I owe a lot to Are You Afraid of the Dark. This twisted little Canadian show has a starring role in my childhood. For one, I had two older sister who loved to torment me.
Technically, this episode first aired in Canada in 1990, which means I was -months old at that point. When it aired in the US in August of 1992, I was just over a year old. But thank goodness for Nickelodeon’s constant reruns of older episodes. Though once I started having nightmares about the characters, I think my mom put a stop to my watching.
“The Tale of the Phantom Cab” is not on of the stronger episodes, but it is probably one of the more hilariously bad one. The 90’s were fantastic at making things spooky that look incredibly dated and silly decades later.
The Midnight Society are perhaps the coolest group of dorks around. For one, they have the sickest name ever. But they are just a gaggle of children who have nothing in common besides their love for telling weird stories around a campfire.
In the first episode (not the pilot), it’s newbie Frank’s turn to tell the story. The Midnight Society allow him to tell a story as a part of an initiation. If they like his story, he’s in.
Frank’s story is “The Tale of the Phantom Cab,” a rather urban-legend-esque story about two brothers, Denny and Buzz. The brothers are hiking in the woods, and are lost. Frank tells us in his voice-over that Denny is strong and smart while his young brother is a bit of a geek.
Speaking of geek, it’s Buzz’s fault that the brothers get lost as he’s holding his compass too close to his belt buckle. While you’d think that compass-usage 101 is what you have to learn before going hiking alone, I guess it’s not in Canada. But as dark falls, the brothers bump into a man who introduces himself as Flynn.
Flynn tells the boys to follow him, as he says that he knows the woods well. He leads them to a sort of hobbit hole/hermit’s den in a clearing. Once they arrive, Flynn tells the brothers that the doctor who lives there can help them, but he charges a steep price.
As the boys approach the cottage, the bushes begin to shake and laugh. So the boys run to the door and pound at it, begging to be let in. And it’s Doctor Vink, a series re-occurring character, who lets them in.
He agrees to allow the boys to use his phone, but only if they answer his riddle. Buzz becomes over-confident when he answers the warm-up straight away. But it’s the real riddle that stumps him. “What’s weightless, can be seen by the naked eye, and if put in a barrel, will make it lighter?”
For some reason, just because the kids (including the Midnight Society) can’t guess the answer straight away, they all assume that there is no answer. Which, in my opinion, a riddle without an answer is a pretty stupid riddle. It’s pretty tough watching this episode when you’re good at riddles. Or even vaguely familiar with answering them. I mean, this one is pretty easy, kids.
Since neither brother can answer, they are sent away to catch a cab. But before they leave, Doctor Vink does offer them the option of giving a specimen, namely a hand. Both boys opt out.
When the boys hop into the cab, they realise that Flynn is their driver. He begins to tell him his story. Years ago, he dropped Doctor Vink off in his cab. The doctor asked him the same riddle, and Flynn failed to answer it. He later had his hand taken from him after he crashed his cab in the woods.
For years Flynn has been driving those who also failed to answer the riddle to their certain death. The laughing heard earlier is in fact the trapped ghosts of the victims. The boys begin to panic when they realise that they will be the next victims. Just before they are about to crash, Buzz has a sudden revelation, and knows that the answer is “hole”.
The boys suddenly find themselves free from the cab, and know that they’ve freed all the spirits of those who died. A ranger pulls up and tells the boys that their parents are looking for them. Relieved, the boys hop into the ranger’s jeep.
Frank’s story gives him a round of unanimous thumbs up, allowing him into the Midnight Society. But I think the kids are mostly just in awe that that damn riddle could actually be solved.
They are idiots, but they’re so damn cute.
“The Tale of the Phantom Cab” certainly isn’t AYAOTD‘s most original tale, but it is worth remembering that many of these urban legends scared the pants off us as kids (for me it was always “Bloody Mary). There’s something great about recalling childhood scares because it’s a whole lot more innocent than the things we grow up to be frightened of.
Highlight quotes of the episode:
“Don’t worry, I’ll smack you when we get home.” – Denny
“Sounds like one of those riddles that can’t be solved.” – an idiot
“Nice going, but you’re still a loser.” – Denny