I can draw a straight line that connects my childhood love of lite horror to my adult love of all things blood-curdling. I’m about to reveal my age here, but the 1990s and early 2000s were rife with shows that taught a generation of kids to respect the imagination of the uncanny. These shows didn’t (for obvious reasons) rely on blood and guts to get its scares. Instead, they relied on childhood fears, creative monster designs, and dreamlike narratives to achieve its goals.
Not that there’s anything wrong with splatter. I’m as much a fan of slashers as I am of the Halloween-themed episodes of retro cartoons.
But sometimes you’re not in the mood to watch the gaggle of camp counselors gutted with a weathered machete. Sometimes you don’t want to see the man’s head crushed to pulp with an iron bear trap. Sometimes you want the spooky vibes and not the human entrails that so often seem to come with them.
So now, on the brink of Halloween, I’m highlighting a trio of my favorite nostalgic frights. Read on at your own risk. After all, what’s scarier than getting older?
Goosebumps – “The Haunted Mask”
Available on Netflix
There are few things that can ruin my day like hearing the Goosebumps theme song.
This happens more often than you might think. Every few months, in fact, because I seek it out. I play the ghoulish bop and wallow in nostalgia, as it’s both a comforting sensation and an eerie one. The song’s effect can last for hours. The show’s introduction is perhaps more iconic, with its early CGI shadows and dogs with glowing eyes. But each time I hear those fluttering piano keys, I spiral right back into childhood. I’m struck with mental images of my favorite episode. The first episode of the series entitled, “The Haunted Mask.”
This is not a deep cut. I realize that. But if you’re only going to watch a single episode of Goosebumps, this is the one to watch.
“The Haunted Mask” is set the day before Halloween. It follows the mild-mannered Carly Beth, an 11-year-old whose timid nature has made her the target of two schoolyard bullies. These clowns pick on Carly, going so far as to put a live worm in her in her sandwich. After leaving school in tears, determined to no longer be the butt of everyone’s jokes, she vows to get revenge. Luckily for her, a mysterious novelty shop has appeared on the edge of town. A decrepit-looking store, perfect for finding terrifying trinkets and ghastly costumes. Here she finds a slimy, grotesque monster mask and, against the warnings of the shopkeeper, Carly Beth takes the mask and begins hatching her plan.
You don’t need me to tell you that some wild shit goes down—it’s Goosebumps—but once Carly Beth realizes the mask is fused to her face, shit goes down. Over the course of Halloween night, she becomes more aggressive, her voice now raspy and mean. She makes a clay mold of her actual head and fixes it on the end of a pike. She slowly realizes that her mask, like the others in the novelty shop, are haunted.
This episode has stuck with me for over two decades because of two things: my primal fear of being trapped inside a rubber mask and a visual effect so disturbing its afterimage shows up in my nightmares. While I’ve always loved Halloween, I’ve never been a huge fan of wearing masks or costumes. It was always unpleasant, the way a little moisture could turn a silicone mask or a coat of face paint into melting suffocation. Even now, watching Carly Beth struggle to rip off her haunted mask triggers the claustrophobia I often forget I have. As for The visual effect, let’s say it speaks for itself. (Spoilers).
Are You Afraid of the Dark – “The Tale of the Midnight Madness”
Available on Paramount+
Let me get this out of the way. I’m not here to compare ’90s children’s horror shows. The rivalry between Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark is a well-documented one. Even if Goosebumps remains the more vivid of the two in my mind, I respect the visions for both franchises. Pitting these shows against one another isn’t exactly fair, either, as Goosebumps targeted a far younger audience. Each show utilized the “twist ending” to varying degrees of success but Are You Afraid of the Dark’s endings were always significantly bleaker, meaner. Plus, the framing device of the “Midnight Society,” a group of pre-teens that meet in the woods and recite scary stories, was a strong episodic hook.
“The Tale of the Midnight Madness” is set at The Rialto, a run-down movie theater that hosts a nightly series of classic horror films. Unfortunately, the theater is struggling to make ends meet, raking in a whopping six bucks during their latest show.
Enter Dr. Vink, madcap villain, and one of Are You Afraid’s few recurring characters. In this episode, nutty Dr. Vink is a filmmaker who’s come up with an offer, a way to inject some life (and money) into The Rialto—play one of his films. The movie, it turns out, is none other than the 1922 silent vampire classic Nosferatu. The crowd goes bananas. They love it. Business is booming.
What happens next, and why this episode lingers in the memories of so many, is a sequence where Nosferatu walks out of the theater screen and into The Rialto itself. It’s a neat little effect, but the award here goes to the prosthetic and make-up department. Are You Afraid’s take on the blood-sucking legend is a fantastic one. The long, rotten fangs and unnaturally sunken eyes makes Nosferatu’s appearance in the episode a rather chilling one. At least a bit more chilling than his next appearance on the Nickelodeon network.
Courage the Cowardly Dog – “Courage in the Big Stinkin’ City”
Available on HBO MAX
In a way, Cartoon Network’s Courage the Cowardly Dog might be the most disturbing show on this list. It’s a show that handled intense subject matter. Depression, anxiety, abandonment, even death all made appearances throughout the show’s lifespan. These themes, combined with the show’s radioactive color palette, the isolation of its setting, and the cruelty of its cast of characters, give it a uniquely spooky quality.
The episode I return to most often is called “Courage in the Big Stinkin’ City.” This was a bit of an outlier among standard Courage stories. Instead of taking place in the “middle of nowhere” the episode follows Courage, Muriel, and Eustace into New York City. Here, they meet a sketchy cockroach named Schwick. The roach dupes them, posing as a stagehand for Muriel’s upcoming performance at Radio City Music Hall, and keeps them captive in a skid-row apartment and forces Courage to deliver a mysterious package for him.
It’s one of the darker episodes, as it implies that Schwick has kidnapped, blackmailed, and even disposed of many other visitors to “the big city.” There’s grime and dread in abundance, but the most memorable moment comes when Courage is tasked with delivering Schwick’s dangerous parcel. In this dilapidated apartment complex, each door Courage tries is scarier than the last. Overall, it’s a show that suggests, through a dog’s eyes, the world is a terrifying place. Well, through anyone’s eyes, really.
Recommended Cocktail: The easy answer here would be green Jell-O shots for Goosebumps and a glass of red wine for Are You Afraid of the Dark. However, if you’d rather join me in my nostalgia-fueled pity-party—we’re drinking Negroni’s. That’s 1 ½oz of gin, 1oz of sweet vermouth, and 1oz of Campari. Stir over ice, strain into a rocks glass, and garnish with an orange twist. Because what better to sip while plummeting into the past, than something bittersweet?
Alex Tronson is a writer living in New Orleans. His work has been published in Barstow & Grand, Misery Tourism, Expat Press and Hobart.