So here it is, the very first episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark. And unfortunately, it’s not the best way to kick off the series.
We start with a ridiculously over dramatic overview of the Midnight Society and what their whole deal is. Their leader is Gary (who I remember eerily well from that show Ready or Not, which holy shit they need to release Ready or Not on DVD) and he and five others gather around a campfire every now and then and tell scary stories. These kids look way too young to be out and about at midnight, so I’ll just assume it’s more about having a cool name since the 8:30 PM Society doesn’t sound nearly as badass. The idea is that these are six people who don’t really hang out, don’t have the same friends and don’t go to the same schools, and yet somehow found each other to form this group. This is before the Internet so I would be really curious to know how they got together. I can’t accept that people would respond to an ad on a telephone pole reading “come to the woods tonight so I can tell you some ghost stories. It will be awesome I swear.” So that’s the core concept of the show, kids sitting around and telling each other stories that would be in no way scary if you were actually there listening to someone tell them. Thankfully we get visuals that they don’t so its way better.
Also while the voiceover is happening, the characters all give “intense” looks to the camera which really just makes them look confused and maybe tired.
We also find out how they introduce new members to the society. The potential candidate is brought to the site by blindfold (seriously how hard could this place really be to find) and after they tell their story, the group votes and it has to be unanimous for the person to get in. These guys are so fucking belligerent about the whole thing, you’d think this Frank guy was trying to get into the Stonecutters or the group that actually exists outside of The Simpsons. The Freemasons maybe? I’d look it up but eh. So anyway, Frank is going to tell us the tale of the phantom cab.
Two brothers who can’t act, Denny and Buzz, are hiking in the woods for reasons that aren’t really explained. They didn’t get separated from a class trip, which is the standard for why people are lost while hiking in these sorts of shows. The older brother doesn’t have supplies so it clearly wasn’t meant to be a long trip. They also seem to hate each other so I’m really not sure what the events leading up to “let’s get out there in them woods” were. Unfortunately they never made a prequel to this episode so all we can do is speculate.
Did I mention these guys are terrible actors? Ok the older brother is passable, barely, but holy shit, this Buzz kid could not sound more stilted. This is your first episode guys, you need to set some standards! The acting is actually quite good in other episodes, what happened here? Maybe it was limited production time, no faith in the project, perhaps nobody realized how bad he was until the cameras were rolling and by then it was too late, who knows. But after this kid speaks, you immediately want to turn the episode off.
So they get lost, they wander around, Buzz almost falls off a cliff side, they fight, they try and read a compass, you know, hiking shit.
Night falls and eventually they encounter this guy Flynn, who they seem to inherently trust even though he’s a creepy guy in the woods who speaks in cryptic bullshit, like answering the question “you lost too?” with “you might say that”. Maybe horror movies have trained me too well but as soon as I hear that shit I just assume ghost so there’s no way I’m going anywhere with this guy. If you’re a creepy guy in the woods asking me to follow you, you best give me some straight forward answers to my questions! No Yoda talk!
So Flynn takes them to this creepy isolated cabin that looks like something from the Shire. Then he says more cryptic shit about “paying the price”, before cackling and disappearing. Would you seriously follow the instructions of a man who did that?! But it wouldn’t be much of an episode if they decided to ignore him and then froze to death in the woods (actually that would have made the episode amazing now that I think back), so in they go!
Inside they meet Dr. Vink, who we will be seeing a lot of throughout the course of this series. His whole shtick is that people call him Fink and then he corrects them. Seriously, he does this every single time he appears on the show, and he appears a whole lot. So Vink, who makes it immediately clear that he is out of his god damn mind, tells them that he will only help them if they answer riddles. They get the first one (How far can you walk into the woods? I ain’t telling you the answer!) but he still says they can’t call their parents until they solve another one. This still sits ok with these kids so they hang around. They don’t get the riddle (What is weightless, can be seen by the naked eye, and if you put it in a barrel, it will make the barrel lighter) so he tells them to piss off and that a cab will pick them up down the way. Either that or Buzz can give Vink his brain. Well I assume he means brain, he holds up a hand in a jar as the example of what he wants but he’s talking about Buzz being intelligent so who knows. Finally these guys realize some shit is way off so they bolt. They do still decide to go and try to get in the aforementioned taxi cab however.
The cab is driven by Flynn who, surprise, is way a ghost! Turns out 40 years ago he also couldn’t solve Vink’s riddle so Vink took his hand and then I guess Flynn died so now he has to drive a cab forever until someone solves the riddle and whoever doesn’t also gets killed in his cab? I don’t know man, the afterlife is weird.
Then we get to watch some of the most stilted acting a human being has ever produced as Buzz works his way through the riddle. Seriously, this kid makes Hayden Christiensen look charismatic. In fact, I think I need to provide you with a video. Check this out, skip to around the 5:00 minute mark or so and just watch -http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ydx8bRC7Td4
How painful must that have been to watch as a director?! And to know that you really have no choice but to use it in the final product. Wow that must sting. My favourite part is that once he sorts out the solution, he doesn’t just blurt it out as fast as he can since, you know, their lives are in dire jeopardy and all. No instead, he makes sure to go through the entire riddle again, piece by piece, so that we understand his exact thought process. We get it, you’re smart, save our lives and say the fucking answer! I think a fantastic twist ending would have been to have him halfway through reciting the riddle and SMASH, they go right into a tree. Then they’re stuck driving the cab as ghosts and all they do is spend eternity bickering about why Buzz didn’t get over himself and say the goddamn answer right away.
Alas they chose not to go the amazing route and instead have him say the correct answer and save the day. Then a ranger pulls up and everyone is saved. The End!
Now, watching that story unfold with actors and presentation is certainly not very exciting at all, so I can’t even imagine how boring it must have been to be sitting at a campfire and listening to someone just tell the story with only words. “And then Vink held up a hand in a jar and it was so spooky you guys! It was the spookiest thing I swear!” Sadly I think that’s how most AYAOTD (that acronym took me longer to piece together than if I had just typed out the whole title, especially now that I’m adding in this extra bit) would play out if you were to just hear someone telling the story with no visuals. That might actually be a fun show to make. However, Frank must be a masterful storyteller because they all decide the story was in fact scary enough to let him into the group! Either that or they have crazy low standards. Or they think Frank could beat up anyone who made fun of them so he’s a good guy to have around. Either way, he’s in.
And that concludes The Tale of the Phantom Cab, the debut episode of the show. It’s a weak beginning, no doubt about that. The story itself isn’t at all scary, it’s a little slow, and the acting is pretty atrocious. Things do get better from here, but if you are looking to revisit this series, or watch it for the very first time, just know you’ll have to get through this sort of thing before it starts to get good.