It used to be that as a teen, if a horror novel or movie scared you so viscerally that it kept you up all night thinking about it, then it had done its job. During the time that you’re reading or watching along, you’re not as consumed by your own grief and anxieties, or by whether death really is just a mysterious prank call or a man with knives for fingers away; you’re connecting with these elements as they exist within the story.
But “The Midnight Club,” a new Netflix series adapted from YA horror author Christopher Pike’s 1994 novel, ominously asks: What if you were the story? And what would happen if death were not merely a relentless fear but an imminent truth?
These are the questions that the series’ young protagonists — including Ilonka (Iman Benson), Anya (Ruth Codd), Natsuki (Aya Furukawa), Spencer (William Chris Sumpter), Amesh (Sauriyan Sapkota) and Kevin (Igby Rigney) — ponder every midnight as residents of the ’90s-set hospice Brightcliffe.
As the clock strikes 12 a.m., they tiptoe out of their rooms and gather around a table to entertain and soothe themselves by telling petrifying and startlingly intimate stories that reveal their inner fears. Those include depression, failure, ostracization, a crisis of faith and, of course, death.
It’s the perfect setup for a series helmed by Mike Flanagan, who co-created the show with Leah Fong and previously gave us the eerily resonant “Midnight Mass” and “The Haunting of Hill House.” Like those series, “The Midnight Club” — which premiered Friday — oscillates between devastating poignance and sheer terror in brilliant measure.
That’s what attracted Heather Langenkamp to the role of warm and friendly Brightcliffe founder Dr. Georgina Stanton, whose history with the hospice becomes entangled in a sinister mystery that the teens — particularly Ilonka — are determined to solve.
Flanagan’s storytelling is, as Langenkamp put it to HuffPost, “unique and personal.” While death hovers over the narrative, Dr. Stanton encourages the teens to not consider life as a constant battle or death as something to fear.
It’s a mantra that Langenkamp admires. “I think death is so terrifying,” she revealed. “And my character, I think, wants to say it’s not that terrifying. It’s like, if you can just be OK with it, then we can get on with living a life that actually is quite fulfilling and maybe even beautiful.”
This is an unusual sentiment in a genre that often deals with the opposite. “In a way, it’s a counterbalance to what horror movies usually do,” she continued, “which is really show you how terrifying death is — especially if it’s by a knife, a chain saw, finger knives, whatever it is.”
Langenkamp knows this all too well. At 18 years old, she immortalized the role of teenager Nancy Thompson in the iconic horror franchise “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” beginning with Wes Craven’s 1984 original, in which she is persistently haunted by the horrifying Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund).
So, to say that Langenkamp is well versed in elements of gore, grief, terror and torment — much to her then-teenage fans’ elation — would be an understatement.
But what she was less prepared for as she first dove into the “The Midnight Club” script, other than Dr. Stanton’s lengthy monologues that are purposefully dispersed like breadcrumbs throughout the series, was how specific it would be to her in other ways.
“My son died of cancer four years ago,” the actor said. “So I’m right in this mentality of what it takes for a young person to go through cancer.”
“I believe a lot of the messages that are in this show about having control of your life — no matter how old you are facing cancer — is that you have to start thinking about your life in a totally different way,” she added.
For the teenage characters in “The Midnight Club,” and as any young horror fan from the past or present could tell you, engaging with spooky tales is a way to make sense of some of their most delicate emotions.
Langenkamp’s own kids loved reading books by R.L. Stine, another hugely popular YA horror author of favorites like the “Fear Street” series in the ’90s. “He was very big in our woods here,” she remembered with a smile.
Though they were a bit too young for “the Christopher Pike craze,” as the actor called it, she was eager to pick up copies of his books while preparing to play Dr. Stanton. And what she read astounded her.
“They deal with really serious matters,” Langenkamp said. It’s easy to see why Flanagan, who Langenkamp learned was a huge fan of hers because of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” was so drawn to “The Midnight Club.”
“I think that shows in his work in a way, because those novels do tell stories in different ways than a lot of fiction that kids read back then,” she said.
While the best horror has always felt like a chilling gut punch, there’s a staggeringly emotional layer beneath the surface of Pike’s 1994 novel and certainly Flanagan’s other series. “The Midnight Club” is no exception. It’s the type of story young horror fans crave.
“A lot of people look to horror for soothing their fears,” Langenkamp said. “I think we’re filled with anxiety and fears about our own lives. We’re terrified about the future. We’re worried about our families or how it’s all going to end.”
She hits on an all-too-real point that particularly impacts young people growing up today in the age of social media, who are compelled to process a lot of difficult things. “We’re really obsessed with lots of really sad and worrisome thoughts, and I do believe that horror gives [people] the tools to handle that,” Langenkamp said.
“In a way, they’re baby lessons in fighting for yourself like Nancy,” she added. “Or dealing with — my gosh — illness, like this show does. I do think people get a grip on what their own capabilities are in the face of fear in a weird way when they approach horror.”
What also makes the “The Midnight Club” TV series so fascinating is that it understands the legacy of Pike’s book but also thoughtfully revitalizes it for modern audiences. That meant casting actors who reflect the diversity of the world and the inside of hospices. Very few horror offerings, either on screen or at the library, bothered to consider this in the past.
“When you look at the cover of ‘The Midnight Club’ back in the ’90s, it’s all these white kids,” Langenkamp said. “They’re all sitting there by the fireplace, and they’re all little blond kids. It’s hilarious that that was even allowed. Looking back on it, it just seems so blind and ridiculous.”
This wasn’t only allowed; it was expected and often unquestioned. And it wasn’t only Pike or even other YA novels. It was the genre at large, even on screen — including in the classic “A Nightmare on Elm Street.”
Langenkamp is quick to agree. “Oh definitely,” she said.
“In ‘Nightmare on Elm Street,’ the diversity was that Rod [a friend of Nancy’s, played by Jsu Garcia] — maybe he was Hispanic,” she continued. “He was tough and a kind of leather jacket stereotype. He was so stereotyped, and yet that was considered pretty diverse.”
She thought of one more way that the film did the least in terms of diversity: “Johnny [Depp, who played Nancy’s friend Glen] wasn’t your typical white kid that you would expect in that role. So, they were trying back then to mix it up a little bit. Yet, it wasn’t such an important part of our storytelling as it is now. To me, it made it much more interesting.”
In “The Midnight Club,” this is more direct, though it never feels obligatory. Each of the young characters’ identities is inherent to the stories they tell, but that’s not limited to their racial backgrounds. It’s their faith, sexuality, ability, culture, mental health and other experiences that, when confronted with fear, can be compounded and manifested into something macabre.
Or, at times, beautiful.
But most significantly, “The Midnight Club” empowers young people from across the globe to tell their own stories: fictional tales or truths — or thrilling combinations of both — that help them process their own lives and connect with others like them. Together, they can find a new purpose.
“The act of creation in and of itself is a life-affirming process,” Langenkamp said. “And no matter what you create — I mean it can be a cake, or a painting, a costume for your dog at Halloween — it’s, like, one for the ‘life team,’ because only when we’re living can we create things.”
She paused before adding, “And the idea that you’re a story in someone else’s life too.”
It’s true. The characters’ very presence in each other’s lives fuels them forward another day. And as Langenkamp said, “The Midnight Club” doesn’t exactly subscribe to the genre tradition of “the final girl,” with a female character who claws her way to survival on her own by the end of the story. Not all of these teens make it to the closing credits, but they each leave an indelible mark in the horror universe.
“You think, ’OK, maybe Ilonka is fulfilling some of those characteristics that we attach to final girls,” Langenkamp said. “But the truth is, ironically, whoever is last is not going to be the final girl in this one. They all are showing the characteristics of these ‘final teenagers,’ they call them.”
“And ironically, they won’t be the last one standing,” she continued. “They might even be the first one to go, because they’re showing the characteristics in spite of the fact that they know that they probably won’t be able to endure forever.”
But that doesn’t make them any less affecting.