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Iconic scaremaker R.L. Stine has been terrorizing kids and teens for over three decades. The mere mention of the author’s name readily brings up memories of Goosebumps and Fear Street. Yet, it was his two short-story collections, The Haunting Hour and Nightmare Hour, that inspired one of the best horror TV shows for young people.
The beginnings of The Haunting Hour can be traced back to a 2007 straight-to-video movie called Don’t Think About It, which then aired on Cartoon Network. Despite its title and Stine’s writing credit, though, the movie’s script wasn’t based on anything from its literary namesake. In fact, this was an original story penned by creative partners Dan Angel and Billy Brown. One of the production companies behind Don’t Think About It, The Hatchery, then revived the Haunting Hour brand a few years later once its co-founder and the movie’s executive producer, Margaret Loesch, contacted Angel about making a children’s anthology series for The Hub (later rebranded as Discovery Family). Angel and Brown were experts in the format after previously working with Loesch, the former president of Fox Kids, on the original Goosebumps TV show.
One important distinction between The Haunting Hour and its spiritual predecessor, Goosebumps, was the degree of adaptation. The ‘90s anthology veered away from Stine’s work only one time; the original three-part miniseries “Chillogy” was scripted by Angel and Brown. Meanwhile, the books The Haunting Hour and Midnight Hour have only a total of twenty short stories between them. So for the TV series to go beyond one season, an extensive amount of original material was necessary. The Haunting Hour went on to directly adapt ten stories from the two books — most hailing from Nightmare Hour — however, a couple of episodes share aspects with the unused tales. For example, Season 2’s Night of the Mummy has things in common with Stine’s “The Mummy’s Dream.”
The Haunting Hour didn’t start to air regularly until Christmas Day in 2010, but just before Halloween that same year, the series gave audiences a considerable sneak preview of the kind of formative frights in store for them. In the doll-themed two-parter Really You, Angel and Brown, as well as recurring director Neill Fearnley, delivered an unnerving opener that plays out like a reimagining of Night of the Living Dummy from Goosebumps. Lilly D, one of the Haunting Hour’s most recognizable villains, is a sinister satire of realistic dolls. She puts a young Bailee Madison (The Strangers: Prey at Night) through absolute hell; Lilly D first spellbinds the protagonist’s already peeved mother, then she gradually switches forms with Madison’s character. This would not be the last time the series dealt with body horror, by the way.
Stine intentionally tries to avoid heavy real-life matters in his children’s books and instead focuses on far-fetched dilemmas. In stark contrast, The Haunting Hour made it its business to contextualize the difficult parts of adolescence and merge harsh reality with fantasy. This need to confront and bring out kids’ literal inner demons wasn’t quite as pronounced in that first season, although there are meaningful stories there. The remaining three seasons just so happen to have more.
Before the “metaphorrorical” element was unmistakable in later episodes, the first season tested the waters. As a whole, The Haunting Hour ventured into darker territory far more than other children’s anthologies that came before it. And in Season One’s two-part finale, Scary Mary, Angel and Brown reinterpreted a staple of children’s sleepovers. The infamous Bloody Mary was reworked into the episodes’ gruesome namesake, the badly burned and vain woman-turned-spirit whose M.O. is stealing the youth of anyone foolish enough to summon her. The firmly grim tone in tandem with gothic atmosphere and charred imagery made this dose of cautionary horror more effective. Back then, it appeared impossible to top such a macabre entry, but the series only continued to challenge both itself and the target demographic’s endurance.
The Haunting Hour hosted a variety of horror over the course of 76 episodes. Most common were those straightforward encounters with monsters, boogeymen and other supernatural creatures. This included a manifestation of fear itself (Fear Never Knocks), the legendary kid-drowning ghost known as La Llorona (The Weeping Woman), and an Asian snake demon who comes between a helicopter parent and her daughter (Bad Feng Shui). This formula was usually trustworthy and provided positive results, although there were the less exceptional examples from time to time. For example: Poof De Fromage, a nutty tale about invading aliens disguised as cheese puffs, still perplexes fans to this day.
For a lot of Gen-Z kids, The Haunting Hour was part of their introduction to horror. It’s where they became acquainted with the genre. Of course, this series put its own spin on the familiar. This includes geriatric vampires residing in a senior living community (Grampires), a witch using technology to cast her revenge on a snotty brat (Wrong Number), and Frankenstein’s monster being reimagined as a lethally codependent automaton (My Robot). In addition to its unique takes on classic horror sub-genres, the series tackled more contemporary trends. For instance, ghost hunting television was targeted in Lights Out, where a jaded viewer of these kinds of reality shows sets out to disprove their validity. This same episode, along with Really You, also partly utilized the period’s flourishing found-footage style.
Older viewers likely won’t be too scared of anything here, especially if they aren’t new to the horror genre. Nevertheless, there are more than a few instances where The Haunting Hour catches even the most unafraid off guard. There are obvious boundaries inherent to a production like Goosebumps, given its era and venue. Meanwhile, The Haunting Hour oftentimes acts like the younger sibling of Angel and Brown’s adult anthologies: the 1993 movie Body Bags and the short-lived Fox series Night Visions.
Counteracting the comparatively gentler episodes in this show were the ones that did the unthinkable: kill the kids. This is considered taboo even in adult horror. Simply put, neither happy outcomes nor concrete resolutions were guaranteed in The Haunting Hour. The young protagonists are left to perish so frequently in their hopeless and unresolved scenarios. Scarecrow went ultra-bleak in its nihilistic alternate ending. The barely alive characters in Mascot are forsaken as they sit inside a monster’s gut, waiting to be digested. And in I’m Not Martin — the one Nightmare Hour entry that Stine had qualms about being adapted — a boy’s fears of mistaken identity and accidental amputation during his hospital stay apparently come true seconds before the credits roll. This all comes across as meanspirited, yet this type of cruel coda is commonplace in children’s anthology books. The showrunners kept that tradition alive, so to speak. While The Haunting Hour doesn’t outright reject the concept of safe scares, it does disbelieve the notion that little ones are off limits in horror.
It would be easy (but wrong) to dismiss The Haunting Hour as puerile and kids-only entertainment. Just the reverse, a number of episodes go further with their core themes and content than ever asked for or expected. Abandonment (Funhouse), abuse (The Hole and Grandpa’s Glasses), death (Flight and Detention), depression (My Imaginary Friend) and grief (The Golem) all come up at one point or another, and this series creatively handles these tough topics — ones that other children’s media would much rather shy away from — without also speaking down to its intended audience. This occasional exploration of humanity’s sad and dark parts could be of concern for watchful parents and unsuspecting kiddos. However, as recommended by the content advisory shown at the beginning of every episode, youngsters are encouraged to watch with their family. There are teachable moments in those serious episodes that don’t boil down to simple clichés.
Television networks have always been apprehensive about anthology pitches; of all their worries, they reckon these series won’t find or retain an audience due to their unconventional storytelling structures. The Haunting Hour, though, definitely gained a cult following, and for four years, it was a nearly consistent collection of self-contained amusement and thrills. It doesn’t have the same recognition or nostalgia attached to it as other similar shows for young folks, but The Haunting Hour remains a remarkable source of gateway horror.