Love Means Being A Little Scary: Children's TV And The Horrors Of Romance
Children's television isn't known for being particularly romantic, but the '90s horror series 'Are You Afraid of the Dark?' was open to looking at the horrors of love.
On March 26th, 1994, Are You Afraid of the Dark? aired the now iconic episode, "The Tale of the Dream Girl." The episode is simplistic in its premise ⏤ that of a teenage boy meeting a mysterious "girl of his dreams" who is later revealed to be a ghost. The storyteller of this episode, Sam (Joanna Garcia), asserts an interesting point during her introduction to the tale: "Who says love isn't scary?" She later elaborates love is what "some people live for... and it's what some people die for." Heavy topics for children's television have always proliferated, but in the case of Are You Afraid of the Dark? the series examines love and romance in a way that's unique, challenging, and sometimes deadly.
The kids' series focuses predominately on friendly or familial love, generally situating it as a bond that transcends death. When it comes to romantic love, the stories skew towards older kids, aided by more adult looking actors playing the leads. Steeped in 1950s-esque mythology involving doomed lovers, the episode follows Johnny (Fab Filippo), the repair guy at a local bowling alley. He discovers a mysterious ring in his work locker and after trying it on, Johnny realizes it's stuck on his finger. At the same time a beautiful girl only he can see arrives, asking him to come with her to parts unknown.
M. Night Shyamalan was directly inspired by this film when making The Sixth Sense, but it's hard not to directly compare it to the 1960s song, "Teen Angel." Written by Mark Dinning, the song refers to a deceased young girl, just "sweet sixteen," who dies with the singer's "high school ring clutched" in her hand. The idea of kids dying young was a popular theme in pop culture during the '50s and '60s (i.e. "The Leader of the Pack") and "Tale of the Dream Girl" uses the song to infuse more history into the character's doomed love story. Before meeting the Dream Girl the only love Johnny has is for his younger sister, Erica (Andrea Nemeth). He's literally unable to connect with anyone, often ignored by his boss and his own mother.
He is a teen in isolation who finds himself compelled to find out more about the unknown girl who haunts his dreams. They're bound by more than just the ring he's found ⏤ whether it's a result of hormones or a deeper spiritual connection, it's frightening. The episode emphasizes how love can be all-consuming, powerful, and near obsessive. When it's revealed the Dream Girl is Donna Maitland, a young woman who is hit by a train as she's trying to retrieve a ring, Johnny is frightened but it doesn't stop him from pursuing her. However, later Johnny gives Donna the ring back in exchange for her leaving him alone. Ultimately, Johnny's own psyche turns against him when it's revealed he is Donna's boyfriend who is killed alongside her in the crash.
It's worth deconstructing both the reveal and the relationship itself within the show's narrative. Donna isn't just a tragic heroine, but a girl literally killed by love. The ring, the symbol of matrimony, forces her to risk her life and it consumes her. Johnny himself is equally tragic, dying in the attempt to "push" Donna out of the way. There's a push-pull to the relationship that is simultaneously cautionary and romantic. Donna and Johnny die for love, but as their generic names imply, it's a 1950s conception of romance. They are literally inseparable, bound to each other both conventionally (the ring) and metaphysically. There's no fear of going into the afterlife together as they are each other's one true love. In a sense, this episode is a fantasy and a tragedy. Johnny and Donna die before discovering the world, thus the "together forever" conceit becomes ominous. Yet at the same time, the idea of a "one true love" is its own reward.
The series also contrasts old-fashioned concepts of love in the modern era with the season four episode, "The Tale of the Long Ago Locket." The episode features Boy Meets World's Will Friedle as Jimmy Armstrong, a shy high schooler who can't confess his love to April (Kim Johnson). When he's roped into helping a Revolutionary War soldier return to his lost love, Jimmy finds the courage to search for his own true love. Where "The Tale of the Dream Girl" returns to the '50s with its idea of we are meant to live and die together, "The Tale of the Long Ago Locket" reverses course. In this case, the soldier, William, knows his love is going to marry another and he must stop the wedding. Despite the audiences' knowledge of history, where women were presented with few options and had to marry for security, the episode says love must conquer all; that history is wrong. Jimmy's entry into the past allows him to shape his own future while using modern technology (a radio distracts the redcoats) to turn the tide on history itself.
Are You Afraid of the Dark? was ahead of its time. Not only was it unafraid to confront death with its younger audiences, but it also situated love as something not to be taken lightly. Both "The Tale of the Dream Girl" and "The Tale of the Long Ago Locket" present relationships mired in the past, either in execution ("Dream Girl's" '50s influences) or actual storytelling (the Revolutionary War in "Long Ago Locket") as a means of making the real nuances of a relationship palatable for the target audience. At the same time it's reminding them that love can be daunting and overwhelming; all good things come with risk. But it's never meant to discourage. Love is necessary as it triumphs over evil in nearly every episode. But Are You Afraid of the Dark? always seeks to remind you, keep both eyes open.