10 Frightening Kid-Friendly Flicks 2021

October may be the time of year for hard-R horror movies, but it’s also the month of pumpkin carving, superhero and clown costumes, trick or treating, and eating so much candy you get a stomachache. In short, Halloween is different for kids than for adults. It’s a magical night when anything is possible, and kids are more aware of that than anyone. There is an overabundance of horror movies for adults, but what good spooky cinema is out there for the under 13? And what possible nightmares are they getting from these choices? The following ten films are kid-friendly, spooky Halloween fun.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Wait, you say, Steven Spielberg’s beloved award-winning film about a boy and his friendship with an alien overcoming all odds can’t be scary. That isn’t horror. Fear is subjective, my friends. I haven’t watched this film since I was a little kid because it scared me so consistently that I had negative associations with it—no matter how much anyone else loved it. And you know what? I can understand why now. For the first third of the film, Spielberg (director of Jaws and Jurassic Park) films scenes as if it was a horror movie: tight shots through cornrows, hiding the alien as if it were a monster, playing with light and darkness, lots of screaming and chasing. Then, Elliot (Henry Thomas) forms an empathetic bond with E.T. (a fancy, non-horror way of projecting the idea of a parasite at a kid’s movie, in my opinion) and his life is overtaken by complex emotions, the government (which is what I mainly remembered as terrifying), and a quest to help his friend “phone home.” There’s also a scene toward the end that some might call heart-wrenching and I would still call terrifying because it feels so horribly graphic in its depiction. The writing is good. The score is fantastic. I love the dynamic between Elliot and his siblings. But, somehow, even all these years later, I can’t find it in me to love E.T. It’s still a good movie and if your child loves space, adventure, and the idea that something may be ‘out there’ then this is a perfect classic for them, especially since the design of the alien is meant to be friendly-looking. Others, like me perhaps, will find it a bit too unnerving to watch. But doesn’t that make it perfect for this time of year then? 6+

The Black Cauldron (1985). At the time of its release, this film was not only the most expensive animated film made but also the first Disney film to earn a PG rating. It also almost ruined the company. An assistant pig keeper, Taran, must work together with a princess and a bard to prevent the evil Horned King from finding the titular black cauldron and ending all hope of peace. The story itself is classic even if the pacing is odd (as it’s based on the first two books in a series) and while none of the characters are overly memorable in the history of Disney none are for the worst either. The exception to this, of course, is the Horned King (John Hurt) who appears as if the Disney animators took inspiration from the Chernabog sequence in Fantasia and said, “yes, that but more.” He is genuinely terrifying in that there is nothing human or redeeming about him, and he’s gruesome to look at as well. The climax of the film—largely the reason for the rating—is full of suspense, a heartbreaking sacrifice that is downright dark for early Disney, and quite a few images that will sear themselves into the mind of child and adult alike. The animation itself is lush and the backgrounds, particularly the Gothic castles, are fantastic to look at. Overall, this might not be anyone’s favorite from the House of Mouse but it fits in just fine as a dark fantasy during the spooky season. 7+

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). Sometimes a Halloween flick isn’t necessarily about the autumnal season, scares, or the holiday, but rather the inclusion of the magical. This tale about Kiki, a young witch, discovering her abilities, making friends, and helping a town doesn’t have high stakes or serious frights but it doesn’t need to. Rather in that way of Hayao Miyazaki, this is a film that has a solidified sense of feeling where characters interact and learn more about themselves. Additionally, the animation of flight is astounding as it creates so many emotional highs throughout the film and is used as our main source of magic throughout. Kiki’s kindness and belief in herself is something that’s worth showing to kids because they should have confidence in who they are but feel comfortable in self-definition and self-care, too. Plus this film has one cute black cat that is an adorable scene stealer. It’s also worth noting that most of the characters are women and that this community supports Kiki in her quest of self-discovery versus tearing her down. The dub features a voice cast with Kirsten Dunst, Phil Hartman, and Debbie Reynolds amongst others. This time of year is usually when it feels like anything could be possible—even magic—so why not add believing in yourself to that list? 5+

Arachnophobia (1990). If you or your child is deathly afraid of spiders then this might not be the film for you. However, as an introduction to more “mature” horror, this film works perfectly for creature features using more natural fears. Dr. Jennings (Jeff Daniels) and his family move to a small town in California for new opportunity, but mysterious deaths begin to occur shortly after their arrival. Is it Dr. Death or something more…natural? Okay, yes, from the beginning and the title you can guess that the culprit is probably of the arachnid variety. What I love most is that the film takes this ridiculous premise seriously enough but with the right touch of humor. The spiders themselves are almost realistic and there’s a particular jump scare that will make you look twice at your walls during the night. The climax is pulse-racing and fun with the perfect B-movie stakes, and most of the performances are entertaining. Overall, this film wouldn’t be too intense (or sexy) for young kids to get some harder thrills that will appeal to parents as well. 9+

Tower of Terror (1997). While the ride at Disneyland has been re-themed to Guardians of the Galaxy, the original was long a sight of both visible welcome to the theme park and suspense. As someone who was nervous around elevators for a long time, it certainly wasn’t a ride I wanted to go on—even the film adaptation scared me. Tower of Terror largely follows Buzzy (Steve Guttenberg), a washed-up reporter, as he investigates the real reason five people (including a Shirley Temple-esque child star) disappeared from the elevator of the Hollywood Tower Hotel in 1939. When it turns out they never left, he and his niece (Kirsten Dunst) must find a way to set them free. While there aren’t as many ‘scary’ sequences in this film as in other Disney ghost stories (such as Haunted Mansion or Something Wicked This Way Comes), the atmosphere and story-telling is wonderful and—for kids—it’s the right amount of spooky. Some of the effects haven’t aged beautifully, but most of the film still holds up. The film also looks at the positives and negatives of never giving up on a dream, and how holding onto something for too long (especially when it’s bad for you) can be hurtful. Overall, it’s a fun family flick that might make you think twice about taking the elevator. 6+

Casper Meets Wendy (1998). I used to watch this frequently when it aired on TV every year as a kid. Watching it more recently, I was worried by how much I remembered and by how little my nostalgia saved it. Casper, our friendly ghost, is on vacation with his uncles when he meets Wendy (Hilary Duff in her film debut), a witch who is hiding from an evil warlock determined to steal her powers. First, the CGI has aged terribly. For its time, we can credit them for trying but the budget didn’t stretch right and you can definitely tell this was made for TV versus the theater of the original Casper. Second, most of the performances are hokey but somehow we have a killer cast? Shelley Duvall, Teri Garr, George Hamilton, and Jess Harnell add their talents to what is, overall, a mediocre film. To its credit, though, the film has a lot of fun with what it’s doing and the overall idea that witches and ghosts shouldn’t get along makes for a good conflict. Some of the jokes don’t quite land but those that do earn a laugh or two. While this might not be a film that will appeal to kids who are used to the clean cut animation of today, those who love a friendly ghost or appreciate anything with a bit of the supernatural will have a good enough time. 5+

Scary Godmother: Halloween Spooktakular (2003). I don’t know how many times I’ve seen this 50 minute special. Enough that I barely needed to see it again to remember every moment and what would come next. Whether that speaks to a childhood obsession, a Halloween classic, or some twisted ability of this film to sync with my psyche, I know not. Hannah, after being tricked into the spook house by her brother Jimmy and his friends, meets her Scary Godmother, who invites her to a Halloween party with her monster friends to help the little girl learn that sometimes things aren’t as scary as they appear. The animation does take some getting used to and we can’t quite call it pretty to look at, but it is unique and something about it has aged in its own way. The story feels timeless and teaches some good lessons which we can always use. There’s also this queer subtext that might be there which I definitely didn’t pick up on as a kid. The characters are a lot of fun and the music is a bit zany in a good way. There’s something about Scary Godmother that is of the liminal space where all good things that twist the mind come from. All ages.

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005). Scary movies for kids don’t need high stakes like saving your friends from a serial killer. Sometimes all that needs saving is a beloved vegetable contest. Mr. Wallace and his dog Gromit are on the case when a mysteriously large rabbit begins ruining people’s gardens and threatening the giant vegetable competition. The Claymation is lovely, and the rabbits in particular are adorable. It feels classic and timeless not only because of the plot (which is very much in line with Universal monsters and Hammer films) but because of that quality. With a voice cast that includes Peter Sallis, Ralph Fiennes, and Helena Bonham Carter, everything is balanced with the perfect amount of seriousness and humor given at the moment. Obviously, you have plenty of cheese and vegetable puns, but the physical comedy is also a delight. While the terror is never too terrifying, it uses all the right notes of classic horror to create scenarios that may frighten little viewers and generate the perfect spooky atmosphere for others. I’m sure there’s a lesson to be had in here somewhere about eating vegetables, but when they look that good—even animated—it’s hard to argue. This is a film I’m glad I (finally) watched because it’s an instant classic and one that the whole family will love. All ages.

The Little Vampire (2017). Okay, I can now say there is too much of a “wanted” thing. This animated adaptation (not quite a remake) of the book series of the same name did exactly what I wanted, and still somehow didn’t satisfy. In my review for The Little Vampire (2000), I wanted the plot to focus less on the quest for a mortality-granting amulet and more on the friendship between two unlikely boys. Did I get what I asked for? Yes. But no. The plot is somewhat the same, but not quite. While preparing to celebrate his 313th birthday with his clan, Rudolph and his family are attacked by the brutish vampire hunter Rookery but manage to escape. Rudolph hides out with Tony, an American boy vacationing in Europe with his family, learns what it’s like to be a modern human, and gets to have fun for the first time in centuries. The shift in focus from Tony to Rudolph somewhat works (he is the titular vampire) and this follows more of his journey to prove himself to his parents. However, it totally sacrifices so much of Tony’s character and his inherent loneliness and the reason for the obsession that I can’t forgive it for that. Additionally, some of the slapstick humor with the vampire hunters felt too silly or didn’t feel like a necessary subplot when we could focus more on Tony. The animation is unique but cool-looking and the voice-acting, particularly Jim Carter as Rookery, works well overall. If we could mesh the best parts of both adaptations together now that would be great. 4+

Muppets Haunted Mansion (2021). If you love The Muppets and the first ride at a Disney theme park you run to is Haunted Mansion then this was probably a dream come true in terms of projects. This special revolves around Gonzo and Pepe as they explore the Mansion and discover its ghastly ghosts while trying to win a fear challenge event. Various other Muppets appear in more than one form here and there, including a two memorable performances by Miss Piggy. The writing and jokes are so slick for that elbow-to-rib type humor with a good guffaw here and there, and some of the sight gags are perfect. Darren Criss, Will Arnett, and Taranji P. Henson make appearances during the tour and deliver decent performances. The overall ‘message’ of the film is a good one, particularly for those familiar with Gonzo as a longtime character, and it’s sure to encourage more than one kid. A few of the scares are great, including a jump scare with a celebrity cameo that even I didn’t see coming. The set is gorgeous, of course, and it really feels like going through the attraction (with a joke thrown in at its expense as well). I’m glad we have this little Haunted Mansion universe between this and the 2003 film, both of which are good fun around Halloween. When The Muppets meet the Haunted Mansion, though, anything can—and will—happen. It’s a short, sweet, and entertaining special that the whole family can enjoy. All ages.

Horror movies are usually made for adults, but that doesn’t mean kids don’t deserve to be scared too. Kids and families get the more physical aspects of the holiday, but spending time together on the spookiest night of the year is what’s most important. So after all the candy’s been counted and trades been made, find something worth watching and see what friendly ghosts, wicked witches, or hungry vampires appear in dreams that night.