Before it became an excuse to throw drunken adult dress-up parties, Halloween was always for kids first. You get to pretend to be your favourite animal/monster/superhero/princess/whatever-in-between. You are encouraged to collect (and consume) as much candy as possible. You get to carve pumpkins and make an almighty mess of yourself. You get to stay out late. And most importantly you get the chance to scare yourself just a little, over and against your parents’ ideal desires. While recent decades have seen the sharp drop of allowing kids to go out on Halloween parentless (a probably wise decision) the trade-off is that it’s become an opportunity for kids to see their parents with their hair let down a bit, as they get to join in the dress-up festivities. Ironically, the natural desire to keep our kids safe has turned the macabre holiday into a yearly event of family-bonding over costumes and candy (at least until the dreaded teen phase).
For a cinephile like me, Halloween is also the perfect chance for the whole family to pool their candy haul in front of the couch and watch some Halloween appropriate fare. The problem of course is that most of the movies that would be appropriate fare on Halloween are highly inappropriate for kids to watch (at this juncture). But on the other hand, I really don’t want to relegate myself to watching the “ghost”-episodes of Paw Patrol and Thomas the Tank Engine (again). Fortunately with a little creativity, it’s entirely possible to find great G or PG rated fare that manage to capture the feeling of the Halloween season without also traumatizing the kiddos. Or maybe only scaring them a little (for more snuggles!). Hence this list.
(Disclaimer: I’m not guaranteeing that these movies won’t scare your kids. In fact I’m pretty sure a few of these are definitely going to cause some screams. Every child has a different tolerance level for scary things, and what scares one child is going to make another laugh. I don’t claim to know your kids, so use your own discretion. I’m just suggesting that these movies might work for the family this season.)
So without further ado, lets dive into the best Halloween-appropriate movies to watch with the kids, or if you’re just a bit of a scaredy-cat anyway:
The Nightmare Before Christmas – This movie was very close to making the list, especially since it makes a valuable addition to the very barren list of Halloween-themed songs (“This is Halloween”). But in the great debate over which season this movie ultimately belongs to, I am forcefully going to argue that this movie’s place is alongside mistletoe and not pumpkins (it has Christmas in the title after all, for goodness sake). Still, if you decide to watch this during Halloween instead I’m not going to judge you… too much.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl – At surface level you might not think of this movie for Halloween, but then everybody seems to forget that this first instalment of the multi-billion franchise is about zombie pirates!
Goosebumps – It’s the newest movie on this list so it remains to be seen if this one is going to fade into obscurity or become a cult classic. But I was pretty impressed the one time I saw it.
Labyrinth – To be honest while this is a pretty decent (and scary) kids movie, I didn’t grow up with it, so I’ve mostly appreciated it rather than fallen in love. But if Bowie is your speed, this is the one to go with.
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad – An under-seen Disney classic made in the lean post-war years. Ostensibly an anthology movie, the first segment about the legend of Sleepy Hollow is definitely in fitting with the season. Unfortunately the second segment about The Wind in the Willows, while pretty decent, does not.
The Goonies – The Goonies is awesome. I’m not sure how it didn’t manage to make the list. Just know that I’m upset about by this development.
10. HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE (2001) dir. Chris Columbus
The movie basically serves as a placeholder for the entire Harry Potter series as a whole. Even though The Sorcerer’s Stone is arguably one of the weaker entries in the series, it makes the list here because (a) it’s the first and therefore is the necessary starting point for any would-be-future Potterheads, (b) it has a standalone story that doesn’t depend on past or future instalments to understand it, and (b) it’s probably the least scary of the bunch. But the series is perfect for the season. It’s about a wizard kid going to wizard school to learn magic and battle magical enemies along the way. What more could you want? One note: if your kids are already well-versed in Potter-lore, may I humbly suggest that The Prisoner of Azkaban as the best standalone entry for the season.
9. HOCUS POCUS (1993) dir. Kenny Ortega
I realize this entry outs me as a nostalgic millennial, but no self-respecting list of child-friendly Halloween fare can leave out the Sanderson sisters. They are the three witches who terrorize the town of Salem, Massachusetts 300 years after being hanged. The children who are tasked with stopping the witches are basically wallpaper to the proceedings (and the adults predictably clueless as well) as almost all the pleasure is derived from Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker putting on their best cackling witch performances and having a blast doing it. Bette Midler’s performance of “I Put A Spell on You” is worth the price of admission alone. Hocus Pocus is exactly the kind of over-the-top campy entertainment that is the perfect thing to build a grand holiday tradition around.
8. BEETLEJUICE (1988) dir. Tim Burton
There is a very real sense that the modern Halloween aesthetic owes a debt of gratitude to the contributions of Tim Burton, and Beetlejuice is arguably his best work. Featuring a pre-Batman Michael Keaton as the title character, it tells the zany story of a couple (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) who die in a horrible accident and find themselves as ghosts in their idyllic craftsman home. When a new family moves in and tries to strip all the charm of their home in favour of gaudy ’80s sensibilities, they decide to fight back and enlist the help of the titular character, a devious ghost who specializes in driving people out of their homes through haunting them. Unfortunately like any sleazy salesman, his offer sounds to good to be true which leads to a madcap and frantic quest to rid the house of their tacky hosts and save their souls (literally).
7. SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959) dir. Clyde Geronimi
Sleeping Beauty may not come to mind when choosing Halloween fare. But though the retelling of the fairy tale is brimming with typical Disney princess romance, there is also a fairly dark side to this film as well. It all begins with Maleficent, who is as fearsome a villain that has ever been created in the Disney canon. Together with her ghouls and demons, she forms the most terrifying force against the powers of good. I remember watching this movie with hands over eyes and through my fingers growing up. And before we move on, let me remind you of the scene involving the Princess Aurora and a spindle that is as tense, horrific, and agonizingly terrifying as any of the great horror scenes. I can still hear the haunting score for this scene to this day, and it still gives me the absolute chills. But of course tempering these horror filled scenes is typical Disney magic, whimsy, and wonder, and humor, making it a perfect alternative Halloween pick.
6. SPIRITED AWAY (2001) dir. Hayao Miyazaki
Hayao Miyazaki’s take on “Alice in Wonderland” is a sumptuous visual feast that frequently inspires awe and wonder. It tells the story of a girl who is forced further and further down the spiritual realm in her quest to save her parents who have been turned into pigs. Along the way she meets benign spirits and creatures who befriend and protect her as she finds herself working in a bath house for the inhabitants of this spirit world. While this isn’t a story that is necessarily scary, it is disorienting and slightly disturbing all the same. For every ghost and ghoul who appears friendly, there is another that is bound to be unsettling and less benevolent. The thing is though, the whole film is rendered so beautifully, down to the very smallest detail, that whatever fears that bubble up may be overwhelmed by the artistic excellence on display.
5. E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982) dir. Steven Spielberg
Again, E.T. does not necessarily come to mind when thinking about Halloween movies but let me refresh your memory as to why I think it’s an excellent family choice. It stars an alien, who is lost and desperately trying to get home. The rest of the protagonists are children, which is always a bonus point when trying to get one’s own children hooked into a movie. There is a key scene that takes place explicitly on Halloween, complete with trick-or-treating and costumes. And the whole thing plays like a friendlier and kinder version of a Twilight Zone episode anyway about a strange alien encounter. Of all the movies on this list, it also might be the one that is objectively the best, with Halloween being the perfect opportunity to introduce your fellow young ones to one of the greatest movies ever made.
4. MONSTERS INC. (2001) dirs. Pete Docter & David Silverman
This movie is so funny, charming, warm, and comforting that it is easy to forget that it is literally about the monsters that live in your child’s closet. In typical Pixar fashion, this simple concept about the monsters in your closet becomes a canvas to imagine an entire world in which these monsters live, complete with the same malaise of our actual urban environments. Sully (John Goodman) is the top scarer in a scare factory that harnesses children’s screams for energy and Mike Wazowski is his assistant and best friend. The joke of this movie is that the monsters are every bit as afraid of the children as the children are of them and when Sully and Mike inadvertently bring back a child with them into Monstropolis, pandemonium ensues. But as Pixar often does, the film becomes about the breaking down of barriers between two groups, the existential guilt of not knowing if your career makes you a good person, and a scathing reminder that the best way forward is to tear down what has come before. With some zany antics tossed in for good measure.
3. WALLACE & GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT (2005) dirs. Steve Box & Nick Park
Trust the Brits to figure out a way to pay homage to classic Hollywood horror movies and package that homage in such a way that children are going to find entertaining and funny while still packing in so much visual punnery and gags aimed at the adults in the audience that the whole family can remain entertained. Of course for anyone who is familiar with the TV episodes of Wallace & Gromit this should come as no surprise as the series has made smart and humorous spoofs of classic cinema their calling card. Yet their feature-length outing manages to outdo all of that as the duo find themselves as pest exterminators tasked with solving the great mystery of a Were-Rabbit that is terrorizing a tiny British town thats in the midst of a gardening festival. It is such a loving tribute to classic horror that it is also perhaps the perfect way to introduce that genre to kids who may find themselves close to a century removed from the genre’s heyday. (2018 Update: Showed this to my four-year old and she was not terrified. Take from that what you will.)
2. CORALINE (2009) dir. Henry Selick
Of all the movies on this list, this is the one that I can guarantee is going to scare children, and that’s because it still manages to unsettle me as an adult. Coraline carries on in the grand tradition of telling fairy tales, but more in the fashion of Grimm’s fairy tales than anything out of the Disney canon. Based on the Neil Gaiman book, it tells the story of Coraline who has recently moved into a derelict triplex in Oregon and discovers a portal to a parallel world that has the veneer of perfection which draws her in, but hides a deep, dark, and terrifying secret within. Everything from the soundtrack to the exemplary stop-motion animation gives this movie an atmospheric chill and creates a storybook quality that is bound to keep at least one kid up at night, and maybe the adults as well. But as I have said many times, being frightened as a child is a severely underrated experience.
1. IT’S THE GREAT PUMPKIN, CHARLIE BROWN (1966) dir. Bill Melendez
Full disclosure: So far as I’ve come up with this list, there has not been a single movie that I would say my three-year old daughter is ready to see yet (we have to fast forward the snow monster in Frozen because it’s too scary). But I have absolutely no problem recommending wholeheartedly that the perfect piece of entertainment for the family to watch on Halloween is the classic It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. It is a gentle, comforting, and nostalgic reminder of everything that we love about Halloween, told with Charles Schultz’s typically insightful and warm humour. Until my children gets a little bit older, sitting down with this movie will be my family tradition every October 31 and I will cherish it for as long as I can.