“The Tale of Laughing in the Dark” is widely considered one of the scariest episodes of “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” ever made. That makes a lot of sense, because it contains almost every key element of scariness there is. Evil lurks in a lighthearted setting, the same thing that makes children singing nursery rhymes and giggling on an old, abandoned playground so damn creepy. It doesn’t belong there. It’s incongruous and wrong.
Aron Tager, the actor who stars in the recurring role of Dr. Vink, is pants-poopingly chilling in the role of the carnie/Zeebo’s ghost (incarnation No. 1 of 4). That partly explains why our blog’s logo features an outline of Zeebo the Clown’s head.
In this episode, the spirit of Zeebo the Clown appears in at least three different “bodies”: the clown dummy behind door No. 6 that we’re all familiar with, the entity that follows Josh home, the clown that appears behind the funhouse mirrors, and maybe even the carnie himself. Do you think the awful, awful, awful mirror clown is the same incarnation that showed up at Josh’s house and flambed Josh’s pasta? Or does Zeebo also exist as wisps of cigar smoke?
He appears from behind the mirror.
So, should you laugh at a clown dummy or pay it your solemn respects for fear that it will come to life and try to kill you—and laugh hysterically while doing so? My advice: If you’re in a spooky situation, have fun—it’s what Zeebo would have wanted—but don’t be an incessant dick or use it as an opportunity to flex your scrawny ginger machismo. Always assume you’re dealing with forces far bigger than you are.
“The Tale of Laughing in the Dark” can be summed up by the rhyme
Dr. Vink the cigar-smoking carnie recites to the kids as they enter the Spook House at the county fair:
Pick the right door, and you’ll go free.
Pick the wrong door, and there he’ll be.
That couplet still gets to me 20 years after hearing it for the first time. It’s a singsongy threat, and the consequences are so terrible that the rhyme doesn’t even try to articulate them. It’s a point of no return. All that matters is that he’ll be there, and that’s enough—anything that happens after that is almost excess.
Step right up, knock at the door of fate. Play a rigged game of chance. What will happen when the door creaks open? The two possible outcomes are wildly different. Will there be canned applause and laughter and a bouncy exit sign? A fun but forgettable memory of that time you went to that spooky carnival? Or will you meet him, and never be able to return to life as it was—if you return at all?
He’s in there, all right. Juuuuuuuust waiting.
When I mention AYAOTD (Because really what else is worth talking about?) people always say, “Oh remember the one with the pinball machine?” Hell yes I do! It is a classic and I’m going to review it!
Is he wearing Lacoste? Bored girl with bangs even sucks when at rest face.
The scene opens with David, uni-browed sex god, trying to get the “key” on a Game Boy. He looks crazed ya’ll! Annoying kid pushed the “reset” button. Frank grabs it out of his hand hot blond girl is all “Games are dumb!” Lezzie Kiki is all “No, games like softball and golf are awesome!” Then killjoy Gary grabs the Game Boy. Says some shit, and you can just smell the moral tale is a comin’ round the bend.
Ross is this tale’s protagonist. He is um, well he is dumb. He’s not the sharpest knife in the crayon box. He reminds me of every boy ever in middle school. He loves him some pinball and hangs around the mall, looking for quarters. Quarters were things that used to have value that you put into slots and then games happened. He even fights homeless women for quarters. Guess his parents don’t give him a $20, drop him off, and tell him to have a gay ol’ time. Memories, amiright?
Num-nums! Kinda a fashionable hoboken no?
He also likes to hang around a shop that sells…pottery? Really, the prop people just throw any ol’ thing to make this place to look shop-y. Mr. Olson, no relation to Mary-Kate or Ashley, owns this “shop.”
Like that guy isn’t going to come alive…
Ross spots a really cool pinball machine in the back. Old man Olson is like no touchy. It’s a collector’s item. Collector of what I ask you?!? Ya’ll this machine is looking busted.
Ross really wants a job at Paint a Pottery and convinces Mr. Olson to give him a trial run, but under no circumstances is he to fiddle with the pinball machine! Of course, Ross, whose nails are ridic long (coke addict say what) starts to play this game that has: zombies, witches and princesses! Which cliche doesn’t belong?
You know you are hot if you came of age in the early 90’s and…she just pretty ya’ll…
A pretty young thang named Sophie waltzes into the shop to pick-up her music box. Her music box? This is never addressed. Like it’s a normal thing for a not baby to have a throne shaped music box. Anywho, Ross fumbles about. She leaves empty handed. Ross goes back to playing the zombie-princess game.
He looses track of time and realizes that the mall is completely closed. Looting time! Oh, but then it rains quarters (the valuable thingies mentioned previously)! Ross takes it in stride and stuffs his acid-washed pantalonies.
Oh noes! Really well-dressed zombies (looking sharp dudes!) start surrounding him and are like “Watch me go,go, go. You silly broke hoes (potledom)!”. Zombies. Where have I seent those before? Suddenly, Sophie, in a fetching velvet blue frock, screams from above! A one-eyed dude is restraining her, but she still manages to drop a key and mumble something about a tiara. I want one too! Every lady needs a tiara.
This looks rapey in a screenshot. It was less scary on youtube.
Ross, maybe not so dumb, realizes zombies HATE water. Splash, splash, those zombies take a bath. Ross runs to the lockers in the mall. Because, who wouldn’t run up to something so weird? Lockers. In a mall. He opens a few and one locker is bulemic and pukes on him.
He finds the “tiara” aka Sophie’s hairband. I wonder what a scrunchie would turn into? Once he nabs that fabulous hair accessory the escalator starts up. (I have a fear of my hair or shoelace getting caught in an escalator. Thanks 20/20! This is why I’m bald and only wear velcro shoes.) Once on the second floor, his pocket full posies, I mean quarters, turn into marbles.
Sophie screams and lures him to that secret back room in malls you always see on t.v. shows. Sophie really needs to stop shrieking and stop being such a stereotypical princess (needs a man, tiara, music box, speed). Oh well, AYAOTD is not in a gender-bender mood today.
Some creepy witch cackles and blows her stank witch breath into Ross’s face, causing him to drop the tiara. Score for witchy woman!
Ross then finds Sophie all tied up with no place to go in Olson’s shop. Ross still no gets that it’s the pinball game. They grab that ridiculous throne music box and scoot as a goon with a mace (it’s a food group, ya’ll) tries to smash them. Goon grabs the music box. Music is important, even for the developmentally challenged!
Witchy appears and Ross uses marbles to trip her up, literally. One-eyed Jack grabs pretty Sophie and stows her away, as cyclops are known to do. Ross gets music box back. It actually turns into a real-ass throne.
Now here is some serious controversy. The throne starts moving really quickly, but you can see well, you can see someone pushing it. Was this purposeful? I am going with no because the goon pushing it pops out like, “Surprise!” and makes Ross go to the first level. AYAOTD needs to maximize it’s resources. It’s a recession ya’ll.
Blah, blah Ross smashes open a glass case holding some really obviously spray-painted Super Soakers.
He gets his ass back up to the third level, and just sprays the shit out of the villains. POOF! But then One-eyed Jack knocks the Soaker out of his hand. Bummer.
All seems lost until Ross surprises Jack with a mini-Soaker! Ross crowns Sophie, gets a lame cheek kiss, and is back on level one?!?
Ross looks up to find Mr. Olson looking down. Well, hello there. Mr. Olson informs him that he will be playing the game forever. Just then, a giant pinball starts rolling down the escalator. Ross says, “Uh-oh.” Truer words never spoken. The end.
It’s so twisted that no one wants the Game Boy at the end of the story. Go Gary! Intellect over brawn. Basically, the writer’s came up with this after their kids starting playing too many video games. Whatevs! This story is still so awesome. Ross did not deserve to play pinball for eternity. It would be even awesomer if he was stuck in Mortal Kombat! Or Mario Bros! I smell a sequel!!!
If you’re lucky, one day you’ll get old. Your brain will become a cold, dark labyrinth of confusion and loneliness, and you’ll never be able to find your way out. Every first kiss, every birth, the names of everyone you’ve ever loved will evaporate from your memory. That’s if you’re lucky. Keep that in mind as “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” again probes the most fragile recesses of the human heart in 20 minutes or less. Okay, let’s do this shit.
Some fat farty kid of no consequence wants to join the Society. His name is Stig, and he has a bag over his head so he won’t know the secret location of the Midnight Society’s storytelling circle. They had to upgrade from bandana blindfolds to burlap sacks for better coverage, and if wannabe members do peek, it makes the whole rifle execution part that much easier. Gary with blood and brains splattered on his glasses is nothin’ to fuck with.
But tonight is Kiki’s night to say 10 extra lines (tell a story). Look, I know books could be written on Kiki, but here’s my theory on her persona. She’s not fucking around. She obviously has other places to be, but she has chosen be here. She’s telling this story to these jackasses for the same reason women get breast implants: for herself.
So, for “The Tale of the Jagged Sign,” the viewer has to understand a pretty complicated concept to really get what’s going on. Kiki and Girl With Bangs tag team this one, since clearly explaining it is a two-person job. Symbols—no, Tucker, not cymbals—are pictures that mean shit or whatever. Listen very closely: Kiki, who has to be at least 15 in TV years, just found out from a book that ancient Egyptians used symbols to communicate. Girl With Bangs is practically Kegeling tampons out of her snatch with excitement to add, “Yeah! They drew pictures instead of letters!” I think I’ve heard about those…whore-o-graphics. Hearts, stars, horseshoes, wieners drawn on bathroom stalls pointing at glory holes. Okay, everyone is up to speed. Let us proceed.
Claudia is the hundredth character on the show to have to stay at some boring relative’s house in the country for summer vacation because her parents are biologists or whatever. Kiki narrates, “Spending a few weeks at her Aunt Yvonne’s house in the middle of nowhere wasn’t Claudia’s idea of an exciting time.” Actually, looking at the girl, that sounds exactly like Claudia’s idea of an exciting time.
It’s an old folks’ home. Hey, Claudia, “Everyone is dying to meet you.” GET IT.
Friendship at last!
Claudia wanders into one of the old people’s rooms and sees a music box. Music boxes have no other purpose than to be really creepy to your surviving family after you’re dead; I’m going to rig mine to start playing by itself at random. This close-up of these birds gives me pause. I’m premonitioning.
Okay, so remember how your brain is going to devolve into a dank prison when you’re old? This lady is proof of tha—AHHHH what is that hand?
Okay, it’s some old lady’s hand. This lady is Marjorie. She pets Claudia’s head and says she has pretty hair. She has dementia. It’s sad. She used to look a lot like Claudia when she was younger, maybe almost to the point where someone might mistake Claudia for Marjorie. Anyway, weird. Keep your claws to yourself, lady.
Claudia, for probably the first time in her life, is too cool for her current scene and finds some neighbor girl named Kate to commiserate with about their terrible lives full of boredom and old farts and getting their first periods blah blah. Time for a hike in the woods! Look at all the majesty.
Claudia, rebel that she is, takes a path away from the main trail, which freaks out Kate. She’s afraid of heights (I can tell from her acting) but whitebitch keeps climbing up the fucking rocks—and stumbles upon a creepy symbol (remember, a symbol is a picture that means something) painted on the summit. Kind of looks like…some kind of…bird. Where have we seen such a bird-type shape before? Hmmm. Hopefully Kiki will explain it to me. I love seeing that light in her eyes when she realizes she’s made an idea click in the mind of another person. So rewarding.
What the hell is thish wordsh?
And then a hot Amish ghost dude appears. So…scared…but…suspenders…look…nice on you. Whitebitch thinks he’s probably just some high-school steampunk dude with a staring problem, but then he proves his ghostitude my invisibly drawing that same creepy symbol in the dirt at the girls’ feet (I guess with his finger or with a ghost stick—a dead branch?). OMFG.
“Get on me.”
And then he pops up behind them and does the universal gesture for, “Come join me in the afterlife,” because ghosts can draw and move their hands and maybe whisper a single phrase over and over that’s too vague to be actually communicate anything effectively, but they can’t fucking talk. Anyway, he’s bangable, right? He would hold your hand and make you a mix tape if those existed before he got dead. Despite his otherwordly glow, Claudia still isn’t convinced he’s a ghost, but she and Kate both run back to the house.
And that’s where they find old lady Marjorie giving us further proof that she’s better off dead (so you won’t have to feel bad for her when she gets reunited with the steampunk ghost ((the love of her life she accidentally stood up the night they were supposed to run away together and who fell off that rock while he was waiting because he was painting that bird thing, the symbol of their love) and goes with him to the afterlife.) Yeah, spoiler alert. That’s what happens. But you already guessed that, right? It gives me such pompous glory.
So I will just wrap up this story with screen shots!
I see you seeing me.
Amish steampunk ghost turns his body into vapor (steam?), fogs up Claudia’s window and draws the symbol in the fog. Crazy. Shit.
“Don’t go back to the cliff, crazy bitch. Ghost + cliff = dead.”
“Does this thing matter to your old brain anymore?”
Oh snap. He’s back again, and Marjorie sees him this time, too. And then promptly forgets about it I guess, ‘cause she old.
Claudia goes back to the cliff, almost dies just like Amishghost. Kate conquers her fear of heights blah blah suspenseful filler. Bad form, Kiki.
Now the dude finally speaks. Use your words. “Why didn’t you come?” he asks not-Marjorie. “Some shit came up,” Kate explains. “Oh, okay. I’ll go get actual-Marjorie then,” ghost says.
Together at last! Time for third base.
The end. Truly a supernatural version of “The Notebook.” This episode was disappointing on a few levels, but as a whole it is successful at reminding us of something important: Life is sad, love is sad, and sadness is sad especially when a person is too out of it mentally to even realize why they’re so sad.
Submitted for your approval by Sarah
It’s hard to imagine a time when I was uninitiated—when, like Frank wearing a bandanna blindfold, I hadn’t yet laid eyes on the members of the
Breakfast Club Midnight Society or their secret clearing. Before this life-changing premiere of AYAOTD, Nickelodeon ran some promos for the show that seemed specifically designed to make 7-year-olds pee their Coolots with a mixture of fear and excitement. They had somehow convinced me that at 8:00/7:00 Central, a ghost would emerge from my television (which, by the way, was made of wood and had a fucking dial that you turned to change the channel). What actually occurred was just as good: “The Tale of the Phantom Cab.”
Frank has to audition to become a member of the Midnight Society, and his jean jacket has the sleeves cut off for better punching. Okay, so he’s aggressive, but it’s soon obvious he has what it takes to be a member—he can talk about supernatural things in the low, menacing voice that people use when they really care about fear. Okay, on to the tale.
Danny and Buzz were brothers. Danny was the cool older brother who did cool things like listen to speed metal and get toothy blow jobs underneath the bleachers at hockey games. Buzz was probably doomed to a life of soiling his sheets with urine and/or nocturnal emissions. Like many sibling pairs who would follow on this show, the older sibling is just relentlessly and irrationally mean to his younger sibling, but for some reason they’re taking a hike through the woods together—and shit soon gets crazy when Buzz announces that the compass is “whacked.” They’re lost.
How do I describe Buzz’s acting? He talks like he’s simultaneously drunk and on Ritalin. This kid’s stage parents had obviously just released him from his harness.
It gets dark and they’re still lost. Flynn, a conspicuously pale man, emerges from an absurd cloud of fog like a member of KISS and leads them to Dr. Vink’s cottage. So, they’re at the cott—wait, did I just hear someone say, “Dr. Fink?” You fucking bitches, I will jar your hands like nobody’s business—so they’re at the cottage, and Dr. Vink says he’ll help them get home if they solve this riddle:
What is it that has no weight, can be seen by the naked eye, and if you put it in the barrel, it would make the barrel lighter?
Cut to the Midnight Society around the campfire. Actual dialogue:
Smug prepubescent male: “Wait a minute, wait a minute, no fair. You can’t put a riddle in a story that can’t be solved.”
Girl With Bangs: “Maybe it can.”
Kiki, clearly just joining the conversation: “Sounds like one of those riddles you can’t solve.” Thank you, Kiki, for aggressively restating that sentiment while wearing a backwards hat.
Back to Buzz and Danny:
They can’t solve the riddle despite Danny’s use of scientist finger, so Dr. Vink is all, “Get the fuck out or I’ll chop off your body parts.”
Buzz and Danny “beat feet back into the woods,” according to Frank, and they soon come upon a cab driving through the forest. As Buzz needlessly points out in the most annoying voice possible, “It’s a taxi cab!”
Aside: Remember when I said older siblings on this show irrationally hate their younger siblings? I take it back about Danny. For all of Danny’s threats to “smack” and “pound” his little brother, he barely ever touches Buzz, and that’s really too bad. Buzz needs to be pounded. He needs to be towel-whipped in the locker room. He needs to have his trumpet thrown into a canal after band practice.
Okay, so they get in the cab, and who should be in the driver’s seat but Flynn? Turns out Flynn couldn’t figure out how to invisibly make a barrel lighter, either, and Dr. Vink chopped off his hand (although it looks more like Dr. Vink sentenced him to an eternity of not being able to get his fist out of his sleeve). No more ten-and-two driving for Flynn. Somehow, in addition to the hand-chopping, Flynn for some reason got into an accident that same fateful night with his cab and, in his words:
Scary, right? I mean, his head is on backwards. (Now he has a backwards hat like Kiki.) Buzz and Danny shit their pants and have a finally-facing-my-fate scream that recalls this one from “Troll 2.” Compare:
As if their day couldn’t get any worse, it turns out they have to solve that goddamned barrel riddle and break the spell before Flynn repeats his “doozy” of a crash and makes them all explode. Dios mio.
Buzz struggles to figure out the answer as the cab careens through the woods like only a car on a Canadian television show with no special effects budget can: in fast forward. After a while, Buzz realizes, “Waait a second, there’s a trick here.” So basically he finally understands that he’s answering a riddle and not a simple question.
His finger gets another boner, but this time Buzz actually puts out. He knows the answer! He figured it out! He’s broken the curse! He’s…REPEATING THE ENTIRE RIDDLE OVER AGAIN LIKE THIS IS A GODDAMNED SPELLING BEE AS THEY BARREL TOWARD DEATH.
Ladies and gentlemen and bushes ghosts and severed body parts, it’s a hole—a hole in the barrel. A hole. A hole.
And boom, the cab disappears. Flynn goes to cabbie heaven, and hopefully the spirit of his pickled hand comes with him. Danny and Buzz are spat out onto the ground. The brothers are having a celebratory no-homo moment when a Jeep pulls up. It’s a park ranger who’s been searching for them. They’re saved.
Then they both grab the Jeep’s roll bar and swing into the back like it’s something they do on the daily. Everyone in the ’90s was just hopping into Jeeps all the time.
The story ends sadly, as Buzz never got the beating that a nerd of his caliber deserved. But they both survived. Whatever. Frank got a unanimous vote. Good job, Frank.
Submitted for your approval by Sarah