Are You Afraid of the Dark? 1.1: "The Tale of the Phantom Cab"
Terry here and I’m really happy to introduce this new column from Troy and Erin. Each week, they will be looking back on the television series Are You Afraid of the Dark? and examining each episode from a queer perspective. It’s sorta a review, sorta an analysis and a whole lot of fun. Troy approached me months ago with this idea, sent me some samples of the article and I just knew this would be a perfect fit for Gayly Dreadful. This is the first of the non-Pride Month contributions and I hope it’s just the beginning. Please give it and them some love!
Gary introduces the Midnight Society – a group of kids who get together in the woods at night to tell scary stories even though they go to different schools and have different friends. David’s sponsoring Frank to tell tonight’s story.
Cool dude Denny and his pipsqueak brother Buzz get lost in the woods thanks to Buzz’s lack of compass skills. They meet Flynn, a traveler in the woods, who leads them to Dr. Vink’s cottage in the woods, which happens to be surrounded by whispering bushes. The madcap doctor makes the brothers answer riddles. They can’t answer the second one, so he sends them to a cab for a ride home. They’re dubious about leaving until Dr. Vink reveals a severed hand in a jar, so they flee.
They think they’re rescued once they get in the cab, only the cabbie turns out to be Flynn, and it was his hand in Dr. Vink’s jar. Oh! And he’s dead! But wait, there’s more: Flynn’s going to crash into a big tree unless Buzz answers the riddle correctly. Flynn and his phantom cab vanish and the brothers are picked up by a living ranger. They’ve grown closer because of their ordeal.
The Midnight Society approves of Frank’s story and unanimously votes for him to join their ranks.
Troy: What a great start to the series. It opens with a shot of the campfire, then the intense, too-serious panning shots of the kids’ faces. Getting this intro and then following Frank joining makes us feel like we’re joining the Midnight Society through him.
Erin: Yes, agreed. There’s a surprising amount of gravitas for a kids’ show and it weirdly doesn’t feel unearned. Also, just the whole idea of tweens and teens sneaking out late at night to tell ghost stories is so flipping cool.
T: Where are their parents? Today, those kids would never sneak out alone. Back in the day? Sure. Buzz even references Jason from the prolific Friday the 13th series. Back then, tweens knew all about slasher icons. It was fine for kids to watch R-rated movies. Today, I couldn’t fathom kids seeing those movies, even though they’re tame by today’s standards. When the Friday the 13th video game came out, I played online with squeakers (tweens with cracking voices who get excited playing video games and squeak in our headphones) who called him “the guy.” His name was Jason… he wasn’t a very good swimmer… and today is his birthday! Sorry, sorry. Don’t know what came over me there.
E: That was basically the pop culture-themed equivalent of “get off my lawn.”
T: The whole bit of the Midnight Society not being friends and going to different schools feels forced. We’re led to believe six kids roughly the same age somehow sneak out of their houses at night and convene in some central location but they don’t know each other outside of this secret club? And of course David sponsors Frank so there’s a connection there. Frank knows him well enough to be led blindfolded through the woods in the middle of the night to meet a bunch of strangers… In fact, if the membership is made up of people inducting new members, then everyone should be connected to at least one other person outside of this. Oh, and I love that they all sit on stumps but Gary gets a chair. It’s not for the storyteller, it’s just Gary’s chair. We don’t get much of the personalities of the Midnight Society, besides Gary’s the leader and Eric’s a little jerk.
E: To be fair, Gary is one of the few Midnight Society members I remember with any degree of clarity so he probably deserves the chair. I mean, how many of the other members are even going to make it past the pilot? And, yeah, the whole Breakfast Club angle is a bit much, but also feels classically '90s to me. There were a lot of shallow “we are all okay” sentiments woven into '90s pop culture. Especially the early '90s.
T: And it doesn’t get any earlier than this. The show premiered in the US in the summer of ’92, but had already aired Halloween night in Canada in 1990. I do love that the story’s interrupted midway through for Eric and Kiki to come in hot and decide the riddle’s unanswerable and therefore Frank’s story doesn’t count. I love when characters are so sure of themselves for absolutely no reason. Also, it really helps sell the idea that Frank is telling this story. I enjoy how the whole pilot of it all is apparent when Gary calls David just “Dave.” This is clearly the actors still getting used to their roles, because quiet, demure David is NOT a Dave.
E: Hang on – can we talk about Buzz and Denny, the protags of the scary story, for a sec? I found these two shockingly unlikable, even in the context of mid-budget early-90s Canadian cheese. I mean, the whining! Good lord.
T: They’re so loud. Both actors shout all of their lines – Denny is always angry and Buzz is an emotional void. A part of me enjoys how intense Denny feels about magnetism and belt buckles. Speaking of, Buzz is supposed to be the smart one, but he doesn’t know how compasses work or what flora and fauna are. Then there’s his “Ewwww! Cool!” turn and dead-eyed screaming – clearly he’s a sociopath, and it’s his lack of human understanding that sets Denny off.
E: Ah, my extreme dislike of them is making so much more sense now. Denny is a bully and Buzz is a burgeoning serial killer. Their parents must be thrilled.
T: There’s one plot point that goes unanswered. Dr. Vink is out there doing experiments, but we don’t know what his purpose is. What if he’s really doing benevolent research? Like he’s out there trying to cure cancer? “Yes, all I need for my cancer research is human hands…”
E: *gives Troy side-eye* I’m not sure the ends would justify the means, even if he’s limiting his murder sprees to loud-mouth cabbies, bullies, and burgeoning serial killers.
T: When it’s time for the unanimous vote, everyone’s on board and psyched for Frank, except Eric for some reason. The cocky little dude reluctantly votes for Frank. Eric, what do you have against Frank?!
E: Perhaps he sees a bit of himself in Frank and is like, “Oh, shit. Am I that obnoxious, too?”
T: Ha! I think that would be a shocking level of self-awareness on Eric’s part. He strikes me as a rich kid who doesn’t get that other people have problems.
QUEER OR NOT?
T: I spotted one queer moment with Denny and Buzz, and it’s super subtle and hilarious. After Buzz saves their lives with barely a second to spare, thereby breaking a curse and freeing souls (I think, that part isn’t super clear), they rejoice with a hug. Normal, right? But then they pull apart and no homo it. Um, you’re brothers. There’s just something so weird about being alone in the woods and not wanting to come off as gay by hugging your own brother that shouts overcompensation to me. Did you catch the infamous hug, or spot any other moments?
E: Bahahahaha. I totally did not catch that. But I did spot Rachel Blanchard among the members of the Midnight Society. She went on to play Cher in the Clueless TV series. I remember being rather annoyed that the producers of the TV show “sanitized” the world of the movie by not including the iconic gay character Christian at all. He wasn’t exactly a stellar example of queer rep, but I think it might’ve been the first time I saw an explicitly gay character in anything ever.
T: Confession: I’m aware of Clueless, and I saw it when it came out, but I have more memories of watching the TV series (that’s where I discovered the hilarious Donald Faison before he killed it on Scrubs). But it’s funny you noticed Rachel Blanchard because the entire run of Are You Afraid of the Dark? is full of child/teen actors who had successful careers. It’s a testament to the casting department that they snagged so many talented young thespians. Although for every natural performance, we are forced to deal with the likes of emotionally void Buzz and constantly angry Denny.
MODERNIZE ’90s CANADIAN KIDS
T: First off, if I were telling the story today, I’d have there be fewer Midnight Society members. There’s seven freaking kids. There should be maybe five so the audience gets to know them. Fewer characters means each one gets more screen time to develop. Although, realistically, more members means each has to come up with fewer stories. With enough members to field a baseball team, each one doesn’t have to come up with twenty stories a year. Maybe I’d go all millennial and have them be Skype-ing. I’m not sure how to juggle the modern screen addicts with the campfire shtick.
E: Less kids would be smart, but I’d definitely keep them around the campfire. I’d like to see some kids on TV who aren’t afraid of technology but also crave face-to-face interactions now and then. Kind of like The Sisterhood of Night, but less dark. The clothing definitely needs an update. Eeeesh. I kind of forgot that early-90s fashion was just a terrible evolution of all stuff that was fun and cheeky in the ‘80s. Blocky jackets in blinding primary colors were meant to be worn in NYC dance clubs by twenty-somethings high on coke, not by suburban tweens.
T: Oh those ‘90s clothes. So many memories. Even Dr. Vink’s affected – the dude has like twenty layers on. That’s all guys wore in the ‘90s, layers upon layers.
T: For me, I’d just flesh out the story somewhat. It’s so basic, and I can’t help but wonder if that’s because, being the first episode, there’s more time spent introducing the Midnight Society and doing all that house cleaning so the story itself is two minutes or so shorter. These two brothers who don’t get along are hiking together? Why? As for the rest of it, it holds up. The cottage, the riddling, the cab. I guess it’d be a Phantom Uber now though.
E: Hahahaha!! Yeah, the story itself definitely feels like a pilot, though the cab ride at the end is a legit nail-biter and Dr. Vink is such a classic mad scientist/wizard trope, I’m not sure he needs any updating. He is timeless.
T: Keep in mind that he is not a nutbag! There’s one last thing that bothers me, but I have no idea how I’d change it. The brothers are lost in the woods and happen upon Flynn, who’s way too positive and just says he’s a traveler. He even touches Buzz. It doesn’t read as creepy though a time lens, but I can’t imagine shooting anything similar to this nowadays. I suppose in a remake, I’d lean into it and have the boys creeped out by Flynn and eager to seek Dr. Vink’s cottage to get away from him, which would make it even scarier when they bump into him in the cab.
JUST GIVE IT A NUMERICAL RATING ALREADY
T: This one is tough because, being the first episode, it has to juggle more than pretty much any one that follows. The setting’s spooky, Dr. Vink’s fun, and it’s genuinely creepy when the brothers get in the cab. Counter that off with the overly simplistic story and the monotone shout-speaking of Buzz (your brother is six inches away from you, why are you shouting at him?), and I’m going to have to go with 7 OUT OF 10 CAMPFIRES.
E: I’m going to go with 6 OUT OF TEN CAMPFIRES because I don’t want to set the bar too high and the protags of the story were so meh. I know there’s amazing stuff coming (like baby Ryan Gosling!!!).
T: If this wasn’t the pilot, I’d agree with your rating, but I just can’t help but give it an extra point for juggling the series intro so well. Bring on episode two!