What Made it So Scary? Are You Afraid of the Dark’s Title Sequence
Mention Are You Afraid of the Dark? to any 90’s kid and hear memories forever engraved in their minds of creepy clowns, the closet in the basement, and humans turned in dolls. Above all, no terror compared to the opening title sequence.
Are you Afraid of the Dark was a Canadian produced TV anthology series that aired for seven seasons between 1992-2000 in the United States. Each episode centered around a group of teenage friends coined “The Midnight Society”, who met at a secret location around a campfire within the woods, and took turns telling scary stories.
Growing up, Are You Afraid of the Dark? was one of my favorite series, and although I did not realize it at the time, a major influence and contributor to becoming a filmmaker. Now as adults, both myself and filmmaker Tom Peeler revisit the introduction sequence to break it down piece by piece, and determine what made it so scary.
Like the show itself, no conversation about Are You Afraid of The Dark? can begin without first getting through the show’s iconic opening. Millenials everywhere hold this introduction in a sense of reverent yet terrified awe. This distinction isn’t unearned though, as the show’s creators have managed to create an unsettling yet enticing draw to the world of their show in the brief 30 seconds that this spooky piece plays out.
Dark, cool colors and dutch angles capture seemingly innocent sights: a docked boat, a swing set, shutters flapping in the rain. The images themselves would seem a bit boring if not for the eery score and the careful choice of sound effects. Because in this world, it’s not what we ARE seeing that bothers us, it’s what we’re NOT seeing, and the feelings that distinction stir up through the use of both sight and sound. The ghostly laughter of children punctuates the shots of an abandoned playground. Mysterious footsteps take us up to a cluttered attic. Where exactly are we? Who once inhabited this world? Where did they go and, most importantly, are we (the audience) alone in exploring this barren world? The images don’t leave us time to answer these riddles, instead rushing us through more and more disturbing imagery. The pace keeps us stuck in this dark world, and it only adds to the sense of unease.
All of this comes to a head in the opening’s final reveal. A shining ray of light, an almost alien sight in this blue wasteland, brusts through the keyhole of a door. The camera takes us through, and reveals the episodes title over a lone, timid flame atop a matchstick. This singular source of light and warmth is quickly diminished, and with it, we are delved into complete darkness. In the world of AYAOTD’s opening, light and warmth are helpless against darkness and gloom. With that in mind, we’re taken into the episode of the week with the atmosphere expertly established, ready to see what horrors await to rattle us further…
The term punctum exists within photography, and refers to a connection within the imagery that speaks and resonates with the viewer. This is present with places I’ve experienced, and holds true with momento mori as I age. It’s taking a familiar area I played as a child, and flipping it upside down. It’s reinstating timeless horrors and expanding the a child’s over imagination.
Film in it’s simplest of forms is the combination of two items, picture and sound. To determine the impact of each in the opening sequence, I viewed the intro the following ways: visuals only, audio only, and both visuals and audio. With visuals only and with audio only, the intro held up well, but with visuals and audio combined, the experience intensified. This tells me that the intro montage is structured around the impact of each. Let’s take a look at the individual shots and determine what impact each adds.
Each shot (all 7 of them) take place in an atmospheric environment and with synthetic lighting. They also take place at a time of day not associated with the environment (a time we often do not visit said places). A swing set in a park does not resonate as scary during the day because it is set in an environment we often experience and associate with it: a sunny late afternoon, a cool breeze, and the movement and sound children playing. Enter the uncanny; enter night. The use of night turns this familiar into unfamiliar. Long heavy shadows stretch across the frame as a single swing sways without the presence of people. The tinted blue frame resonates an unsettling and sad tone. The sound of laughter and play is replaced with the squeak of chains, and an impending storm hinted by the rustling of wind through leaves.
Breaking each shot down further, each have one or two specific subjects, one or two specific movements of objects, a sound effect for each, and one of the four natural elements. Here’s the breakdown:
The combination of each of these elements together is what makes the introduction frightening. The clever use of both visuals, sounds, and punctum resonate deep inside of us, and are what make Are You Afraid of the Dark a perfect example of a successful scary introduction.