Goosebumps had nothing on this one. Tom Augustine looks back at the Kiwi kid’s horror series that scarred a generation: Freaky.
When I was a kid, there wasn’t much I was banned from watching – my mum, bless her, was of the ‘better you do it in the house’ variety – but one such ban came after I watched a show so terrifying, so horrific, it robbed me of sleep for weeks. That show was Thomas Robins’ Freaky, the 13-part Kiwi childrens’ horror series, a kind of Godzone Goosebumps or Are You Afraid of the Dark?. Naturally, this meant that I was drawn even more to watching it, even though I knew the psychic damage it was ultimately going to do to me when I crawled under the covers at night. Drawing from the classic Twilight Zone structure of television, Freaky told three spooky, mostly kid-friendly horror tales a week, each out about seven or so minutes in length, generally unrelated to each other and covering a vast array of horror subgenres, from ghosts to vampires to possessed everyday objects.
Shot with evidently first-time-actor Kiwi kids and a smattering of grown-up Kiwi bit-players (including David Fane, Jed Brophy and Loren Taylor), the show’s run wasn’t especially extensive (it showed as part of What Now? on Sundays for a time), and part of me wonders whether or not it’s because as a kid growing up in the halcyon days of the early 2000s it was almost aggressively frightening. In the first episode to leave a profound mark on me, a kid is trapped within a mirror while his reflection steals his life in the outside world. I actively avoided looking at mirrors for weeks and swore that if my reflection ever spoke to me he would be catching these eleven-year-old hands.
That was only the tip of the iceberg, as Freaky seemed to take delight in drawing innocent kid viewers into the seemingly mundane lives of underage Wellingtonians, only to hurl them into all manner of nightmarish scenarios. The show was low-budget, hit or miss, and certainly pretty goofy at times – but when they landed on something truly scary, the result was one of those distant, semi-forgotten television series that had a profound effect on the kids who were frightened by them – of which, if Youtube comments on the recently uploaded series are anything to go by, there are many.
Like the best horrors, Freaky played on your morbid curiosity – there was a touch of the playfully scary, Halloween-inflected ‘fun frights’ of those more well-known kids horror shows imported from America – but Freaky often stood out for its commitment to occasionally being pretty damn bleak. This was a show completely unafraid of ending on the darkest point imaginable which meant that, yeah, a lot of them ended with the presumed death of some cute kids.
Freaky was presented by Daniel Costello – who, through my extensive Googling, I can’t seem to find much information on – a youngster guiding us between tales who had total Marty McFly energy – cool to other nerds, but definitely still a total nerd. There are a few treats to be found returning to Freaky so many years later – in one notable segment, for example, none other than a young Taika Waititi shows up as a murderous janitor:
For me personally, returning to the series removed a little of its mythical sheen as this outsized, demonic presence in my childhood, where it sat alongside James and the Giant Peach, The Witches and that scene in Signs where the alien walks through the children’s party as Rosetta stones for all the things that scare me to this day. The show, I discovered, was of course just a show – one that bears the hallmarks of a low-budget Kiwi kids production from the early 2000s. This means it’s fairly cheaply shot, won’t be winning any acting awards anytime soon, and features some truly, remarkably awful CGI.
And yet. You know how sometimes you’ll see a film or look at an image or read a passage in a novel you haven’t returned to since you were a kid and it takes you back instantly, like Ego eating Remy’s food in Ratatouille? This was the same thing. Not just one, but several Freaky episodes, for all their shaky production values, still pack a surprisingly unsettling, even upsetting punch.
The classic structure of a Freaky episode was this; begin with a slightly wacky adventure-comedy story to ease your unwitting prey in, then in the second story present something deeply traumatic and horrifying, then follow up with a comedy-horror chaser. It was damn effective. Part of what made this show uniquely frightening to Kiwi children, I daresay, was the unapologetic Kiwi-ness of the whole enterprise. The Wellington uck-sents were in full swing, and stories were frequently set in and around the mundane regularities of Kiwi life – the mall, or school, or a dairy, or your backyard. For a Kiwi kid, there was little to separate yourself from the ill-fated tykes facing certain doom from story to story.
The first episode is a great example of this structure – it begins with a kid going down an enchanted waterslide and winding up in a prehistoric world, where he is menaced by a caveman. Later, he escapes from the waterslide only to jump off a similarly enchanted diving board, where he is promptly swallowed whole by a giant shark, thus setting the tone of this entire bloody show.
The second story, “Lab Rats”, was one of several highly disturbing little tales, in which a nice girl discovers she is essentially a rat within a maze for aliens observing her and a couple of other ‘lab-rats’ that are dead set on eating her – which they eventually do at the end of the story. That’s two-for-two dead kids in the first episode! The show would only proceed to get more frightening from there – and there are a few that I am genuinely surprised were allowed to be shown to kids, how still legitimately frightening they are. In my forensic analysis of the series, I whittled down the five Freaky stories most likely to leave long-lasting psychological scars on the post-Y2K youngsters who fell victim to its charms.
A bit of a cheat, these two stories conceptually weren’t enormously frightening, but featured singular moments of spine-chilling terror. In the first, a school bully (a young Joseph Moore(!)) attempts to torment a new kid in the class (Reddyn Wallace) who wears a motorcycle helmet. When the helmet is eventually removed, it is revealed that the boy has two faces, the second of which lurks on the back of his skull and is utterly horrifying. In ‘Gameshow’, two young boys (Lui Tuiasau and Sharn Te Pou) sneak into a haunted television studio after hours, where they are menaced by a pair of gameshow hosts (Paul Yates and Stephanie Reid) killed in a fire thirty years ago. The dissonance between the hosts’ TV-friendly persona and their sudden, lurching transitions into decaying, rotting ghouls was just not okay for this impressionable youngster.
The aforementioned episode where a messy but seemingly pretty chill little ginger boy (James Ordish) is imprisoned forever in his bedroom mirror by his totally nuts reflection-self. This was one of the first times I can remember being existentially frightened by something – not a singular instance with this show, either.
Two kids (Emma Beer and Dylan McKay) move to a rural area, come upon an old abandoned house with a swing and a tragic history, are haunted by the ghosts there. This one, like many of the best Freaky stories, genuinely has a touch of the novelistic about it – with an ending that brings the mysteries of the story full circle in a way that is really pretty satisfying even today. There’s a moment in this one where a little girl picks up a phone from a trash heap and listens to it, only to hear a demonic voice on the other end, that still gives me chills, while the horror centre-piece, in which an angry spirit attacks the girl’s brother while he sits on a swing, is devilishly well-edited and surprisingly inventive in maximizing the impact of the ghost’s sudden appearance.
An extremely adorable little girl is attacked by an evil photocopier in her mum’s office building in the most uniquely upsetting of all the Freaky episodes. This one isn’t purely scary, it’s actively quite nasty in the terror it unleashes on the little girl (Lizzie Mackie), whose performance is one of the most impressive in the entire show. The sequence employs cinematic tricks that have echoes of a kind of kitchen-sink David Lynch, as when the youngster stares at photocopied images being printed out of the man trapped within the copier, a moment that is still frightening to this day.
The jewel in the Freaky crown, ‘Photo’ is one of the most harrowing sequences of television I’d ever been subjected to, one that stayed with me long after I first saw it. In ‘Photo’, two young girls (Emily Shute and Rachel Batty) visiting a bach somewhere in NZ come across a haunted locket featuring a picture of two locals who drowned. The pair go to the beach and take photos of each other – but when they develop said photos, they see a man in the background of the pictures, getting closer.
It gets worse from there. This is one of those ‘holy shit, that’s bleak’ stories that Freaky was so good at, ending on a note as singularly terrifying as anything New Zealand television has put out. As the ghouls of this particular story lunge at their victims before the screen cuts to black, it’s a moment that seems like it belongs somewhere far less innocent than a block in What Now?.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend newcomers to Freaky seek the show out to watch now – for those who weren’t initiated with it at the time, it’s production values have aged pretty poorly, often leading to some unintentionally funny moments of televisual falseness.
But returning to Freaky as someone who had been terrified by it so many years ago, I found a show that not only was devastatingly effective in totally freaking me out, but which seemed fairly unique in the New Zealand television landscape, one that rewarded constant, hit-or-miss invention and valued economy of story and character above anything else – it lacked subtlety, undoubtedly, but it was a children’s show, and I have to admire the freewheeling, often distressing inventiveness on hand in almost every episode. Kiwi ingenuity at its finest.