A T-Rex flips over the car, tearing it apart to get to the two children inside. A young woman screams in agony, bobbing in and out of the ocean before disappearing completely. The rabbit thrashes wildly, blood foaming at its mouth as it tries to loosen the snare around its throat.
Horror has always lingered in the darker corners of family movies, the supernatural, violent and macabre never far away. Sometimes the peril is too much, and at others it’s deliciously dangerous. But what are some of the best entry points for a younger audience (and their enthusiastic horror loving parents)? Over the next ten entries we’ll give our suggestions of the films you should use to introduce a family audience to the chilling world of spooky cinema.
1. Disney: Snow White (1937); Pinocchio (1940); Dumbo (1941)
For many in the West our devotion to the movies began with Disney. And early Disney in particular is awash with horror imagery. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves mixes the occult, folk and body horror into a broth with sequences that have lingered long after the film’s release. And the increasingly problematic Dumbo finds real terror in the treatment of the protagonist’s mother, whilst the Elephants on Parade sequence is an hallucinogenic trip.
But the work that is perhaps clearest in its dabbling with horror is Pinocchio, and in particular the Pleasure Island portion of the story. This is one of the most frightening sequences in all the studio’s extensive work, a horrifying moment where seemingly supernatural forces punish the characters on screen (and viewers will soon come to learn this happens fairly often in horror), reshaping and dooming them to a terrible new life of labour. And then once this is complete there awaits, in the film’s final act, a biblical beast that is as terrifying as the monster at the heart of Jaws. True nightmare fodder.
2. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is an odd film: a lyrically charming romp about an inventor building the titular flying car, it morphs into a journey to a fantastical, timeless European nation where youngsters are noticeably missing. Their absence is explained in one scene that’s a prime example of our first experiences of horror.
Robert Helpmann’s Childcatcher is easily one of cinema’s great villains, a monstrous being whose promise of lollipops, cherry pies, ice cream and treacle tart are the treat that will lead to the capture of children. Perhaps it’s Helpmann’s uncanny movements (the performer was a trained dancer) or that he taps into a fear of a generous stranger instilled in us from a young age, or that his arrival marks the first burst of danger in the film, shattering the illusion that all is well. In any event, we were all terrified to our very souls.
3. Gremlins (1984)
The story of a town beset by ferocious, mischievous creatures at Christmas is likely to become a firm family staple once introduced to younger audiences. And maybe it’s the fact that it almost wasn’t suitable for children that makes it such a cracking watch.
At one point Joe Dante’s Gremlins was decidedly more adult, a quality that lingers in a finished film which is always surprisingly violent (and you’ll know if your child is ready for that Christmas speech). But this is all deftly handled by Dante, whose career has often found a balance between horror and family fare. Gremlins is a great example of this, the manic energy gleefully building throughout, whilst retaining the adorable presence of Gizmo that lets audiences know things will be ok in the end.
Films produced and directed by Spielberg are, in general, brilliant entry points to horror: from Jaws and Jurassic Park to Poltergeist and Arachnophobia, they are often thrilling watches that mix their frights with exhilarating set pieces and a rollercoaster quality to their narratives.
4. Return to Oz (1985)
1939’s The Wizard of Oz could very well have gained a place on this list, with moments of peril and a strange world around its protagonist that tips close to horror at time. But it is nothing compared to the work that followed nearly fifty years later.
Return to Oz is an utterly bizarre watch, a fascinating vision from Walter Murch (his only feature directorial credit). Early on Dorothy finds herself in a psychiatric unit, with electric shock treatment almost administered. She escapes and – of course – returns to Oz, there finding a world warped and broken, including a witch who’s able to remove and exchange her head, a vengeful king made of rock and the Wheelers, hellish creations that roll through the land emitting terrifying screams and laughs.
It is all very strange and perplexing, fitting the trend of 80s practical effects and darker fantasies that had faith their younger audience could take a bit more intensity: a quality shared with our next pick…
5. The Witches (1990)
Roald Dahl’s work has often skirted round the horror genre: there’s a cruel streak to the author’s books and several of his stories feed off supernatural punishment and acts of transformation. It’s even arguable that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a slasher, with Wonka punishing a series of children for their transgressions.
But none of the adaptations of his books have had such an impact as Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches. Maybe it’s Anjelica Huston’s grotesque Grand High Witch, or a narrative that feels genuinely dangerous to children, or the opening that sets the tone as we see a young girl trapped in a painting (where she stays for the rest of her life). Arguably this is just as impactful as Roeg’s other classic horror, Don’t Look Now (1973).
Proceedings lighten up and take on a rompier quality after the mid-point metamorphosis, but until then The Witches is a consistently frightening experience that stays with the viewer for days afterwards.
6. Addams Family Values (1993)
Since their arrival on the small screen in the mid 60s the Addams Family have been carrying the horror baton, wallowing in Gothic and Universal Monster traits to often comedic effects. The more recent animation is passable, if a tad embarrassed of its genre roots, and whilst Barry Sonnenfeld’s first outing is endearingly effective it is 1993’s follow-up Addams Family Values where the cogs all come together for a modern take on the strangest household in America.
With an ensemble that only builds in confidence (Anjelica Huston, Raul Julia, Christopher Lloyd and Christina Ricci are all iconic here), the introduction of a new foil in the form of Joan Cusack’s scene-stealingly monstrous Debbie, as well as some wonderful satirical bite (the Thanksgiving sequence a classic), and it makes this a great way to introduce horror traits without any need for scares.
7. Monster House (2006)
While a number of more autumnal animations could easily have made it into this Top 10 (Paranorman; Frankenweenie; the Hotel Transylvania series) no list of family friendly horror gateways would be complete without Monster House. A core part of the mini-kid’s-horror-resurgence in the mid 00s, Gil Kenan’s film focuses on the titular abode and a trio of neighbourhood children who come into contact with it. Blending ghost and monster movie, whilst baking in tragedy and heartfelt touches to offset some of the more dated comedic tropes, it all feels very Goosebumps or even proto-Stranger Things. And any film with the quartet of Steve Buscemi, Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard and Maggie Gyllenhaal in the ensemble is always worth recommending.
8. Coraline (2009)
Laika can often be found circling the horror genre, and their finest work firmly earns its place to be considered as part of the genre. Neil Gaiman’s beloved text is here adapted into a stop-motion beauty, following our eponymous heroine as she finds herself being drawn into a parallel world where things mirror hers but with a more enticing hue. All seems well… except everyone has buttons for eyes.
Frightening, funny and deftly odd, Coraline is packed with likeable characters and a nasty streak that gives the telling just enough bite. What else would you expect from the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas?
9. The Hole (2009)
Recently there have been many films that see a younger cast investigating spooky goings-on (shout out to Summer of 84 and its utterly devastating last act: certainly not suitable for a younger audience), but only one of those was directed by Joe Dante (the second film of his to make this list).
The Hole has a wonderfully simple set up: brothers move into a new house and discover a hole in their basement. They unbolt it, stare in and find themselves haunted by what they fear the most (think evil clowns and ghostly children). At times genuinely unnerving, The Hole plays like a feature length Goosebumps episode with a finale that manages to find real emotional resonance.
10. Goosebumps (2015)
Speaking of R.L. Stine’s infamous book series, the 2015 adaptation is a cracking explosion of monsters with a narrative that weaves creatures from throughout the franchise. It’s a big, silly affair with one of Jack Black’s best performances (as Stine himself), a work of meta-fiction that feels like it’s appraising the author’s impact on a younger audience and his place in the horror genre whilst also being a rollicking adventure with a pretty mean ventriloquist doll (and is there anything quite as scary). It’s basically The Cabin in the Woods, but for little ‘uns.
Honourable Mention: Treehouse of Horror
Though television rather than cinema, no entry point to the genre would be complete without The Simpsons’ annual exercise in horror parody.
At its best these episodes are brisk and packed with laughs and an appreciation for what can horror so special. All sub-genres are covered, including ghosts (The Shinning), slashers (Nightmare on Evergreen Terrace), sci-fi (Time and Punishment), cosmic (Citizen Kang), occult (The Devil and Homer Simpson), monsters (King Homer, Attack of the 50-Foot Eyesores), vampires (Bart Simpson’s Dracula) and zombies (Dial Z for Zombies). In the period when The Simpsons was at its best you will find dozens of must-watch spooky shorts, a great way to introduce younger audiences to horror free from the risks of scares but not the thrills the genre offers.
Russell’s podcast Not Just For Kids – which looks at children’s films which adults can also enjoy – is available on all good podcast apps.