Thursday, 5 October 2017

October Nightmares III #5: Goosebumps (1995 - 1998) & Are You Afraid of the Dark? (1990 - 2000) - I Also Scare Children

"Viewer beware, you're in for a scare." (Goosebumps intro)

Traumatising an entire generation of children is a fine art. In the Seventies and Eighties this usually meant broadcasting horrifying public information films on the BBC of all the terrible things that'll definitely happen to you if you even think about straying out of your mum's shouting distance. Or slipping bits of cosmic horror into delightful family-friendly romps such as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. These days all you need to do to traumatise the youth is to threaten to change the WiFi password, or tell them there are only two genders.

But there was a sweet spot in the late-Eighties and Nineties where writers and studio executives realised they could tap into an entirely new market by taking the horror industry, toning it down a little, and focusing it on children. And by tone it down a little, we're talking in scales based on gnat biology. Everyone remembers Knightmare. Children's TV used to be scary by way of a laissez-faire attitude towards children's well-being. But it was in the Nineties where concepts such as the children's horror anthology were born out of a deliberate attempt to horrify wide-eyed babes.

Thus we have Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark? Two series which collectively traumatised me to such an extent that to this day, I can't even go for a piss without thinking about R.L.Stine or D.J.MacHale.


Of the two shows, it's Goosebumps which was the most overtly aimed at younger children. It's based on the phenomenally popular books by R.L.Stine - which he pumped out in the same rapid frequency as Donald Trump tweets - books that could best be described as 'entry-level horror'. The idea being that you started with Stine, moved on to Stephen King, then graduate to the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Algernon Henry Blackwood, and Edgar Allan Poe.

Goosebumps the show took the logical approach of adapting Stine's books into an anthology series. The only connection between each episode being the iconic intro sequence with yellow-eyed dogs and a spooky theme which sounded like Tex Avery-esque creatures creeping through your house. The format allowed Stine's finesse for the concept to shine through. If King's an ideas man, then Stine was an ideas conveyor belt - churning out idea, after idea, after idea, with suspicious regularity.

This was a series about living masks which transform the wearer into monsters, evil dummies, theme-park running monsters (who are not Alton Towers executives); deep ones, giant bugs, demonic household sponges; mudmen, all-consuming monster blood, and evil garden gnomes. It's amazing how much variety Goosebumps' rogues gallery had to offer. An impressive array of monsters, nasties, and foes, who could all be defeated by ten-year-olds. Or could they?

Over twenty years later, it's easy to look back retrospectively at how wonky and lazy many of the special effects actually were - there was a Killer Potato for Christ's sake. That's Killer with a capital K for potassium. But for a children's TV show, Goosebumps was utterly ambitious; a show which had little on its agenda other than frightening kids like a dodgy uncle who constantly jingles the keys in his trouser pocket.

Though the show did keep proceedings relatively light - exemplified by titles such as 'Say Cheese and Die', or 'It Came From Under the Sink'. Unlike other anthology shows which tried to shoe-in themes and mortality tales, there were no larger themes at work in Goosebumps beyond ''Don't trust creepy (insert noun relating to an adult profession)'', or ''Stay out of the basement you nosy little shit''.   

It's surprising just how optimistic Goosebumps was compared to the average Horror anthology. I know it was a kids show but the ill-fated protagonists came out smelling of roses far too often. Except for that one episode with the human-looking aliens with scary faces in the back of their heads. That must suck: the human race was annihilated by aliens with more facial hair than ZZ Top.

Are You Afraid of the Dark?

"Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society..." (AYAOTD Intro)

Are You Afraid of the Dark was the hardcore older brother to Goosebumps. The brother who carries a knife around with him, has seen a dead body, and got laid when he was thirteen. Unlike Goosebumps AYAOTD wasn't directly based upon any existing works, and featured recurring elements and some form of continuity. It's the same horror for kids concept as Goosebumps, but dialled up to eleven.

Each episode would begin with The Midnight Society - The Breakfast Club kids for the MTV generation - gathered around a campfire and engaging in scary talk. One of then would 'present' a tale to the group, which would form the basis for rest of the episode. This was a great concept as it allowed the writers to naturally build up mythology without loading down the individual episodes. And knowing this same group of kids would sit around the campfire and share spooky tales every Saturday night created a sense of a excitement. Belonging even. We all had our favourite kid of the group. Mine was the smelly kid Stig.

The opening credits set the tone for AYAOTD perfectly; images of desolate nighttime playgrounds, lakes, attics, and a myriad of other creepy things, flicked by to a despondent instrumental track and haunting choir-style warbling. Compared to the comparatively upbeat Goosebumps intro, AYAOTD's intro let you know what was coming, and advised you to change into your spare pants. And that's not even too much of an exaggeration. Goosebumps had boundless imagination, but AYAOTD had truly nightmarish monster design and a genuine sense of threat.

In truth, AYAOTD felt closer to the likes of Tales From the Darkside, and lacked the focus on novelty monsters; unlike Goosebumps which had The Cuckoo Clock of Doom and a giant worm, amongst others. AYAOTD had be afraid of if you were a babysitter, new kid, bully, loser, or dead goth girl. Nosferatu, 100 different soul-stealing objects, a green David Carradine vampire, a water-decomposed zombie/ghoul; Zeebo the Clown, multi-dimensional beings, a murderous poltergeist, and a humanoid computer virus. That last one was fucked; it was the Nineties and computer viruses were unheard of by the common man. I genuinely feared if I used a computer some blue monster was going to come out of it and force a data transfer on me.

When it comes down to it, both shows should be respected as a landmark in children's television. And both are still fairly watchable on the proviso that you're willing to accept the Nineties' fashion, child acting, and cheap effects (though AYAOTD holds up better in that department). If I had to choose, then I'd say AYAOTD was the better show. It felt less like it was trying to simply scare children, and more as though it was treating them as mature individuals who could handle heavyweight themes such as abuse, grief, and dying kids. And then scared them senseless. AYAOTD even got an actual three-part special finale which relied heavily on feelings nostalgia and the sense of finally growing up and moving on.

Unless you're one of those kids who died in AYAOTD over the years. Like Tiny Tim, those kids are never growing up.

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