Ten Horror Movies For Kids

Published on July 8th, 2013 in: Horror, Listicles, Movies, Top Ten Lists |

By Paul Casey

Poltergeist, 1982

Age ratings—whether from state censorship or from voluntary censorship outfits like the MPAA—remain an irritation in my life. They are, at best, an imprecise attempt to prevent ideas and images from reaching individuals who are not able to process them in a reasonable fashion. I do not trust anyone who claims that they were better off in their early years by adhering to such restrictions. Those who do not step over to have a look at what they are told is sure to scar them for life are not only invariably dull people, but also those who end up a blubbering stain when confronted with ideas which do not conform to the guiding hand of the censor. Such people become greater sexual deviants and violent criminals and are a drain on the resources of our fine society.

This fear of cinematic behavior seems to forget how horrifying even an average, moderately resourced human being’s life can be. Genre movies, particularly those on the lower end of credibility, suffer worst. Of these lower genres, none suffer so badly as Horror. Horror, we’re told is the thing from which children should be kept from at all costs. Children and teenagers though can benefit greatly from an early entry into the genre, for it is in Horror that life’s most awkward and disturbing issues can be tackled in relative safety. For those things a person is likely to experience in life, or perhaps already has, Horror can help address them in a way which the safer genres cannot.

There are many Horror movies that children should watch that don’t fall under my selection criteria. Of course you should watch Psycho, the original Dawn of the Dead, and John Carpenter’s The Thing. To qualify for this list though, movies had to be oriented towards the younger viewer. This meant focusing on those films with young protagonists, movies that had something important to say about growing up or the parent/child relationship.

Additionally, any movie with harsher violence or sex had to have a helpful resolution that a younger person can use. Though there are plenty of happy endings here, few are easy or safe. There are also some decidedly unhappy endings. The hope is that these movies will serve as a primer for the adventurous child or young teenager. I also hope that the movies are of benefit in a way that the parade of IT WILL BE ALRIGHT REALLY mush cannot offer. There are horrible things waiting for you. It is worth preparing for them.

1. Poltergeist (1982), directed by Tobe Hooper (with Steven Spielberg)

“They’re here.”

The same year that Steven Spielberg put out E.T., he co-wrote and produced this family-oriented supernatural Horror. Although Hooper got the credit for directing, it seems likely that much of the job fell to Spielberg. While Hooper’s role is in question, Spielberg’s influence is not. That uncanny touch for the ordinary family life is as pronounced here as it is on E.T. The child actors, as with basically all of Spielberg’s movies, are smart but not drama school. Their lines are funny. Their fear seems genuine.

Of all of the films on this list, I would recommend this as the starting point. It is a real Horror film. Even though it has minimal violence, its scares are timed out with the precision you expect from Spielberg. It isn’t too heavy, but it’s hardly lightweight. In a way it plays like a straight Ghostbusters, with the kind of “How can we go about solving this problem?” scenes that always help the younger viewer process odd things. The innocence and imagination of the children in Poltergeist mix with their fears in a way that should set up a love of Horror with a language that is available to every half decent small human.

Honorable Mention: Super 8 (2011), directed by J.J. Abrams
Another Spielberg production, Super 8 is a fine introduction to Horror. Although it has a different kind of resolution than Poltergeist, Super 8‘s characters are compelling and it operates as a fine Horror movie. It is an obvious tribute, but the kids are well cast and it has the Spielberg touch.


2. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)/Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), directed by Wes Craven

“Never sleep again!”

There is no better concept than that of A Nightmare on Elm Street for a kid. It is the place where the imagination is a powerful force for change, and often a terrifying burden. Both films directed by Wes Craven are worthy of inclusion, but the second is particularly suitable for children. The co-lead is a child. The game is played with that kind of logic. He uses his favorite toy Rex to protect his toes from the reach of Freddy Krueger. And it works!

The child is an empowered character in the story. He has more insight into what is really going on than his mother does. This is a common theme in the movies presented here. New Nightmare also has some wonderful meta elements which explore the purpose of Horror. It is not as good a movie as the original, but it is just as interesting and perfect for a young viewer. It was also the precursor to Craven’s Scream, probably the most important Horror movie of the 1990s.


3. Dolls (1987), directed by Stuart Gordon

“There’s a saying in my family that bad dreams can really be good for you.”

Dolls followed the two classic Lovecraft adaptations Re-Animator and From Beyond. Anyone who has seen those movies may be surprised that Gordon could make such a movie as Dolls. Yes, there is some gore mixed with comedy. Yes, there are a few moments of bad taste. Its story, though, is one of appreciation of childhood and a youthful optimism for life. It also serves as a fine punishment for bad parents and dull people.

Judy is a girl with a creative mind and a belief in the existence of unusual things. She is dragged to England with her thick father and his boorish wife. Both openly express their contempt of Judy and their wish to send her back to her mother in Boston. They get physically threatening. Roger Ebert gave this a mediocre review and complained that the dolls were not physically threatening enough. This may be the reason why it works so well for younger viewers. There are some creepy parts and some blood but nothing gets out of hand. That the violence is directed against bad people who aim to harm Judy and the other imaginative people in the movie gives it a lighter feeling.


4. Dark Water (2002), directed by Hideo Nakata

This was remade in 2005 but please ignore that. Hideo Nakata is, of course, the director of Ring and Ring 2, but this is by far my favorite film, and the most appropriate for this list. A woman is in the middle of a divorce and she is trying to care for her daughter. Forced to stay in a badly kept apartment block, she tries to keep her life together long enough to ensure custody of her child.

There is an effort in superior atmosphere and a measured approach to each reveal. Like a lot of great Horror movies, the story is a very sad one. The danger does not come from something evil but something desperate. When it gets to the scares, they are extremely effective because of the long wait and the time spent with the characters. It is a beautiful movie about parental responsibility and the children who don’t have anyone to care for them.


5. Aliens Director’s Cut (1986), directed by James Cameron

“My Mommy always said there were no monsters. No real ones. But there are.”

I recommend the Director’s Cut over the original due to the greater time spent establishing Newt prior to Ripley’s arrival. The tension of Ridley Scott’s original is replaced in part by a lot of action. It is very loud, and full of zooms and pows, but there are still amazing creature designs, quality scares, and a final act that marries Action and Horror better than anything else you’ll lay your eyes on. Newt is a tough girl, and her ability to survive when so many others do not is another case of the kid who knows what’s up way before the adults do. It’s a fun movie and ends on just the right triumphant note.


6. Gremlins (1984), directed by Joe Dante

“First of all, keep him out of the light, he hates bright light, especially sunlight, it’ll kill him. Second, don’t give him any water, not even to drink. But the most important rule, the rule you can never forget, no matter how much he cries, no matter how much he begs, never feed him after midnight.”

I don’t really need to say anything about Gremlins except that Gizmo is the cutest guy. Joe Dante has the ability to communicate to every section of the audience. It’s funny, it’s scary, and it’s oddly violent. It’s got everything. The creatures are expressive, capable of being comedic, but still appear threatening. The information we receive about the history of these strange beings does more than set up the rules of the movie. Perhaps because of how real they appear on screen, it provokes the brain to consider what their place was in a less suburban area. The movie was written by Chris Columbus of Home Alone fame and it’s another produced by Steven Spielberg.

Honorable Mention: The Hole (2009), directed by Joe Dante
This is a concentrated effort to produce a Horror movie for children. Like Gremlins, it is just harsh enough that it can be taken seriously by all. There are some fine scenes and some good ideas, but it resolves far too cleanly. Fears are not just things to be conquered. Some will cripple you. Some are too dangerous to confront. This is a case of giving the characters involved too much power to solve their problems, and with far too much speed.


7. Fright Night (1985), directed by Tom Holland

“I have just been fired because nobody wants to see vampire killers anymore, or vampires either. Apparently all they want to see are demented madmen running around in ski-masks, hacking up young virgins.”

There are few vampire movies that are this damn fun. From the moment when Charley Brewster gets the feeling that his new neighbor is a vampire, some of the most potent childhood elements come into play. His investigation into the activities of his neighbor gives me the happys. His efforts are so full of the joys of the mystery that kids like to inject into the most mundane things. Yeah, he’s probably just a loner who likes to watch TV, but WHAT IF HE’S A VAMPIRE??? I don’t think we can take that chance! Gimme that crucifix. Roddy McDowell’s hammy actor turned vampire slayer gets the right level of “This is pretty goofy, but I’m still scared.”

Honorable Mention: Fright Night (2011), directed by Craig Gillespie
Of all of the Horror remakes that have happened over the last ten years, this is one of the few good ones. Follows the story and spirit closely but watch it for the performances which are a lot of fun, especially Colin Farrell.


8. The Lost Boys (1987). directed by Joel Schumacher

“This is just a cover; we’re dedicated to a higher purpose. We’re fighters for truth, justice, and the American way.”

I was unsure if I was going to include both this and Fright Night but it seems I had to. Although in many ways similar to Holland’s movie, this has a lot of charm of its own, particularly its use of Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander as the kid vampire hunters. If I had to choose between the two, I would probably pick The Lost Boys for Corey Feldman and all of his Goonies “let’s have an adventure” sweary charm. Corey Haim’s not bad, either.


9. Tideland (2005), directed by Terry Gilliam

Tideland is a disturbing film. It will not be for everyone, but I felt it important to include it here. It is in my view the best work Terry Gilliam has done. Of all of the movies listed, most emphasize the imagination of the child as being of importance. Tideland uses the line between the miserable adult reality and the fantasy created by Jeliza-Rose to examine the protective role of creativity and its place in delaying bad truths.

It is a beautiful, complex story about a girl whose abandonment leads her to create her own reality. There are some genuinely horrific elements in this picture, but it is not straight Horror. Gilliam worked well with children before on Time Bandits, but this is something entirely different. There is a fierce depth of experience to be had here and a lot to learn. It is not particularly fun, though it has its share of childish adventure. As Gilliam has said, it is about innocence. Unusual children may find it helpful.


10. The Devil’s Backbone (2001), directed by Guillermo Del Toro

“What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.”

As with Del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, the Spanish Civil War and its effects are of great importance here. Both pictures view the events from the perspective of a child. Taking place in a makeshift orphanage, The Devil’s Backbone has much to say about the cruelty and chaos that comes from such times. The children left by parents no longer able to care for them, either fighting or dead, are barely able to comprehend their situation. Though they wish to write comic books and play games, they will be forced into something terrible.

It is a film with many insights and a host of excellent performances, especially from the children who are just weary enough, yet still have that innocent joy that sets them apart. By the end of the movie they will have to grow up and be brave. The horror does not come from the supernatural, but from those still living. If you do not watch it on a double bill with Pan’s Labyrinth, then please consider doing so with Dark Water instead.

FURTHER READING: Ten More Horror Movies For Kids

3 Responses to “Ten Horror Movies For Kids”

  1. ripvandumkof:
    July 8th, 2013 at 10:41 am

    thank you for including the last 2. I’ve loved Tideland for yrs. Attack The Block is another horror for kids.

  2. Chelsea:
    July 8th, 2013 at 3:03 pm

    Guillermo Del Toro is fully awesome.

  3. Alex M:
    July 9th, 2015 at 12:04 am

    This is a pretty bold list! I don’t have kids myself, but I would be hesitant to let them watch some of this stuff, just because I remember how easily traumatized I was as a child. I’d also include Bernard Rose’s “Paperhouse,” which I think is the ultimate kid friendly dark fantasy.

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