In late September, Nickelodeon announced it would officially begin pandering to our collective '90s nostalgia with the Splat, an all-night block of Nick’s top '90s programming that launched on TeenNick this week. Among the lineup (which Caroline Framke breaks down here) is the spooky-story series Are You Afraid of the Dark, which went off the air more than 15 years ago but has lived on via YouTube videos — and returns to TV tonight (at midnight, appropriately enough).
The show’s construct — a horror anthology series for kids — may have seemed a tall order at first, but it ran for seven seasons and become one of Nickelodeon’s highest-rated properties; no subsequent TV series has quite occupied its niche since it went off the air. It created countless coulrophobics and incited enough scares to burn itself permanently into many young brains.
In honor of the show's imminent return to television, I chatted with series creator (and writer and director) turned YA novelist D.J. MacHale about what went into producing the show. Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society, here are a few things you might not know about the seminal tween spookfest.
Its influences ranged from Alfred Hitchcock to Dr. Seuss
Though MacHale and his partner Ned Kandel had pretty free rein from Nickelodeon, they couldn’t depict real gore on the show. So, MacHale says, they turned each episode into "Hitchcock 101, which was all the tension — but if there was a gushy thing happening it would happen off camera." The line each Midnight Society member used to introduce the week's tale — "Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society" — was an homage to Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone.
Early in the show's conception phase, as MacHale first told Splitsider in 2012, Nickelodeon had suggested that he and Kandel could base each scary story on a work of classic literature, which could help diffuse the heat if parents complained that the tales were too frightening. While that didn’t happen, at least a couple of episodes featured literary influences: season three’s "The Tale of the Phone Police," for instance, contained echoes of George Orwell’s 1984, and season two’s "The Tale of the Dream Machine" had some plot threads in common with Stephen King’s short story "Word Processor of the Gods."
As for Dr. Seuss, he inspired the name of the series, originally Scary Tales (a twist on "fairy tales"), which Nickelodeon said wasn’t "Nickelodeon enough." MacHale explained to Splitsider, "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."
Each season's Midnight Society scenes were shot all at once
The campfire scenes that bookended each episode were filmed on a soundstage in Montreal; MacHale and his team would typically have about a week and a half to complete an entire season's worth, to preserve the elaborate forest set the crew had built. "It was a huge set and we didn’t have a huge budget, so we had to maximize having built that set," MacHale says. In order to film so many scenes in such a short time, MacHale had to have a pretty good idea of the story of each episode long before production on each season began. To save time and effort, MacHale would sometimes build a story around a place suggested by his location manager, rather than write a tale and try to find a location to match.
"There was an episode we did called ‘The Tale of the Hatchet,’ which was about a private boarding school that turns out [laughs] it’s run by lizard people," MacHale recounts. "In the basement of the school there were these giant tanks with floating eggs, where the lizard people were nurturing all these little monsters. That came from the fact that this location scout took me to this water purification plant from the ‘30s where all these tanks were, and I thought, ‘Ooh, I can build a story around this.’"
Because they were only on the forest set for such a short time each season, MacHale says the Midnight Society actors didn’t share the bonding experience many performers do while working on a TV show. The sole team outing he organized ended painfully, at least for him. "The one bonding experience I think I ever did with the cast was when we came back for the last 26 episodes and we had a new Midnight Society," he says. "I took them all bowling one night. And I hurt my back that night bowling — to this day it still bothers me. I took the Midnight Society bowling, and now I have a bad back!"
Nickelodeon pressed for a diverse cast
"There were two mandates with casting, besides ‘good,’" MacHale says. "Diversity was a big one." Nickelodeon execs pushed for him to find cast members of various races, which, given the volume of children cast for every season, was a challenge because "there just weren’t as many people of color auditioning." His efforts eventually culminated in Are You Afraid of the Dark being nominated for an NAACP award.
MacHale’s other casting hurdle, he says, was that "often a kid got nixed by Nickelodeon because they were too Disney: apple pie, freckles, cute, over-the-top acting. They were like, ‘That is a Disney kid, get rid of him.’ I think it’s one of the things that made Nickelodeon so great — if it smacked of 'Disneyana,' they wouldn’t do it."
A lot of now-famous people got their start on the show — although one now-award-winning actress didn't make the cut
Mental Floss has a great list of young actors who appeared on the show and went on to be famous. Some had recurring roles as members of the Midnight Society, including Rachel Blanchard (the Clueless TV series), Daniel DeSanto (a.k.a. Gretchen Weiners’s boyfriend from Mean Girls), Joanna García (Reba), Elisha Cuthbert (Happy Endings), and Vanessa Lengies (Waiting). Plenty of others landed guest spots, including Ryan Gosling (who famously turned down a role as a Midnight Society member to join the Mickey Mouse Club), Emmanuelle Chriqui, Jay Baruchel, Neve Campbell, Emily VanCamp, and Hayden Christensen, among others. The original Midnight Society leader Gary (Ross Hull) is now a meteorologist in Canada and last year made a short documentary about his time on the show and why it’s retained such a passionate fan base. (You can watch it here.)
Perhaps just as memorable to MacHale is the story of the now-famous actress he decided not to cast. When searching for the female lead for another show, Chris Cross — which aired on Showtime from 1993 to 1995 — he had the choice between Rachel Blanchard, whom he knew from Are You Afraid of the Dark, and a British actress. The latter, MacHale says, just "wasn’t as pretty as Rachel. It seemed like, 'Oh, this girl’s got real chops,' but Rachel was prettier. And we knew Rachel. So it was like, 'Okay, do we go the TV route, do we cast the pretty girl, or do we cast the girl who maybe isn’t as pretty?' And I’ve never done this — it was the only time I did it — I said, ‘Let’s go the TV route. Let’s cast the pretty girl.’" MacHale gave the part to Blanchard. That British actress he rejected? Kate Winslet. (In a follow-up email, MacHale asked me to make it extra clear that he thinks "they are both beautiful and talented.")
There was a reason we never saw the kids light the campfire
Though each episode featured a campfire and almost always ended with a member of the Midnight Society extinguishing the flames, the fire was never shown being lit. The reason was that MacHale had strict instructions from Nickelodeon not to teach kids to light matches. The sparkly "midnight dust" they threw on the fire was non-dairy creamer; "that stuff’s petroleum-based, and it actually burns," MacHale told Splitsider. And as he later told BuzzFeed, since the same set was used for a season's worth of Midnight Society scenes, by the end of the week and a half of shooting, the forest — which was constructed with real foliage — had dried out so much that MacHale and his team were cited by the fire department for creating a fire hazard.
A lot of the special effects were decidedly lo-fi
"I always used to joke we could never afford to fake things," MacHale says. He enlisted the help of his friend Steve Kullback, whom MacHale says now has a "shelf load of Emmys" for his work as a visual effects producer on Game of Thrones, to create the series’ scares without the budget or the technology for CGI. In "The Tale of the Lonely Ghost," for instance, MacHale wanted to depict the ghost of a little girl entering a room through a mirror. "That girl really was behind the mirror, so to get the effect we had to get this really thick, dark glass," he says. "But in order to see the girl through the glass we had to pump tons of light onto it, so going to that part of the set was like being in an oven."
MacHale didn't expect Nick to re-air the show
While there are lots of '90s TV remakes currently in the works (or rumored to be), Are You Afraid’s complicated rights (it was a co-production with Nickelodeon and the now-defunct Canadian company Cinar) made MacHale doubtful the show would ever get re-aired. "The brain starts exploding when you realize, 'How do you go about negotiating this kind of deal?'" MacHale told me earlier this year. "So I don’t think it’s ever gonna happen." He also said he sensed a distinct lack of enthusiasm from Nickelodeon. "I’ve always felt that since Are You Afraid of the Dark ended … I never felt the love from Nickelodeon," he said. "Maybe it’s the whole comedy thing since they’re getting away from dramas, but I never felt like [they thought], ‘Wow, we really have this gem that we have the complete rights to, we can show it until the magnetic particles fall off.’"
Apparently Nickelodeon has finally come to its senses. And it’s safe to assume while a decade and a half has passed, Zeebo the clown is still as terrifying as ever.
The Splat runs nightly from 10 pm to 6 am Eastern. See the schedule and watch shows on the website.