Scaring the Shit Out of Children in the Early 90s


What was it about the early 90’s that sparked a sudden inexplicable rise in the production of horror for children? Not since the black plague – with its etchings of dancing skeletons and corpses covered in boiling pustules – had there been such a renaissance in morbidity, but this time it was aimed at children for some reason. Okay, you’re right. What I experienced was a spill-over from the 80’s decade of childhood trauma, the perfect storm of mindfucking—Dark Crystal, Gremlins, Neverending Story, Don Bluth’s movies, Monster Squad, The Gate. I could go on and on. By the early 90’s, however, I think corporations caught on to the connection between childhood and horror, and they began packaging it and selling it in a slightly softer, more commercialized way.

Let’s start with the Nickelodeon show Are You Afraid of the Dark. The show began airing in 1991 with the pilot “The Tale of the Twisted Claw,” a variation on a short story about a monkey’s paw. The most frightening part of this episode for me is when the main characters’ parents die in a car accident – a surprisingly ruthless plot twist. He wishes to the twisted claw to bring them back to life, and then the doorbell rings. We never see who’s there, but, based on the claw’s pattern of granting wishes in the most fucked up way possible, we can guess what’s standing there on the porch—the bloody mutilated bodies of the kid’s parents, of course. One of the devices of Are You Afraid of the Dark that made it so frightening to children was how it transformed the familiar iconography of childhood into something strange and threatening. Parents became monsters. Friends became body snatching lizards. Your own home became a nightmarish place where evil hid around every corner.

Then there’s the episode where the kid gets stuck in a pinball game. The main character’s a bit of an asshole and plays a medieval themed pinball game the storeowner forbade him from playing. Then boom, he’s sucked into a version of the mall populated by princesses, evil knights, and (by far, the scariest) a cackling witch. After zooming around in a throne on wheels, spraying the bad guys to death with super soakers, and a Die Hard style finish where he pulls a mini squirt gun out at the last second, he finally achieves victory. The princess is crowned. Everyone’s happy. And then he’s transported back to the front of the mall, the beginning of the game. “What’s going on?” he asks. “I won the game! I want to go home!” A giant silver pinball is loaded in front of him by the leering shop owner from earlier, and he realizes he’s never going home, that he’ll die here in this mall. I think it’s interesting to note the decidedly cynicical message being conveyed by this episode: life is a game with no victory. Like Pac-Man, Galaga, or Donkey Kong, the only ending is death, and God isn’t a friendly compassionate being, but a cruel spectator who loads another ball just when you think you’ve won.

But the most infamous episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark, I think, is “Laughing in the Dark.” To this day, if I say, “It’s the most fun in the park… when you’re laughing in the dark,” anyone in their early 20s will experience an involuntary chill running up their spines. The episode centers on a ginger douchebag who steals a clown mannequin’s rubber nose from a fun house. This fun house has some weird shit in it. On his way to the mannequin, there is a giant dragon head that breathes real flames across his path, and he has to time his passage across carefully or he will be set on fire. No big deal. All children’s recreation should have an element of social Darwinism. It’s why playgrounds used to be made of wood and steel and full of rocks. Then there’s a circular room rimmed with strangely-shaped doors and trippy colors everywhere. It’s like being in a bad acid trip. The douchebag opens the wrong door and is confronted by a clown designed by Todd Macfarlane, a demonic figure birthed from the darkness of the human soul, the incarnation of madness on Earth. He looks into this creature’s face, spouts some stilted dialogue, and then steals its nose. Seeing it now on YouTube, I would sooner cut my own face off and eat it than steal that thing’s nose. For the remainder of the episode, this idiot child is stalked by the clown through his home until he returns the nose – accompanied by a gift of cigars – at the end of the episode (the ghost clown loves cigars).

Encapsulated in this episode is the recurring theme of a hostile unsympathetic world. In Are You Afraid of the Dark, the monsters don’t care if you’re a child—they want MEAT. The parents are never home when a killer clown is pounding on your door—they’re off at the grocery store, at work, or worse, kidnapped by whatever evil entity is after you. No grown-ups believe you. No one can save you. If you want to live, you have to use your own wits and ingenuity to fashion a way out of danger. Usually the kids escaped from harm, but just like in real life, sometimes they suffered gruesome horrifying ends.

Often, the danger was a manifestation of the anxiety stemming from some transition. These transitions might be moving to a new neighborhood, the unspoken onset of puberty, or the death of a family member. Other times, it seemed to accompany the angst of making friends, getting into the group, or social awkwardness in general. Animosity between siblings or between friends can be quelled quickly when the real enemy is revealed to be vampires or zombie shipwreck victims.

At the same time Are You Afraid of the Dark aired on Nickelodeon, I voraciously consumed Goosebumps books, a series of 62 paperback horror stories for teens. Written by R.L. Stine beginning in 1992, the series was meant to instill a love of reading in children, but as a side effect, it often instilled a fascination with death, gore, and murder at a pivotal, formative age. For me, Are you Afraid of the Dark and Goosebumps were gateways to less child-friendly fare like Stephen King and Paul Zindel, from whom I adopted phrases like “bloody chunks” and “intestines spilling onto the floor like spaghetti” into my everyday speech. For example, “Yeah, mom, last night’s homework was so hard, I thought my brain would explode into bloody chunks and I’d start gushing blood from every orifice until my veins ran dry, and then you’d slip on the blood around my corpse and crack your skull open like an egg.” In English class, my essays frequently degenerated into scenes of murder, torture, and senseless death. My teacher once asked me, “Do you think Dr. Seuss wrote essays like this when he was your age?” which was a weird thing to say, since Dr. Seuss wrote rhyming children’s stories. I said, “Who said I wanted to write like Dr. Seuss?” I turned out okay though – if you’re wondering. No goth clothes in my closet.

Goosebumps contained some of the same themes as Are You Afraid of the Dark – making friends, sibling rivalry, adjusting to a new school, etc. However, the stories often stripped protagonists of their ability to control the situation. Instead of solving problems using their wits and ingenuity, characters in Goosebumps were adrift in a chaotic irrational universe where they were not agents of plot, but victims of it. Instead of depicting a fantasy of control, Stine reflected children’s worlds back on them. Kids don’t have control over their own lives. Their parents plunge them into situations like school, camp, and church, and they don’t have a choice in the matter—they just have to deal with it.

What is the social function of parading death and horror in front of children like this? Halloween is a holiday for children. Ghosts and goblins are typically associated with children’s stories. I was part of the Creepy Kids Club and the Goosebumps Kids Club – book clubs which sent me skeleton stickers, gravestone pins, and paperback horror stories in the mail. What was this all about? What was it for?

Well, I think it was about adjusting kids to the true horror which is the reality of their lives. It was about easing them into the concept of death, of acknowledging it as a part of life. Mostly though, I think it’s because grownups love to scare the shit out of children.

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