I Think About This a Lot: The Pinball Episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Boy playing pinball machine in thought bubble.
Photo: YTV/Nickelodeon

I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.

Forever, as a concept, is pretty hard to comprehend. There are mathematical calculations that approach it, religious yearnings for paradisiacal eternities, and experiences like waiting in line for the bathroom when you urgently need to pee. But it was clear to me as a kid, when I watched the end of one particular episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, as a giant, silvery pinball bore down on our protagonist: Forever is a long fucking time.

Are You Afraid of the Dark? was, as imagined by its creator, The Twilight Zone for tweens. It aired in Canada in 1990 before moving to Nickelodeon’s “late-night” programming slot, SNICK, to frighten American children in 1992. During its four-year run, each episode followed a basic formula. A group of kids, under the auspices of a club called “The Midnight Society,” meet around a campfire and tell scary stories. There is some brief exposition before one of the characters begins their tale, transporting the viewer into the live-action narrative.

As far as horror went, it was some Goosebumps-level stuff — nothing an 8-year-old who still had a night-light (me) couldn’t handle. Yet, I’ve never been a person who enjoyed being scared for fun and, to be honest, I didn’t really watch it that much. I remember there was a spooky magic-shop episode, something about a swamp monster — but the one where the kid gets trapped in the pinball machine forever? That one stuck.

“The Tale of the Pinball Wizard” begins with our anti-hero Ross running away from mall security guards after fighting a woman over quarters from the mall fountain. Ross evades the law by ducking into a shop where, it turns out, he’s previously asked for a job. The owner, a man named Mr. Olson, still doesn’t want to hire Ross — especially (ominously) after what happened to the last kid — but eventually agrees to let Ross watch the shop while he’s out for lunch. There’s just one condition: no playing the mysterious, extremely cool pinball game hidden under a sheet.

But Ross totally plays the pinball game, pretty much as soon as Mr. Olson leaves the store. He does a terrible job watching the place, too. When a cute girl comes in, Ross just fumbles around, being unhelpful. And as soon as he’s alone again, he goes back to pinball.

Then, the machine turns off. Sure he’s broken it, Ross runs out of the store only to discover that all of the mall’s doors are locked. The fountain begins spitting out quarters — and now you know it’s about to get really weird. It turns out that the whole mall is a pinball game, and the cute girl from before is a princess who needs pinball-gameplay-based saving. Ross thinks he’s won until he sees Mr. Olson’s face looming above, and the giant pinball comes rolling down the escalator. Ross is trapped. Forever!!!

It was some serious eternal punishment, biblical stuff. As a kid, it completely destroyed me. Who hadn’t, at some point in their lives, been a Ross? A little bit selfish, kind of stupid, getting away with something you know you shouldn’t be doing, and all the while thinking, What’s the worst that could happen? Getting trapped inside a pinball machine forever, that’s what! A small, stupid decision with immutable consequences — that was my worst possible outcome.

The thing is, I grew up wanting to be good, and as I got older, that evolved into a desire to always be right. Which didn’t entirely stop me from doing the wrong thing or being just a complete idiot, but managed to make me anxious about almost everything I did. I wanted to be smart and likable, someone you could rely on; a person who had their shit together, and did so without trying too hard. And when I knew, somehow, that I wasn’t living up to it? I was sure my proverbial pinball hell was right around the corner. I’d ruin everything irreparably, and there would only be myself to blame.

I might’ve been reassured, way back when, to know that “The Tale of the Pinball Wizard” is one of just a few episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark? with a notably unhappy ending. Most resolve with a redemption, and everyone learns a lesson. It is a trite, yet comforting aspect of a lot of episodic television, especially the kind made for kids.

Getting stuck inside the pinball machine has always been my go-to for things gone irreversibly bad. But I’m finally learning that things have a way of working out — forgiveness exists! — and while it’s not always redemptive, it is occasionally instructive. Forever might be a long time, but time is more opportunity than anything. And looking back, I realize that Mr. Olson wasn’t rightfully punishing Ross — he was just being a dick.

I Think About This Are You Afraid of the Dark? Episode a Lot