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Four kids from Curse of the Shadows, the latest arc of Are You Afraid of the Dark? study a letter together. Photo: Michael Courtney / Nickelodeon

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The new Are You Afraid of the Dark? gives kids their own American Horror Story

In the series’ latest revival, the horror is real, and everywhere

In the early ’90s, Are You Afraid of the Dark? was perhaps television’s cleverest way to scare children in ways they’d never forget. The title was worded like a dare as well as a premise. It felt like it was letting viewers in on a secret — the Midnight Society, where kids gather late at night to tell each other scary stories. Are You Afraid of the Dark? was smart low-budget television that understood how to scare kids but also thrill them, signaling the start of a ’90s kid-focused horror boom that later took off with R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps and Disney Channel’s annual Halloween releases, like Don’t Look Under the Bed and Halloweentown.

Times have changed, and so did the show: In 2019, Are You Afraid of the Dark returned to Nickelodeon more than 20 years after its original run concluded in 1996. (And 19 years after the end of a short-lived 1999 reboot.) The 2019 miniseries was three episodes long and took a page from American Horror Story, telling one continuous narrative that wrapped up by the end of the season. It was pretty neat, a story of a dark carnival (no, not that Dark Carnival, sorry) and missing kids. It didn’t entirely stick the landing, but it was excellent at setting a tone, somewhere halfway between Stranger Things and iCarly.

In the new six-episode season, Curse of the Shadows, the series starts over with a new cast in a new town. Shadow Bay — yes, that’s what it’s called — feels like a direct homage to Stephen King’s fictional Maine town of Castle Rock, a dreary coastal hamlet with plenty of secrets. The story begins with a mystery: Connor Stevens (Parker Queenan), a member of this season’s iteration of the Midnight Society, has gone missing, and Luke McCoy (Bryan Gheisar), this season’s protagonist, gets the gang together to find out what’s wrong. Among the problems: a cursed woods, and a creature called the Shadow Man, which looks kind of like the Wendigo from NBC’s Hannibal.

From the first episode, it all comes together in a sharp, clever way, as a horror mashup that’s pulling from dozens of sources and dropping them into a tween-friendly setting. There’s even an extremely good jump scare. But it’s also an interesting evolution of the central premise of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, continuing a slow drift away from the original that began with the 2019 miniseries, subtitled Carnival of Doom. Unlike the original series (though similar to the ’99 revival) these horror stories are real, and the kids are actually being haunted.

While there’s still a Midnight Society, Curse of the Shadows makes them more of a Scooby gang interested in supernatural happenings, although it’s implied that they still swap stories in normal times, when their friends aren’t missing. It also furthers an idea implied by cast changes in the original show and laid out more explicitly in Carnival of Doom: the Midnight Society isn’t just a tradition passed down from generation to generation, it’s one that can be held in any town, and is possibly in every town.

A good horror story for kids isn’t just about frights, it’s about magic. Part of being a kid is finding the world around you a little boring, and wishing for more. It’s being convinced that wonderful things are happening to other people all the time, and wishing they’d happen to you. Curse of the Shadows leans into this idea. Its cast is at the age where they’re starting to learn how dreary and troubled the world is: Hanna Romero (Beatrice Kitsos) is a zealous climate activist, Gabby Lewis (Malia Baker) has her first lousy part-time job as a waitress at a dockside restaurant, and they all live in a fishing town, so several of their parents have weather-dependent incomes. They’re worried about their missing friend, but they’re also looking for something more to the world around them — it’s no coincidence that their search takes them to a literal magic shop.

Three kids from Curse of the Shadows are lectured by the owner of Sardo’s magic shop. Photo: Michael Courtney / Nickelodeon

Not only is the horror real in Curse of the Shadows, it’s implied that the series is set in a world where every other scary story from the original series may have happened as well. There are winks and nods throughout the first episode — and likely more in the ones to come — that suggest a monster from the classic show might show up at any moment. Perhaps they’re just nods to the past, but uniting every past story into a new truth is an extremely Stephen King move, and maybe the best thing about this take on the show.

King famously, sets many of his stories in the same universe — the same fictional towns, like Castle Rock, appear over and over again, and his Dark Tower series of fantasy novels explicitly link a lot of his work in a metafictional ür-story. The majority of the King-iverse isn’t as orchestrated as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, however. It’s more a work of accumulation: small passages and strong ties that accrete over time. It means fictional places can feel like they have a real history, because they do: a history laid out in other stories, spread out over decades.

Are You Afraid of the Dark? Curse of the Shadows has that sense of history, and it’s amplified by the fact that this sort of programming feels like a rarity. Shows for tweens that aren’t quite ready for the CW, but not really into the Disney Channel’s schtick aren’t as prominent as they once were. The Midnight Society, in their search for Connor, are taking viewers along with them, welcoming them into a decades-long tradition where stories were swapped on TV, frightening children with stories of monsters like the Ghastly Grinner, but also suggesting that maybe there’s a little more to the world than there might seem. You can find it, if you’re brave enough when the lights go out.

New episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark? Curse of the Shadows premiere on Nickelodeon on Fridays.