Are You Afraid of the Dark? 1.2: "The Tale of Laughing in the Dark" recap
Kristen’s petrified of clowns, so Betty Ann delights in telling a super creepy clown story, much to Eric and Kiki’s pleasure.
Weegie, his sister Kathy, and his obnoxious best friend, Josh, check out a carnival and chat with a creepy carnie about a spook house known as Laughing in the Dark. They research the attraction and learn that Zeebo the Clown robbed a bank and died inside the spook house decades ago. Josh shows off by returning to the park and steeling the dummy clown’s red nose. And then he’s terrorized beyond belief by Zeebo until he returns the nose to make amends.
Everyone has a laugh at Kristen until Eric pops out with a clown mask and they freak out.
Troy: Bravo Betty Ann. On top of telling a fantastic tale, I love how gleefully she tells it. This is our first look at her character, and I’m digging that she’s sort of the weird one.
Erin: Yassssss. She initially has this every-girl vibe going on, but clearly she’s got a twisted, mischievous streak and I’m loving it.
T: As for the rest of the Midnight Society, Kristen plays up how scared she is by huddling near Gary and clutching Eric like he’s a support puppy. Too bad there’s not a shot of poor David longingly wishing that was him. As for Eric, how’d he know to bring a clown mask so he could terrorize Kristen? Did Betty Ann clue him in, or does the little psychopath bring that mask every week knowing he’ll eventually get to use it?
E: I’d like to imagine that Eric has a variety of masks ready to deploy at any time, should the right moment present itself.
T: Josh is so obnoxious that I have no idea why Weegie’s his friend. He’s loud, boisterous, and delights in mocking his friends, yet they begrudgingly put up with him. He’s totally Cartman. And there’s that ginger connection.
E: Very good point. In episode one, the characters are brothers, so there’s a logical reason why they’re stuck together. But I do love that Kathy’s a mouthy little badass who’s not afraid to give Josh a taste of his own medicine.
T: Zeebo is so insanely creepy. The name, the whole cigar bit, that laugh. The clown mannequin itself – you know how I feel about mannequins! – and then there’s that ONE shot (besides the newspaper) of the human Zeebo. That quick couple of frames of a human Zeebo is nightmare-inducing.
E: I generally don’t find clowns that scary, but Zeebo’s huge toothy grin makes my skin crawl. Props to the production designers for this ep.
T: In a lot of ways, the second episode of a series has even more weight on its shoulders than the first. We expect the first outing to introduce the concept and characters and all of that. It’s like setting up the rules of play, and then we need the second episode to nail it or we start to lose interest. For example, look at horror movies that only have one sequel. That one does poorly and becomes a franchise killer, but this episode nails it and proves this series has legs.
E: Absolutely. This one is definitely a step up from episode one, and feels like it was made with more confidence.
T: One issue I have—how does thirteen-year-old Josh get a nice box of cigars to give to Zeebo? Did he buy them illegally? Did he steal them? If this were a novel, that’d be an entire chapter.
E: LOL. I had this exact thought! Like, “Wait, what? Did he steal those?”
T: I love that the Midnight Society weighs in on the carny’s identity. It sells that this is a story, that they care, what their thoughts are, and makes us question reality. Clearly, there’s no question about it though. The carny is the spirit of Zeebo. If you disagree with me, you are wrong. Sorry, Gary.
E: I mean, if he’s not the spirit of Zeebo, he’s the spirit of something else, which means that carnival is haunted AF.
T: Allow my film geek to come out and point out the iconic mise-en-scène of the carny barker with Zeebo looming over his shoulder. Random thought – is Zeebo short for “Gazebo?” Where else could it come from?
E: What? Why the flip would he name himself after a piece of lawn architecture? I think it’s just a silly clown name, like Bobo or Sloopy.
QUEER OR NOT?
T: Not queer. Campy creepy fun, but nothing queer that I spotted, unless you want to Hail Mary the fact that Weegie is into Josh, which is why he puts up with him, but that’s a stretch. In my mind, there has to be a reason they’re friends. Maybe Josh saved his life when they were little? Erin, anything ping on your queerdar?
E: I didn’t spot anything truly queer, though I like that Kathy the badass kid sister subverts some gender stereotypes in this episode.
MODERNIZE ’90s CANADIAN KIDS
T: This needs so little to work today. I’d even keep the big hockey scene, ’cause let the Canadian kids enjoy their sport! But I would definitely make Josh sympathetic. The whole episode as is, I’m rooting for Zeebo to murder Josh, so I’d try to win the audience over. Easy fix – make Weegie (I’d change that name obviously, since it’s not real) the one to get caught in Zeebo’s crosshairs and earn some respect from Josh. I’m not entirely sure the sister is even needed. And of course nowadays they wouldn’t bother with printing out pages from the library – they’d just Google it on their phones. Imagine them reading the backstory in the carnival itself.
E: You’d do away with Kathy? Whaaaaat? We need her now more than ever. That said, I like your idea of Weegie being the one to enter the spook house, since he’s much more sympathetic than Josh. Wait! Let’s get rid of Weegie and just make Kathy the protagonist. And, of course, those classic early-90s haircuts need some updating. Remember when all the skaters and cute boys on TV had “hair curtains.” What were we thinking?
T: Hair curtains is such a bizarre thing. Isn’t that how Professor Snape is described? Guess Severus was ahead of his time. I thought three main characters was a bit much, but I could see having it be a spunky Kathy and her obnoxious neighbor Josh who only hangs out with her because he doesn’t have any real friends.
TRIVIA, USELESS TRIVIA
T: Did you recognize the carny? That was Aron Tager, who played Dr. Vink in the first episode and he again plays an iconic, memorable villain. Such an asset to the series.
E: I LOVE that he pops up again here. He consistently nails the right creepy to funny ratio for a kids’ horror show.
T: In an interview over at Are You Afraid of the Podcast?, showrunner DJ MacHale said that the network told him early on he’d have less pushback from parents if he could cite literary sources for the stories. This one is based off The Golden Arm, which was an old ghost story that Mark Twain liked to tell. There are variations but basically someone with a golden arm dies and a graverobber steals it. The ghost of the dead amputee frightens the robber into returning the appendage.
E: Ooooooooh! More trivia – in one of my fave underrated/problematic late-80s movies, Troop Beverly Hills, the character played by Emily Schulman (a.k.a. the obnoxious red-haired neighbor on Small Wonder) tells that story on a “camping” trip to the Beverly Hills Hotel.
JUST GIVE IT A NUMERICAL RATING ALREADY
T: This one’s simple. It’s genuinely scary. Turning a smell into an unsettling creep factor on television is hard to do, but I can practically smell cigars while watching this one. The incredible scene of Josh being terrorized by Zeebo alone cinches this one, and it’s all icing on the cake that the surrounding episode is stellar. But I have to deduct a point because Josh is so unlikeable and Zeebo’s actions are completely justified. 9 OUT OF 10 CAMPFIRES.
E: Fully agreed! Though I’ll admit I actually kind of like rooting for Zeebo. Maybe Betty Ann and I have a lot in common. :) I second your 9 OUT OF 10 CAMPFIRES.