Halloween is still a few month’s away, but it’s never too early to get your kids interested in horror. Don’t make the mistake of starting them off with something too intense or you’ll lose them straight out of the gate. Though Poltergeist originally came with a PG-rating, it’s pretty scary for the little ones. If you’re thinking of having a Halloween party for your kid and their friends, what you want is good ‘gateway horror’ – that first horror movie that will hook them and make them a fan for life. Below are 15 gateway horror movies for the kiddies spanning over 40 years from 1980 to present day.
The Watcher in the Woods (1980)
Believe it or not, Disney released some pretty inappropriately scary movies in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, The Black Cauldron, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Return to Oz, and The Black Hole wouldn’t stand much of a chance getting anything less than PG-13 ratings. Though it wasn’t as popular as Escape From Witch Mountain, The Watcher in the Woods has gained a cult following over the years. It’s also a legitimately creepy movie about an American family moving into an old British manor where all manner of supernatural happenings unfold. Not everything about the movie makes sense, particularly its convoluted conclusion. But there’s Bette Davis and the director made a Hammer Horror movie and The Legend of Hell House.
The Dark Crystal (1982)
Aside from The Secret of NIMH, The Dark Crystal may be the children’s movie that scarred the largest number of kids in the 80s. From Jim Henson and Frank Oz – yes, the same creators of The Muppet Show – is an elaborately crafted fantasy movie feature animatronic puppets. Like a few of the movies on this list, critics were initially split on this one. But today it’s heralded as a minor classic of fantasy filmmaking. However, make no mistake about it, The Dark Crystal is pretty disturbing when you remember that it was intended for the same kids who were watching Fraggle Rock.
Forget all the baggage that has followed the franchise. When Ghostbusters came out in 1984, it was the biggest movie – period. It wasn’t just a movie, it was a cultural event that defined the childhood of anyone who grew up in the 80s. And if you were a kid in the 1980s, you probably equally loved the Saturday morning cartoon based on the movie, The Real Ghostbusters. Nearly 40 years later, Ghostbusters remains one of the best movies ever made. And it also happens to be a perfect blend of comedy and friendly scares making it the perfect ‘gateway’ horror movie.
The Monster Squad (1987)
Clearly, The Monster Squad wants to be a more horror-oriented version of The Goonies. On paper, the concept of pre-teen kids fighting the classic Universal Monsters should have been a homerun. Yet at the time of its release, The Monster Squad feel short of expectations. Yes, it’s more juvenile than even The Goonies. Nonetheless, it’s an unabashedly fun movie and the perfect ‘gateway’ horror movie to introduce young kids to Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Wolf Man, the Gill-Man, and the Mummy. Besides if you don’t laugh at the line, ‘The Wolf Man has nards’, you may not have a soul.
The Lost Boys (1987)
Not everything about The Lost Boys will translate for younger audiences today – a problem common to most of the movies on this list. If there’s a movie that perfectly encapsulates the 1980s, it’s The Lost Boys. The cast, the soundtrack, the fashion, and the MTV-friendly editing all scream the 1980s. Nonetheless, this Joel Schumacher-directed blend of action and comedy remains an absolute blast. And it’s a perfect introduction to the horror genre. While there’s certainly scares, they’re usually balanced out with humor that mostly hits the marks. Even most of the effects still hold up after over 30 years.
No one’s better than Tim Burton at mixing dark fantasy and childlike enthusiasm. Similar to Ghostbusters – albeit on a smaller level – Beetlejuice was more than just a movie – it was a cultural event. Burton’s story of a paranormal exorcist called on by a recently deceased couple to evict the annoying urbanites now occupying their home was unlike anything that audiences had seen at the time. Bristling with energy and effortlessly creative visuals, Beetlejuice turned Michael Keaton and Winona Ryder into bankable movie stars. And it gave us yet another fun Saturday morning cartoon
Most people don’t like creepy crawlies. And fear of spider may not be universal, but there are enough people afraid of the eight-legged arachnids to warrant its own diagnosis – Arachnophobia. The 1990 comedy-thriller from Frank Marshall and starring Jeff Daniels and John Goodman may be the quintessential gateway horror movie. Nothing about this movie approaches R-rated territory. Instead Marshall focuses on fun, edge-of-your-seat thrills mixed with healthy doses of humor to take the edge off. And the final showdown with the big South American spider in the wine cellar is proof that PG movies can be every bit as scary a something with an R-rating.
The Witches (1990)
Roald Dahl may be one of the greatest children’s story writers of all time. If you’re a certain age, you probably either read or had teachers read any one of several of his stories. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, Matilda, The Fantastic Mr. Fox – they’re all classics. And of course, there’s The Witches. Dahl’s story of witches posing as ordinary people and meeting for a giant convention received the theatrical treatment in 1993. Though Dahl himself disliked the adaptation, The Witches is an almost perfect blend of children’s fantasy and horror. Just Anjelica Huston’s performance alone is worth the price of admission.
Hocus Pocus (1993)
While it’s hard to believe now, Hocus Pocus was something of a dud upon its release. Critics weren’t impressed and the Disney movie barely made a dent at the box office. But something about the story of a trio of witch sisters in Salem, Massachusetts, struck a chord with 90s kids. Starring Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy as the Sanderson Sisters is a big enough deal today to finally warrant an upcoming sequel. If you don’t believe how popular the movie is go to any Spirit Halloween where an entire section of the store is devoted to Hocus Pocus merchandise.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
The Nightmare Before Christmas, the story of Jack Skellington growing bored of being the ‘King of Halloween Town’ and yearning to live in ‘Christmas Town’ is an immortal classic today. And no, it’s not a Tim Burton movie. Burton wrote the story, but Henry Selick directed this musical stop-motion animation fairy tale. Everything about this Disney-produced movie works. The music, visuals, story, and characters – they’re all timeless. And there’s enough horror elements here to ease kids into the genre, but nothing as disturbing as what you’d find in some of the earlier movies on this list.
Based on a Neil Gaiman novella and from director Henry Selick – the same Henry Selick responsible for earlier entry The Nightmare Before Christmas – Coraline is an achievement of style and storytelling. The stop-motion animation is groundbreaking and the fairy tale story is timeless. Arguably, the best children’s movies resonate with both adults and children. And Coraline appeals across generations without ever once pandering to the audience. This isn’t just a great gateway horror movie – it’s a classic movie worth watching again and again.
And here’s yet another stop-motion animated kids horror movie on this list. A story about a young boy, Norman, who can see and talk to the dead, ParaNorman perfectly understands what makes the best children’s movies work. The humor, visuals, pacing, and scares are appropriate for older kids. But the adults taking them to the theaters will have just as much fun watching it. In addition to the inventive stop-motion horror fun, ParaNorman has a decent – if not familiar – message about accepting our differences.
R.L. Stine should forever have a place in the hearts of horror fans. Both his Goosebumps novels and, to a lesser extent, his Fear Street series raised a generation of kids into the horror genre. For 90s kids, the Goosebumps series on YTV probably got them into horror – Slappy was pretty terrifying if you were under the age of 10. And the 2015 Goosebumps movie perfectly brings together the campiness of the original series with big budget movie sensibilities. Like other movies on this list, kids and adults can enjoy this mix of action, humor, and kid-friendly horror. Just forget about the sequel that followed.
Vampires vs The Bronx (2020)
Yes, Vampires vs. The Bronx is one of the newer movies on this list. But it also deserves consideration as one of the more clever movies here. Its story of vampires slowly taking over a Bronx neighbourhood doubles as a metaphor for gentrification. Similar to other movies on the list, this gateway horror movie features childhood friends fighting evil – in this case, it’s vampires. Comedy and horror are tough to mix, but Vampires vs. The Bronx does it effortlessly in a rousing tale that works on multiple levels.
Based on a children’s book of the same name, Nightbooks is the rare example of a Netflix original horror movie that actually works. From start to finish, Nightbooks is an absolute joy to watch. As compared to other Netflix features, this one looks and feels cinematic. There’s genuine scares and emotional stakes alongside three winning performances. In addition, director David Yarovesky shows some visual storytelling flair next to a surprisingly layered screenplay from Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis. Older kids should enjoy it and so will adults. Put this one on your ‘Halloween and Chill’ list if you have kids who can handle light scares – it’s an ideal gateway horror movie.