Series of Frights is a recurring column that mainly focuses on horror in television. Specifically, it takes a closer look at five episodes or stories — each one adhering to an overall theme — from different anthology series or the occasional movie made for TV. With anthologies becoming popular again, especially on television, now is the perfect time to see what this timeless mode of storytelling has to offer.
Although Halloween is embraced by all ages these days, it was mostly a children’s holiday not all that long ago. What is essentially now a multi-month event was a single day of fun back then. The real world has changed in this regard, but some things stay the same in TV anthologies; kids are still the focal point in stories about Halloween.
In episodic anthologies rooted in horror, Halloween stories occasionally happen but are not guaranteed or even timely. Horror series, after all, do not rely on Halloween in order to be horror. The chances are, though, if an episode is all about Halloween, the protagonists are probably young.
Tales from the Darkside (1983-1988)
Trick or Treat
Interest in a Creepshow TV series back in the ‘80s led to the creation of Tales from the Darkside. Before the first season launched in the fall of 1984, a pilot called “Trick or Treat” was released for Halloween that previous year. The iconic episode, written by George A. Romero and Franco Amurri and directed by Bob Balaban, was a preview of what would become one of the most bizarre anthology series of the 20th century.
In “Trick or Treat”, a small farming community is ruled by a miser named Gideon Hackles (Barnard Hughes). Everyone in debt to the scrooge looks forward to Halloween only because of Gideon’s unique deal. If a child can enter the old man’s haunted house and find their parent’s IOU card, then the debt is cleared. Unfortunately, no one has ever pulled off the feat. This Halloween, though, the house rules have changed in favor of the downtrodden.
Future episodes of Darkside had to make do with lesser production values; the showrunners cut corners by using little to no special effects and keeping characters confined to single locations. Yet with “Trick or Treat”, the staff’s imagination runs wild as Gideon’s creepy props spring to life and his home becomes a portal to Hell.
As far as comeuppance stories go, “Trick or Treat” is better than most. The episode speaks to the everyday folks who are taken advantage of by those in power, and it paints a wonderful fantasy in spite of its ghostly approach. Gideon’s crimes include appropriation of the eerie, hence the witches, ghouls, and evils who all come out of the woodwork to destroy him and his meager empire. It should come as no surprise — Gideon is the real monster in this morality tale.
The Ray Bradbury Theater (1985-1992)
Loneliness is a boy and his dog in the Halloween-set tale, “The Emissary” (1988), from The Ray Bradbury Theater. While other children his age are getting their trick-’r-treat routes planned and their costumes fitted, Martin (Keram Malicki-Sánchez) feels trapped in his own home. His own bed, really. The young boy has a condition that prevents him from going out into the world and experiencing things others take for granted. Luckily, he has Dog to keep him company.
“The Emissary”, first published in 1947, was inspired by the author’s own childhood fears about Halloween. Not because Bradbury found October 31st itself daunting, but because he worried he would not live to see another Halloween. The day in question certainly had a profound effect on Bradbury; he went on to write the exploratory novel, The Halloween Tree.
The start of the TV adaptation is a sightly collection of fall imagery and nostalgic Americana. This is only then offset by Martin’s pathos as he watches the outside world carry on without him. However, Martin’s aptly named best friend, Dog, soothes his soul by fetching him things he cannot touch like leaves, twigs, and even a teacher. Helen Shiver plays the kind educator, Mrs. Haight, who visits Martin on the regular until her unfortunate passing. All is not lost; Dog refuses to let Martin be without “company.”
What begins as a slice-of-life story dripping in autumnal iconography and young innocence slowly turns into a macabre reunion. Even once the jack-o-lantern lights dim and the howling winds pick up in time for Mrs. Haight’s return, there is an unsettling sentimentality about “The Emissary”.
Are You Afraid of the Dark? (1992-1996, 1999-2000)
The Tale of the Twisted Claw
D.J. MacHale’s anthology Are You Afraid of the Dark? officially began in the fall of 1992, but Nickelodeon aired “The Tale of the Twisted Claw” ahead of time as part of its Halloween programming in 1991. The pilot was later re-aired during the first season.
“The Twisted Claw” starts out differently from other episodes; it cold-opens with a jump scare before the official storyteller takes over as this evening’s host. The quiet and reserved David (Nathaniel Moreau) commences with his campfire tale about two boys up to no good on Mischief Night, the evening before Halloween. Dougie (Noah Plener) and Kevin (Maxwell Medeiros) play a prank on an older neighbor, Miss Clove (Ann Page). The next night, the pair returns to the scene of the crime under the belief Miss Clove will not recognize them. She instead gives the kids a gift that grants wishes. In time, Dougie and Kevin realize their wishes come with great consequences.
W.W. Jacobs’ short “The Monkey’s Paw” has been adapted countless times. There are straight interpretations as well as media based on the same premise but with minor alterations. In the case of “The Tale of the Twisted Claw”, the monkey’s paw is now a wooden replica of a vulture’s foot. Other than that difference, the story follows the same beats as the basis.
The conclusion of “The Tale of the Twisted Claw” draws from the source material toward the end. One thing leads to another, and Dougie’s parents are severely hurt and his dead grandfather has risen from his grave. Everything is wrapped up neatly, but the sequence of the black car driving slowly toward Dougie’s house is surprisingly chilling.
The Haunted Mask
Having a perfect costume is important for everyone celebrating Halloween, but it is especially so to kids. In “The Haunted Mask” (1995), Carly Beth (Kathryn Long) is emphatic about finding the best mask possible. Not only does she want to look her best on the big night, Carly Beth wants to scare her long-time tormentors.
Based on the eleventh entry in R.L. Stine’s seminal series of adolescent horror books, the very first episode of the Goosebumps TV series remains its best. The premiere aired close to Halloween, and it was a success in many regards. However, the rest of the show never quite lived up to the quality of “The Haunted Mask”.
Carly Beth is the butt of others’ practical jokes and cruelty. Her bullies are in fact two boys, Chuck and Steve, who take every opportunity to scare and humiliate Carly Beth in front of her peers. Both frustrated and looking for revenge, Carly Beth ditches her original costume and steals a ghastly monster mask from a mysterious shop owned by a strange man (Colin Fox). On Halloween night, Carly Beth is satisfied when she frightens Chuck and Steve. However, the mask now refuses to come off, and Carly Beth feels herself changing.
This is the best Goosebumps episode largely because of the writing, courtesy of playwright and screenwriter José Rivera. His one contribution to the series set a high bar that others failed to reach. The emotional writing, the character studying, and Long’s performance all make “The Haunted Mask” a classic for kids’ horror. The sequel, “The Haunted Mask II”, sees Steve succumbing to a different mask from the same accursed shop.
All Hallow’s Eve
The Creepshow series is hardly considered a children’s show, but a number of episodes are about younger protagonists. One of the more underrated stories is from the first season; John Harrison and Bruce Davis’ “All Hallow’s Eve” (2019) follows a group of misfits on Halloween night.
Pete, Jill, Binky, Bobby, and Skeeter (Connor Christie, Madison Thompson, Jason Jabbar Wardlaw Jr, Andrew Eakle, and Aodhan Lane), or the Golden Dragons as they call themselves, prowl the streets of Smithville on Halloween. They stop at houses along the way and harass the agitated residents within. It appears these kids have been disturbing the peace for years, but there is more to their plan than they let on.
At first it is unclear why the families of Smithville are in fear of these five awkward outcasts. They are not all that intimidating to look at, and other than food, they take nothing from the houses they visit. That is until halfway into the segment, the Golden Dragons reveal they really have an axe to grind with a boy named Eddie (Michael May). The bigger picture is now on the horizon.
The Golden Dragons feel at home with the Losers Club of It and the school bus victims of Trick ‘r Treat. Nothing is as it seems in this revenge tale. The story comes across as derivative, but the borrowed elements are put together well.