There is nothing more traumatic than tuning into your favorite show only to find the characters being stalked by an oozing slime monster, strangled by a puppet, or being picked off one by one by a masked killer. This is especially true if you're a child and the show in question is a freaking sitcom. In the '90s, there seemed to be a lot of leniency when it came to what kids could handle seeing on TV. From Family Matters to The X-Files (not a kids show, but a show that so many kids watched it ended up on the cover of Disney Adventures), '90s TV was pure nightmare fuel for kids.
What got me riled up most is how unexpected a traumatic episode would be. Out of nowhere, Are You Afraid of the Dark? would decide to offer up Zeebo for your viewing displeasure, or Ghostwriter would put a pause on the mystery solving to introduce a slime monster who refused to die. You never knew when TV was going to be a safe haven or introduce you to an episode of television that you would spend the rest of your life having nightmares over.
If you grew up in the '90s, I apologize because the 11 episodes on this list are about to remind you of some serious pop culture-induced childhood trauma.
1. "Stevil," Family Matters
For some reason the Family Matters writers thought it would be a great idea to devote a Halloween episode to a demonic ventriloquist dummy who looked just like Urkel. It was bad enough when Stevil became sentient, but then he started dismembering the Winslow family. He turned Carl into a living puppet! And all the while canned audience laughter played. Yeah... even Urkel's warning that the episode would be "a little scary" could not have prepared young minds for that horror show.
2. "And Then There Was Shawn," Boy Meets World
Before I discovered that "And Then There Was Shawn" is widely considered as Boy Meets World's best episode, I thought it was a fever dream I had about Mr. Feeny, Jack, Eric, and pretty much everyone else being murdered by a masked killer. The excellent Scream spoof was just pure terror for me because I (and I'm sure most of the audience) was not yet allowed to watch Scream.
3. "Attack Of The Slime Monster," Ghostwriter
Even PBS betrayed me when Ghostwriter introduced Gooey Gus, a horrifying slime monster with bulging eyes and teeth (why did he need teeth?) who refused to die even when boiled. Nothing would stop the purple abomination from stalking The Ghostwriter Team or leaving me with recurring nightmares.
4. "The Tale Of The Laughing In The Dark," Are You Afraid Of The Dark?
In truth, I could populate this entire list with Are You Afraid of the Dark? episodes, but Zeebo the clown topped the fear factor charts for me. I definitely never considered stealing a clown's nose, or even going near one, after that.
5. "Slumber Party," Rugrats
Tommy's fever dream is full of unsettling hallucinations and a general sense of impending doom. The fact that it is all happening to a sick child with no way to vocalize the trauma only makes the whole sequence all the more frightening.
6. "Home," The X-Files
The X-Files was not a kids show, but no one told that to my parents. For the most part, I could handle the gross-outs and the monsters, but I was in no way prepared for violent, incestuous humans who kept their limbless mother under the bed. If you caught this infamous episode when it first aired, then you no doubt spent the rest of your childhood with the mom's horrifying face stuck in your head.
7. "Night Of The Living Dummy," Goosebumps
Why, R.L. Stine? Why did you create this dummy? And then call him Slappy? Nothing about that dummy was OK.
8. "Reality Takes A Holiday," Eerie, Indiana
Marshall wakes up one morning to discover his life is all just a TV show, and why yes, as a TV-obsessed kid, this episode did trigger an existential crisis for me. The idea that your life could also be a dream feels just a little too possible after watching this episode.
9. "Changing Nature," Dinosaurs
Hey, remember that time you sat down to watch the series finale of the Dinosaurs and the Ice Age hit, leaving you to watch helplessly as the family prepared to freeze to death inside their homes? Good times. I mean who doesn't want a family show to end with an environmental catastrophe that wipes out civilization. It's never too soon to teach kids that everyone — including a sitcom family of dinosaurs — dies.
10. "You've Got To Be A Football Hero," Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air
The best way to scare preteens into never driving drunk is to show them Will trapped in a mausoleum with four ghosts, including the ghost of a child killed by a drunk driver. The tonal shift in this episode left me convinced for years that Will was actually dead too, because that's how my brain worked when I was eight.
11. "Ghost Story," Hey Dude
Three words: Zeke the Plumber.
I sincerely apologize for your forthcoming lack of sleep tonight, but you can't say I didn't warn you.
Images: Nickelodeon/YouTube (4); Giphy (4); PBS/YouTube; NBC/YouTube (2); ABC/YouTube; Fox/YouTube