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Speaking of things parents weren't all that fond of in the 90s, I'm pretty sure bone-chillingly terrifying children's television programming ranked pretty high up on their lists. It's almost shocking what kid's TV networks were able to get away with back in the 90s. Nowadays you're lucky if you can so much as say "boo" to impressionable and innocent young children without raising angry red flags amongst hovering parent watchdog groups.
In our day, however, things were a little different. Children's shows weren't afraid to be a little edgy, and by that I mean they put kids on edge. For life. No, really. I still have nightmares about that stupid clown Zeebo.
Are You Afraid of the Dark? was a show responsible for scaring the living daylights out of us while inevitably necessitating nightlights. The correct answer to the show's title question was yes, yes we are, and we may never sleep again. Thank you, Nickelodeon, for affording us a chance at nightmare-induced juvenile insomnia. As if our parents didn't have enough legitimate safety concerns for us, they were now forced to spend valuable worrying time reassuring us against the existence of mute child ghosts and evil spirit-filled magic wands. Time well spent.
There were a few episodes in particular that have stuck with me. As in they are forever stuck in my brain, briefly terrorizing me whenever they bob to the cerebral surface. Just for you, though, I'm willing to temporarily forget how pants-peeingly scary these episodes were and share them with you for the greater good of horror-themed nostalgia.
Submitted for the approval of the Children of the 90s Society, I call this story *tosses handful of potassium nitrate into imaginary roaring campfire* The Tale of the Scariest Episodes:
Tale of Laughing in the Dark
I'm with the Rachel Blanchard character on this one. I too suffer from what Kiki describes as "Bozophobia". Really, who isn't afraid of clowns these days? It's all just a little too John Wayne Gacy for me to handle.
Anyway, Cher sucks it up and we return to the ill-fated Playland, an amusement park home to the "spookhouse" called Laughing in the Dark. Catchy name, huh? I get the feeling that's going to play into things later somehow. Our story's stars are generally too chicken to enter, but like any normal kids they decided to do some good old fashioned academic research on the alleged clown haunting.
Apparently there was this clown Zeebo who was an all around bad guy, stealing money from the circus and eventually getting his comeuppance as he burned alive in the Laughing in the Dark spookhouse after an incident with his cigar. Tragic.
One kid dares another to steel Zeebo's clown nose, and the dare-ee agrees so long as the darer will wear the clown nose to school. What could be funnier, really?
Our pal Josh (the aforemention dare-ee) goes into LitD, and it's so-so scary rather than so so scary. At first, that is. Unsurprisingly, Josh is plagued by the clown's ghost, who does weird stuff like write his initials in pudding and sends threatening balloon messages. Josh obliges, returning the nose but leaving us to wonder what exactly we just saw. It may not sound all that scary, but we're talking clowns here. Clowns.
Tale of the Pinball Wizard
If we've learned nothing from these tales of terror, it's that when someone tells you not to touch something, for the love of God do not touch it! Is it really that tough a concept? Once you've erred the first ten or so times, you think that you'd realize they were probably warning you for your own horror story character good, but these fictional kids just never learn.
This episode isn't quite as scary as the others, but it definitely drew kids in with its enthralling premise. If you get locked in the mall late at night playing a forbidden pinball machine, you will inevitably end up in a life-size human version of the game. There's pretty much no other possible route from there. You're going to be in a living pinball game, and you're going to like it, dammit.
Tale of the Hatching
I used to think boarding school might be a fun option until I saw The Tale of the Hatching. It wasn't until Harry Potter that I could even think of entertaining romantic notions of boarding school. We're talking years of trauma to my prep school fantasy. Years.
Jazz and Augie are siblings sent to a mysterious boarding school. The school has all sorts of wacky (read: suspicious and inevitably terrifying) rules about being calm and quiet on the grounds. Plus, every meal consists of a substance called "spunge". If that's not a warning sign, I don't know what is. I mean, really. Spunge?
Turns out the headmasters are evil aliens (surprise!) and the spunge contains a trance-inducing mind control agent. Yikes. The kids are hypnotized into incubating the unhatched eggs. Once these mini reptillian cuties hatch, they feast on students for sustenance. I don't like where this is headed.
Luckily, our heroes are smart and realize that loud noises and certain frequencies are the auditory nemeses of these slimy overlords. They blast loud music from their walkmans and save the day...or do they? Like all good AYAOTD episodes, it's a sort of unsettling cliffhanger. In the last scene, we see a single ominous surviving egg. Does it go on to start a new boarding school? Will it inevitably eat Jazz and Augie? Will killing them off stop parents from giving their kids stupid names like Jazz and Augie? We may never know.
Tale of the Thirteenth Floor
We all know the thirteenth floor is reputably spooky, but we didn't know exactly why until we were scared witless (I'm going to say 'witless" and not a more appropriate alternative because this is a family blog) until we saw this episode.
Billy and Karin live on the twelfth floor of a creepy-ish apartment building. The kids like to go play up on the thirteenth floor because, you know, it's abandoned and spooky. Then, dream of dreams come true and a toy company moves in to the thirteenth floor. A toy company! Is there anything better?
Well yeah, if those toy company employees are secretly faceless space aliens. Just a teeny little hitch in the whole playing-with-toys scenario. They draw in our innocent little children and bam! they reveal they're really building a spaceship to take Karin back to their home planet. Billy's a wimp and can't take the atmospheric changes and almost dies, but Karin in an uncharacteristic show of heroism saves him. It's at this point we find out that (gasp!) Karin is actually one of them, a faceless alien. Ahhhh!!!!
Tale of the Dead Man's Float
As a swimmer, this episode really spoke to me. In my sleep. Through undead pool monsters.
I always thought this was one of the scariest episodes, if nothing else because the zombie thing is just so retina-scarring. Kids everywhere boycotted swimming lessons and refused to don those floaty-arm things for years after watching this episode. It's a true testament to how scary this show could actually be. I mean, even looking now at the picture of that pool thing makes me want to go hide in my office cabinets and arm myself with staple removers and letter openers.
Zeke's a nerd eager to win over his crush Clorice. They find an abandoned swimming pool at their school and think it's an excellent idea to campaign to have it reopened. Clorice is a swim team star and Zeke is working overtime to get into her good graces. Everything's going, er, swimmingly until they begin to suspect the pool is haunted, a notion later confirmed by a loner janitor type. Apparently the pool was built on an old cemetary and one body was left behind. I think we all know what's coming up next.
Because Zeke's a geek, he knows that the ghost's sulfuric smell means its acidic makeup could be detected will some good ol' methyl orange. Sweet chemistry lesson, AYAOFD. It's almost enough to lull me into a false calm until OH MY GOD THAT RED ZOMBIE THING IS THE SCARIEST THING I HAVE EVER SEEN! I'm not even going to post the pictures here because I won't be able to look at my own blog if it's up here, haunting me. Just watch the video. But don't say I didn't warn you.
The show was great because it was not gimmicky. Sure, it sometimes relied on guest stars like Tia and Tamara Mowry as creepy chameleon girls or hunky Boy Meets World star Will Friedle as a guy thrown back in time by a locket, but the underlying value was in the show's uncompromising dedication to being truly scary. It haunts me still. I'm starting to wish I'd never Google Imaged "The Tale of the Dead Man's Float". Who knew such scary stuff could come out of Canada, of all places?