale then lavished some shining praise upon a young (at the time) Jay Baruchel who would go on to become part of Judd Apatow’s stable, adding that he knew right away Baruchel was on his way, casting the actor in multiple episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark?.
A memorable situation with guest star Bob Goldthwait was recounted by MacHale thusly: “Bobcat Goldthwait was a great guy. He played the Sandman in ‘The Tale of the Final Wish.’ I wrote the episode and gave him dozens of nonsensical lines to spout.”
“It’s tough memorizing lines under any circumstance, but usually an actor can take their cue from the actor they’re playing opposite. But with the Sandman, most of the lines had no relation to anything the actor was saying opposite him. The poor guy.”
“There were dozens of silly limericks that meant absolutely nothing. So poor Bobcat had the hardest time trying to remember all the nonsense because he had no cues to jog his memory. We had to do take after take… as he slowly lost his voice because he put on this raspy voice as part of his comic persona, and it was shredding his throat.”
“My heart went out to him. But he got through it with loads of honey and lemon, and was great.”
“The Tale of Cutter’s Treasure,” an hour-long special, was the only episode in which Sardo and Dr. Vink appeared together.
Describing Aron Tager, who played the hirsute mainstay “villain” Dr. Vink as “a real sweetheart,” MacHale went on to laud Tager (as well as Richard Dumont, who played Sardo) as having “created iconic characters. That was an example of putting something on paper, having an idea, but then an actor taking it and making it their own.”
“It wasn’t intended that those two characters would continue on, but the actors did such a wonderful job, they ended up in multiple episodes.”
An unorthodox decision for a series of this nature, every episode of the show was scored individually.
“I think the music/score is one of the things that made the show special,” MacHale said.
“Many series create a library of music and then use the same pieces over and over. We scored each show individually like they were short films, which was necessary because each show was so different, and with ‘spooky’ stories, music plays a huge part.”
The second incarnation of the series (seasons six and seven) aired two years after the original run.
As already mentioned, and as you might have noticed as a kid growing up on the show, there were actually two separate versions of the Midnight Society (the second being the one in which Cuthbert was featured).
MacHale explained, “Once we did 65 episodes, we thought we were done. However, the Canadian company that co-financed the show had the rights to sell the show internationally. The original 65 episodes had been licensed to foreign territories for five years [a similar deal to what you can read about in the Doug pieces from this series].”
“The Canadian company wanted to convince the foreign buyers to re-license the episodes and thought that a good enticement would be to offer brand new episodes, as well. So they approached me to ask if I was willing to make some more. It had been two years since I had finished the show, and I had done other things in the interim, so I thought it would be fun to go back and rev up the machine again.”
“Nickelodeon played a lesser role this time because they weren’t the primary broadcaster anymore. Yet they still wanted the show and aired all the episodes. For the most part, there were no changes made, other than to cast a new Midnight Society. The original kids had gotten too old, except for Daniel DeSanto who played Tucker, Gary’s little brother. He was always the youngest, so we brought him back and he became the oldest.”
“The only other major change was that I wasn’t physically in Montreal for the filming and not involved in the day-to-day production except to comment from afar. So I didn’t direct any more episodes, but I worked on all the scripts from home as I did with the first 65, as well as worked with the editors and the guys scoring the shows.”
As with the majority of Nick creatives I’ve interviewed, MacHale continued that though he hasn’t been involved with Nickelodeon for many years now, as a father with an eight-year-old, he does see some vast changes in the network’s programming these days as opposed to back then during the “golden era.”
“I’m not a big fan of the current state of ‘tween’ TV,” he said. “So many of the programs have the exact same feel, as if they’re all chasing the same tail by making different versions of the same comedy. Not that there’s anything wrong with comedies, but when your air is packed with them, kids don’t have much to choose from.”
“As a father, I wish that the kids networks would go back to offering a wider variety of shows, including some dramas, in order to offer kids a better choice.”
“There’s no better example of that than the original SNICK lineup on Nickelodeon. There was Clarissa Explains It All (a sitcom), Roundhouse (a music/variety show), Ren and Stimpy (an irreverent animated show), and Are You Afraid of the Dark? (a spooky drama). Basically, something for everybody. How great was that?”
“So have things changed? Probably. There isn’t much on the air for kids that’s thought-provoking anymore. It’s all about multi-camera comedies. And on a totally bizarre note, I can’t distinguish between shows on Disney and Nick anymore. Back in the day, there was a definite difference. Now the shows seem interchangeable. I say that my daughter is watching ‘Disnelodian.’ I half expect to see Mickey Mouse getting slimed.”
“I’d love to do another show for Nick, but I don’t think the kind of shows that I do would get traction anymore. It’s too bad.”
Mathew Klickstein is the author of SLIMED! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age, which is in stores everywhere and will tell you more about Nickelodeon than you probably should know.