Still Grinning: A Conversation with the Ghastly Grinner from ‘Are You Afraid of the Dark?’
By John Campopiano
Over the years I’ve made a concerted effort to track down the actors and writers behind some of the most memorable villainous monsters of my movie watching childhood.
Whether it be the terrifying toddler behind Gage Creed from Mary Lambert’s PET SEMATARY or the infamous, intergalactic shapeshifter, Pennywise the Clown, from Stephen King’s IT—confronting the real and really human people behind these characters has been a sort of cathartic, horror movie therapy for me.
I’m confronting the characters that thrilled and scared me as a youngster.
More recently, I tracked down Neil Kroetsch, Canadian stage, television, film, and voice actor who played the Ghastly Grinner in the infamous 1994 episode of the popular Nickelodeon series, Are You Afraid of the Dark? titled, “The Tale of the Ghastly Grinner.”
The story centers around Ethan Wood, a comic book fan and burgeoning artist, who unintentionally unleashes the Ghastly Grinner—a villain from a rare comic book who has the ability to turn people into laughing, drooling zombies. What’s not to love?
Below is our conversation about Are You Afraid of the Dark? his infamous role as the Ghastly Grinner, and why he thinks scary stories appeal to younger audiences. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
John Campopiano for iHorror.com: Hello, Neil. Thanks for talking with us about this memorable horror villain from the beloved 90s show, Are You Afraid of the Dark? First, how did you land the role of the Ghastly Grinner?
Neil Kroetsch: My pleasure! Well, I actually had a small, secondary role on another episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? about a year and a half earlier—just 2 or 3 lines, really. I went home afterward and never thought anything else of it.
One day the director from that episode called me and said, “We have something and I think maybe you’d be great for it.”
He had remembered me from that episode and wanted to bring me in to read for the Ghastly Grinner. I said sure, let me see it! They brought me in for an audition and we talked about the part. Before I started to read for them I said, “If you want me to tone it down just tell me.”
When you come from the theater bigger is better, you know? I told them I was going to try it over-the-top. It’s like that old saying: go big or go home. They said, “Oh no, that’s just what this character needs.” They were right.
JC: What was the rest of the audition experience like? Did you feel confident about your chances once it was over?
NK: For the audition, they brought in the director, producers, and the assistant director. We played around with it and I remember doing the Ghastly Grinner character a couple of times and in different ways.
I don’t remember the exact scene they had me read, but I think it was when the lead boy, Ethan Wood (played by Amos Crawley) is drawing in his notepad and becomes frightened when I appear and say something like, “What’s the matter, kid?! Cat got your tongue!? Hahaha!”
The audition was in January and often during the holiday period we all tend to overeat and drink. The producer made a little remark, “Well, I’m wondering about the actor’s stomach muscles in tights…” and I said, “Oh don’t worry, that’ll be gone. I’ll lose that.” We all had a good laugh about that! [Laughs]
JC: Speaking of his lines, the Ghastly Grinner didn’t have too many in the episode. The heart of the performance seemed to be in the physicality that you brought to him.
NK: That’s right. I haven’t done theater in several years now, but I had done a lot of theater in the past—it’s where I started. I really like physical theater. So, I enjoy trying to communicate to an audience with as few words as possible when I’m on stage. I think that approach worked particularly well with this sort of character who can become quite compelling with just his movements.
The danger is—and I sometimes get these comments from film and television people—is “Tone it down. Please tone it down.” Because sometimes that really big approach can be too over the top. But for the Ghastly Grinner character, it was exactly what was required.
JC: The Ghastly Grinner’s laugh is one of the iconic elements of the character and episode overall. How did you find his voice?
What I wanted was for the laugh to sound as natural as possible, which was often quite easy given that I was having so much fun playing the part. Especially in the scenes when I’m scaring the boy because I know that I’m also doing it with a nod and a wink, you know?
Given the spirit of that show, I wasn’t a true monster in the classic horror sense. In general, I really enjoy voice work and have done a lot of it, be it narration or dubbing or cartoons. It’s a lot of fun.
JC: Oftentimes actors playing villains intentionally keep their distance from their child actor co-stars in order for the scary moments to feel more authentic on camera. What was that part of the experience like for you on “The Tale of the Ghastly Grinner”?
NK: Those actors are absolutely right. I did the same thing here. I think it was W.C. Fields who said, “Never work with children or animals” because the unknown is huge, you know? For me, it really was a fun shoot and the young boy I was working with, Amos Crawley, was great. He was not capricious or demanding at all.
He was fun to work with. I’m hesitant to be too friendly offscreen with a child actor when I’m playing the villain because sometimes there’s a psychological line they might not be able to cross. It’s like, “Wow, you were being so nice to me during lunch and now you’re being so nasty.”
So, I think keeping some distance is wise. It’s really just a mutual respect. We would talk a little bit on set with the other kids about other episodes of the series we had seen. But once the shoot is over we can toss the football around or whatever—but not while we’re in production.
JC: Did you spend a lot of time with ADR (post-production) re-recording the various Ghastly Grinner laughs?
NK: Actually, the laughter vocals were all picked up live on set. Often we would do multiple takes. I never minded doing five, six, seven takes! So, there was no ADR—I never did go into the studio after shooting to re-record.
JC: In researching you and the episode I came across several of your professional headshots. The transformation you underwent to become the Ghastly Grinner was amazing, there’s barely any resemblance between you and the Grinner!
NK: It was a lengthy process, but the team was so good at it. All I had to do was just relax. I’ve been on other shoots where they’ve had to apply prosthetics which can impact your breathing and take even longer to apply. But with the Ghastly Grinner, it was mostly heavy makeup and costume. It was a very vivid costume design.
When you sit down in the chair, you bring your own particular take on a character. But as you’re sitting there in front of a mirror and you’re watching as your face begins to change: the colors, the lines, the expressions, it starts to give you ideas. For me, I thought to myself, “Oh, he’s like this subterranean force from some otherworldly place with strong, dynamic thrust to how he approaches everything…” and you suddenly begin to see the character as the makeup creates a new face for you.
JC: What has the response to the Ghastly Grinner character been like over the years?
NK: I’ve been quite surprised by the response. About six years ago two young men in New Hampshire wrote to me asking for a photo, saying what a big impression the show made on them as children. It’s rewarding for an actor to have that sort of response, particularly for a supporting actor like myself who isn’t often cast in lead roles. Here I had the opportunity to be a lead character, but then to also realize how many people it touched. I find that very rewarding. I don’t think any of us were cognizant of this at the moment—because we were having fun and focused on doing a good job—but I think we created something quite magical. Bob Brewster, my fellow actor in this episode who played Amos Crawley’s father, John Wood, told me a while back that this particular episode was a top favorite of the entire series.
JC: Speaking from experience, there’s something thrilling about being scared as a child. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a wealth of spooky content (film, television, books) made specifically for a younger audience. Why do you think some kids like monsters and things that go bump in the night?
NK: One of the actors from the Ghastly Grinner episode told me that his son who, at the time we made the show, was 7 or 8 years old, had a copy of the “The Tale of the Ghastly Grinner” and would watch it with his friends. When my character would first appear they would pause it and hide behind the couch. But then they’d rewind that scene and play it over and over again! I think for some children of that age, as long as they’re in a structured environment, they like to be frightened because they can control it and then respond to it. It’s like when you tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood to a child and read that part, “Come closer, child…and ahhh!” they’ll scream or laugh but almost always they will say, “Do it again! Read it again!” because at that age their thirst for the repetition of things they like is endless—they like to be frightened over and over again.
JC: Many different streaming platforms, like Shudder, Netflix, Amazon, etc. have allowed people to rediscover shows and films they grew up with. What are your thoughts on the legacy of “The Tale of the Ghastly Grinner” and Are You Afraid of the Dark?
NK: I’m glad that the artifact itself—the video, or just the story itself—lives on. It’s not like the old days of television when something was on at a fixed time and if you caught it, great, if not then too bad.
Now with YouTube and all of these other platforms, these things live on and people can go back and revisit them. In terms of the Ghastly Grinner episode, it’s like, OK, a comic book character comes to life? If you write that down as a single line and try to pitch it to a producer they’ll almost always say, “Nah, I don’t think so.”
But this worked because it was colorful, had well-written characters, and had a villain that came to life from a comic book and could scare you. I think the production values were good for the era and the use of fantasy worked really well.
The writers on Are You Afraid of the Dark? like D.J. MacHale, Ron Oliver, and others, had a very keen awareness for the sensibility of children. Ages 7 to 12, especially, are when you’re starting to come into adolescence and become much more cognizant of the adult world. You gradually start to take on more responsibilities but also—and what’s so embarrassing about that period of life—is you become more conscious of social standing: How am I judged by my peers? Do I fit in? I feel nervous, awkward. And I think the writers on the show really handled that very well. They were characters you could relate to.
What I liked about the series (having done one episode before the Grinner episode) is how excited the child actors were on set. Until only a few years ago I had never watched the episode. It’s not something I typically do—go back and watch my performances. It’s just not a part of my nature.
But after I started getting letters from fans about the Ghastly Grinner role I wanted to go back and see if I had the episode in my demo reel. Sure enough, I did, so I watched it. I realized then why the kids liked it, particularly the opening scene where they’re sitting around the campfire and each week they tell a different story. It’s within that community of young people where they feel they’re being taken seriously and maybe the adults are listening. That show exercised a respect for the imagination of children at that age. I think that appealed to the younger audiences as well.
JC: After all these years, are you surprised by the fact that people still remember and talk about the Ghastly Grinner character?
NK: We didn’t go into the production of “The Tale of the Ghastly Grinner” thinking, “Let’s make something memorable” or “This is going to be magical.” You can’t plan for the magic, it just happens. It’s like when you see sitcoms on television try to establish a catchphrase for a character. Oftentimes it doesn’t work—it just becomes annoying. It’s virtually impossible to predict what’s going to stick with audiences and what won’t. For example, I was in a film called, GREY OWL (1999) directed by Sir. Richard Attenborough, and starring Pierce Brosnan. As an actor, you figure, wow, if I can do a good job on this, the phone will start ringing and I’ll get more work once it’s released. But what happened was that the film never took off. It wasn’t picked up by an American distributor which, in the film industry, is the kiss of death.
Ultimately, I think it always comes down to the story and how you tell it, that’s what resonates with the audience. I remember reading about 1960s wrestler-turned-actor, Lino Ventura, and once a journalist asked him, “What is the recipe for a good film or a good piece of theater?” Lino said, “Three things: the story, the story, the story.” And it’s true! What I like and what was great about The Ghastly Grinner episode is that everything gelled together, the writing was solid, the production value was good, and the filmmakers knew what they wanted and how to get it from their actors. When that happens it usually ends up being a story well told. And people will always respond to that.