It's October and you know what that means: time to revisit all your horror TV and movie favorites in the grand spirit of Halloween. And when talk of spooky preferences comes up at any random time or, say, a channel meeting, you may suddenly find yourself in a debate. Such was the scenario I, acclaimed [Ed. Note: self-proclaimed] Complex staff writer Frazier Tharpe, found myself in against Complex Pop Culture Editor Kerensa Cadenas when we were talking '90s kids TV. She gushed about Nickelodeon's SNICK classic Are You Afraid of the Dark? only to throw major shade when I said FOX's Goosebumps TV series was just as fire. Battle lines in the nostalgia sand were drawn. Which decades-old horror series for 13-year-olds is the most lit? Only Ryan Gosling is allowed to play both sides.
FT: Unlike several pieces of tween-targeted art that would emerge in the '90s and reveal itself to have worth outside of both its demo and its decade, Goosebumps coasts firmly on what I like to call Nostalgia Bias™. If I watch an episode today, are 97% of them more so hilariously cheesy than they are respectably scary on 9- to 13-year-old terms? Sure. But the cheese and dated feel just tugs at my heartstrings more. Goosebumps is one slide on the Kodak wheel of my childhood basically, to put this in Don Draper terms. For some reason, despite being an avid Nickelodeon watcher, the connection to Are You Afraid just isn't as strong. Goosebumps has so many familiar elements. The theme song. The narration. And a much stronger The One Where quality to its episodes on some Friends shit. What's so good about Are You Afraid, really???
KC: I will give you that I think Goosebumps does gain more traction on the Nostalgia Bias because it had a whole series of books behind it. And of course Are You Afraid is totally more cheesy in parts than scary, but I just think the whole concept of it is so much cooler than Goosebumps. It's so straightforward! Boring even!
Being a part of the Midnight Society and telling scary stories with your friends around a campfire, that seems so dope still. I think that the quality of the stories that they told on Are You Afraid of the Dark? are generally better. While some of course have aged poorly, of the episodes I recently watched, many actually held up much better than I expected. The dollhouse episode always sticks in my mind as one of the best episodes of the show, as does the old movie theater one, the prom date ghost story. Also, I think Are You Afraid skewed a bit older than Goosebumps did which makes it more palatable today.
FT: I will admit, I watch Goosebumps today and feel both sympathy towards the adult actors and also curiosity. (What, in their devotion to pursuing an acting career, led them to accept a role like Villain #2 in "A Night in Terror Tower" lmao?) Anyways, I respect Are You Afraid of the Dark? In terms of overall storytelling, execution, I respect its—mostly successful—goal to be a kind of Saturday morning Twilight Zone. But in terms of leaning straight into the absurdity and freedom of being a show for children, Goosebumps swung for the fences. These dudes did an episode about evil garden gnomes, and it's great. While Are You was telling spooky campfire tales, R.L. Stine was smoking God-knows-what and incidentally making avant-garde shit. For every indefensible goofy "Go Eat Worms" or "Be Careful What You Wish For," there's some shit like the aforementioned gnomes or the monster game reality show in the second part of "One Day at Horrorland." It's satirical genius by accident. Did Are You ever get super weird? Or did it just stay comfortably in its one lane? *Eye emoji*
KC: I'm going to quote yourself back to you: "satirical genius by accident." BY ACCIDENT. Every episode I watched of Goosebumps felt bland and done. Creepy possessed dummy, mummy coming to life, haunted auditorium conveniently sparked by a tween production of Phantom of the Opera. I'd say that the fire episodes were much fewer and farther between than you remember.
Are You did get super weird, "The Tale of the Pinball Wizard," where a kid who works in a mall ends up trapped in a life-size version of a pinball machine and even once he wins, he's still trapped in the game forever. "The Tale of a Dollmaker" basically traps some youths in a dollhouse that morphs them into porcelain dolls. It's creepy af. I mean, respect to the source material, but I think that hindered the Goosebumps series, along with the fact that it was on Fox. Do you feel like you have more affinity for it because you were a fan of the books?
FT: If I had to get into my childhood mindset, I'd say the books legitimized Goosebumps for me above Are You. It made me take that show more seriously, made it appointment television in a way Are You never was. Which in turn gave me the nostalgia hold that has me defending it today. But, c'mon... "Haunted Mask?" "Stay Out of the Basement?!?!" "Tower of Terror?" Goosebumps had hits. It just played to its audience a little too often... Its personal brand is always going to be stronger and for good reason. You don't see Hollywood scrambling to cannibalize Are You Afraid of the Dark? with a big-screen trash-on-arrival adaptation starring washed actor Jack Black, do you???
KC: Well, I think you've just made the comparison clear here—Goosebumps is your Hollywood schlock and Are You Afraid of the Dark? is the underappreciated indie. I'm fine with Hollywood steering clear of Are You Afraid because then it can stay pristine. Plus, I don't think Are You Afraid of the Dark? had the future fingerprints of Modern Family all over it, which speaks to its quality alone.
FT: *Frazier ejects*