Every year as Halloween gets closer, basic cable and the DVD racks at big box stores are flooded with Halloween programming for kids—Disneyfied TV movies and animated specials featuring all their favorite characters in costume. But are these cash-ins any good? If you’re trying to foster a love of horror in your little ones—or just looking for something age-appropriate to show them during October—navigating the seas of “kid-friendly” content can be irritating at best, downright impossible at worst.
Because I both love horror movies and have small children, I have my own picks for what I’ll be showing my kids until they’re of an age for… oh, I don’t know… Cannibal Holocaust. All these choices are subjective and entirely dependent on what different kids can handle.
By age 7, I was already seeing A Nightmare on Elm Street (sneaking a viewing without my parents’ permission) and Creepshow (sanctioned by my dad, who rented a VCR just so we could watch it together) and was never up in the middle of the night complaining of nightmares or suffering any permanent damage in my adult years. But that’s me. Plenty of parents are comfortable showing their kids anything from Paranormal Activity to Dawn of the Dead; others know that even the scary parts in old Disney movies—and they all have scary parts—will be too much for their children. It all depends on what the kids can handle.
So here are some options for Halloween viewing that are hopefully appropriate for different age groups. I’m deliberately leaving some of the most obvious picks off the list, so there won’t be any Beetlejuice or Hocus Pocus. What there will be is a whole bunch of movies that hopefully spark an early love of horror, or at the very least some Halloween viewing that won’t make you want to gouge your eyes out. Unless, you know, you think your kids might be able to handle that.
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966) There’s a reason this is the quintessential Halloween classic. It’s funny, it’s sweet, it’s adorable and it’s bursting with genuine affection for the possibilities we all feel on Halloween night. The younger kids get hooked on The Great Pumpkin, the sooner they’ll rightfully become obsessed with the best holiday of the year.
Garfield’s Halloween Adventure (aka Garfield in Disguise) (1985) At only 24 minutes long, this is another TV special that’s perfect for little kids. It’s a good progression from The Great Pumpkin, too, as it’s got a few moments that are a bit darker and scarier than the average Garfield cartoon, whether it’s the appearance of some angry ghosts or the reveal that real monsters are out trick-or-treating on Halloween night.
Mad Monster Party (1967) This Rankin & Bass feature boasts wonderful stop motion animation and features all of the classic monsters, making it a nice introduction for little ones in a context that’s decidedly not scary. The biggest problem with Mad Monster Party is that it might not hold young kids’ attention; even for adults, it can feel a little long and tedious. Still, what better way is there to teach a three-year-old about Boris Karloff?
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) From the mind of Tim Burton and director Henry Selick comes a bouncy Halloween classic filled with amazing production design and fun songs courtesy of Danny Elfman. A certain three-year-old girl who lives in my house is already obsessed with this movie. Burton would return to the form again in 2005 with Corpse Bride, but that one might leave little kids cold. It’s gorgeously made and sweetly macabre, but better suited for older kids who are more likely to appreciate it.
Frankenweenie (2012) Tim Burton’s love letter to the classic Universal monster movies of the ’30 and ’40s done as a black and white, stop motion animated children’s film. Based on Burton’s own live action short from 1984, Frankenweenie centers on a young boy whose beloved dog is hit by a car, so he uses science to bring it back to life. Of all the titles in the 0-5 category, this one is better suited to kids closer to 5; when all the kids’ pets are turned into monsters in the final act, it can get a little intense for the really little ones. That’s one of the things that works best about the movie—Burton didn’t shy away from making a monster movie that has some actual monsters in it.
Monster House (2006) Boy, the 2000s have been really good for pseudo-scary animated kids’ movies, haven’t they? Monster House recalls encounters the great movies of the ’80s in which kids are left to their own devices and encounter something frightening and/or supernatural (and no wonder, as this one was produced by Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis). It’s a fun film with just enough edge to be more appropriate for this age group.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1949) Disney’s adaptation of Washington Irving’s short story was originally packaged as one half of a theatrical feature called The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. The first 20 minutes of this short film— which boasts gorgeous hand-drawn animation and narration by Bing Crosby—could be handled by kids of any age, but those final intense five minutes are best left for kids 5 and over. Ichabod is treated as something of a joke, but the Headless Horseman definitely is not.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) If they’ve already seen Mad Monster Party, kids can now see the classic Universal monsters in the flesh thanks to this seminal horror comedy that unites Dracula (Bela Lugosi), The Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.), Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange in for Karloff), and even a cameo from The Invisible Man. This is a good “gateway horror” movie for kids, as it introduces the monster universe without going for scares. Kids may be particularly amused by Lou Costello, as he reacts to monsters the same way they might. He’s just a great big kid.
Coraline (2009) While this is another stop-motion animated film like Corpse Bride, Frankenweenie and The Nightmare Before Christmas, it’s a little too mature and scary for kids under 5. It’s also the best film of the bunch. Henry Selick again directs (without the input of Tim Burton) from the Neil Gaiman novel about a little girl who discovers a dark world that exists outside our own. Wonderfully creepy and imaginative, Coraline is a good test to see if kids are ready to move on to the harder stuff.
ParaNorman (2012) Okay, one more stop motion kids’ movie and that's it. Telling the story of a special little boy who can see ghosts, the movie deals with Massachusetts’ history of witch trials, mob mentality and our fears of the things we don’t understand. That’s all well and good for more sophisticated kids who might pull some lessons out, but the movie is also a really fun little supernatural story with great Halloween atmosphere.
The Witches (1990) Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel is the perfect scary movie for kids who have graduated to no longer being scared by The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West (a tricky proposition, as you never really outgrow that one). The witches here, led by Angelica Huston, are nightmarish and ugly, aided in no small part by the makeup effects and puppetry by Jim Henson’s creature shop.
The Willies (1990) Crudely made and occasionally amateurish horror anthology targeted at kids, like Goosebumps before Goosebumps. None of the stories are particularly great, but it has a fun energy and walks a fine line between being an appropriately tame horror movie for kids and not pulling all of its punches. There’s even a junior version of Creepshow’s final segment, “They’re Creeping Up on You,” starring Donkeylips from Salute Your Shorts. For bonus fun, see if you can spot all the cameos from Growing Pains and Twin Peaks actors.
Invaders from Mars (1953) Okay, it’s more of a science fiction film than a horror movie, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t scary. The original Invaders from Mars might have intended to deal with the fear of hive-mind communism, but works beautifully as a horror movie targeted directly at kids who worry that they will one day wake up and not recognize their parents—or any adult in their life for that matter. While I’m also a fan of Tobe Hooper’s remake, the original is a lot scarier. And because you’re showing kids a movie that’s more than 50 years old, you can feel like you’re culturing them.
The Hole (2009) Joe Dante’s 3-D throwback to the Amblin films that first brought him mainstream success went unreleased in the U.S. for several years. That’s a shame. It’s a movie that features kid protagonists (two young brothers who discover a mysterious hole in the cellar of their new house) and speaks directly to kids without talking down to them. There are some pretty heavy themes Dante is actually exploring here, but younger kids probably won’t pick up those. They’ll enjoy it for being a fun little horror movie and will only discover what it’s really about when they get older.
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) This is one of the very best horror movies for the child set, provided they can handle some of its more intense moments. Filmmakers were able to push the creepy imagery more in kids’ movies during the ’80s, and Something Wicked takes advantage of that leniency to wonderful effect. Based on a 1962 Ray Bradbury novel, Wicked sees the arrival of a dark carnival (run by a supremely creepy Jonathan Pryce) in a small Illinois town. This is a PG-rated Disney production, but it can prove genuinely scary for kids. Once upon a time, we were okay with being a little scared as kids. It’s what made us into horror fans in the first place.
Arachnophobia (1990) A small town is besieged by killer spiders and Jeff Daniels has to fight them off in Frank Marshall’s excellent feature debut. The emphasis here is much more on thrills and jump scares than on blood or violence, making it more suitable for young eyes, plus the “horror” isn’t of the long-lasting variety. The scares are fun and fast and won’t leave any permanent scars. Whether kids suffer from the eponymous fear or not, this is a creepy good time.
Tremors (1990) Alongside Arachnophobia, Tremors has to be one of the greatest PG-13 horror movies of all time. Both films capture a very specific B-movie drive-in spirit and are more “fun-scary” than “scary-scary.” Show me any person, kid or adult, who doesn’t enjoy Tremors and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t like movies.
Lady in White (1988) A wonderful ghost story made with a ton of heart, Frank LaLoggia’s Lady in White is a great horror movie for kids this age because a) it features a kid (Lukas Haas) as its protagonist, b) it takes place on Halloween, and c) it’s creepy and scary but not violent. It speaks very directly to young viewers because it’s a movie about a child trying to process the horrors of the adult world. What a lovely movie this is.
The Monster Squad (1987) Though probably the most “advanced” movie on the list—there’s a lot of bad language, some blood and kids put in real jeopardy—any kid who’s a fan of horror movies is going to love this one. Bringing together all of the classic Universal monsters—tweaked a bit by Stan Winston Studios so as to avoid copyright infringement—and pitting them against a group of middle school kids, Fred Dekker’s sophomore movie is perfect for the burgeoning monster lover and doesn’t just create new horror fans, but rewards those kids who already love these films.