Are You Afraid Friday: The Tale of Laughing in the Dark
Dir. Ron Oliver (1992)
A kid steals the nose of a clown from a haunted house to prove that it's not haunted, but he quickly regrets his decision when Zeebo pays him a visit.
Ya'll. I am not scared of clowns, certainly not on a phobic level anyway, but The Tale of Laughing in the Dark did its damndest to change that. Featuring a ghost story about an evil carny and an exceptionally creepy clown laugh that will haunt your nightmares, this episode is widely considered the scariest of the entire series. And it definitely is: I still got chills down my spine when the title card came up, even a full thirty years after I saw it for the first time.
The story, told by Betty Ann (Raine Pare-Coull), is about an annoying asshole named Josh (Christian Tessier) who is not unlike any other bully that all of us have run across at one time or another. He teases his friends, challenging them to enter a funhouse that is rumored to be haunted despite actually being afraid himself. Of course, he's not one to back down from a dare, so when his friends challenge him to find Zeebo the Clown and steal his nose, he does so with zeal. Unfortunately for him, there may be something to the legends after all, and Zeebo really wants his nose back.
Are You Afraid of the Dark was always really good at tailoring their stories for kids, generally pulling their punches and shying away from anything that was too scary. You gotta keep the kiddos coming back next week, after all. I would not be at all surprised to learn that it lost many kids after this one, however. Featuring an epically terrifying double performance by guest star Aron Tager as the rhyming Carny and Zeebo himself, The Tale of Laughing in the Dark is a perfect combination of clowns, creepy-ass carnival music, and a victim that totally deserves his fate. By the time that Josh actually faces down old Zeebo himself, you're almost hoping that he becomes the latest victim.
A lot of the Are You Afraid of the Dark episodes are cheesy as hell, and don't get me wrong, this one is too. It's also, however, perfectly done horror. The camera angles, often coming in from low and darting to look into scary, dark corners, give the entire episode an eerie feel, almost like we're watching something we shouldn't. The story itself is genuinely scary, a kid home alone being stalked by an evil ghost clown who reeks of cigars. Even the moral of the story, a dual-purposed entreaty to be nice to your friends and not to meddle with things you shouldn't, is applicable and a staple of the horror genre as a whole. One scene in particular, in which Zeebo slips a balloon under the door that echoes his plea to "Give it back!", is truly terrifying.
Of course, from a critical perspective, this is still a kids show. There's a good bit of exposition, which is entirely necessary in a 24 minute runtime, and the acting is certainly not Emmy level. It is still, however, a wonderfully scary story that doesn't go too far and still manages to scare the pants off its audience, whether they be children or almost forty year old men (shut up). It's a classic episode, and it's just as effective in 2023 as it was in 1992. And man does Tager do a phenomenal job as the carny I'd least like to meet.
Who this episode is for: TV scare lovers, Coulrophobics, Cigar smokers
Bottom line: For my money, The Tale of Laughing in the Dark is the scariest Are You Afraid episode of all time. Zeebo is terrifying, the music is delightfully creepy, and it's an episode that could very well haunt your dreams even in adulthood. It's also masterfully done horror, especially for a kids show. If you want to revisit your childhood nightmares, check out the episode streaming now on Peacock!