When it comes to a thirst for all things horror, some people are born into darkness, while others require some terror training wheels. Looking at me now, you may not believe that I was once a big scaredy cat. I wanted nothing to do with anything remotely spooky, and even the slightest shift in music would see me running to turn the television off. But, like most kids of my generation, I was eased into the genre with bite-sized scares. In an era where there was a plethora of tailor-made chills for children, it took no time for me to convert from hiding under the blankets into a full-fledged fright fanatic.
Here at FEARnet, we have a great fondness for the bygone days of creepy kids’ TV, as evidenced by our Funhouse block, which features an archive of episodes from some spooky Saturday mornings of yesteryear. In fact, when reflecting on the tiny terrors of children’s television, what is most remarkable is just how many of them actually exist. For a medium that is so often considered bright and cheerful, the success of numerous genre-themed shows indicates that kids love the things that go bump in the night almost as much as their adult counterparts. In celebration of our favorite childhood creeps and chills, today I’ve put together a list of some of children’s television’s most landmark frights. So, join us for a trip down memory lane, or perhaps discover something playfully putrid for the very first time. Here’s a look back at some of the greatest shows that made your Saturday mornings a little less safe…
If you were a child growing up during the late-'80s/early-'90s, the phenomenon of R.L. Stine was inescapable. Already famous with the pre-teen set for his Fear Street series of books, it was the introduction of Goosebumps in 1992 that took the creepy children’s author to the next level. For a period of time, the books were everywhere, and, as a result, the continued merchandizing of the franchise was an inevitability. As such, 1995 saw the introduction of Goosebumps as a television series. Produced in Canada, Goosebumps played as an anthology series akin to Tales from the Darkside, seeing each episode adapting one of Stine’s books for the small-screen. For four seasons, the show brought living dummies and giant hamsters into the homes of millions of children who were forever changed. Goosebumps continues to thrive to this day, with various new literary and screen incarnations, but it has never been quite as popular as it was during its '90s zenith, when it left an entire generation screaming for more.
Are You Afraid of the Dark?
Of course, one simply cannot mention Canadian-produced anthology children’s horror without discussing the seminal classic, Are You Afraid of the Dark? Made popular stateside due to its inclusion on Nickelodeon’s SNICK line-up, the show, which ran from 1991-2000, remains an oft-cited favorite of Generation X and Millennials. Centered on a group of teens called “The Midnight Society,” Are You Afraid of the Dark? saw the members of this prestigious club gathering weekly around a campfire to share a tale of terror. As the audience, we were privy to each story from the inside, thus giving us a fresh take on the genre each week. Notably, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, while often containing stories with some sort of moral compass for the young viewer, did not always end favorably for the protagonist, which gave each episode an added element of grave suspense. Although the campfire has long since been doused out, enthusiasm for Are You Afraid of the Dark? remains as strong as ever on the internet, and it’s safe to say that many members of the Midnight Society have grown up to give us terrors of their own.
Tales from the Cryptkeeper
I’ve often said that the era of late-'80s/early-'90s merchandizing was a peculiar one that we will not likely see again in our lifetime. For the briefest of moments, it was deemed completely acceptable to take an extremely hard R-rated property and find a way to sell it to a youth market. Freddy Krueger could be found on trading cards, and Robocop, once deemed one of the most gratuitously violent films of its time, was transformed into a Saturday morning cartoon. A strange and exciting era in which to grow up, this particular phenomenon is made all the more curious when one considers the likelihood of Jigsaw getting his own cartoon for the kids of today. It seems unlikely, and even laughable, but twenty years ago, it just may have happened.
As such, when it was decided in 1994 to spin-off HBO’s sex and violence-laden Tales from the Crypt into a children’s cartoon, no one even took a second to pause at the irony. The show, titled Tales from the Cryptkeeper, naturally, was a far safer version of its cable counterpart, focusing more on Universal-style monsters and moral lessons. However, even the inference that the Cryptkeeper (voiced, as always, by John Kassir) could actually be a pal to the youth of America is a somewhat sinister premise unto itself.
Rare in the respect that it was an animated anthology series, Tales from the Cryptkeeper is a fun slice of television and Crypt history, and certainly served as a gateway for kids to find the HBO series in their adult lives.
In the wake of the success of The X-Files in the mid-90s, it seemed for a hot minute that every network wanted in on the supernatural action. Though an unlikely suspect to attempt to follow in Mulder & Scully’s footsteps, the Disney Channel threw its hat into the ring with a little series called So Weird, and dare I say, it came as close as any to hitting the mark.
Telling the tale of a paranormal obsessed teen with a rock star mom, the show delved into dark territory and constructed a rather intricate mythology that could rival adult shows of a similar ilk. Starring MacKenzie Phillips as the rock star, So Weird utilized the excuse of her taking her kids on tour as an impetus to introduce the family to ghouls and goblins across the countryside. Almost a preteen precursor to Supernatural, So Weird’s road trip format helped contribute to a sense of listless unease, all the while further developing the show’s wildly horrifying storylines. Although So Weird has long since quit airing due to Disney’s “three seasons and out” policy, it maintains a healthy fan-base, mostly of adults who recognize it was ahead of its time. Of all the series on this list, So Weird may be the toughest to track down, but if you can get your mitts on this little gem, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
“What’s wrong with this picture? The American dream come true, right? Wrong.”
There are horror shows for kids, and then there’s Eerie, Indiana. Although only airing from 1991-1992, the short-lived show, at least according to this biased writer, is the utmost example of what quality genre television can be. The show centers around Marshall Teller (a pre-Hocus Pocus Omri Katz), who makes the startling discovery that his hometown is the “center of weirdness” for the entire universe. Along with his sidekick Simon, Marshall investigates weekly the supernatural goings on in Eerie, leading to some subversive misadventures that likely went over the heads of young children. With plots ranging from secret cults to parents who sealed their children in Tupperware to keep them young, Eerie, Indiana, is a show that defied convention, and played as much to an adult audience as it did to the younger set. Furthermore more, Joe Dante (Gremlins, The Howling) served as a creative consultant for the show, and his manic mark can be seen all over its short lifespan.
A critical darling, there is much debate over what led to Eerie, Indiana’s cancellation. Most believe it was an inability to properly market the show. After all, was it a program for adults that starred kids? Was it a show for kids that only made sense to adults? The ultimate demographic of Eerie, Indiana remains unclear, but it is its oddity that makes it such an incomparable gem. Realizing the error in its premature cancellation, the network attempted to revive Eerie, Indiana in 1998 with a spin-off series, but it never quite captured the bizarre magic of the original.
Of course, there were more than five fright-filled shows for children. Have a comment on one of these? Is there a show we missed? Leave it in the comments!