In the early nineties, D.J. MacHale and Ned Kandel pitched Nickelodeon on a supernatural anthology television series called Are You Afraid of the Dark? Each episode began with teens sitting around a campfire, telling spooky stories. The project was shot in Quebec with a Canadian crew via its Montreal-based production partner Cinar. With its premiere on Nickelodeon on Halloween night in 1991, MacHale was worried the show wouldn’t take off, since every child would be out trick-or-treating during its broadcast. But repeat airings proved successful and Nickelodeon green-lit the first season the following year. (In Canada, Dark? aired on Family Channel and then YTV.) The show quickly became essential viewing, introducing a generation of millennials to what was essentially Twilight Zone Jr. As the series approaches its 25th anniversary, The Globe and Mail presents an oral history:
Ross Hull (actor): I was nervous because this was one of my first major roles on a television show, but D.J. made me feel more comfortable on set. He was able to explain the creative ideas he was after, in a way that we understood.
D.J. MacHale (co-creator): Nickelodeon said, “No, you can’t scare little kids.” A year later, a new development person was hired and looked at our pitch and asked why we weren’t doing the show. The idea of doing “horror lite,” which is what Dark? is – people can’t get their minds around it. Nickelodeon said the show was great but they couldn’t pay for the whole thing. So we found Cinar.
Steve Kullback (visual effects supervisor): I’d worked with D.J. in corporate film and television and I knew he was in the process of going Hollywood. Every time we talked, I asked, “Is there a place for me?” While I didn’t have any experience in visual effects, I thought it was up my alley. So I went to Montreal for the second season. It gave me an opportunity to branch out.
MacHale: Nickelodeon said to base the tales on classic literature so that if parents came back to us saying, “You’re warping our children!” then Nickelodeon could claim it’s based on classic lit: Daphne du Maurier, Edgar Allan Poe. But never did we have any complaints along those lines. We knew what the limit was. You’re not going to show blood, violence or depravity. You’re going to show, “Oh my God! What’s behind that door?!” We were doing Hitchcock 101.
Elisha Cuthbert (actor): It was interesting for me and everyone in the Midnight Society because we would shoot all of our scenes back to back in two weeks, and then we wouldn’t do it again until the following year. It was like an actors’ camp for kids.
Daniel DeSanto (actor): I came on third season and I was so excited for the magic dust used in the fire. But it’s just a bag of CoffeeMate and glitter. The fire was a pyrotechnic trick. But then my disappointment turned into horror when I saw the props manager who flipped the switch for the fire. He was so creepy and he would talk to himself.
Hull: I was more terrified of not being scary enough when I introduced one of my character’s stories or a line falling flat. D.J. would direct us in a way that allowed us to get in that “scary zone.” He would lower his voice and speak to us as if he himself was another member of the Midnight Society. It was creepy, in a good way.
Ray Fabi (composer): Every time [I scored an episode] it was like opening a Jack in the Box. What is this episode going to be like? One episode the theme would be more heartfelt, another would be mysterious, another would be gory. It was like scoring a movie every week.
Kullback: I’d read an episode script like The Tale of the Headless Horseman: A boy is chased across a bridge and the man and horse burst into flame and explode. I’m thinking, “How the hell am I going to do that?” This was at a time when video-editing capabilities were quite limited. [Our equipment was] sophisticated for its day but compared with today’s tools and resources it was very much an old truck. But I’ve long been a believer that it’s not the truck that’s important, but who’s driving it. So myself and Denis Mondion, a mad scientist artistic genius, we’d break it down like a puzzle. One of the shots [I worked on] in the last season of Game of Thrones has a horse running through a scene on fire, and what we did there was not wildly dissimilar.
Paul Doyle (story editor): I remember working very late one night, bleary-eyed, cutting a scene from a graveyard. The camera creeps among the tombstones with a rolling fog and comes to rest on a tombstone reading, “Here Lies Blind Paul.” I burst out laughing and the assistant editor came running in to see what was the matter. To this day D.J. denies that he was commenting on my editing.
MacHale: There was this arboretum near Montreal where we shot episodes set in the deep, dark woods. It was a natural habitat and had all sorts of restrictions in order to shoot there. You couldn’t use any insecticides to kill the mosquitoes, which swarmed that place like a freaking horror movie. The crew would have these beekeeper outfits and gloves because it was just so vicious. I remember [actress] Mia Kirshner doing a soliloquy, playing this possessed girl, and this mosquito landed on her nose and she tried so hard to stay in character, and then, “I can’t take this any more!”
Hull: Dark? paved the way for me to continue not only in acting but my transition into journalism and meteorology [for Global News]. A couple of years ago I was in New York City for the book launch of Slimed by Mathew Klickstein – a book that describes what he calls the “golden age” of Nickelodeon – [and] I was shocked at the number of fans who travelled from all over the U.S. to be [there]. I was inspired by how the show had affected their lives in a positive way, despite it scaring the crap out of them. That’s what fuelled the creation of my YouTube channel, Guy From That Show.
Kullback: I learned an enormous amount [on Dark?]. I learned trial by fire, and working in a very guerrilla low-budget fashion.
MacHale: [On the possibility of a reboot.] Nothing’s impossible. It could happen, but it would take some doing. Plus, one of the reasons I got out of kids’ TV and started writing books was that American broadcasters like Nickelodeon and Disney, they’re not writing dramas any more, they only do comedies. There’s been nothing like Are You Afraid of the Dark? on the air since.