Analysing The Tale of the Phantom Cab

1024 684 Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Welcome back, genre authors, to what is quickly becoming one of my favourite blog series ever! In the last post I explained that I’m going to be analysing each episode of Nickelodeon’s 1990s Are You Afraid of the Dark? TV series, exploring the horror tropes, themes and techniques the show uses to scare and captivate young viewers (and, ahem, slightly older ones).

You may have noticed that I started the series with The Tale of the Lonely Ghost, which is the second episode of the show, and today’s episode is actually the pilot. There’s a very good reason for that: I don’t love The Tale of the Phantom Cab as a story, and I wanted to kick off with a gem. But despite my personal misgivings, The Phantom Cab is actually a fan favourite and the antagonist, Dr Vink, returns in a further four episodes across four seasons. He’s a great example of how the show’s writers were always careful to offset the scares with humour: eccentric, flamboyant characters like Dr Vink and magician Sardo, another AYAOTD? regular, helped balance the horror with fun and highlighted the fact that, as scary as it might be, this programme was intended to be light entertainment for young children.

Analysing S01E01 ‘The Tale of the Phantom Cab

Let’s get started! Here’s an embedded video from the official Are You Afraid of the Dark? YouTube channel but you can also click on the link above and watch it over on YouTube instead:

Episode overview

Storyteller

New member, Frank

Horror tropes

Don’t go in the woods, Mad scientist, Impossible Task

Frame story (what’s happening around the campfire) 

It’s the first episode of season 1 so we’re introduced to the Midnight Society – a group of teenagers who meet in the woods to tell ghost stories. We learn that these teens are all from different schools and friendship circles but they come together to share their love of the dark. Today there’s a new member hoping to join: Frank. He has to scare the others if he wants in but they’re skeptical, no thanks to Frank’s cocky, bad boy demeanour.

Plot

Taken from the official YouTube channel:

Two brothers, Buzz and Denny, get lost in the woods while hiking. As night falls, they are directed by a stranger to a cabin where they might seek help from old Dr. Vink. The strange Dr. Vink poses a riddle to them which they must solve before he will let them phone their parents. The boys cannot solve it and he throws them out into the forest. The boys panic as they are left in the woods alone under Dr. Vink’s curse. Their only hope is the Phantom Cab.

Theme

Frank tells us at the start that the story’s protagonist, Buzz, is desperate to prove himself to his older brother, and now he’s going to get the chance. This theme of ‘proving oneself’ is reflected in the frame story, as Frank has to show he can tell a good scary tale and impress the society members if he wants to join. It’s also about acceptance: Buzz doesn’t just want to impress his brother, he also wants him to accept him as an equal and as somebody worthy of hanging out with. That theme popped up in The Lonely Ghost, too, when Amanda accepted a scary dare in order to gain acceptance into Beth’s gang, and it’s not far off what Frank is doing right now, sitting in a dark, spooky wood at night in an attempt to be accepted into the Midnight Society.

Story development

Protagonist’s goal and motive

Poor, geeky Buzz is always being pushed around by his older brother, Denny, but he’s not bitter. He just wants to show Denny that he’s ‘not a loser’ which is a noble aim. The pair go orienteering through the woods and smart Buzz takes charge of navigation, hoping to prove his usefulness to Denny, although of course he gets them lost by pointing the compass at his belt the whole time (classic Buzz). So Buzz’s story goal in this episode is to get them home safely, and his motive is a desire to impress his cool older brother and earn his respect. And actually, the viewer wants this for Buzz too. In The Lonely Ghost, the audience hates Amanda’s cousin Beth because she’s spoilt and cruel, so we root for Amanda to win the day and for Beth to suffer. But in The Phantom Cab, we really want harmony between Buzz and Denny because that’s what Buzz wants. He’s not trying to embarrass or punish his brother – he loves him. Notice that, despite Denny being a bit of a bastard, the writers get viewers on his side quickly with a Save the Cat moment: Denny rescues Buzz when he falls over the side of the mountain. This happens early on in the episode, so however we might feel about Denny calling Buzz a loser or a dweeb, we know ultimately Denny loves his brother and that helps us understand Buzz’s motivations. If Denny were a total scumbag, we’d struggle to relate to Buzz and his goal.

Devices and motifs: acceptance and identity

The theme of ‘proving yourself’ cropped up in The Lonely Ghost, too, when Amanda had to show her cousin she was brave enough to enter the haunted house and hang with her friends. This is a really important idea in middle grade fiction because not only are children trying to prove themselves to each other and the adults in their lives every day but they’re also trying to figure out who they are. In this story, Buzz sees himself as intelligent, somebody who can solves problems, and he’s desperate for his brother to see him that way, too. His self-identity is wrapped up in his ability to solve Dr Vink’s riddle and he needs Denny to witness it so that he can be accepted for who he feels he is. Some middle grade readers have a really clear sense of who they are, what they’re good at, where they want to go in life, but a lot won’t have a clue (I didn’t!) and they’re trying figure it out every day. Remember the Dolly Parton quote, ‘find out who you are and do it on purpose’? That’s what Buzz is doing in this episode: he knows who he is, or at least who he wants to be, and he’s trying to live it. He goes hiking with his brother and takes charge of the compass because he’s the ‘smart one’, and when he gets them lost he needs to find another chance to prove it. His own perception of himself and also how others see him is important to him, as it is to most children his age. Think about this when you’re writing your middle grade story: how does your protagonist view themselves and what would it mean to them if others didn’t see them in the same way?

Monster / Villain

Dr. Vink is definitely the baddie here. At first it looks like he’s letting kids off pretty lightly – they didn’t solve his riddle so they have to leave without calling their parents for a lift. A bit petty but hardly evil mastermind stuff. But then Flynn – the stranger in the woods who pointed them in Vink’s direction to begin with – picks them up in his cab and we get Vink’s real punchline. The boys must solve that damn riddle during the cab ride or Flynn will crash the car into a tree and kill them. He’s been doing it for forty years after failing to solve the riddle himself, and he has to keep crashing into trees until some smart cookie finally comes up with the answer. As scary as Flynn is, he’s the victim here.

Setting and atmosphere

The whole episode is set in a dark, deserted forest full of rustling trees, howling wolves, indistinct whispers and ghostly laughs so there’s an eerie, suspenseful atmosphere from the get-go. Flynn’s torchlight glinting through the fog sets the tone for the rest of the episode: Denny jokes that Flynn might be ‘a maniac killer in a hockey mask who’s going to slash us’, foreshadowing the threat to come. Of course Flynn isn’t a slasher killer but he does have designs to smash them up in a car crash later! Speaking of foreshadowing, even before darkness falls and the boys find themselves hopelessly lost, we get a dark omen: when the boys are hiking in the woods, Buzz trips and almost falls to his death. Denny saves him, but it’s a tense moment and hints at worse things to come. Notice that the story ends with a reversal of this dynamic: Buzz saves Denny from certain death later by solving the riddle.

There are also echoes of Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel in these woodland scenes. Lost in the dark, the boys happen upon a cabin in the woods, the light emanating from beneath the door making the house look like something from a fairytale. We know what’s waiting for them inside but, just like Red and Hansel and Gretel, the boys will defeat the monster and win out in the end.

The scenes inside Dr Vink’s cabin have a lighter tone, with cryptic little jokes and whimsical pipe music playing in the background, but the threat hasn’t been defused yet: when the boys fail to solve Vink’s riddle, he offers to let them phone their parents in return for a specimen – his code word for body part. The shadowy cabin, lit by flickering candles, is full of such specimens in jars and bubbling experiments, setting Vink up as a madman.

Climax and resolution

Once again, there’s a happy ending. The boys are rescued by a ranger who takes them home to their parents and we’re told Vink’s house disappeared from the forest and nobody ever saw him again. The door isn’t left open for future threat but, as regular viewers will know, Vink does return in several later episodes. First time viewers of The Phantom Cab will get closure because Frank assures us Vink has been permanently defeated, but a second watch might leave children a little on edge if they know Vink isn’t really gone after all.

Structure

As always, when I discuss various story structures I am absolutely not suggesting that you need to follow these or any structures when plotting or writing your novel. There’s no one right way to write a book. But exploring structure can be a really helpful way of unpacking story arcs, pacing, reader expectations and genre conventions. Ultimately, the most important formula for a story is a character with a problem they need to solve or a goal they need to achieve + things getting in that character’s way = a resolution that demonstrates how that character has grown, changed or learned something on their journey.

But plot structures like the Hero’s Journey or Save the Cat! can help to highlight the other elements of a plot and where the action should rise and fall. For example, in all story structures there is some sort of inciting incident – an event that disrupts the status quo and sets everything in motion – and in the case of The Phantom Cab, it’s Buzz misreading the compass and getting them lost. This forces Buzz into action and brings on his character journey.

 The monster with a thousand faces 

In the last post in the series we looked at this structure as it applies to horror stories, so let’s try it again here:

1) The initial situation/The ordinary world

    • The hero does something normalTwo brothers are hiking in the woods, enjoying the sunshine and loving life.
    • There’s a problemIt turns out Buzz has been pointing his compass at his belt all afternoon and now they’re lost with no way to get home. So the protagonist’s goal is: get home!
    • WarningThey meet Flynn, a helpful stranger in the woods who suggests they knock on Dr. Vink’s door for help. But he issues a warning first: ‘Before you ask the doctor for help, make sure you need it. The price he charges is a little steep.’ So already, we have obstacles getting in Buzz’s way.

2) Break into act two

    • The protagonist makes a choice: The boys know something’s a little off with Vink’s cabin but they have no way to get home, so they step over the threshold and go inside.
    • Initial problem is either solved or changed: The boys want to call their parents to have them come pick them up, but Vink insists they solve a riddle first. He’s obviously a dangerous guy to be around, so now their problem isn’t ‘find a way home’, it’s ‘get out of here alive’.
    • Fake solution: The boys fail to solve the riddle but they escape Vink’s house unharmed – win!
    • Fake villain: This is where the protagonist identifies the wrong villain and thinks they’re safe. Vink is the bad guy here, but there’s another obstacle in their way: Flynn.

3) Climax

    • Protagonist and antagonist/villain fight. It’s a mental battle rather than a physical one. Flynn threatens to kill the boys if they don’t solve the riddle and it’s a race against time but of course Buzz solves it and saves the day! How does Buzz change by the end of the story? I think he learns to believe in himself more. He’s so used to Denny calling him a dweeb and a waste of space that he starts thinking he must be right. In that final moment in the cab, he knows for sure Denny is wrong and finally proves it.

The ‘monster with a thousand faces’ structure seems to be working pretty well for Are You Afraid of the Dark? episodes so far! That’s not to say it will translate perfectly to your horror manuscript; shows in the AYAOTD series follow a particular formula so that viewers know what to expect from each episode. You might want to subvert those expectations a little, or introduce a more complex plot. These AYAOTD episodes are only 20 minutes long so there is little room for subplots or deep character development. Think how you would expand on these short scary stories in full length manuscript.

Call to Adventure!

How to use these ideas and observations in your own work

Once again, I hope this episode has given you middle grade horror authors plenty to think about! Here are a few ideas to think about when writing or revising your own manuscript:

    • Watch how the lighting technicians and sound engineers create atmosphere in the woods. How can you evoke memories and sensations for your readers with similar techniques? Think about what your protagonist hears, smells, tastes and feels rather than only focusing on sight.
    • The main fear at play in this episode is being abducted and attacked in the woods. Whether it’s Vink trying to put their hands in a jar or Flynn driving them into a tree, this setting is full of threats at night. This is a primal fear that’s been used by storytellers for generations, from ancient folktales to Hollywood horror blockbusters. How might you use this instinctive phobia of dark, empty woods in your middle grade novel in a way that doesn’t feel overdone?
    • Like last week’s episode, notice how Buzz is an active character even though his brother is often in charge. It’s Buzz who tries to solve Vink’s riddles, not Denny. How can you make your protagonist active, driving the plot forward, even when things seem out of their control?
Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes