Episode 25 - Are You Afraid of the Dark? [Obviously But That’s Not the Point…]
Just to build on this month’s momentum, I’ve got something to add about my strained relationship with all things spooky. It’s another dimension, if you will. Another way to look at this but not something completely divorced from what I said last week.
Namely, that while I’ve always had some sort of aversion to the spooky, there was one time—or instance really—when this aversion wasn’t just a fact of my existence, something part and parcel with who I am, but something to overcome for the sake of something else. For the sake of having something else.
Look, when you don’t frighten well—when there’s an entire aspect of the human existence that you instinctively run away from—you will realize very quickly that there’s a lot you are missing out on. And sometimes, someone will be okay with that. Other times, that inclination to see the grass as infinitely greener on the acre you are not standing on starts to kick in. Color saturation intensifies at a distance, after all. It’s the things we don’t have that always seem most appealing. It’s not an aspect of human nature that I particularly like, even if it does make sense. Desire doesn’t paint with any sort of realism. As an artist, its goal is to create something you want, and we all want things that are perfect. Disappointment can always come later after the commission check clears, I guess.
But enough about that hastily devised metaphor that maybe should be cut if I were more realistic and responsible with my editing.
Child-me knew there was something to the spooky that was worth wanting. There was a reason no one else ran, and while I wasn’t brave enough to investigate myself, it was something I did want to experience. And this lack of experience could have just led my mind to create something appealing but unrealistic. Which might have been what happened. And I genuinely mean that, but the thesis of this review is that this suspicion wasn’t unfounded: that Child-me somehow recognized the unintended brilliance of this thing, leaving Adult-me with regrets that I didn’t force myself to sit through it sooner.
You see, as a child, I stumble upon a television series that intrigued me and probably was designed to do so when you consider all the market research that goes into television but that’s neither here nor there. In fact, if any of that helped create the final product in this case, then fair enough; market research has its merits, I guess.
I distinctly remember, whenever this program was on, clutching the television remote under the blanket in a well-lit room, getting up every commercial break to check my closet and other crevices off my room for monsters that might be hiding there. This, of course, was a routine I would then adhere to for the rest of the day, long after the program was over.
And I knew this was irrational. Either I needed to get over my fears or I needed to stop watching this particular show. Those were my two options, and I should have just picked one because I couldn’t keep doing this. But I did, and I don’t think this was because I was a child with a slightly underdeveloped notion of common sense.
I think it’s because I genuinely wanted to join The Midnight Society, and this was the only way I could even come close.
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Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 25.
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Are You Afraid of the Dark? was a Canadian-American horror-fantasy anthology television series that told the stories of The Midnight Society, a group of teenagers who would meet—presumably in the middle of the night—to trade or collect scary stories. Or, actually, it documented the stories… It depends on perspective, I guess, and how loyal you want to be to the character of the original show or the lore it might have been building up. It initially ran on Nickelodeon from 1992 to 1996 and was then revived for a second run from 1999 to 2000. And now there’s supposedly a movie in the works, but we’ll see about that. One of the other major products of that industry is disappointment.
But we’re not talking about that byproduct. Or we shouldn’t because if I get started I might not be able to stop.
Are You Afraid of the Dark? revolved around a group of teenagers who called themselves The Midnight Society. The show builds this up in such a way that it seems like a much larger organization while at the same time keeping the air of mysteriousness about it. They have their rituals and rules, but all things outside of these rituals are assumed to be known but never clarified. Every episode, they go around the circle, and upon their turn, each of them would take a handful of sand, throw it onto the fire, and present their story for the “approval of The Midnight Society.” And then the story begins.
Being an anthology, there’s very little if any continuity linking stories together. But they were always horror stories or stories with horror elements to them. And most—I could say all but I’ll say most in case I’m forgetting one—included paranormal elements like demons, magic, vampires, werewolves or anything like that. Sometimes they were grounded in the (quote) real life events of the characters. But usually, they weren’t.
Now, peaking behind the production curtain a bit, which I had to do for the sake of this episode. There’s probably a reason why so many of these tales were distinct from the characters who presented the story. For the sake of this review and my interrelated pride, I want to emphasize that I didn’t know this beforehand. After all, I was a kid: a fairly sheltered one at that. My parents would let me watch television by myself, only because I never misused the privilege. And they knew what “misusing the privilege” would look like. It was different with the internet. My dad, as a computer consultant, knew quite a bit about the machine, like how my digital literacy was probably one of the most important skills he could leave me with. However, the internet itself was still a scary place to him. So I was never left in much of a position to see what may seem obvious to others.
Namely, that many of these stories weren’t all that original. They were adaptations of short stories or tales, urban myths, or pretty much anything that would be considered in the public domain. Or in other words, something you wouldn’t have to pay royalties for or license.
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And when I read that in the course of my research, it did take the wind out of my figurative sails quite a bit. You see, sometimes—more often than not, actually—I decide on a subject for these reviews while I’m at work, usually when I’m waiting for something or someone. Usually the elevator because despite being upgraded recently, the ones in my office are truly horrible. This improvement started right when I did, so honestly, I have no clue how bad it was before. Maybe this is an improvement. Maybe I need to work on my leg strength so I can go up ten flights of stairs multiple times per day easily. Who knows?
I decided to review this series during one of these times when I was standing by the elevator waiting. I remembered The Midnight Society, had a few more thoughts on the matter, and then set out to outline this review. Yep, no research anywhere in that timeline, which is why I ran into this difficulty. This fact didn’t come up until I was already drafting the script. Which isn’t the point of no return when it comes to these reviews. I could have always gone back to the drawing board. Or elevator bay, I guess.
What bothered me wasn’t the damage done to my production timeline but to the notion I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about the power that comes from storytelling and at first that seemed to be gone.
On the other hand, what had I been expecting, really? This was a television show. Obviously they weren’t going to hand each actor a notebook and tell them to write the scripts. For one, that would likely violate some sort of child labor laws, but I’m not going through all of that right now. There were going to be professional writers, and like I’ve said before, if you boil down stories enough, everything is going to look the same anyway, so nothing could ever be one-thousand-percent original. Even people are going to resemble one another when you get down to the nuts and bolts of it. Which is all a really roundabout way of asking, what should it matter that these stories weren’t those of teenagers? Why did this obvious and logical fact bother me so much?
Maybe it was just that the illusion was broken, and it was the illusion I loved so much, which probably says a lot about me because I’m in my twenties now, and this should have happened a lot sooner. But hey, I haven’t thought about this show in years and never in that much detail.
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And maybe this is some form of the “death of the author” card. Which isn’t great... Doing this podcast has increasingly made me feel like a hypocrite of some kind. I’ve never advocated for this card, and yet, I’ve pulled that card multiple times in a relatively short amount of time. And yes, there are more times I could have pulled it but refrained from doing so.
Recently though, I’ve made peace with this tendency. I think I can still respect the author’s intentions while pointing out that intentions don’t always land. That was the entire point of my An Absolutely Remarkable Thing review and a belief I’ve held wholeheartedly for several years. There’s just a balance that has to be struck, I guess. Don’t try to overwrite the author’s intention by—for example—lecturing them on what their book is actually about—and realize that the story you have attached to the actual story is linked to your own life trajectory. Because most basically, Are You Afraid of the Dark? was meant to fill a figurative hole in television programming. There was a group within a demographic that wanted scary stories, creators with an idea, and a production company willing to make it happen. And each of those people probably had their own ideas and intentions about what the show should be that then informed all of their production decisions moving forward. But I—former child who loved this program and adult trying to explain why this show was so valuable—didn’t know any of this. I saw the show and came to my own conclusions, which were all reflections of how I would come to understand the world and the place of this show in it.
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The Midnight Society—or what little we actually know about it—is a group of teenagers who get together to tell stories. Scary stories, yes, but in some ways, all stories can be pretty scary.
It’s something my master’s thesis touched upon. For it, I read this book called The Politics of Storytelling by Michael Jackson. (Pause). No, not that Michael Jackson, although I imagine he must get that a lot and has potentially grown resentful of it
This Michael Jackson is a distinguished professor at Harvard Divinity School. His book argued that storytelling can be a bridge between the private and public realms of human existence. If that doesn’t make sense to you, he bases his argument off of the work of Hannah Arendt, which would require quite a bit of explanation. But here’s the important takeaway from his book—which I would recommend to anyone who is both patient and interested.
Narrative—the ability to construct and share one based on one’s life experiences specifically—has the power to remake reality in a symbolic sense. Sure, you can’t go back and change what happened, but through this retelling, issues are explored and power is renegotiated by making it a more public event. Stories take us, our problems, and our perspectives out of ourselves and into the shared space where progress actually happens. And he does this by focusing on the traumatic experiences of others and the way storytelling restores the voice and agency that trauma has stripped away. In part because it re-centers the narrative outside of oneself and integrates it with that of the larger world. And I hope I’m making myself clear because I’m trying to avoid the foundational work of Hannah Arendt not because it’s bad but because I’m playing the odds, and you—dear listeners—might not be all that familiar with her work.
But to hard cut to the point… Honestly, I loved that book. It wasn’t just a crux of my thesis argument, but it was something I genuinely treasured. Likely because it’s one of the books that mirrors an amorphous cloud of thoughts that you’ve had in your head for quite some time. It gives you the ability to ground these thoughts in something outside of yourself. And maybe if you’re really insecure, it gives you validation. Or at least, it lets you punt the responsibility of argumentation to someone with a lot more experience and research than you.
When I look back at my memories of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, I see a similar vein of thought to what made me build my master’s thesis around an idea tangentially related to the argument in that book. It was a calling that seemingly resisted logic. I actual had an entirely different project idea then found this book and radically shifted despite the thesis proposal being due in like three weeks.
This relationship, between me and this book, is harder to shake, so yeah maybe it’s a good foundation for what I’m about to say next.
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For the show, you had a bunch of kids gathering around a campfire telling stories, that in the canon of the show they came up with or had found on their own accord. Not true and should have obviously been not true, but I was a child at the time. Can’t really blame me for taking things at face value, especially when I wanted the thing being presented to me to be true. I just liked the idea of The Midnight Society: a group of young people getting together to exchanges stories about things that scare them. Like I said, it was a group I wanted to be a part of despite the fact that I didn’t do well with things that were scary in that way.
But there was a lot in my life that was scary in other ways. I had stories. Many of them. But no one that would listen to them. Corrections for accuracy. My parents were willing to listen, but these are the sorts of stories you want to hide from you parents because you are acutely aware that these stories are about monsters your parents wish they could slay but can’t. Sometimes revealing that you know about their limitations—limitations they are very aware of and trying so hard to fight—only feels cruel and needless.
So even though no one was there to read them, I would scribble in journals all the time, jotting down ideas for stories that—despite not being dated—I can look at and know exactly when I wrote them. And there were full stories, too. Some of the ones that have survived from that time period reflect this as well.
True, they aren’t great stories. Not just because a kid wrote them. They just genuinely aren’t thought out, or so one might say.
The emphasis was always on the circumstances. On laying them out in such a way and describing them that the letters actual spell out my feelings. And then they all cut straight the solution to the described problem: solutions that were often impossible and convoluted. It’s something akin to a deus ex machina, but to use that term wouldn’t be fair to the concept of deux ex machina. Sure, those types of solutions have to be forced and overly convenient but they are still grounded in reality. Not mine.
The closest I ever came to a coherent story was that of the saga of a girl name Myst, which was supposed to be short for Mystic, and I genuinely thought that was clever. It wasn’t. Her dad was sickly, but he was trying to teach her how to be a superhero and manage her powers before he inevitably died and left her alone to take on the troubles of the world by herself. Which included her favorite teachers being kidnapped and the world being put into some nondescript peril. And if she defeated this villain, it turns out, her father wouldn’t die. Not sure exactly how she came to that conclusion from the villain’s maniacal laughter, but that happened. And it helped her. And me.
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My story would not have met the approval of The Midnight Society, which is fine. Their stories—their manifestations of the exercise I’m describing—are far more sophisticated than what I was turning out. And look, I was a kid just starting out. It would have been weird if I suddenly was amazing at it.
And even though these stories are just adapted version of other people’s creations that have entered the public domain, once upon a time, someone put that initial story together, or this was done communally. Someone or a group of someone’s assembled a narrative around a trauma or a fear. They retook control and found the balance between self and not-self, as Jackson might say.
But let me step away from the academic to make my point. And I want to be sure that I say that because I don’t want to put words in anyone else’s mouth, but there is overlap, like I said earlier.
Basically, when you tell a story, it’s not that you are necessarily retaking control of what happened. You can’t replay the events in such a way that the outcome changes. But you shift it from being something that happens to you in your private and isolated world and transform it to something that is shared, something that could be understood and then acted upon.
I wrote stories as a way to understand what was going on in my life, to put the difficulties of my life in perspective. Namely, that while everyone in my life wanted to pretend this wasn’t a big deal, that if I prayed enough or was good enough God would intervene and save my father, or that things would somehow work themselves out, I could have a story whose only message was that it was in fact horrible and unjust that my dad was so sick. Or that a superhero alone could save him. Not someone like me, so that parent in Sunday school needed to shut her mouth, but you know, I’ve explained before why it’s hard for some adults to accept that some children have difficult situations in their lives or that the struggles of human existence don’t have a minimum age. And then this extends to how they relate to other adults, and it’s a problem with many faces.
It was through my stories that I could express how much I knew, ask for help—in a more indirect and less effective way—or at least see what I was dealing with from a better perspective. And that’s important. It’s one of the many reasons why storytelling can be part of the empowerment process and can be a therapeutic tool in certain circumstances.
But sometimes a kid doesn’t need that much structure. They just need the idea that the creative process can be theirs.
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I’ve always thought that it was a little weird that we focus on the negative aspects of learning behavior that was supposedly modeled on television. Think violence in television, movies, or video games especially. And look, I have noticed that as a general rule human beings are drawn to the negative or supposedly threatening and news-centric media just follows suit. But there are consequences to this and benefits to be had from a shift in perspective.
Because here’s the thing. Yes, Are You Afraid of the Dark? can be scary at times. Probably too much for certain children, and it genuinely freaked me out. Though that doesn’t say much. But it also gave children the gift of storytelling in a way they could actually respond to and accept. It wasn’t condescending or juvenile. It was a group of older children (bonus points for that one) coming together and engaging in this activity. Lecturing kids doesn’t always work, and the colorful lights and sounds of educational content can be hit or miss once kids get to a certain age.
Instead, show them how the world can be and let them decide what their world should look like or how their life should be arranged. Maybe it will include this tool, and maybe it will not. And while you may have your opinions on what the preferred outcome will be, ultimately, the choice is still with them.
So, let desire do what it does best and paint a picture of what could be. But it will need the paint first.
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