The films and shows we see as a child have an enormous impact not only in shaping our interests, but our development as a whole. Things that scare us in our formative years, even when they are not necessarily meant to be that scary can still have an impact as a result. Most horror fans, by and large, seem to have discovered the genre as children. Even if people became fans later in life, everyone remembers something on the screen that frightened them in their youth.
But it doesn’t have to scare you to be entertaining. Most of these gateway horror movies work because they aren’t scary. They give us a general overview of the genre, sort of vague highlights without diving us right in and overwhelming us with scares. That’s what makes kids’ horror such an important and overlooked side of the genre.
Some of these movies scared us, some of them just entertained us and made us laugh, but all of them were perfect gateways into the immerse field of horror for young, budding fans.
The Halloween Tree
There’s a strange phenomenon among fans of my age group that most of us went years after seeing this, not seeing it again, maybe only catching glimpses of it the first time, until we wondered if we just made the whole thing up. Almost everyone I talk to thinks they invented this movie as a kid, but it is very real and is based on the book of the same name by Ray Bradbury.
Both movies count here, mostly due to the fact that both of them are excellent. These films were such a great introduction to the genre: they were light and funny, but at the same time, were a legitimate celebration of everything unusual, macabre and weird. The production design was almost better than you’d see from Tim Burton at the time and both features were excellently cast.
For context, here are some horror movies I saw at a very young age: Friday the 13th, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, IT, Pet Sematary. But more than anything else that I witnessed on the screen as a child, Ernest Scared Stupid terrified me. It instilled in me a lifelong fear of trolls, which has to be the most useless phobia I can think of. Even now it unsettles me to watch solely because of how much it scared me at that age. But it’s also a charmingly stupid little movie with great effects and is definitely something worth checking out.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, even though it’s almost impossible to take this statement seriously on its own: Casper is a really underrated movie. It has solid performances, great production design and a surprisingly moving story. It’s not only a great ghost story for kids, but it is also very much a film about learning to come to terms with and accept death. Which is probably a message fit for both children and adults.
The Gate is a really cool movie. It doesn’t feel like it’s a kids movie, even though it is. If anything, it feels like a bigger-budget, more successful version of Ghoulies. This one has a great atmosphere, impressive effects and a memorable band of little monsters.
A whole career’s worth of ups and downs later, Beetlejuice remains one of Tim Burton’s most successful movies. It’s a movie about the afterlife told through Burton’s unique style, back when he was still finding his footing as a director and embracing the inherent campiness of his films. The performances are great across the board, with Michael Keaton being the obvious scene-stealer.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Is it a Halloween movie? Is it a Christmas movie? Well, it’s both. It’s as much about the holiday of Halloween as it is about Christmas and is essential viewing for both times of year. More than anything, it’s the visuals that sell this as a horror-themed children’s film, even in the scenes set around Christmas. It has a creepy atmosphere that put off some kids back when it was first released, but one that would-be fans immediately embraced.
It’s not necessarily a kids’ movie as much as something that people happen to see for the first time when they’re children, but it counts for that, I think. It’s very light, very fun, one of the classic comedies of its decade and while there are a few sequences that might terrify kids—the opening at the library and Dana’s attack in her apartment—those glimpses of fear make it all the more perfect an introduction to the genre.
Joe Dante’s anti-Christmas monster movie is, like Ghostbusters, a classic example of an introduction into horror for younger viewers, even though it definitely appeals to a very wide audience. It almost surprised me to learn just how many people were terrified of this one when they first saw it as a child, so maybe it’s something that should be shown to kids with caution. Me, I embraced it immediately.
For anyone who grew up in the ‘90’s, and many who grew up afterward, there’s no more iconic horror-themed children’s movie than this. With a story originally penned by Mick Garris, Hocus Pocus is goofy, fun and just oozes charm from beginning to end. It’s an adorable movie. All three actresses are great as the witches, but to me, it’s young Thora Birch and Doug Jones who really steal the show.