I’m a big fan of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, the horror/fantasy TV series that ran on Nickelodeon back in the ’90s and early 2000s (if you’re unfamiliar, think Tales From The Crypt Jr., or The Twilight Zone for kids). The show wasn’t my first introduction to horror, but it definitely helped fuel my then-burgeoning interest in the genre. Seen by millions over the last few decades, Are You Afraid of the Dark? is likely the first fright for more than a few writers pounding out spooky fiction today. So, I couldn’t help but wonder, what would it be like to interview the brain behind the show, an architect of First Frights himself, and find out what, in turn, inspired him.
D.J. MacHale is a writer, director, and producer. He is the author of two popular young adult book series, “Pendragon” and “Morpheus Road,” but is probably best known to horror fans as the co-creator of Are You Afraid of the Dark? Before he terrified millions of Gen-Xers with the likes of Zeebo the Clown, the Frozen Ghost and the Ghastly Grinner, MacHale was just another kid from Connecticut with a spooky children’s book.
(Interview conducted by John Brhel)
CEMETERY DANCE ONLINE: What was your “first fright?”
D.J. MACHALE: My mother read to me all the time. And there were two stories—two very different stories—that I remember distinctly. And one, believe it or not, was a Dr. Seuss story called “What Was I Scared Of?” It was part of the book The Sneetches and Other Stories. There were actually four different stories in this book, and the last one was “What Was I Scared Of?” It was about a little character that was being haunted by a pair of pale green pants with no one inside them. He would be walking down the street and he’d see in the distance this pair of pants, just floating. And it freaked him out. And he’d run away, and no matter where he went he would be afraid that whenever he’d turn the corner, there those pants would be. And they always were. And that concept, that image of those pants, freaked me out when I was a kid. Not enough to terrify me, but enough to go, “This is really weird.” In the end, they kind of come together and it turns out the pants were afraid of him, so they got to be friends.
But it was never explained; there’s no rationale behind it. But I always remember that feeling of mystery. And that’s the thing that I like about scary stories most. One of the reasons why I’m a fan of spooky stories and ghost stories is because they’re always mysteries. Because it’s always about a ghost and the ghost wants something. And whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, the ghost wants something. And the mystery is the main character trying to figure out what that ghost wants. And it’s not necessarily about getting heads chopped off or dying in gruesome ways or things like that, it’s putting the clues together of what it really means.
I’d go so far as to say that the title Are You Afraid of the Dark? is a derivation of that title. The original title we had for the show was Scary Tales. And Nickelodeon said, “We like the show, but the title is too bland. We need a Nickelodeon-type title.” At the time they had shows like Clarissa Explains It All and You Can’t Do That on Television—long, weird titles. I went back to that story and said, “‘What Was I Scared Of?’ That’s a good title.”
Knowing that this was something that scared you, what made it interesting to you? Why would you want to bring more of that on yourself?
It’s the same for everyone. What is it that’s attractive about being scared? Obviously, there are certain levels of being scared, no matter how old or how sophisticated you are. When you’re really young, it’s pretty low-threshold.
I like to play along. I like to try to figure out what’s going on. And with any kind of supernatural story, there’s always a mystery involved. But then the stakes are raised because it’s not just a mystery about who stole the coffee cup—it gets into the land of imagination, too. You can start using your imagination and say, “Wow, the rules of science and nature don’t apply here,” and that’s appealing to me.
The same thing kept popping up on this little creature and the creature was scared. So in reading it, I’m thinking, “What could this possibly mean? What could it want? Why are these pants floating there?” Which is exactly what the main character is thinking, too. So there’s tension, there’s a mystery and then there’s that element of “That’s weird. It’s a pair of floating pants.” The conflict gets resolved, but not the explanation for why there’s a pair of pale green pants with no one inside them walking around.
Did you read the story to your daughter?
Of course, I read it to my daughter and she loved it. I immediately tried to immerse my daughter in my childhood—which meant I got all of the books I loved as a kid—and quickly found out that not all of them are that good. Dr. Seuss still holds up.
Based on your work, it seems that you prefer stories that take place beyond the bounds of the real world? Why is that?
I don’t know why that is. I write science fiction. I write supernatural. I write fantasy. But I think I do that for a couple of reasons. It just comes out. All of the stuff that I’ve written, produced, or directed, there’s a common theme. Every year on Are You Afraid of the Dark?, people would pitch me ideas for different episodes. I’d ask, “What’s the story?” and they’d tell me, “I have a story about a haunted golf ball.” And I’d say, “But who are the kids?” They’d say “Who cares?” I want a story about a couple of kids who are going through some sort of conflict in that real life that would be interesting to watch even if they never came across something supernatural. Then when we care about the characters and want to know what’s going to happen to them, then you give them the haunted golf ball, then you’re totally with them.
I think that in all my stories—whether it’s TV or books or movies, whatever—there’s always some sort of real-world conflict that you can relate to. Then you layer on the fun stuff. I like stories about real people that you can either see yourself in or see your friend or feel whatever conflict they’re going through and then—holy shit—they have a haunted golf ball.
Do you think that “What Was I Scared Of?” influenced you in any way as a writer?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Because as simple as that story was, it set the premise of “spooky mystery.” And how much it affected me and how much it scared me, I kept wanting to turn the page and find out what’s going on. I think it probably just clicked something in my brain. Not only was I then drawn to reading and watching more of those things, but that actually ultimately influenced the stuff that I wrote. I can’t say that there was a direct line from “What Was I Scared Of?” to Are You Afraid of the Dark? But “What Was I Scared Of?” was probably the first story like that that I ever heard or read, so it stands to reason that was probably the first one that put me on the path.