Listen, I get it. No right-minded parents wants to intentionally terrify and traumatize their kids. It is in our every instinct to protect them from the world’s terrors. And even if our altruistic instincts as parents aren’t our prime motivators, the possibility of having to deal with our fraidy-cat children who can’t sleep at night because they got scared by something they watched – and are thus depriving us of our sleep – is enough motivation to keep all things horror far away from our children.
And yet, hear me out. Even though my personal instinct for my own children is to keep them away from horror, I can’t help but remember my own personal experience with horror. My first experience was a typically scarring one, as some older cousins decided to regale me and my fellow impressionable cousins with a bunch of ghost stories (variations of which you have doubtless heard before) which inevitably led me to sleeping with the light on for several weeks. Later on, an ill-advised decision to watch the Stephen King mini-series It (“It’s clowns, how bad could it be,” I thought) turned out to be the predictably traumatic experience it should have been. Even my innate love of dinosaurs was betrayed by Steven Spielberg when he conjured to turn them into the killing machines they were in Jurassic Park, leading to my way-too-young self having to be restrained by my mother as I yelled at the scream for the doofus humans to get away. These were terrifying moments in my childhood. But now, they are also some of my fondest memories of childhood.
That’s because while being scared as a kid was, well scary, it was also a lot of fun. For every moment when I was wide-eyed terrified there was equally a moment when facing those fears filled me with pure elation and joy. There was something electrifying and thrilling about facing the things that feared me the most, about daring myself to peek into the darkness. I think I became a braver person because I sought out being scared, and not because I avoided it. And the fact is that all these many years later, it was my early experiences with horror that has made me a fan of the horror ever since. So being frightened as a child can’t really be as traumatic an experience as they make it out to be.
Fortunately Hollywood generally seems to agree and has provided, from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on, a steady stream of children’s movies that not only delight and enchant, but also terrify. Below is a brief sampling of some pretty good options that are not just in my personal collection, but are also conveniently currently available on Netflix (in Canada at least) – saving me the trouble of having to search for the physical discs in putting this post together (sometimes it’s amazing the things I get pettily lazy about).
(Disclaimer: Of course, when it comes to horror for kids I cannot give any blanket recommendations for the suitability of any content on this list. My four-year old is still terrified of the snow monster in Frozen, but was thrilled by Wallace and Gromit below. Every child is different, you know yours best. Engage wisely. For what it’s worth, the order of the reviews here roughly corresponds to how mature I think your child might have to be to enjoy said film starting with the most G-rated and ending at the most PG)
WALLACE AND GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT (2005) dirs. Steve Box and Nick Park
Given just how successfully the comedic power-duo of the bumbling Wallace and his eternally patient dog Gromit had previously spoofed everything from 1950s science fiction to Alfred Hitchcock in their shorts, it was only a matter of time for them to train their eyes on all-things horror. And thankfully for us, Steve Box and Nick Park decided that Wallace and Gromit’s chance to take on horror would be in their full-length feature. This time Wallace and Gromit are employees of Anti-Pesto, a pest capturing company that protects all the village vegetables as the villager’s get ready for their annual harvest festival. The swarm of nefarious bunnies who stand in our duo’s way inspire Wallace to think up a shortcut to solving their pest problems by trying to brainwash the critters into giving up vegetables through a genre-appropriate scientific device. Naturally, things go awry leading to a suitably madcap dash for them to save the day. Along the way the movie pays homage to a slew of horror classics like Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, King Kong, and the Gothic-horror trappings of Hammer movies among others. Meanwhile the larger budget of the movie allows Box and Park to stuff just about every frame of the movie with the visual gags and puns the series is known for, proving to be a veritable treasure trove of humor to inspire multiple viewings. The stop-motion quality of the movie means that it is also a timelessly charming labour of love that is a delight to watch. Additionally the bigger budget allows the filmmakers to add some A-level talent to the proceedings, with Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes relishing the opportunity to let loose and be absolutely silly with the roles they are given. The writing is similarly top notch as even the most throwaway lines prove more humorous than the best efforts of most comedies. In other words, this movie from beginning to end is a delight and deserves to take its place as a staple of the Halloween season.
GOOSEBUMPS (2015) dir. Rob Letterman
The Goosebumps book series, with its playful depiction of a plethora of horror tropes, is many a gateway for children into the world of horror (as it most certainly was for me). The sheer enormity of the series (somewhere in the region of 100 books) however makes it a particularly perilous franchise to try and turn into a feature film; any straight adaptation of a book in the series would inevitably leave out a plethora of fan favorites and fail to capture the essence of the series. This is why what Rob Letterman decides to do instead is borderline brilliant. Rather than just adapting the series, he turns the movie into a meta-narrative of the series as a whole in which R. L. Stine (Jack Black) is motivated to write his monsters not so much for the enormous profits but because his writing magically locks these monsters away into his manuscripts where they can’t hurt anyone. Unfortunately a bunch of meddling kids (and his daughter) mess around in his house and inadvertently unleash all of his trapped monsters who proceed to wreck havoc around town. This creates a sandbox where most of the greatest hits of the book series gets a chance to shine while Stine and company run around trying to simultaneously recapture and not be slain by the monsters. It is a madcap and scattershot approach to the Goosebumps material that should not work, and barely does, but it is surprisingly effective. Most of the reason the movie works has to do with the phenomenal work of Jack Black who has seemingly perfected his niche for providing extremely manic performances in children’s movies (see also: The School of Rock, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Kung-Fu Panda, The House With The Clock in Its Walls). I can think of no other actor whose schtick is so consistently entertaining to children but in a way that is not totally grating to adults, and though his performance as R. L. Stine is his most subdued in a children’t movie, he still provides the movie with a burst of charismatic energy. The second piece is the Goosebump monsters themselves who are, even if you are not familiar with the property at all, instantly familiar but also uniquely entertaining. Watching these monsters tear through the town is a hoot and it is a shame that the narrative tries to move us away from Stine and his creations to instead have us focus on the bland teenagers who are supposedly meant to occupy our main focus (although at least Super 8‘s Ryan Lee is trying to act like he’s in a movie with Jack Black). The final third of the movie is unfortunately the weakest part as the menagerie of ghouls and creatures gets dealt with in predictable fashion and Stine himself gets shoved into the background in favor of resolving teen storylines, but for at least the first hour or so, this movie is way more fun than it has any right to be.
MONSTER HOUSE (2006) dir. Gil Kenan
Unlike the movie Goosebumps (above), which is mostly a meta-narrative take on the Goosebumps books phenomenon, Monster House is a movie that actually feels like a Goosebumps novel come-to-life. The movie almost immediately dives into the main narrative where DJ (Mitchell Musso), the boy who lives across the street from the dilapidated old house of his crotchety old neighbor Horace Nebbecracker (Steve Buscemi), starts voicing his suspicions of the malevolent nature of the house. Recruiting his stereotypical best friend Chowder (Sam Lerner) and Grade-A model student Jenny (Spencer Locke) the trio set out to investigate the nature of the house which inevitably leads them to getting in-over-their-heads, uncovering dark secrets, and learning something about each other along the way. Produced by Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and Zemeckis’ ImageMovers, Monster House evokes both of those directors teenage movies of the 80s with its potent mix of excitement and terror – a throwback to an era when genuinely scaring kids wasn’t considered a Hollywood taboo. The animation meanwhile takes a little bit to get used to – at its worst feels a little sterile and creeps into uncanny valley – but in its best moments perfectly complements the creepy storytelling. Like a typical Goosebumps novel, the movie isn’t groundbreaking in the least and if you are familiar with horror in general the movie’s tropes are neither going to surprise or scare you. But it is competently made, and for kids wanting to dip their toes into something more spooky you could do much worse.
PARANORMAN (2012) dirs. Chris Butler and Sam Fell
Stop-motion animation seems to be a particularly fruitful medium for telling children’s horror-stories, and Laika studios – the Portland, Oregon-based independent studio – seems to have particularly mastered just how to tell horror stories to kids. ParaNorman, the follow-up to the excellent Coraline, may feel less original than Laika’s debut film, but it is also a delicate dance between terror and deft humor that is mostly successful. It tells the story of Norman, an middle-school kid who has inherited his uncle’s ability to see and speak to ghosts to his obvious social detriment. Unbeknownst to Norman, thanks to his family’s general estrangement from his uncle, part of the Norman’s duties with his inconvenient skill is to perform a yearly ritual to protect his Massachusetts town from the ghost of a girl who was wrongly convicted as a witch and her accusers who were cursed when they sentenced her to death. Naturally without this vital piece of information, he fails and all hell breaks loose on the town, leaving it up to him and his rag-tag group of friends to try and save the day. The visuals are stunning, firmly establishing Laika as a master of the medium and pushing stop-motion animation to new heights. And building on Coraline the studio has fine tuned their ability to skirt the line between thrilling and traumatizing kids as the monsters, ghouls, and the mob are equal in their ability to terrify while the narrative itself takes turns into dark corners not typically ventured in children’s movies. However where Coraline set itself up as a mystery-box waiting to be solved, ParaNorman is much more linear and a less compelling as a result. Meanwhile the characters in the movie are somewhere in between typical high-school movie tropes and clever spoofs of said tropes, with the movie never committing one way or the other, making it hard to connect with them. The movie should be commended though because while it is an overly familiar narrative, the filmmakers make some brave and bold moves in undercutting both our expectations of the main characters and the monsters, and in pushing for us to ultimately embrace empathy for the other. The narrative however remains slightly thin but the stylistic flair of the movies, and its mild ability to surprise, make this more than interesting enough to check out.