The 10 Best '90s Horror TV Shows For Kids, From Goosebumps To Ghostwriter
Following the explosion in popularity of the slashers and the practical effects-driven horror movies of the '80s, many people dismissed the '90s as the transition period before the rise of gore-heavy horror in the '00s. It certainly didn't help that the '90s gave rise to the genre's straight-to-video market.
But if there was one aspect of horror that thrived in the '90s, it was horror aimed at kids. With the boom of Scholastic horror books for kids like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and Goosebumps, kids were starting to be treated as a legitimate horror audience, with stories that didn't talk down to them but explored the same subjects that movies for grown-ups did, albeit toned down. Additionally, movies like Hocus Pocus and The Witches offered fun rides for the whole family that could also scare the younger ones. However, it was TV that dominated the kids' horror scene.
With a Goosebumps movie adaptation released in 2015 and a sequel in 2018, and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark finally out in theaters, it is time to revisit the best horror TV shows that scared the living hell out of '90s kids.
This PBS show revolved around a group of Brooklyn kids who discover a ghost in an old book (kind of like what happens in the Scary Stories movie). Ghostwriter, as the kids called the spectre, could only communicate using numbers and letters, and helped the kids solve neighborhood crimes and mysteries. Though it was mostly aimed at teaching kids to love reading and writing, the premise was a good gateway into the supernatural. Plus there was that one episode with a purple gooey thing that traumatized everyone who watched the show. Oh, and apparently the creators imagined the ghost to be the soul of a murdered runaway slave from the Civil War.
A darker, more fantastical version of Batman: The Animated Series, Gargoyles was many kids' first foray into dark fantasy and gothic horror. A show about, well, gargoyles, the series had terrifying creature designs (they are gargoyles, after all) and more classic monsters like werewolves. Gargoyles was a rare show for kids since its storytelling resembled that of a drama more than cartoons of the time, with Shakespearean explorations of human behavior and relationships, gun violence, and xenophobia.
8. Eerie, Indiana
A Twin Peaks-esque mystery show starring Hocus Pocus' Omri Katz, this show was the Gravity Falls of the '90s (even Alex Hirsch admitted Eerie was a major influence when he created Gravity Falls).
Eerie, Indiana follows Marshall (Katz) as he moves into a small Midwestern town, and together with Simon (Justin Shenkarow), investigates the many mysteries of Eerie, even if no one else in town seems to be aware of any weirdness. Joe Dante directed the pilot and a handful of other episodes, and his touch can be felt all over the weirdness and love for horror in the show, as episodes include everything from time-travel stories to Bigfoot sightings to ghosts, and even werewolves. Before The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer brought the supernatural to the adult and teen market, Eerie, Indiana allowed kids to explore the weird and bizarre in an entertaining and sometimes scary way.
In a time when many popular movies got animated series adaptations for some reason, Beetlejuice was one of the few that was actually good. It was based on Tim Burton's 1988 horror-comedy about newly-dead people who want to get a dopey family out of their house. The Beetlejuice cartoon forgets all about the couple, instead focussing on young goth girl Lydia Deetz and her adventures with bio-exorcist Beetlejuice.
Most of the show takes place in the afterlife plane of the Netherworld and vastly expands the movie's mythology, while introducing audiences to Beetlejuice's family, along with more ghosts and sandworms. Though it was definitely more of a comedy than even the movie, the show leaned heavily into the macabre, choosing grossness over scares. Oh, and there's a ghost called Armhold Musclehugger that's a clear parody of dear old Arnold Schwarzenegger.
6. Aaahh!!! Real Monsters
The '90s was a great time to be a Nicktoons fan. Ren & Stimpy, Rocko's Modern Life, and even Rugrats had their fair share of creepy and at times even disturbing episodes, but it wasn't until Aaahh!!! Real Monsters that Nickelodeon had horror at the very center of a show's concept, yet also outright funny.
Aaahh!!! Real Monsters was kind of like Monsters University, but less adorable, more crude, and even putrid. The show dealt with a group of monster friends who have to learn to properly scare humans, and the episodes consist of them heading to a human world and then having to scare their way out of some problems. It was an immature, perverse, and fun show for both kids and adults wanting something different than cartoons about children and/or animals.
5. Tales from the Cryptkeeper
This is yet another show that takes something meant for adults and perfectly translates it for kids. Based on the very graphic and adult-oriented HBO horror anthology show Tales from the Crypt, which in turn was based on super-gory EC comics from the '50s, Tales from the Cryptkeeper keeps all of the elements of the live-action show except the sex and violence. This time, the titular Cryptkeeper gets a youthful and more playful personality and even taught dished out moral lessons at one point.
Like the live-action show or the EC comics, what made Tales from the Cryptkeeper so good was its anthology format. This allowed the show to feature classic monsters like vampires and mummies, but also vengeful fish, cyclops, and plant people. Even toned down, the series remained as scary as the live-action version, mostly by making the animation style look closer to the comics, and by having kids as the protagonists, making the scares hit closer to home. Honestly, in a time of sequels and reboots, this is one show that could definitely use an update.
4. Freaky Stories
A sort of Twilight Zone for kids, this animated show consisted of a series of 5-minute shorts of different animation and art styles that revolved around campfire stories and urban legends. They ranged from original stories to well-known legends like "the killer in the backseat", "the hookman" or "the babysitter and the man upstairs," which influenced the movies Black Christmas and When a Stranger Calls.
The short stories also vary in tone, with some being quite comedic or playful, such as "the hookman," which was presented as a musical. Most, however, were straight-up horror stories with twists inspired by The Twilight Zone. They had some sort of message or morality tale at the end, with several episodes devoted to characters committing crimes and paying dearly for them, like an episode about a guy who tries to steal gas from an RV but instead hooks up to the septic tank and gets a nasty surprise. Each episode begins and ends with the phrase: "This is a true story, it happened to a friend of a friend of mine," which made the episodes all the more ominous for kids.
3. Are You Afraid of the Dark?
A horror-fantasy anthology series, Are You Afraid of the Dark? saw a group of teens--the Midnight Society--meeting in the woods to tell scary stories. These stories ranged from public domain fairy tales and legends, like an adaptation of The Monkey's Paw, to a Nosferatu-inspired tale of vampires, to claustrophobic one-location episodes with evil clowns that haunt your nightmares for days on end.
Inspired by The Twilight Zone, the show was able to present dark content that delved into horror without having to go over the edge. The show could pull chilling moments like even the best Stephen King stories, and body horror that brings to mind John Carpenter's The Thing, all while still being safe enough for kids not to be traumatized.
When it comes to Goosebumps vs. Are You Afraid of the Dark?, the answer is simply a matter of taste. Both shows approach their horror in similar ways and are equally as effective. Where Are You Afraid had the advantage of its simple setting, and brings to mind being by a campfire telling scary stories, Goosebumps was the first taste of the process of adapting a book for many kids.
From the moment the show's theme song started playing over the creepy opening credits and that damn dog's eyes lit up, you knew you were in for a scary time. Fans of the book tuned in every week to see their favorite stories being brought to life. Unlike Are You Afraid, Goosebumps didn't have a connective narrative, but instead offered a pure anthology show that adapted a from R. L. Stone's vast bibliography of horror stories. Some had a moral message, like The Cuckoo Clock of Doom, and others were simply nightmare fuel, like any time the terrifying ventriloquist doll Slappy showed up. The show even introduced a number of original stories, which were then turned into Goosebumps books.
1. Courage the Cowardly Dog
This is it. The best, and certainly the scariest, '90s kids horror show. Courage the Cowardly Dog is set in the middle of Nowhere, Kansas. We follow a pink and easily frightened beagle who lives with the elderly couple of Muriel and Eustace Bagge. The show was a cartoon series of 22-minute torture sessions that pitted Courage against a number of monstrosities as the dog tried to keep Muriel safe.
The show's 52 episodes featured giant spiders, Bigfoot, zombies, demons, aliens, and Fred, the most disturbing man to ever exist in a cartoon. Courage's horror genius was in the way it created jump scares by changing the animation style, like when it introduced a creepy violinist made of Claymation, or the CGI personification of self-doubt in the form of a blue fetus blob that looks like it came from hell itself. The show's ethereal looks and genuinely scary--and sometimes over-the-top violent--plots were balanced with the sweet relationship between Courage and Muriel. Watching Courage felt like surviving a horrific ordeal, ending in a cathartic experience you'd want to repeat over and over.