For kids of the 80s-90s, Are You Afraid of the Dark? was among the most classic kids’ shows ever. Low budget, a lot of fairly bad acting and cheesy; in other words, brilliant! And among the best of the best was the season three episode, The Tale of the Dream Girl.
For those who recall this episode, it centered around a brother and sister who work at the local bowling alley. The brother sees glimpses of a girl he doesn’t know, but feels a strange attraction to. Almost a sense of deja vu. His sister’s reaction to his claims is dubious, as though she knows more than her brother about this girl’s identity and connection to him.
Now, to skip to the reveal. As it turns out, the brother is dead but isn’t aware of it. He has no memory of his death and, in fact, much of who he was. He was killed in a car accident along with his girlfriend whom, it comes as no surprise, is the unknown girl he keeps seeing. Ultimately, his sister helps him remember his death and reunites his late brother with his girlfriend, his true love, the girl of his dreams. And throughout the story- but never in the forefront- we realize that the only person this boy actually interacts with is his sister.
And this is where the story begins. The story begins here because one of the most prominent writers/producers/directors in Hollywood credits this episode with inspiring the idea for the greatest, most classic film of his career. From the episode description, do we have any guesses who, and what film, this might be?
See, for a writer, one question rules supreme: What if?
Reality in Fiction
Even in fiction, oftentimes the genesis for the story is based in reality. A writer’s job is to observe the world around him, twist it, then take it in a direction reality hadn’t considered. And therein lies the question. What If? What if the character made a different choice? What if the stakes were higher? What if it happened in a different time and place?
Consider Star Wars, for example. The story is basic and has been told time and time again. It’s a simple story of good vs. evil, of an apprentice and his mentor fighting against all odds to free an oppressed people from an evil tyrant. But George Lucas asked himself a simple question: WHAT IF this story happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away? And viola! A Star Wars is born!
So, back to Are You Afraid of the Dark? The Tale of the Dream Girl. Among the fans of this 1994 episode was a young, budding writer who was inspired by this story of a ghost who doesn’t realize he is dead. He took that concept and asked the all-important question, What if?. And just five years later, M. Night Shyamalan made cinema history when he turned this small screen dream girl into the big screen phenomenon, The Sixth Sense. And with that, a career was born.
Behind the Scenes
Now for the fun observations behind the scenes. The primary inspiration Shyamalan found in Are You Afraid of the Dark: The Tale of the Dream Girl was that, throughout the episode- but at an almost subconscious level- we come to realize that only one person ever interacts with the ghost. And, in reality, Shyamalan accomplished this so brilliantly that, for myself anyway, I had to watch the movie a second time to realize this was actually the case. He made you believe Bruce Willis was interacting and speaking with Haley’s mom, people at a restaurant, attendees at a wake, and any number of other people when, in reality, this had never been the case. It was a film masterpiece.
In Are You Afraid of the Dark: The Tale of the Dream Girl, this was also the intent. But they didn’t do it quite as well as Shyamalan did. I got a chuckle out of one scene in the bowling alley where a kid quite obviously steps around the dead kid to avoid bumping into him, which underscores how hard it was for Shyamalan to construct the blocking so perfectly throughout his entire film. I mean, all it takes is one minor faux pas like that to deconstruct the whole charade. One misstep and the illusion is gone. And Syamalan never made that misstep. It may be the most perfect film ever made.