Child’s Play: Entry Level Horror Films for Children

Scooby DooChild’s Play: Entry Level Horror Films for Children

You may have read that a US school teacher in Tennessee was recently suspended for showing his class the horror film Human Centipede 2. His reasons may have been pure—he claims he wanted to show them what to do if you’re bullied (er, sew people together, ass to mouth?)—but his choice of film was hardly well thought out. Considering that another teacher in the US state of Ohio was last year jailed for showing The ABCs of Death on five different occasions to her classes, we’re starting to see a bit of a trend here.

Now, anyone who has seen those films will know straight away that they are not the right choices to show to kids, so it got us thinking as to what would be good choices of horror films to use as an introduction and get them interested in our favourite genre.

Sure, when they are really young, you can rely on the good old staples of Scooby Doo and other, similar cartoons such the Groovy Ghoulies (remember those?) and the children’s networks always set up a run of horror related shows and specials in the lead up to Halloween. But what about the harder stuff, the stuff that for actual kids are really the stuff of nightmares? Well for starters you need look no further than good old Uncle Walt.

Yup, Disney offers some of the scariest moments on celluloid if you know where to look.

Fantasia has plenty of demonic images in its finale as the Prince of Darkness himself makes an appearance. Then there’s The Black Cauldron, which is probably Disney’s darkest cartoon ever. At the time it was their first ever PG rated film and it featured those lovely skeletal henchman who work for The Horned King. It’s fair to say that parents weren’t too happy with the House of Mouse about that. There are other little snippets of horror here and there too within the Disney archives. For example, did you know that Sam Raimi has stated that he was inspired to create the possessed trees in The Evil Dead because of Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs?

Another animated feature that strikes a real chord, even with adults, is Watership Down. At nearly forty years old, the cartoon about the cute bunny rabbits has done more damage to young minds than anything on the Video Nasties list—you only need to look at the amount of complaints that Channel 5 received when they aired the film on Easter Sunday in the UK, with parents complaining that it was inappropriate if proof were needed. There were comments about the scenes in the film being ‘upsetting, traumatising, hideous and horrifying’. It was Easter and the film is about bunnies, but honestly, if parents don’t know by now what that film involves, maybe they shouldn’t let their kids watch anything outside of Teletubbies! Watership Down is a rites of passage film. Every kid should see it.

ParaNormanWhile we’re on the subject of animation, we should also point to a recent slew of films that have been very much horror orientated for those entry level experiences. While Hotel Transylvania and its sequel have played it very much for laughs, there have been quite a few releases in the last few years that have had a definite edge to them.

Think Coraline, The Nightmare Before Christmas and its sibling in kind The Corpse Bride, Monster House, ParaNorman and Frankenweenie.  There are some real scenes in all of these animated releases that could even be considered to be a little strong for really young kids.

Moving on to films that have real life actors rather than voiceovers, there are any number of fantasy films, especially from the 80s, that have horror elements in them such as The NeverEnding Story or Legend and The Dark Crystal, but here we will focus more on the genre specific titles. These can fall into different levels of accessibility for the young ‘uns:

The first level includes films such as Teen Wolf, Hocus Pocus and Casper, as they are all pretty light on moments that might give kids nightmares. The recent Goosebumps movie with Jack Black was pretty good too and falls into this category and you could even add the two live action Scooby Doo releases from a few years back with Sarah Michelle Gellar. These are safe titles, but if you or your offspring are anything like us when we were young, you’ll want to push the envelope a little further. So let’s take the next step and introduce the kiddie-winks to some real classics.

Ghostbusters Library GhostThe second level here includes some films that might give them a scare, so get ready for the odd restless night. Ghostbusters is an obvious inclusion here (your friendly writer here saw it at the cinema twice at age 8, and can safely say that it was the film that cemented my love for the horror genre) as is the all-time classic Jaws. There is nothing more annoying to a horror fan than when someone tells them that Spielberg’s shark opus is not a horror film. That film scared a whole generation out of going into the sea, for Brody’s sake!

Arachnophobia can also be added to this list, along with its cousin, Eight Legged Freaks and, if you really want to introduce your kids to the genre properly, then why not include the original classics? The Universal slate of monster films still have a real charm to them that should still enthral viewers if they see them before they witness the more up to date genre films that rely far too heavily on CGI and weak jump scares. In a perfect segue at this stage, you can also include the more recent Mummy films from Universal with Brendan Fraser. Yes, there’s lots of CGI in them, but it’s done well (at least for the time and for the first couple anyway). Also, pop The Witches in here, which is just the right side of scary, but what do you expect from a film that is based on a Roald Dahl story? In addition, you absolutely need to throw in a viewing of The Monster Squad, as what kid isn’t going to find “Wolfman’s got ‘nards!” funny?

Michael Keaton as BeetlejuiceNext up, we move on to some titles that are definitely too strong for the really young, but could be viewed by those who have started to build up an immunity to scares. We’d consider films like Beetlejuice here, and then add the likes of Poltergeist, Joe Dante’s The Hole and Gremlins. 2015 Christmas horror Krampus could also be one to watch here. To be honest, after this stage, it’s all about just moving on and letting the youngsters find their own way in the horror world. For example, I myself did not have parents that stopped me from watching horror films and the local video store weren’t too picky about certificates—much to my joy happily renting me the original A Nightmare on Elm Street at the grand old age of 12. As a result I certainly sat through some absolute dross (and still do until this day, although don’t we all just so we can find a hidden gem?), but also found some stunning creativity and out-of-the-box thinking that you just don’t get in any other genre.

Of course, there is no way to cover everything out there, and this list could go on and on, but the films mentioned above are certainly a pretty good list to start from. One thing is for sure, I’m certainly looking forward to introducing my daughter to all the above films and many, many more as she grows up.

JD Gillam

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  1. Mark N

    Great post. Jaws, Gremlins and Poltergeist were all steps we’ve taken for our triplets – now 10 – on the road to horror fandom and, actually, exactly in that order. I also selected certain episodes of the original Twilight Zone early on as well as the Goosebumps series on Netflix. Labyrinth and Secret of NIMH also found them spooked a bit and they really like the Fraser Mummy films as well.The kids also loved – and were terrified by – The Horror of Dracula (tame enough for kiddies as opposed to some of the later Hammer entries), The Fly (the original, of course – slow start but the reveal had all three covering their eyes) and Carpenter’s Village of the Damned remake. We’ve even sat down with The Omen by this point.Kids seem to love evil kids onscreen for some reason…

    Non-horror films they’ve also found scary and enjoyable along the way include Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the Jurassic Park series. Certain standalone “monster of the week” X-Files episodes have also become repeat viewers in our home. As they enter 5th grade and beyond, the original Halloween will follow soon – perhaps the TV cut, though. Much like you, I experienced Nightmare on Elm Street at an early age – me via a friend’s sleepover – and I think some of the best horror experiences come in that fashion: unsupervised, unapproved and scared not just of what’s onscreen but of being found out. I look forward to them discovering that path in their own way now that we have a decent foundation set.

    Again, great post.

    1. JD Gillam

      Thanks for the kind words, Mark.
      Totally agreed that there are so many great films out there that have horror tropes within them – I too remember seeing the whole heart and sacrifice scenes in Temple of Doom and thinking it was a bit scary.
      Just thinking back to the lurid VHS covers in the local video store brings back so many fun memories. It was like a blind taste test in the 80s – you literally had no idea as a kid whether you were picking up something great or something awful.
      Hell, I remember watching Cellar Dweller round a friend’s house, eating burgers. The gore in that put us off our ketchup covered lunch!
      I think you’ve made some great picks there for your kids and I can honestly say that watching those films at such a tender age never did me or any of my TIH cohorts any damage.
      It’s just the voices that tell us to do those things – honest!


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