Scary movies for kids under 10 are tough to find. Some kids will be haunted by weeks by the sight of Casper the Friendly Ghost. Others will devour every scary movie monster, ghost, or masked maniac available. As such, an introduction to scary kids movies should have some training wheels built in, with age-appropriate films shown under a watchful eye and containing at least a glimmer of hope.
“The one element a horror movie for younger kids must have is a happy ending. The hero needs to win,” says Dave Helfrey, who has scared generations of kids and adults as Baron Von Goolo, ghoulish host of Portland, Oregon Halloween attraction FrightTown. “Evil that can’t be defeated is not the notion you want to leave an impressionable kid with. Ideally, horror movies can empower people to face their own fears and demons: choose movies that help your child build that confidence.
The following scary films for kids serve as a jumping-off point to goosebump-inducing entertainment. Still, keep the remote handy… just in case.
Monsters, Inc. (2001)
No, Pixar’s wildly imaginative story about blue-collar monsters working in a scream factory isn’t scary. In fact, it’s downright adorable, especially once human child Boo follows Mike and Sully back into their world — where children evoke as much fear in monsters as snake-creatures do on Earth. For extra-sensitive kids and little ones, this is a surefire bet to get them to love monsters. It helps, too, that Pixar has a habit of enchanting adults just as much as children … sometimes more. Even better, the sequel is also delightful.
Too scary for: Kids who absolutely cannot fathom fantastical imagery.
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
A classic two-for-one Disney literary adaptation, the Mr. Toad half is light on scares (though that bathing suit is certainly horrific). The second half, though, is an adaptation of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, that age-old American campfire story in which teacher Ichabod Crane is regaled with legends of the headless horseman, only to encounter the apparition later. Grounded in American folklore, the story’s structure — particularly the cowardly teacher being regaled with tales by townsfolk — is a great entry point for spooky stuff, as it manages to combine literary storytelling with the cinematic, culminating with a heck of a creepy chase through a covered bridge.
Too scary for: Kids who are already a bit frightened by the woods.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
The entirety of this Tim Burton-produced, stop-motion musical classic is built around macabre spooky imagery, but the reason the tale of Jack Skellington’s quest to bring Christmas cheer to Halloweentown endures is the sweetness that underlies the story itself. Sure, there are witches, werewolves, dismembered dolls, and everything in between, but most characters — with the exception of a villainous Boogie Man stuffed with writhing bugs — are good-hearted. The film is rousing, if a bit melancholy, and has entered the pantheon of alternative Christmas classics, where it serves as a great option for kids who like scares but aren’t ready for Gremlins yet.
Too scary for: Kids who find the general idea of Halloween to be horrifying; entomophobes.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
The classic Universal monsters — Wolf Man, Dracula, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Frankenstein, and the Mummy, most notably — have been part of the pop culture canon since day one, and are referenced in everything from the ’80s Goonies-with-monsters teen romp Monster Squad to recent Oscar favorite The Shape of Water. But the scary film classics, dated as they are to modern audiences, can still creep out young ones. A great entry point/stress test for is Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, in which two paranormally curious dolts meet Mary Shelley’s stitched-together brute. The laughs are plentiful, and the film basically lays the groundwork for future viewing.
Too scary for: Kids who hate black and white. Otherwise, there’s are only a few jump scares played for laughs.
The stop-motion master at Laika traffic in creepy atmosphere, sometimes taking their scares to unsettling levels, a la the nightmare fuel that is the excellent Coraline. Paranorman hits a sweet spot between creepy and fun, spinning a yarn about a boy who journeys to the realm of the dead and embarks on a grand hero’s quest manages crammed with monsters, zombies, ghosts, and ghouls, but also rife with Jim Henson-esque humor and a macabre sense of fun. Still, there’s enough stuff in here that parents with young children untested in the realm of ghouls should approach with caution.
Too scary for: Children under 8 who are startled by ghoulish imagery, even if said ghouls are resoundingly friendly.
The Witches (1990)
Hocus Pocus — a scary kids movie whose nostalgic appeal to parents belies the fact that it’s pretty terrible — gets most of the attention when it comes to Halloween witch movies, but The Witches is the true gem of the subgenre. Based on a story by Roald Dahl, the film concerns a kid who stumbles into a witch’s convention, which he must thwart despite the fact that they immediately change him into a mouse. The makeup effects are profoundly ghastly — especially star Anjelica Huston, whose transformation from Morticia Addams to contorted hag is horrifying — and there are some genuine chills, but for the most part this plays out like a gothic Goosebumps novel by way of The Mouse and the Motorcycle.
Too scary for: Young children (or anyone, really) spooked by gross body transformations.
For generations, R.L. Stine has provided a kid- and teen-friendly entry point to scary stories, so it’s only fitting that this recent tribute to his low-key horror creations serve as solid training wheels for burgeoning horror film lovers. More chaotic than scary, the scary kids movie sees iconic monsters from Stein’s books unleashed on a small town, where a group of teens (and Stine himself, played by Jack Black) must save the day. Basically, it’s the original Jumanji, but with fantastical monsters instead of cartoonish animals. Which is to say, it’s kind of a blast.
Too scary for: Anyone with an aversion to ventriloquist dummies.
Monster House (2006)
A rollicking, slightly more mature animated homage to everything from The Haunting to Poltergeist and other ’80s classics parents might be tempted to show a far-too-young child (seriously, Poltergeist is terrifying), Monster House is a kids’ take on the haunted house genre, one where a trio of neo-Goonies venture into a sentient demon house in order to cease its reign of terror over their neighborhood. Despite its Scooby-Doo vibes, this is a scary kids movie that takes its scares seriously, and its skill at making everyday objects seem sinister could unsettle the younger kids, especially in the intense climax.
Too scary for: Children in the stage where they think every creak in the house is a sign of looming danger.