If you’re a fan of horror movies, you probably want your sons and daughters to be interested in the genre, too. But it’s not always easy to determine what’s appropriate these days. Especially when, out of nowhere, a seemingly innocuous movie blindsides you with a surprisingly dark and intense scene.
I’ve been watching age-appropriate scary movies with Daxton, my 7-year-old son, for awhile now, testing the waters to see what he’s up for. My goal is to slowly feed him more mature frights as he gets older, but without ever going overboard and giving him nightmares. My hope is that he learns to enjoy horror movies as much as I do, and that, eventually, we can head to the theater and watch them together.
Based on the questions I get, I’m not the only one with that goal. And it’s clear that not everyone knows where to start. That’s why I’ve put together a short list of introductory “horror” films for kids of different ages. This list doesn’t include all of the family-friendly scary movies out there, they’re just some of my favorites.
It’s a Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (4+)
This one’s a classic that turns 50 this year. Some might call it old fashioned, but maybe that’s what makes it so wonderful for the family to watch together. When I was a kid, watching this was an annual tradition in our house, and I’m sure that tradition continues in many houses each October. In the show, Linus sits in a pumpkin patch on Halloween night, waiting for the Great Pumpkin, hoping he’ll bring toys like Santa Claus does. Consider watching it after you visit the pumpkin patch each year.
Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (5+)
Okay, I’ll admit, this one might be difficult to sit through for some parents. If you decide to watch this, and it’s definitely worth watching, consider skipping over the Mr. Toad section entirely. It’s a bore. As for the Ichabod segment, it’s an old Disney movie with themes and jokes that are out-dated and corny. Some might even call them semi-offensive. But it’s all worth it for that ending. The moment in which the Headless Horseman chases down Ichabod is pure, classic horror. The chase is filled with spooky sounds and visuals that will have a lasting impression on young minds. It’s a short sequence, too, so it’s a great introduction to the elements of a good scary movie.
Monsters, Inc. (5+)
C’mon, Monsters, Inc. isn’t scary, right? But it fits nicely on this list for a couple of reasons. First, it features all sorts of monsters. Sure, they’re cute and cuddly most of the time, but in some scenes, they’re rather sinister. Which leads us to the second reason it’s on the list: the scenes in which the monsters scare unsuspecting kids can be rather frightening. But what makes this so wonderful for younger kids is that those moments are followed by humor and even love. The movie has just enough frights to be a good warm-up for scary movies to come, and Randall (Steve Buscemi) provides a great introduction to the whole monster sub-genre.
Sure, to you and me, this movie looks a little dated, but it’s still loads of fun for the kids (and honestly, for me, too). Jim Henson’s monsters are a real treat, even by today’s standards. And believe me, there are plenty of monsters to enjoy…they’re around every corner. But instead of frightening, most are soft and silly instead of spooky and intense. Be warned, though, there are some darker themes that you might want to be aware of. For example, the Goblin King (David Bowie) abducts a baby and plans to turn him into a goblin. That might be traumatic for sensitive kids. Luckily, it’s all done with a relatively light touch. I’m not sure my son even noticed any of the darker themes…not when there were so many cool creatures and spectacles to marvel at.
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (7+)
E.T. The Extra Terrestial is an absolute classic in my book. And based on my son’s reaction, it is for him, too. He absolutely loved it. It’s a great family monster movie, even if you don’t really consider it a monster movie. There are some darker moments toward the end, what with E.T. dying and all. Not to mention the authorities invading their home in hazmat suits. But the action, the fun, and the heart-warming nature of the film overcome anything that’s too heavy. While not exactly a scary movie, Halloween plays a crucial role in the film, which should be enough to give it a spot on your annual October movie list.
Monster House (8+)
This movie is fantastic! I loved it. But, to be honest, I let Daxton watch it a year too early. The opening scene really spooked him. We watched it not long before his 7th birthday, and he wasn’t ready for the loud, fast-paced, and surprisingly scary opening scene. Luckily some humor starts to pop up in the film after the opening and things even out some. I should note, however, that Old Man Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi again) is nasty. I wouldn’t be surprised if most kids found him to be the scariest part of the movie. The ending does get pretty dark, too, and it touches on themes that will turn off some parents.
Like many modern movies that try to walk a balance between scary and family-friendly, it’s tough to pin down an appropriate age for Coraline. For the most part, 7-year-olds won’t be too scared by the story, the animation, or any of the earlier scenes. There are moments that build up suspense and include some surprises and jump scares, sure, but for the most part, it’s not a cover-your-eyes-and-hide-under-the-blanket sort of movie. However, the themes are a bit more mature than I anticipated. Especially the central themes of being disappointed by your parents or wanting a better life, which leads to Coraline’s parents being captured by the evil other mother. That’s something not all young kids will want to see.
Here’s another movie that, for the most part, is fine for kids 7 and older. Norman sees dead people, which might not be appropriate for all kids, but it’s still a well-told, fun little movie. The action scenes are more exciting then they are scary. But then the ending come along, and boy is it intense. In the climax of the film (spoilers ahead), we learn that little girl was killed by a court of elders who thought she was a witch. That’s when the movie turns darker than anticipated, both thematically and visually. There are 10 minutes or so of some pretty heavy stuff. Sure, everything ends well, but a few scenes are traumatic enough that you should consider holding off on sharing ParaNorman with your kids until they’re a little older.
Okay, that’s it. My favorite scary movies for kids ages 4 to 10. There are plenty of other great movies to consider, such as Frankenweenie, or maybe even Gremlins. Perhaps I’ll write up a longer, more comprehensive list someday. For now, the list you see above are my favorites that I recommend for you and your kids. I’m sure you’ll find something here to share with your family this October.
Wait. What The About Nightmare Before Christmas?
Almost every list of family-friendly scary movies is going to include The Nightmare Before Christmas. But for me, it just doesn’t fit. Not for kids anyway. Sure, the movie’s tone is fine for a 6 or 7 year old. There’s nothing all that scary until the end, and there are much darker, scarier scenes in other movies on my list. But honestly, I’m betting that most kids have checked out long before those scenes show up because of the plodding pace and overwhelming amount of dialog. Sure, the design is spectacular, which makes this one fun to look out, but if your kids aren’t engaged, there’s not much for them to enjoy here. My son certainly grew bored with it quickly, and by the end, all he had to say was, “It looked cool, but it was boring.”