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Invitation to the Devil – Verdun

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 215th installment in the series.  

December 20, 1915: Invitation to the Devil – Verdun 

It was one of the ghastly ironies of the First World War that, as the Allies were planning a huge offensive to end the war at the Somme, the Germans were preparing a similar offensive at Verdun – so that, unbeknownst to either side, two of the greatest battles in history were about to unfold at roughly the same time (Verdun lasted from February 21-December 18, 1916, the Somme from July 1-November 18, 1916), effectively canceling each other out. 

In fact Verdun and the Somme were like wars unto themselves, consisting of multiple engagements, each a major battle in its own right, with a human toll exceeding many previous conflicts. Although some estimates vary, Verdun resulted in around a million casualties on both sides, including 305,000 killed, while the Somme resulted in over 1.3 million casualties, including 310,000 killed. Their combined total is comparable with the death toll of the entire U.S. Civil War, which left around 620,000 dead; historically they are exceeded only by the Battle of Stalingrad in the Second World War, which resulted in approximately two million casualties and about 730,000 dead. 

The “Christmas Memorandum”

Verdun represented a major shift in strategy for the Germany Army, which had previously adhered to its traditional approach calling for a war of maneuver aiming for decisive victory through encirclement, as in the failed Schlieffen Plan. The Germans had scored some spectacular successes with this approach early in the war, most notably at Tannenberg – but now the sheer extent of the battlefield, with interlocking fronts stretching hundreds of miles, made it almost impossible to outflank the enemy without running the risk of being outflanked in turn. Furthermore, so much preparatory bombardment was required to achieve a breakthrough that the enemy would figure out where the attack was coming and quickly reinforce the intended target, or simply withdraw to safer positions at the cost of sacrificing a bit more territory. 

By the same token Germany could not afford to remain on the defensive in the long term, because of the Allies’ advantage in sheer numbers. While the Central Powers had already managed an impressive expansion in manpower from 163 divisions in August 1914 to 310 divisions in December 1915, over the same period the Allies had increased their total from 247 divisions to 440, widening their lead from 84 divisions to 130 divisions. France had reached her maximum strength, but looking ahead Russia and Britain could still draw on a huge pool of untapped manpower, although it would take time to train and equip new units. Germany also faced growing shortages of food and material, and the situation was even worse for her ramshackle allies. In short, she had to win the war soon. 

This was the context in which German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn (below) wrote his “Christmas Memorandum,” a sweeping strategic appraisal of the war and recommendation for future action presented to Kaiser Wilhelm II as 1915 drew to a close (actually December 20, despite the name). In it Falkenhayn, long a favorite of the Kaiser, proposed shifting from a strategy based on breakthrough, maneuver and encirclement to one of simple attrition; in short, he proposed to “bleed France white.”

Falkenhayn began his memorandum with a high-level overview of the war so far, returning to the oft-stated axiom that Germany’s real enemy was not France or Russia but scheming, duplicitous Britain. Like many Germans, Falkenhayn was convinced that Britain had orchestrated the war out of jealousy and fear of Germany’s industrial prowess, and was now bankrolling, blackmailing, and generally manipulating the Allies into continuing the war against their own interests. Falkenhayn also noted that Britain was prepared to make major sacrifices in pursuit of its hegemonic aims: 

It is true that we have succeeded in shaking England severely – the best proof of that is her imminent adoption of universal military service. But this is also a proof of the sacrifices England is prepared to make to attain her end – the permanent elimination of what seems to her the most dangerous rival. The history of the English wars against the Netherlands, Spain, France and Napoleon is being repeated. Germany can expect no mercy from this enemy, as long as he still retains the slightest hope of achieving his object. 

As in these previous wars, Falkenhayn believed the British, safe on their islands, were hoping to simply wait out their enemy, pushing the Central Powers towards collapse with a blockade and economic warfare, while leaving the bulk of the fighting to her pawns on the continent:

England, a country in which men are accustomed to weigh up the chances dispassionately, can scarcely hope to overthrow us by purely military means. She is obviously staking everything on a war of exhaustion. We have not been able to shatter her belief that it will bring Germany to her knees, and that belief gives the enemy the strength to fight on and keep on whipping their team together. What we have to do is to dispel that illusion… We must show England patently that her venture has no prospects. 

Targeting the British Expeditionary Force itself was not feasible because the weather and ground conditions in Flanders prohibited an attack before the spring – and anyway, even if they succeeded in driving the British from the continent temporarily, “our ultimate aim will not yet have been secured because England may be trusted not to give up even then,” as the impending adoption of conscription indicated. Rather, Germany should focus on crushing Britain’s allies and thereby depriving her of her pawns:

Her real weapons here are the French, Russian, and Italian Armies. If we put these armies out of the war England is left to face us alone, and it is difficult to believe in such circumstances her lust for our destruction would not fail here. It is true there would be no certainty that she would give up, but there is a strong probability. More than that can seldom be asked in war. 

Falkenhayn then considered the various members of the alliance in turn, eliminating them one by one as possible targets for different reasons. He began with Italy: although Austria-Hungary wanted to give priority to crushing the “treacherous” Italians, Italy was not a suitable target simply because the Italian Army mattered so little from a strategic perspective, and Italy was in any event unlikely to alienate Britain, which controlled the Mediterranean and supplied almost all her coal – “Even Italy’s desertion of the Entente, which is scarcely thinkable, will make no serious impression on England. The military achievements of Italy are so small, and she is, in any case, so firmly in England’s grip, that it would be very remarkable if we let ourselves be deceived on that score.” 

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Next Falkenhayn ruled out Russia, citing both the major obstacles to a decisive victory – including its sheer size and challenging terrain and weather – as well as the growing likelihood that the Tsarist regime would collapse under the weight of its own incompetence and neglect

According to all reports, the domestic difficulties of the giant Empire are multiplying rapidly. Even if we cannot perhaps expect a revolution in the grand style, we are entitled to believe that Russia’s internal troubles will compel her to give in within a relatively short period… Moreover unless we are again prepared to put a strain on the troops which is altogether out of proportion – and this is prohibited by the state of our reserves – an offensive with a view to a decision in the East is out of the question for us until April, owing to the weather and the state of the ground… An advance on Moscow takes us nowhere. We have not the forces available for any of these undertakings. For all these reasons Russia, as an object of our offensive, must be considered as excluded. There remains only France.

“The Forces of France Will Bleed to Death” 

France was the logical target for a number of reasons. As a partner in both the Entente Cordiale with Britain and her own defensive alliance with Russia, she was the lynchpin of the Allied coalition, so if she dropped out Russia and Britain might turn on each other. The French economy had already been weakened by the German occupation of the coalfields in the country’s industrial northeast, and a large majority of the German Army was already deployed on the Western Front within easy striking distance.

Most of all, France had suffered huge losses in the first year and a half of fighting: by the end of December 1915 the Republic counted around two million total casualties, including roughly one million wounded, 300,000 taken prisoner, and 730,000 dead. Although not all casualties were permanently incapacitated (in fact most wounded went back to the front eventually) together these losses represented about 5% of the French prewar population, and a much larger proportion of the male population of fighting age. The conscript classes of 1916 and 1917, soon to be liable for conscription, would provide another 270,000 troops, hardly enough to make good these losses. In other words, France was running out of men. 

Thus Falkenhayn predicted: “… the strain on France has almost reached the breaking-point – though it is certainly borne with the most remarkable devotion. If we succeeded in opening the eyes of her people to the fact that in a military sense they have nothing more to hope for, that breaking-point would be reached and England’s best sword knocked out of her hand.” 

At the same time, the stalemate on the Western Front showed that the same basic constraints applied there as elsewhere, ruling out the traditional Prussian war of maneuver for the reasons already noted above: 

Attempts at a mass break-through, even with an extreme accumulation of men and material, cannot be regarded as holding out prospects of success against a well armed enemy, whose moral is sound and who is not seriously inferior in numbers. The defender has usually succeeded in closing the gaps. This is easy enough for him if he decides to withdraw voluntarily, and it is hardly possible to stop him doing so.

But Falkenhayn imagined a cunning exception to this rule. If the Germans threatened a place of such strategic importance and symbolic value that the French couldn’t possibly give it up, the latter would be forced to continue counter-attacking to remove the threat, regardless of the cost: 

Within our reach behind the French sector of the Western front there are objectives for the retention of which the French General Staff would be compelled to throw in every man they have. If they do so the forces of France will bleed to death – as there can be no question of a voluntary withdrawal – whether we reach our goal or not. If they do not do so, and we reach our objectives, the moral effect on France will be enormous. 

In essence, Falkenhayn envisioned a strategy that would flip the usual battlefield dynamic, allowing the Germans to enjoy the tactical advantage of defenders even while “attacking,” and forcing the French to attack while “defending.” All the Germans had to do was come dangerously close to a key French objective, then dig into strong defensive positions and blast the counter-attacking French forces out of existence with their artillery. 

Only a few places on the Western Front qualified as targets valuable enough to justify such a desperate defense by the French, and one stood out above all: Verdun.

Operation Gericht 

Full of historic meaning as the site of the Treaty of Verdun in 843 CE, which divided Charlemagne’s empire into three parts, creating the kingdom of France, the town was much more than just a national symbol: its strategic location astride the Meuse River and near the line of hills known as the “côtes de Meuse” or “heights of the Meuse” allowed it to dominate the eastern approaches to France from the Saar and Moselle region of Germany, serving as a stronghold against invasion since pre-Roman times.

FreepagesClick to enlarge 

Following France’s defeat by Prussia in 1870-1, resulting in the loss of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, the government of the new Third Republic began building a line of new fortifications behind the newly shrunken frontier, including massive fortress complexes around the towns of Belfort, Epinal, Toul, and Verdun. The intention was that these fortified towns would channel a future German invasion into several broad pathways, including the Trouée de Stenay and Trouée de Charmes, where the enemy armies could be more easily repulsed by French forces – which is more or less what happened at the Battle of the Trouée de Charmes and the Battle of Grand Couronné in August-September 1914. 

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As the Western Front settled into trench warfare following the German defeat the Battle of the Marne, Verdun served as the keystone of the French defenses along the Western Front – an apparently impenetrable obstacle whose ring of 20 large and 40 small forts formed a mini-salient jutting deep into the larger German line in northern France. In addition to keeping the entire German Fifth Army tied up, Verdun threatened the key east-west railroad which the Germans relied on to supply their armies in France, just twelve miles to the north behind the German front line. 

For all these reasons Falkenhayn guessed – correctly, as it turned out – that the French would fight to the end to defend Verdun from falling to the Germans. And he knew the perfect place for his unusual strategy of an inverse assault by the German Fifth Army. In “Operation Gericht” (“gericht” means “judgment” but also “place of execution”) a massive artillery bombardment would clear the way for infantry to seize the heights of the Meuse northeast of the town, from which artillery could then threaten the citadel of Verdun itself as well as the remaining forts to the west of the town. Threatened with the loss of this key symbolic and strategic position, the French would commit wave after wave of troops in an attempt to dislodge the Germans from the hills – only to be slaughtered by the German artillery en masse. 

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As it happened, Verdun was an even better choice than Falkenhayn could know: from August to October 1915 the French, complacent in their belief that Verdun could not be conquered, stripped the fortresses of over 50 batteries of artillery, leaving some of them virtually defenseless. They had also neglected to build heavily fortified lines of trenches and defensive positions between the forts, leaving the whole complex vulnerable to infiltration and siege.  

Invitation to the Devil 

But Falkenhayn was playing with fire. Indeed, Operation Gericht was an invitation to the devil, because it held the potential to unlock forces beyond the control of either side. 

For one thing, Falkenhayn apparently kept his true intentions secret even from his own commanders, letting them believe he really wanted to capture Verdun. The coldly rational chief of the general staff failed to realize that if Verdun held symbolic importance for the French public as a national bastion, it could acquire similar symbolic importance to the Germans as a glittering goal – and failure to capture it would be such a blow to German prestige and morale that his whole carefully measured plan to let the German artillery do the heavy work might unravel, leaving the infantry slugging it out in an inferno.

Second, Falkenhayn anticipated that the Allies would mount their own offensive somewhere else on the Western Front in order to relieve German pressure on the French at Verdun – but he had no idea of the magnitude of the offensive being planned at the Somme (which would gain new urgency after Verdun began).

Third, Falkenhayn’s obsessive secrecy would also lead to disaster with Germany’s allies. Enraged by his German colleague’s failure to consult him about Verdun, Austro-Hungarian chief of the general staff Conrad von Hötzendorf felt free to arrange an offensive of his own, moving Habsburg troops from the Russian front to Italy for a so-called “Strafexpedition” or “Punishment Expedition” in May 1916. This in turn weakened the Central Powers on the Eastern Front, setting the stage for a massive push by the Russians – their most successful campaign of the war, masterminded by the brilliant general Alexei Brusilov. 

British Evacuate Suvla Bay, ANZAC 

In addition to agreeing on a (sort of) coordinated strategy for 1916, at the Second Inter-Allied conference in Chantilly from December 6-8, 1915, the Allies also decided to throw in the towel on the failed Gallipoli campaign and begin withdrawing from the peninsula. Some of the troops freed up by the withdrawal would head to Egypt and Mesopotamia (where thousands of troops under Major General Charles Townshend were now under siege by the Turks at Kut), while others would be shifted to reinforce the Allied presence at Salonika. The first troops to go would be the British, Australians, and New Zealanders at Suvla Bay and ANZAC. 

Although the evacuation hopefully spelled the end of incredible misery for the troops, there was one last hurdle to surmount, as it was actually incredibly dangerous to attempt to withdraw units from the trenches, march them miles overland, and then embark them on waiting boats and rafts to be taken aboard ships (above). If the Turks and their German “advisors” caught wind of what was happening, they would rush the undefended trenches, rain shells on the helpless columns of retreating troops, and drive them into the sea. 

Thus preparations went forward in complete secrecy, with multiple diversionary operations to mislead the Turks and their German officers. There was also a great deal of subterfuge during the evacuation of Suvla Bay and the ANZAC positions, which proceeded every night from December 10-20, 1915, including tricks to make the Turks think the trenches were still inhabited. Frank Parker, an Australian soldier, recalled: 

They still had rifle fire, and there was no one there to fire ‘em. It was done by water – an engineering feat, it was. They had the triggers of the rifles tied with string or wire or something attached to a rock on the top which was attached by string to a tin below. Water was dripped into this tin and when it was full it pulled the rock down, which pulled the trigger and fired the shot – it was most remarkable. 

According to Owen William Steele, a Canadian officer from Newfoundland, the departing troops also left plenty of unpleasant surprises for the Turks, in the form of elaborate booby traps. Steele wrote in his diary on December 20, 1915:

… when they begin to move forward they will have all kinds of plots to contend with, for the R.E. [Royal Engineers] have various kinds of wires laid, such as “trip-wires” and those which will explode when one walks on them, by a falling box etc. Then in many “Dug-outs” wires have been laid attached to a table-leg which will be exploded by a movement of the table, etc.  

After dishing out a brutal lesson in the power of the elements the month before, Mother Nature was merciful and the weather aided the final evacuation of Suvla Bay and ANZAC on December 20, 1915. Adil Shahin, a Turkish officer, remembered: 

There was a heavy fog, so we had no idea. They had made use of the fog and all the gun noises had stopped. It was early morning and we sent out a scout. He found the trenches deserted… So all of us went all the way down to the shore, looked in the trenches and saw, too, they were deserted. They’d gone!... Well, what could we do? We left one regiment there, and the rest went back. 

After the evacuation was complete, timed explosives destroyed the remaining stores which couldn’t be evacuated safely (above, supplies burning at Suvla Bay). Incredibly the Allies managed to evacuate 105,000 men and 300 heavy guns from the positions at Suvla Bay and ANZAC without major losses to enemy fire. The evacuation of the final 35,000 men at Gallipoli, holding the position at the Cape Helles on the tip of the peninsula, would be completed in early January 1916. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

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15 Surprising Facts About Steve Carell
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Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for CinemaCon

From the seven seasons he spent as the star of NBC’s The Office to leading man roles in comedy classics like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Steve Carell has become one of Hollywood’s most in-demand funnymen. But he has proven his dramatic chops, too, particularly with his role as John du Pont in Foxcatcher, which earned Carell an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in 2015. Even if you’ve seen all of his movies, there’s probably a lot you don’t know about the Massachusetts native, who turns 55 years old today.

1. HE THOUGHT HE WANTED TO BE A LAWYER.

Steve Carell attended Ohio’s Denison University, where he received a history degree in 1984, and had planned to move on to law school. But when it came time to apply, he found himself stumped by the first question on the application: Why do you want to be a lawyer?

“I had never considered acting as a career choice, although I’d always enjoyed it,” Carell told NJ.com in 2011. “I enjoyed hockey and singing in the choir, and I didn’t think of them as potential careers, either … But I began to realize I really loved acting, and telling stories. Reading a book, watching a movie, going to a play, it’s transporting, and very, very exciting. And to be a part of that, creating things with your imagination, whoa."

2. HE WORKED AS A MAILMAN.

Shortly before he moved to Chicago and performed with The Second City, Carell worked as a postal carrier in the tiny town of Littleton, Massachusetts. Because the post office didn’t have its own mail vehicles, Carell had to use his own car. He kept the gig for just four months, then took off for the Windy City. “And months later, I found mail under the seat of my car,” he admitted. Carell also said it was the hardest job he has ever had.

3. HE WAS HIS WIFE’S TEACHER.

No, it’s not as risqué as it sounds. Carell met his wife, Nancy Walls, through an improv class at Second City; he was the teacher, she was one of his students. “I beat around the bush [before asking her out] and said something stupid like, ‘Well, you know, if I were to ever ask someone out, it would be someone like you,’” Carell told Details of his earliest attempts at flirting. “It’s so stupid, but it was all self-protection. She was the same way: ‘If somebody like you were to ask me out, I would definitely go out with him. If there was a person like you.’” The couple married in 1995 and have appeared in several projects together.

4. THE COUPLE HAD TO BREAK UP (ON CAMERA) ON THEIR 17TH ANNIVERSARY.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

For Lorene Scafaria’s underrated 2012 end-of-the-world dramedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Steve and Nancy played a married couple who split up when it’s announced that an asteroid heading toward Earth will obliterate the planet in three weeks. Their break-up scene happens very early on in the movie, and they ended up filming it on their 17th wedding anniversary.

“She gets to leave me right at the beginning,” Carell told Parade. “They used the take where her shoe came off in the car, and she bolted across that field with one shoe on. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her run that fast. We shot the scene on our 17th anniversary. [The director] got us a cake and the crew sang ‘Happy Anniversary’ to us. It was very sweet, a very special night."

5. HE AND HIS WIFE AUDITIONED FOR SNL TOGETHER; ONLY ONE OF THEM MADE IT.

In 1995, the same year they married, both Carell and Walls auditioned for Saturday Night Live. Walls made it but Carell didn’t, which must have made for one awkward celebratory dinner. But it all turned out well in the end; Carell went on to become a household name and has hosted the show on two occasions.

6. HE WAS ONE HALF OF “THE AMBIGUOUSLY GAY DUO.”

Though he missed out on the chance to become a regular SNL cast member, there was a silver lining: He was free to say “yes” to taking a role on The Dana Carvey Show, a sketch show that SNL alum Dana Carvey created for ABC. Though it was short-lived, the show was full of amazing comedic talent; in addition to Carvey and Carell, the show featured Stephen Colbert, Bob Odenkirk, and Robert Smigel and a writers room that included Louis C.K., Charlie Kaufman, and Robert Carlock. The show marked the debut of Smigel’s recurring animated sketch, “The Ambiguously Gay Duo,” which followed the adventures of Gary and Ace, who were voiced by Carell and Colbert, respectively. After the show was cancelled, Smigel brought the “Duo” over to Saturday Night Live.

7. HE OWNS A GENERAL STORE IN MASSACHUSETTS.

While many A-list stars run side businesses—restaurants, wine companies, clothing lines, etc.—the Carells' second gig is a little less glamorous. In 2009, they bought the Marshfield Hills General Store in Marshfield, Massachusetts—where they spend their summers—in order to preserve it as a local landmark. 

“The main impetus to keep it going is that not many of those places exist and I wanted this one to stay afloat,” Carell told The Patriot Ledger. “Just generally speaking, there are not that many local sort of communal places as there used to be ... I think it’s nice for people to actually go and talk and have a cup of coffee and communicate with one another."

8. HE PLAYS THE FIFE.

Yes, Carell has got some musical talent and can actually play the fife. It’s a skill he acquired early in life, and shares with several of his family members. And it came in handy when he joined a reenactment group that portrayed the 10th (North Lincoln) Regiment of Foot, a line infantry regiment with the British Army.

9. HE WAS NOT THE FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY MICHAEL SCOTT IN THE OFFICE.

Though Michael Scott, the clueless manager of paper company Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton, Pennsylvania branch in The Office, is still probably Carell's best-known role, he wasn’t the first choice for the part. Paul Giamatti was reportedly the first choice, but he declined. Hank Azaria and Martin Short were also in the running. Bob Odenkirk was actually cast in the role because Carell was committed to another series, Come to Papa. But when that show was cancelled after just a few episodes, the role of Michael Scott was recast with Carell. (Odenkirk appeared in one of the series’s later episodes, playing a boss who was eerily similar to Carell’s Scott.)

10. WHEN CARELL LEFT THE OFFICE, THE CAST AND CREW “RETIRED” HIS NUMBER ON THE CALL SHEET.

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When Carell left The Office after seven seasons to focus on his film career, the cast and crew continued one tradition in his honor. “Steve was No. 1 on the call sheet because he was the lead of the show,” co-star Jenna Fischer told TV Guide. “And when he left, we retired his number. No one, ever since he left, was allowed to be No. 1."

11. HE WAS IN TALKS TO PLAY RON DONALD ON PARTY DOWN.

Before Party Down made its premiere on Starz with Adam Scott playing failed actor Henry Pollard, it was supposed to be an HBO series with Paul Rudd in the lead. And Rudd was pushing for Carell to play bumbling catering manager Ron Donald, as The Office didn’t get off to a great start and looked to be in danger of getting cancelled. Ultimately, HBO ended up abandoning the project, which Starz scooped up—with Scott as Pollard and Ken Marino as Ron Donald.

12. JAMES SPADER REALLY WANTED TO PLAY BRICK TAMLAND IN ANCHORMAN.

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Though it was The 40-Year-Old Virgin that turned Carell into a leading man on the big screen, his role as oddball meteorologist Brick Tamland in Anchorman brought him a lot of attention. But if James Spader had his way, Carell would never have appeared in the role at all. In a 2013 interview with Baller Status, director Adam McKay shared that before the film was even cast:

“I get a phone call and I hear that James Spader is obsessed with Brick's character. I say ‘James Spader? That is insane, will he come in and read?’ They say, ‘No, he's not going to come in and read; he's James Spader!’ James Spader and I end up talking and he called it about the Brick character. He thought it was one of the funniest character he ever read and we weren't even sure if it was going to work. He literally said, ‘I will do anything to get this role.’ Eventually, we were just like, ‘This is James Spader; he is too good for this role.’ But, he was right about how funny it was. The movie studio even questioned us and said how bizarre Brick is, and it wouldn't work. I felt bad we didn't cast James, but Carell was so good.”

Spader proved his comedic chops in 2011, when he was cast as Robert California, Michael Scott’s replacement on The Office (who quickly manages to convince the company owner to appoint him as CEO).

13. UNIVERSAL STUDIOS' EXECUTIVES WERE CONCERNED THAT CARELL WAS COMING OFF AS A SERIAL KILLER IN THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN.

Though it turned out to be one of 2005’s biggest hits, getting the tone right on Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin proved to be a fairly difficult task. At one point, executives at Universal Studios expressed their concern to Apatow that Carell might come off as a serial killer to viewers.

"There is a fine line," producer Mary Parent told the Los Angeles Times. "Men and women alike could look at him and if he's too much of a sad sack, they will think, 'Dude, get a life.’” Apatow ended up adding several lines about the fact that Carell’s character could be a serial killer.

14. HE LEARNED MAGIC FROM DAVID COPPERFIELD.

In 2013, Carell played a magician in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. In order to get the role just right, he went straight to the top: David Copperfield. The famed illusionist taught Carell and co-star Steve Buscemi a trick called “The Hangman,” and they were both sworn to secrecy. “I actually had to sign something that I would not divulge,” Carell told The Hollywood Reporter. “So that was kind of cool.”

15. HE OFFERED PRINCETON'S 2012 CLASS SOME TIPS FOR SUCCESS.

In 2012, Carell delivered a speech to Princeton University graduates—which included his niece—during Class Day. He ended his talk by offering some tips to the grads:

“I would like to leave you with a few random thoughts. Not advice per se, but some helpful hints: Show up on time. Because to be late is to show disrespect. Remember that the words 'regime' and 'regimen' are not interchangeable. Get a dog, because cats are lame. Only use a 'That's what she said' joke if you absolutely cannot resist. Never try to explain a 'That's what she said' joke to your parents. When out to eat, tip on the entire check. Do not subtract the tax first. And every once in a while, put something positive into the world. We have become so cynical these days. And by we I mean us. So do something kind, make someone laugh, and don't take yourself too seriously.”

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25 Future Stars Who Appeared on Are You Afraid of the Dark?
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Nickelodeon via YouTube

A number of future celebrities stopped by Are You Afraid of the Dark? over its seven-season run—first from 1992 to 1996, and then again from 1999 to 2000 as part of Nickelodeon's SNICK lineup. Some were members of the Midnight Society, and some were merely there to help bring the creepy campfire tales to life. Here they are, on the 25th anniversary of the show's premiere, submitted for the approval of Mental Flossers.

1. RYAN GOSLING // SEASON 5, EPISODE 3

Fresh off his stint in The Mickey Mouse Club—and well before he was Young Hercules—Ryan Gosling appeared in the 1995 episode “The Tale of Station 109.1.” He played Jamie Leary, a T-shirt and flannel-wearing kid whose younger brother, Chris, is obsessed with death. To break him of his morbid obsession, Jamie locks Chris in a hearse, cautioning him to "keep it down, or you'll wake the dead!" before he leaves him there. (Nice brother!) Comedian Gilbert Gottfried also appears in this episode as a DJ at the titular radio station.

2. NEVE CAMPBELL // SEASON 3, EPISODE 13

Future Scream queen Neve Campbell played Nonnie Walker in the 1993 episode “The Tale of the Dangerous Soup,” in which recurring villain Dr. Vink makes a dish that requires a very special ingredient: his employees’ fear.

3. AND 4. EMMANUELLE CHRIQUI AND ELISHA CUTHBERT // SEASON 5, EPISODE 12

Future Entourage star Emmanuelle Chriqui had just five roles on her resume when she played Amanda, a teenage hospital volunteer who has to contend with a shape-shifting vampire, in “The Tale of the Night Shift.” 

Happy Endings and 24 star Elisha Cuthbert had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her part in that episode, too. Series co-creator D.J. MacHale directed her in the episode, although he didn’t remember it. “There’s one scene where a nurse walks out of the room [in the hospital where a shape-shifting vampire was shacking up] and sees a little girl [who had shape-shifted from said vampire] whom she follows,” MacHale said. “And that little girl was Elisha Cuthbert. For all I know, that was the first time she was ever on camera, so that was kind of cool!” It was, in fact, Cuthbert’s first on-screen role; later, she would return to the series during its second run as Megan, a member of the Midnight Society.

5. MIA KIRSHNER // SEASON 1, EPISODE 5

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Before she starred in The Crow: City of Angels, Not Another Teen Movie, and The L Word, Mia Kirshner appeared in the 1991 episode “The Tale of the Hungry Hounds.” Kirshner played Pam Pease, a teenager who discovers her dead Aunt Dora’s horse riding jacket in a trunk in the attic … and promptly becomes possessed with Dora’s spirit.

Despite the fact that the show always begins with a campfire, this was the only episode to show a kid striking a match. “[Nickelodeon] didn’t want to teach kids how to strike matches,” MacHale told Splitsider. “They were afraid someone would burn their house down or something like that. So the campfire was always already lit when [the Midnight Society] showed up. There was one episode where someone did light a match when it slipped by Standards and Practices in an episode I directed. Mia Kirshner was the star in that episode, and in that scene, she had to light a lantern, and she didn’t know how to light a match! We practically had to fake it because she was like, ‘I’ve never done this before!’ Which I guess maybe gives credibility to Nickelodeon’s theory that we didn’t want to teach kids how to light a match.”

6. DANIEL DESANTO

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You probably recognize him as Gretchen Weiner’s kinda-sorta-boyfriend in Mean Girls, but before that, Daniel DeSanto was providing the voice of Carlos Ramon on the cartoon The Magic Schoolbus and playing Tucker, a Midnight Society member, on 65 episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark? from 1992 to 2000.

7. EUGENE BYRD // SEASON 1, EPISODE 6

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Shortly after he played Eugene on The Cosby Show, Byrd booked the role of practical-joke loving Weeds in a 1992 episode, “The Tale of the Super Specs.” He buys his girlfriend, Mary Beth, a pair of weird glasses that allow her to see terrifying black-clothed beings from another dimension (who are even into playing creepy games of basketball!). Spoiler alert: The episode does not have a happy ending for Weeds and Mary Beth. Byrd would go on to star in shows like Ghostwriter, Bones, DaybreakCrossing Jordan, True Blood, and Arrow.

8. JOANNA GARCIA SWISHER

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Joanna Garcia Swisher—then just Joanna Garcia—had a few small roles on other series before she played Sam, one of the members of the Midnight Society, beginning in Are You Afraid of the Dark's third season. She later appeared in Party of Five and Freaks and Geeks and starred on the TV series Reba. More recently, she played Ariel on Once Upon a Time.

9. JAY BARUCHEL

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The Knocked Up and Man Seeking Woman actor appeared in a few episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, including Season 6's "The Tale of the Zombie Dice” and "The Tale of the Walking Shadow,” and the Season 7 episode “The Tale of the Time Trap.” He made his first appearance in Season 5’s “The Tale of Dead Man's Float” (above), playing a little kid who, in 1954, gets attacked by a ghost in a pool (which was, naturally, built over a graveyard). When the pool is reopened in the present day, things don’t go so well.

10. HAYDEN CHRISTENSEN // SEASON 6, EPISODE 13

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Before he was Anakin Skywalker, Hayden Christensen played Kirk in the 1999 episode “The Tale of Bigfoot Ridge.” The episode involved snowboarding, some excellent ‘90s music, the search for a missing friend, and a ghost that kidnaps people.

11. EDDIE KAYE THOMAS // SEASON 3, EPISODE 9

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Future American Pie star Eddie Kaye Thomas had his first-ever screen role in Are You Afraid of the Dark? in the 1994 episode “The Tale of the Curious Camera.” He played Matt, a kid that nobody notices—unless they’re bullying him. When he fails to show up in his basketball team portrait, the photographer gives him an antique camera. But it’s no ordinary camera: Bad things seem to happen to anything Matt takes a picture of. It’s all fun and games when it’s a picture of the wall or a bully at school—less so after Matt accidentally snaps a photo of his parents. (This is probably an homage to the Twilight Zone episode “A Most Unusual Camera.”)

12. COLIN FERGUSON // SEASON 5, EPISODE 7

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This actor, who starred on the SyFy series Eureka, got his start on Are You Afraid of the Dark?. In “The Tale of C7" Ferguson plays Tommy, one of the spirits summoned from a nearby lake by an old jukebox.

13. RACHEL BLANCHARD

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Blanchard had a few roles under her belt when she played Kristen, a member of the Midnight Society, on 26 episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark? from 1990 to 1993. Later, she played Cher in the TV version of Clueless, had a guest-starring role on 7th Heaven, and, most recently, appeared in the TV series Fargo.

14. AARON ASHMORE

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Now best known for playing Jimmy Olsen on Smallville and Steve Jinks in Warehouse 13, Aaron Ashmore had just one screen credit to his name when he played Billy in the 1993 episode “The Tale of the Thirteenth Floor.” In 2000, he appeared on the show again, this time playing Jake in “The Tale of the Lunar Locusts.” The episode starred figure skater Tara Lipinski, who played an alien named Ellen, and dealt with alien babies buried beneath a school football field.

15. JEWEL STAITE

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Firefly and Serenity star Jewel Staite appeared on two episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark?. In the Season 3 episode “The Tale of Watcher’s Woods," she played Kelly, a sorta-snooty summer camp attendee who gets lost in a dark and dangerous woods. Then, in Season 4, she got to rock the truly '90s fashion combo of turtleneck and strong-shouldered blazer as Cody in “The Tale of the Unfinished Painting.”

16. CHRISTOPHER HEYERDAHL

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Now known for his roles on Van Helsing, Hell on Wheels, Caprica, and True Blood, and for playing Marcus in the Twilight series, Christopher Heyerdahl had just one screen credit to his name when he appeared on Are You Afraid of the Dark? in two Season 2 episodes. First, he played Nosferatu in “The Tale of the Midnight Madness” (above), and, just two episodes later, played Leonid in “The Tale of the Thirteenth Floor.”

17. CHARLIE HOFHEIMER

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The man who would play Peggy Olsen’s boyfriend Abe Drexler on Mad Men and later take a starring role in 24: Legacy appeared in two episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark? in the mid-’90s: “The Tale of the Water Demons” in Season 4—he played Dean Wilson, the cousin of the bad boy main character—and Season 5’s “The Tale of the Unexpected Visitor,” in which we learn a very valuable lesson: Never hack into the satellites your dad is using for deep space research. Not even to get "World War Four: Their Finest Hour" for free.

18. GREGORY SMITH // SEASON 4, EPISODE 13

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Future Everwood star Gregory Smith played train-obsessed Tim Williamson in “The Tale of Train Magic.” When a ghostly conductor gives Tim a new car for his train set, Tim is transported onto train 713 ... which had actually crashed years earlier, killing everyone on board.

19. CHRISTOPHER REDMAN

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Yet another actor who appeared on multiple episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Christopher Redman played Mike Carter, big brother to a truly awful little kid who steals the money for their mom's birthday gift and buys a Nintendo game, in the Season 3 episode “The Tale of the Crimson Clown” and, in Season 4, played Simon Lewis in “The Tale of the Renegade Virus.” He would go on to have roles in StarGate: SG1, Touching Evil, and Saved. He also played Michael Travers in 25 episodes of CSI: Miami.

20. AND 21. A.J. BUCKLEY and TED WHITTALL // SEASON 5, EPISODE 8

After he appeared as camp counselor Lonnie in the 1995 episode “The Tale of Manaha”—which featured monsters hungry for human flesh!—A.J. Buckley played Adam Ross on CSI: New York, Ed Zeddmore in Supernatural, and Danny Crowe in Justified. And in just his second-ever role, Ted Whittall—who has since appeared on The L Word, Smallville, Once Upon a Time, and Beauty and the Beast—played an unnamed Park Ranger.

22. KYLE DOWNES

Now best known as Lizzy McGuire’s Larry Tudgeman, Kyle Downes appeared in two Season 6 episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, playing two different characters. In “The Tale of the Forever Game,” he played Nathaniel, a guy trapped in a tree until he can win a Jumanji-esque board game, and in “The Tale of Vampire Town,” he played vampire slayer Adder Carballo.

23. VANESSA LENGIES

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The American Dreams, Stick It!, and Glee actress became a member of the Midnight Society in 1999, playing Vange on the show's final two seasons.

24. LAURA VANDERVOOT // SEASON 7, EPISODE 11

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After she played Ashley Fox in the 2000 episode “The Tale of the Laser Maze”—which involves laser tag, karate, and clones—Laura Vandervoot appeared in Instant Star, had a role in Ted, and played Supergirl on Smallville.

25. EMILY VANCAMP // SEASON 7, EPISODES 1, 2, AND 3

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The future Everwood and Revenge star played Peggy Gregory in final season's three-part opener The Tale of the Silver Sight. It was her first-ever on-screen role.

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