October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the best kid-friendly horror movies that still count as horror is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
When it comes to kid-friendly horror, let’s get one thing out of the way: anyone can put on a Scooby Doo episode or the latest Hotel Transylvania franchise entry. These are fun, spooky, and MPAA approved. But sometimes they don’t cut it. Horror is enticing because of its taboo nature and this is exactly why so many dyed-in-the-wool horror fans are captured by the genre far before they’re tall enough to get on the proverbial ride.
Kids can always tell the difference between spooky entertainment made for them, and true horror. But when it comes to horror, of course not everything will work. The films need to be horrific enough to raise hairs, but not enough to induce nightmares. They need to be taboo enough to feel scandalous, but not enough to genuinely scar.
So with the disclaimer that we cannot be held responsible for anyone waking up screaming, here are our picks for the best kid-friendly horror movies to show kids that still count as being actual horror movies, as chosen by Brad Gullickson, Chris Coffel, Jacob Trussell, Rob Hunter, Mary Beth McAndrews, Meg Shields, and myself.
10. Beetlejuice (1988)
If you’re looking for the perfect gateway horror film to show your kids, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything better than Tim Burton‘s Beetlejuice. Okay, technically speaking, this list implies that there are nine better options, but that’s debatable and I certainly wouldn’t trust the people behind this ranking. What you can trust is that kids will love Betelgeuse because of his funny voice, goofy gestures, and unlimited powers. He’s kind of like a Looney Tune come to life except that he’s dead. Kids like that, and I know because I was a kid. They’ll unknowingly absorb the gothic elements and grow up to be horror fans for life. And if they don’t, well then, you can always get new kids. (Chris Coffel)
9. The Frighteners (1996)
Peter Jackson just doesn’t make movies like he used to. Sure, I can’t imagine that we’ll ever get something as bonkers as Meet the Feebles or Dead Alive again, but certainly somewhere in Jackson’s toybox is the ooky-spooky sensibility that made his film The Frighteners such a crowd pleaser for adults and kids alike. It really is a perfect entry point for young fans seeking a horror film that can take them all the way to the edge of the void, without ever threatening to push them over it.
It’s no wonder that The Frighteners was intended to be the third Tales from the Crypt film, after Demon Knight and Bordello of Blood. Jackson’s movie is filled with the thrills and chills of a horror comic book that kids would have hid from expectant parents hovering over their shoulders. Featuring eye-popping special effects (for 1996, mind you), and memorable turns from Michael J. Fox and Jeffrey Combs, The Frighteners is the perfect kid-friendly horror for a summer slumber party of budding horror hounds. (Jacob Trussell)
8. Evil Dead II (1987)
The Evil Dead II doesn’t have a mean bone in its body. No film has been more stoked to be itself. Or did the literal geysers of blood give that away? Armed with a bigger budget, a steadier directorial hand, and the buck-wild desire to remake his own straight-faced 1981 film as a slapstick horror-comedy, Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead II is the kind of gateway drug that would give Nancy Reagan a hernia. Kids love when hunky circus clown Ash Williams chainsaws off his own hand, which then becomes the Bugs Bunny to his Elmer Fudd. Kids love when Linda’s inexplicably emaciated headless corpse bursts out of the rocky earth doing pirouettes. And kids definitely love 90-minute runtimes. So if you don’t think the little humans in your life are quite ready for video nasties and french extremity, win them over to the dark side with the contagious joy of The Evil Dead II. Now who’s laughing? It’s your kids. (Meg Shields)
7. Tremors (1990)
If there’s one thing kids love, it’s giant flesh-eating worms. In truth, Tremors isn’t quite as gory as its premise makes it out to be. It’s an adventure film with a healthy dose of horror and a wonderful sense of humor. It’s exciting and inventive with charmingly idiosyncratic characters and a whip-fast pace. The film is thoroughly entertaining, a rowdy good time, and just scary enough. If you want an adventure to spark a love of horror and have a blast along the way, Tremors is the way to go. (Anna Swanson)
6. Poltergeist (1982)
There are sequences in Poltergeist that haunt me to this day. The face in the mirror, the bones in the pool… the clown doll. Oh god, that damn clown doll. If I’m ever in the dark and let my mind wander to those crawly things under the bed, sleep will not come that night. I better start brewing the next morning’s coffee immediately.
So, why should we torment more children with the kid-friendly horror of Poltergeist? Because these are safe horrors — images to hang our anxieties upon. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper may be steering the wheel, but Steven Spielberg doesn’t let him wander too far from the warm, family lane. Their director/producer dynamic may have been cantankerous (who knows, none of us were there), but their creative collaboration resulted in a safe nightmare zone. Their scares are unshakable, but they’re not scarring. This ain’t Salò. (Brad Gullickson)