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Review: ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK ‘GHOST ISLAND’ offers an intelligently mature look at death and ghosts

Nickelodeon’s Are you Afraid of the Dark revival has been a surprisingly refreshing take on YA horror that is unafraid to conjure up a fair bit of darkness to get its story across modern audiences. The first season, for instance, centers on a carnival that kidnaps children and turns them into zombie-like carnies, leaving a trail of broken communities and the threat of real harm in its path. It’s chockfull of horror references that fans of the genre can point to and say ‘that’s from [insert classic horror film or director],’ but it never strayed from its intentions of honoring the original 90’s show celebration of sitting around a campfire and telling scary stories.

Season 3, subtitled “Ghost Island,” aims to further the revival’s American Horror Story-like anthology approach with another self-contained story that’s as welcoming to newcomers as it is to fans of the original series and of horror in general. Having said that, and as far as the first episode of the new season is concerned, “Ghost Island” might be Afraid of the Dark’s most mature entry yet.

A lonely tropical island serves as the setting for the story, a place that carries the name of Ghost Island due to the legend of its haunted hotel. The legend is explored quite a bit in the first episode and it seems to center on room 13 of the building, the place guests never check out from. Whatever haunts this room makes anyone who steps inside disappear, leaving only tortured ghosts and disembodied voices as the only trace they were ever there.

As was the case with the previous two seasons, the driving force behind the series is the group of kids that make up the latest version of the Midnight Society (the club that opened each episode of the original series with a story around a campfire deep in the woods). Kayla (Telci Huynh), Max (Conor Sherry), Leo (Luca Padovan), Summer(Dior Goodjohn), and Ferris(Chance Hurstfield) make up the group, all enthusiasts of supernatural storytelling.

The reason behind their trip to Ghost Island is tied to the death of one of the original members of the club. She wanted her friends to specifically go and stay in the haunted hotel (so it seems) for reasons that will surely be revealed as the story progresses. The loss of this member is felt throughout the first episode with an intensity that gives it a serious tone, funereal in parts even. This Midnight Society is trying to come to terms her absence, with the death of someone they never thought they’d just lose forever. It raises the emotional stakes of the story and signals an interest in exploring the ways death manifests itself among kids, how it lingers.

Ghost Island
Are You Afraid of the Dark: Ghost Island

It succeeds at this thanks to the performances of the main cast, with Telci Huynh leading the pack as Kelly, the member who seems to be taking the loss the hardest. Huynh showcases a very nuanced interpretation of the character with an emotional range that captures how overwhelming someone’s death can be while trying to enjoy the early years of one’s life, where the expectation is fun and carefree-ness.

The rest of the cast stays the course, a mix of youthful energy and melancholy that jumps off the screen to entice its viewers with enough reality to say something meaningful even as ghosts threaten to bring the group into the others side.

The hotel’s manager, played by Julian Curtis, is another standout. He plays his part with a snark that’s all too familiar in these kinds of stories, but there’s a hidden element to the character that always makes itself known to great effect. Curtis doesn’t go for the classically annoying and oblivious authority figure. Instead, he feels like a key component of the mystery and is given the necessary presence to make him an important character.

What glimpses we get of the horrors in room 13 are brief but effective. Great care seems to have been afforded to the makeup effects for the ghosts that bleed through to the side of the living. Some of it is best appreciated in the opening sequence of episode 1, where we get a taste of how the haunted room disappears its guests. It’s among one of the revival’s most intense opening sequences and it features a nod to certain iconic visuals from movies such as Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and The Frighteners (1996).

Are You Afraid of the Dark: Ghost Island

JT Billings’ script and Dean Israelite’s direction expertly combine for a story that has elements of The Shining (1980) and another haunted hotel movie called 1408 (released in 2007), both based on the works of Stephen King. It’ll be interesting to see how these influences will inform the remainder of the 8-episode season, but what’ll potentially be most compelling for longtime fans of the original series will be spotting the references to classic AYAOTD episodes scattered throughout. Like the first season, a lot of thought is being put into the things the revival wants to homage and identifying them as they pop up is uniquely gratifying.

With the first episode of “Ghost Island” already up in YouTube for eager fans to see ahead of the premiere (July 30th), there’s no reason why you shouldn’t dive into this impressive and deep exploration of horror at a young age. Are You Afraid of the Dark: Ghost Island starts off with a genuinely creepy and unsettling haunting that means to contemplate serious themes and age-specific fears. Thus far, it stands to be further confirmation that Are You Afraid of the Dark isn’t just one of the best YA horror shows currently on air but one of the best straight up horror productions on television, period.