A Love Letter to the Halloween Specials of My Childhood
Today, if you miss an episode of your favorite show, you go online to stream it. Not so in the ‘90s: If you missed your chance to see that year’s Halloween special, you were out of luck for at least a year. Which is why October was the month I looked forward to the most. Every kid’s television show had their Halloween special. It was a welcome chance to experience terror in otherwise tame and humorous kid’s content. Like any child, I had my favorites.
The Wild Thornberries: Naimina Enkiyio
This one is at the top of my list because, even to this day, some of the imagery still gives me chills. The Wild Thornberrys featured a pair of documentarians and their children—one too cool for school, one who could talk to animals, and one who was raised by animals—who go on all sorts of adventures around the world. Eliza, the main character, makes rash decisions quite often. No more so than in the Halloween special, Naimina Enkiyio.
In the episode, Eliza ventures into a forest (which is a real forest known as the Forest of the Lost Girl), that the Maasai children warn her to stay out of. Determined to prove she’s brave, she doesn’t listen. From that point on, she experiences actual terror. I vividly recall the moment when she spots the little girl in the mud puddle and finds a necklace, long separated from she who once wore it. Then an eerie voice calls her, helping her escape of the forest and the little girl’s fate. The final shot above—a pair of eyes watch the living, before the wind shifts to reveal that (maybe) it was just some leaves—leaves it up to the viewer to decide what really happened.
Smart Guy: Diary of a Mad School Girl
A fun, homage to both Scream and Lizzie Borden. T.J. and Marcus decide to read a girl’s online diary, so Marcus can get closer to her to score a date. As they read on, they discover she is increasingly erratic and crazy. In her latest entry, she writes about Lizzie Borden having had the right idea…
Then the lights go out and chaos erupts as a person in a pig mask with a butcher knife stalks them around a dark house, seemingly everywhere at once. Just as she’s closing in, the moral of the story is revealedbut not before giving some delightful scares to the ‘90s kids huddled beneath a blanket.
Hey Arnold!: The Headless Cabbie
Arnold hosts a sleepover for a bunch of boys in his class, and during the night, shares the Tale of the Headless Cabbie. It’s actually a pretty freaky story on its own, especially when paired with the images of the demonic laughing woman. Of course, in classic urban legend fashion, he says that the ghost still haunts the park, looking for his lost head. The Hey Arnold scary episodes always hit a sweet spot between horror and humor. Fog and the ominous sound of horse hooves are juxtaposed with a reveal that another classmate simply loves to practice his clogging routine in the park.
This story stands out among the vast ocean of the spooky specials and will delight fans of ‘90s television and classic Victorian ghost stories.
Disney Channel: Don’t Look Under the Bed
This was a Disney movie, so settle down for at least 120 minutes. But I promise its worth it. In fact, this movie was so terrifying to kids that there was a petition to take it off the air. In the story, a girl is harassed by some evil entity that plays pranks, like filling the pool with Jello and putting dogs on the roof. However, every night it comes after her or her brother, long deformed fingers inching closer to its prey. The only one who can help the protagonist is her brother’s imaginary friend that no one else can see, including her brother.
For a kid’s show, this movie delivered a mature tale about growing up and the sacrifices one has to make. Also, it makes me wonder what my imaginary friend, who I abandoned when I was 7, looks like now.
Are You Afraid of the Dark:The Dead Man’s Float
FINE! This show is not strictly a Halloween show, but it is the perfect October television series to showcase. A group of teens is allowed to go off into the woods (and return home alone) after dark so they can tell ghost stories. The tales range from not scary to keep-your-lights-on-and-scream-scary. What’s the scariest one? Try the Tale of the Dead Man’s Float.
Seriously, this tale is the stuff of nightmares. In the very beginning, a kid is killed (in a kid’s show!), so you know they aren’t screwing around. Then, a couple of kids find an abandoned pool in their school and get it reopened, thus releasing a great evil. You don’t see it to the end, but its presence is seen through a POV camera which is scary enough, believe me.
Disney Channel: Halloweentown
Was this super scary? No. But it is excellent Halloween trash. It showcases how the true terror of being a teen is not being understood by those around us. This is why watching the lead character take on a wraith who is turning everyone in the quaint town of monsters evil is a pretty fun bit of tame horror. When this came out, you really only got to see it during this time of the year, so to keep with tradition, watch it on October 31st.
Lizzie McGuire: Night of the Day of the Dead
When the resident popular girl insults Miranda’s Latinx heritage by mistreating her Day of the Dead alter, she finds herself terrorized by life-sized painted skeletons as her classmates disappear. There is a zombified Lizzie clown and a revenge plot. Need I say more?
In the age of streaming, I can watch Halloween specials whenever I want. Yet perhaps that is why none of these spooky episodes feel as “special” as they did when I was a kid. Or, maybe the tales that scared us when we were children are the ones that we carry into our adulthood, unable, or unwilling, to let go of those first forays into non-children’s content we were allowed to watch.