Let me begin away from the parenting discussion with my own definitions of “horror.” I define horror very broadly. Is a film trying to scare you? It’s horror. Does it feature numerous horror tropes? It’s horror. Does it embody the spirit of horror or feature generally spooky things? It’s horror. I could do this for hours…
For me, horror spans from extreme cinema like the American Guinea Pig series to the classic episodes of Scooby Doo. If it’s horror adjacent, if it’s a horror mashup, if it prominently features classic monsters, no matter the case — it’s horror to me. I’m kinda the Billy Joel of horror: “Hot funk, cool punk, even if it’s old junk, it’s still rock and roll to me” — or, well, “horror” to me, but you get the point. While others squabble over whether it’s okay to include Upgrade on your top 10 horror films of the year or if Hocus Pocus counts as a family horror film, I simply press play.
You see, genre is just a label. I’ve always felt this way. For instance, in the punk scene, the difference between a pop punk band and a melodic hardcore band is often dictated by what other bands and the specific niche of the scene you associate yourself with; there are many melodic hardcore bands that would easily be confused with pop punk if you wedged them between NoFX and Lagwagon instead of Kid Dynamite and the Descendants. But I digress. The point is that some of the films I write about here may not be “horror” to you, but I don’t really care. Instead, I find them spooky enough to share my love of the genre with my children and introduce them to something I love. What they decide to do with it as they grow up is up to them.
On to the children: my boys are nine and seven. Cash, my eldest, is the bigger horror nerd at this point. His collection of Goosebumps books is enormous and growing by the day. His favorite show is Stranger Things. His favorite movies include Goosebumps, The Monster Squad, and The Gate. Perhaps his repeated watching of the 1990 singalong VHS tape Disneyland Fun and “Grim Grinning Ghosts” for the first two years of his life prepared him for the horror life, even if unintentionally.
West, the 7 year-old, has a different level of tolerance for creepy things than his older brother, but seems to really enjoy testing himself and his limits. Sometimes this leads to a nightmare and an additional body in bed with my wife and I. An important thing for me is that I never push them to watch anything they don’t want to; genre preferences and tastes are personal decisions, and I think it’s important to respect that. When Weston pushes his limits, that’s because it’s part of his personality and who he is, not because we would ever force him to.
We began watching some of my favorite creepy movies from my youth when they were six and four, respectively. With boys this close in age, showing one of them films without the other is difficult and rare. However, since that time, there are films like Happy Death Day, Krampus, and other PG-13 horror films that I’ve only watched with Cash. Yet, at their early ages, we began with films that introduced some of the genre vibes like The Neverending Story, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (not often thought of as horror or horror adjacent, but it’s pretty damn creepy), The Goonies, and, of course, The Monster Squad. Coupling the genre films I grew up with and loved with films like Paranorman, Monster House, and Hotel Transylvania was a great way to start.
In recent years, other great family horror films — or, at least, family films with horror themes — have joined our October programming schedule. Disney’s Coco and the Goosebumps movie will be fixtures in our lineup for years to come; and, I expect the second Goosebumps film to join the fray after it releases this upcoming weekend. There are many standards and many non-standards that we’ve watched and will continue to watch in this household. We all know about Hocus Pocus, Goosebumps, and The Monster Squad, so let’s try to get a little bit further below the surface.
Thus, without further ado and further rambling, here is the list of gateway horror recommendations that you’re most likely here for.
While “only” rated PG, this Nicholas Roeg adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic kids’ novel is legitimately scary. The effects work, the story features menacing supernatural villains (witches, duh), and nothing about this family film feels safe; taking the safety away from the family film is bold and effective. Anjelica Huston, both as a grotesque witch and in her “Anjelica Huston” costume, is a truly frightening horror villain. Her evil and manipulative nature is evident early and when she reveals her true nature, she becomes both more threatening and horrifying.
The Witches is not currently streaming on any streaming service, but is available via most VOD outlets. It’s also easily found on DVD, though it has no American Blu-ray release. Roeg is a master director and this fantasy film is among his best.
While I can’t gauge where other youngsters are in terms of what age they’ll be ready for this one, my boys watched this at five and seven respectively. Though the 5 year-old was in and out of the room, so he may not have been quite ready. At eight years old, they showed this film to Cash in his 3rd grade class, so I suspect most kids that age can handle it. It’s not quite a beginner horror film, but it’s probably only a step or two beyond that level. Very family friendly, but with legitimately scary moments.
The Ghostbusters films feel really obvious on this list and they certainly are. However, I’m advocating for the second film, as it’s slightly less problematic (I must note that it is certainly still a bit problematic, as so many movies we grew up with are. As a parent, it’s important to explain that some things aren’t okay… but I suspect and hope you already know that) and plays a bit better for laughs. It feels a bit more kid friendly, in my opinion. It’s fun, has some good scares, and is ultimately about the goodness of humanity when they band together with a common goal — something we could actually use in today’s world.
The movie is available to stream several places. It’s available on Amazon, if you’re a Prime member. It’s also free with ads at VUDU, Crackle, and Roku Channel this month. Or, if you’re like me, you own it on DVD, Blu-ray, and digitally… it’s not a hard one to find, but it’s a ton of fun.
Mutant Pumpkins from Outer Space and Night of the Living Carrots
With this one, we’re hitting the younger demographic, though the Monsters Vs. Aliens franchise doesn’t get nearly as much love as it needs to from all ages. In fact, one of my favorite comedic moments in any film of the past decade occurs in Monsters vs. Aliens, when the President makes first contact with the aliens who land on the planet. Dreamworks does some great Halloween shorts and specials based on their properties, including this one, Shrek, and several others, but my favorites are Mutant Pumpkins from Outer Space and its sequel Night of the Living Carrots. The first is 27 minutes and the second is 13 minutes, so they aren’t going to fill a feature slot, but they are a ton of fun.
They play best if you’re familiar with Monsters vs. Aliens, but work well even if you aren’t. There are some fun horror fan in-jokes mixed in for those of us who love the genre, as well. You can watch both of these and several other fun Dreamworks Halloween shorts on Netflix as part of Dreamworks Spooky Stories and Dreamworks Spooky Stories: Volume 2.
I mentioned this one up top, but it deserved a little more than that. Last year’s Vestron re-release put it back on the map, but it had been largely forgotten beyond the hardcore fans for some time. It features some pretty crazy effects and great claymation. It feels very Harryhausen inspired; his films would also largely fit onto this list, so feel encouraged to explore those as well.
Here’s the thing with this one: it’s actually pretty scary. When we watched the Vestron release of this, we had to shut it off after an early scene where a parent’s head implodes. My younger son, Weston, never checked back in — at least not yet — but a day later, Cash begged to finish it. He now considers it among his favorite movies. This is probably the most advanced “horror” on this list and it’s one that plays well for me as an adult too. I wouldn’t dive into this one straight off, but, as always, it really depends on the child.
You can stream this over at Shudder, if you’re a subscriber (which you should be). It’s also free for anyone with a library card via Hoopla and free with ads at TubiTV. I’d also highly recommend the Vestron Blu-ray release.
LEGO Scooby-Doo: Haunted Hollywood
I’d be remiss if I threw a list for kids and families together without recommending at least one of the countless fantastic Scooby-Doo iterations and episodes. This 75 minute Scooby feature is a particularly fun entry featuring the LEGO version of the gang. While many of the classic episodes and specials could and should be part of your Halloween (and year round) watching habits with your kids, I decided to grab another new school example of the fun horror themed entertainment that continues to get released now. It’s great to blend new stuff and our personal faves, as it gives kids a wide variety of things to check out.
This one recently was added to Amazon Prime and is also available on home video and a variety of VOD services.
Over the years, I’ve watched countless monster and horror themed kids programs, a variety of great family horror, and am gradually introducing more PG-13 titles into the fold. The old pre-code horror films and Universal monsters are great entry points for some kids as well. We’ve begun to watch things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the 1990 It miniseries, as we approach some edgier material as well. This holiday season, Cash and I may explore the Insidious series or even begin to toy with some of the Conjuring world, though the latter may be a year or two off yet.
In my personal book on parenting, it’s about knowing your kids and letting them decide. It’s a balancing act of what I’m ready for them to watch and what they feel ready to watch. While Cash begs for Alien, Predator, and Terminator, his mother and I aren’t quite ready to go there, for example. No matter what, though, Halloween presents a great time of year to enjoy being a family and build some great traditions.
Now, that I’m done writing, off of work, and my kids are in school, I’ll be digging into some good ole R-rated blood and guts. Happy Halloween, everyone and please share some of your favorite family horror films in the comments!