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.
Content Warning: This article discusses suicide and school violence.
The horror genre understands the dread that comes along with going to school. Evergreen issues like bullies, not fitting in, or the fear of failure are some of the problems that students deal with as they walk down those perilous hallways. Then there are those more urgent and life-threatening dangers; ones either fantastical or a reflection of reality.
A desirable aspect of horror is always its ability to communicate anxieties in terms everyone can understand as well as appreciate. And these anthology episodes demonstrate how schools are often a battleground for survival.
The Frighteners (1972-1973)
Not every story of school-related horror has to do with young people. After all, kids grow up to be adults. One episode of the British anthology The Frighteners emphasizes this — the pains of childhood and school can last for years upon years.
Like its peers, “The Classroom” is rooted in psychological terror and suspense. Nothing overtly macabre or unexplainable ever really happens on screen; human actions drive these stories to their alarming climaxes. Here, a retiring teacher named Miss Smith (Patience Collier) is cleaning up after celebrating with colleagues and former students. Now alone, Miss Smith receives one last visitor in time for her departure.
A fellow named Machen (Clive Swift) arrives with not an ounce of congratulation for Miss Smith; he blames her for his lifelong troubles since he was in her class. This fateful reunion is quickly soured when Machen reveals his mode of revenge, but what is even more surprising is how Miss Smith turns the tables on her disturbed guest.
“The Classroom” is astoundingly dark and unpleasant. This battle of wits is tense and fraught with quiet anger. Miss Smith, a bitter homophobe who absolutely failed in her role as an educator, refuses to go gently as everyone else pushes her out the door with no regard for her feelings. Machen, on the other hand, is a broken man who puts too much value in the spiteful teacher’s words. And by the episode’s end, he regretfully still lets her control him.
Although TV anthologies aimed at children are not unheard of, Shadows is one of the few that never patronized its audience or felt the need to sanitize itself. This series, one composed of supernatural standalones about and geared toward young folks, aired for three seasons on ITV.
Set entirely in a Welsh school in a mining town, “After School” centers on a pair of boys waiting for their coach in a classroom. The campus is strangely empty, seeing as the audience only ever meets these two students and their irate teacher, Benson (Gareth Thomas). The latter outright disappears from the story after severely scolding his pupils, though. The main characters, Poodle (Rhys Plays) and Seth (Lyn Jones), are left to their own devices as they await another undue tongue-lashing.
Poodle and Seth soon succumb to a presence in the classroom; an unseen force that compels the boys to uncover its source. The frustrated ghost cannot openly communicate, so it uses physical force on top of automatic writing to convey its thoughts and desires. Of course the children have no idea what this all means at first; the room is rattled by what feels like a small earthquake, and they unconsciously write down a series of cryptic answers on a questionnaire. It is only when they enter the adjacent basement does any of this make sense.
“After School” is an immense ghost story teeming with atmosphere. The eerie poignancy toward the end also feels genuine.
Are You Afraid of the Dark? (1992-1996, 1999-2000)
The Tale of the Secret Admirer
Seasons 6 and 7 are considered the weakest of the bunch by Are You Afraid of the Dark? fans, but there are the occasional solid episodes in the show’s first revival. After the original series stopped making new episodes altogether, Nickelodeon eventually aired a short-lived sequel series; one where the Midnight Society is now led by Gary’s younger brother, Tucker.
In “The Tale of the Secret Admirer”, Elisha Cuthbert’s character, Megan, shares a story about jilted love. A shy and unpopular teen, Meggie (Asia Vieira), receives a love letter from an unknown admirer. What she hopes is a note from the classmate she likes, Nick (Mark Hauser), is really the work of something uncanny and vengeful.
Are You Afraid of the Dark? pushed the envelope from time to time, and this episode certainly does not hold back when revealing the grisly origin of the letter’s sender. A sinister spirit, distinguished by a half-charred face, stalks Meggie throughout the episode. He comes and goes as he pleases in her house, leaves behind threatening messages, and ultimately tries to kill her and Nick. This is essentially a slasher story; the setup and all the imagery are there but without any actual slashing.
“The Tale of the Secret Admirer” is modeled after A Nightmare on Elm Street — a malevolent ghost haunts a teenager because of her parents’ past. And like in Wes Craven’s movie, the children are the ones who have to set things right.
Ever since Shockers aired this startling episode in 2000, British viewers since then have understandably asked themselves if this was real or something from a nightmare. The horrifying story all begins with a teenager named David (Liam Bar) transferring to an all-boys’ school. He is immediately singled out by a pack of bullies led by the nefarious Alan (Bryan Dick). Even though he uses a handheld camera to document the harassment, David only invites more attention from his tormentors.
David’s father took his own life for reasons yet to be revealed. His mother, Helena (Aisling O’Sullivan), clings to her boy when she is not using alcohol as another coping mechanism. In her state, Helena has no idea of the abuse her son endures every day at school. Things change, though, once the truth about David’s father’s death comes out; Alan learns the sordid details and parades them over his victim’s head until he can no longer withstand the pressure.
This short capitalized on the fresh emotions attached to the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. However, with gun control still an ongoing issue in the United States, this episode is still relevant two decades later. Director Marc Charach and writer Joe Ahearne make this feel even more personal by having it partially told through found footage and including heartbreaking confessionals.
“Parents’ Night” evades predictability and twists its own tail by not going down a whole other road. The climactic finish is poignant and overwhelming, not to mention unforgettable.
Two Sentence Horror Stories (2019-)
The Breakfast Club did for teen movies what Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None did for closed-circle mysteries. Locking random classmates in a room together for an afternoon is already clever enough when wanting to cause conflict. What happens when a supernatural threat is added to the roll call? Two Sentence Horror Stories imagines the ghastly outcome in “Bag Man”. Every segment of this anthology series uses ominous, bite-sized narratives as prompts. The foreboding two sentences here are: “Be cool, stay in school. It’s easier for me to get you.”
The suspect list for an anonymous cherry bomb prank is narrowed down to five students: two popular kids, Gabbi (Keeya King) and Winton (Bzhaun Rhoden), misfits Zee (Doralynn Mui) and Jax (M.J. Kokolis), and a social outlier named Sam (Hunter Dillon). As the accused spend their Saturday in detention, they come across a strange bag that does not belong to any one of them. An otherworldly threat inside the bag then forces the school into lockdown and the students to defend themselves.
Other Two Sentence Horror Stories episodes are more obvious about their motivations, but “Bag Man” is able to make its commentary about school violence and lockdowns without sacrificing creativity. Rather than a shooter, the assailant is the eponymous monster; a Slenderman-like entity with no specific origin.
“Bag Man” will not change gun laws in the United States; that is out of the showrunners’ wheelhouse. The episode instead hopes to make these sorts of events more digestible for anyone not paying attention or those simply too desensitized to the problem. The fear is palpable as the Bag Man (Roy Campsall) attacks out of nowhere, and the students are left to fend for themselves. Meanwhile, the only adult around is equally unprepared to handle such a situation, seeing as he mistakenly traps everyone inside the school with the Bag Man. Other anthologies would rather be timeless in their story crafting, but Two Sentence Horror Stories is refreshingly open about its timeliness.