Are you a horror fanatic with kids? You ever want to turn your kids onto the genre without giving them night terrors? Here’s a list of scary movies that are (sorta) appropriate for the whole family!
Like it or not, horror movie fans are breeders. More of ‘em every day. These innocent babes see the rising zombie face of Dawn of the Dead before they see any pigeons wanting to drive anything. Horror film posters, dinner table debates on who would win in a fight – Michael Meyers or Jason Voorhees – and racks of DVDs with covers so very different from the latest Disney/Pixar release makes them ultra-aware that there is a another viewing choice out there, and they may be curious. And for them, this is all normal. Of course daddy has a rubber ax set against the corner. Naturally, Mommy likes to trickle fake blood from the corner of her mouth to get a laugh. And Halloween – forget about Halloween! It’s more than candy: it’s a household explosion of fake cobwebs, dangling spiders, and fog machines.
There are many of us out there who love both our children and horror culture. Why not? Both are entertaining and, sometimes, known to surprise us. I was surprised when my daughter saw her first old school cemetery and whispered in my ear, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara…” And I was equally amused when my son ruined perfectly good pair of mittens trying to outfit them with his Wolverine claws to look like Freddy Krueger. Are these kids damaged and destined to be America’s next most wanted? No. Are they good kids who love to be scared if it’s all in good fun? Yes.
But nowadays, it’s just so hard to show them the actual movies. Instead, the under-ten set must settle for posters and paraphernalia, with occasional bedtime story synopses of horror cinema’s greatest hits with all the good parts taken out and happy endings in abundance.
Growing up in the Seventies, horror played late night shows, stuff like Shock Theatre in Dayton, Ohio, hosted by Dr. Creep who, during the daytime, was a co-host of a popular children’s show called Clubhouse 22 that showed old Bugs Bunny cartoons. Dr. Creep made horror welcoming and led many into the fold. But what did he have to do it with? Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolfman. Maybe, once in a while, something from Roger Corman. But the movies were safe, slow-paced, and with very little blood. Certainly no boobs. Kids today will not sit still for this.
What to do, what to do? I want my kids to love horror and I can’t wait ‘til they’re teens! So, consider this a resource – a short list of horror films that will work for the five to ten-year-old crowd without making scream and cry. You need films where you don’t (often) have to cover their eyes for or make them leave the room. And something that won’t make them whine, “Horror is so boring. Can we just watch Wall-E again?” (Not that I’m anti-Wall-E.)
Having said all this, you should be sure your kids are ready to be a little scared. After all, this ain’t Rumpstiltskin. But now that I think of it... that story is really friggin’ creepy, too. Pay attention to the “intensity meter” below and, as always, use your best judgment. You know your kids better than anyone.
1 – Baby stuff (age 5 to 6)
2 – Good clean fun (7-8)
3 – Use some caution (age 8-9)
4 – You’ll want to skip a few parts (age 9-10)
5 – Only the strong survive (age 10+)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Want to introduce your kids to the classic monsters? This is the ticket, ‘cos it’s not just Frankenstein, but Dracula and others. I doubted if my kids would stay interested in this, but they loved it and laughed a lot. Then they tore through A & C Meet the Mummy and A & C Meet the Invisible Man. They loved ‘em all, but this one is certainly the best.
Why it’s scary (but not too scary): There’s nothing scary in here that isn’t punctuated by a dumb joke.
Things to be careful about: Nothing.
Intensity Meter: 1
Carnival of Souls (1962)
This cult black and white low-budget classic is an atmospheric wonder, an old fashioned ghost and afterlife parable about a young woman who is the sole survivor of a car crash. Followed by a stranger to her new town, where she has taken a job as a church organist, she is continually wooed by her boarding house neighbor, a genuine creep, and slowly she becomes lost in her obsession with a remote, abandoned amusement park and the spirits who beckon her to follow.
Why it’s scary (but not too scary): No blood, no gore, no sex (except for some leering), with a female character of unique beauty and quality whose journey to understanding is simple enough for children, but complex enough for adults.
Things to be careful about: The kids may wonder why that horn-dog neighbor keeps trying to put the moves on the heroine. He’s not the most subtle guy. And the people from the beyond, though only in greasepaint, have really weird smiles on their faces and spring up in unexpected ways.
Intensity Meter: 1
Planet of the Vampires (1965)
Italian horror/sci-fi tale about is a great way to show your kids Alien without actually showing them Alien. Two spaceships answer a rescue call, but when entering the atmosphere, the crewmembers are gripped with the momentary urge to kill each other. The heroic Captain Markary is the only one to come to his senses and break the spell of his crew. But it’s too late for the sister ship. Dead, the crew members turn to bloodthirsty vampires who stalk the second ship in an attempt to flee the planet.
Why it’s scary (but not too scary): Boys raised on modern space adventures (or even “Star Wars”) will enjoy the limited special effects budget and the rousing laser-battle that ends the film. The vampires are all fairly tame. They move slowly and most of the death occurs off-screen. Girls will enjoy the strong female characters on equal footing with the men, a precursor to Ripley.
Things to be careful about: Buried crew members rise out of a grave in a way that Lucio Fulci would be proud of, but without the nastiness. The vampire leader is revealed to have his organs outside his skin in a split second shot.
Intensity Meter: 2
Horror Hotel (1960)
When a young female college student goes to do on-location research for a college paper on witchcraft, she finds herself in the middle of a Massachusetts town full of secrets (and witches!) Following her disappearance, her classmates attempt a rescue her from a haunted town with a past. Will they be in time to stop another sacrifice?
Why it’s scary (but not too scary): Fog, spooky dialog, and collapsing New England architecture abound.
Things to be careful about: The heroine is lured into the basement of the local hotel and suffers a quick, off camera fate that might be a shock for those used to Hollywood’s guarantee of a character’s survival, no matter how likeable. But all turns out well in the end.
Intensity Meter: 3
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
An underrated adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s admittedly superior novel remains a fantastic ride. Two young boys are drawn to the traveling carnival visiting their small town where prominent townspeople seem to disappear or change under the control of the mysterious Mr. Dark, the carnival’s owner.
Why it’s scary (but not too scary): Two young boys try to survive and outwit the man who is, obviously, The Devil Himself, keeping their wits, their town, and their families intact. Jason Robards turns in a wonderful performance as an aging father who is tempted by youth. The scene of his confrontation with Mr. Dark in the library is an intense reveal of his character’s strength and weakness.
Things to be careful about: The kids are also attacked by spiders. Really scary imaginary spiders.
Intensity Meter: 3
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
This black and white gem is the Alpha and Omega of the modern zombie movie.
Why it’s scary (but not too scary): No foul language and the only blood is chocolate syrup. A zombie gets its fingers chopped off in a door. A lot of yelling. You see a zombie’s naked butt. There’s a dead body in the attic with a scary face.
Things to be careful about: Actually, you may want to just stop it at the truck explosion and tell the kids it all turns out fine in the end. Yeah, that’s for the best. But the first hour and ten minutes is no problem. Unless you have something against a naked zombie butt.
Intensity Meter: 4
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)
A rare PG horror film that’s creeee-py. Jessica’s recovering for a nervous breakdown in the city, so her boyfriend and third wheel decide to abandon urban life and squat on a family farm. The town’s full of weirdos and some hippy chick, who looks a lot like a girl who drowned in the local pond a hundred years back, wants to hang out and play folk music.
Why it’s scary (but not too scary): There is the implication of an attraction between Jessica’s boyfriend and the hippy girl, resulting in what may or may not be actual necking. The villages all have weird bloody scars on their necks, indicating… something bad, I’m sure. A young girl is seen popping up all over town, scaring the pants off anyone when she appears. There’s an intense ending where Jessica may or may not have escaped and may or may not have killed everyone she likes. Oh, and there’s a scene in the pond that’s freaky. And classic.
Things to be careful about: You may end up talking to your kids about the hippy movement, which could be awkward. Or insanity, which may be enlightening.
Intensity Meter: 5
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Have a kid who loves the first person shooter game? Then this is the ticket!
Why it’s scary (but not too scary): A little blood.
Things to be careful about: Nothing. Free and clear.
Intensity Meter: 1
(For the record, I’m totally kidding. DO NOT show anyone under 16 or so this movie. It’s fantastic. Amazing. Has a good message and a point and is well made. But, as star Ken Foree once told me, “Sometimes parents tell me their young kids have seen this movie and think, man, what is wrong with you? This movie was rated X when it came out!”)
Note – this list is just a start. I tried to avoid cartoons, but there’s Hotel Transylvania to ParaNorman, Coraline to Corpse Bride. Monster House. The Nightmare Before Christmas. There are other non-animated movies, such as Ghostbusters, or Gremlins, or The Hole, or The Gate that you may want to consider. Maybe even a film like The Innkeepers or Monsters (which is more Sci-Fi, so I kept it off the list.) Keep in mind with Gremlins that it spoils the story of Santa Claus! Feel free to post comments on this article with other recommendations. I’m sure there are many more out there worth exploring! Happy hunting!
Darren Callahan has written drama for the BBC, SyFy Channel, National Public Radio, and Radio Pacifica New York. As the author of several successful stage plays, including The White Airplane and Horror Academy, both published by Polarity Books, he is highly involved in theatre as a writer and a director. Novels include The Audrey Green Chronicles and City of Human Remains. Screenplays include Documentia, Nerves and Summer of Ghosts. He is writer, director, and composer of the films Under the Table and Children of the Invisible Man. He is also a musician and has released many records, including film soundtracks, on various labels. His website is darrencallahan.com