Childhood Scares: The Writers at KHC Each Discuss One of their Favorite Family-Friendly Horror Films!
We're just a day away from Halloween, and that means it's time to watch something spooky with the family...
...With our favorite holiday just around the corner, some of our writers at KHC decided to put together the following list, with each of us discussing (in our own ways) one of our favorite family-friendly horror films perfect for watching with your young ones--or taking a deep dive into the nostalgic pool--this Halloween!
Check out the full list below, and Happy Halloween everyone!
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) - Amylou Ahava
‘Twas 1993, and people would soon know,
The gift for all the Tender Lumplings to own.
Because Burton and Elfman meant serious business
With the tale, The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Now you’ve probably wondered where Hot Topic comes from
If you haven’t, I’d say it’s time you begun.
Because Jack and Sally and Oogie Boogie and all
Come from this movie and not just the mall.
The music, animation, and characters too,
Make one unique movie especially for you.
And after Halloween is done, you just have to remember
You get to watch it all again in December.
Tower of Terror (1997) - Craig Ranallo
A masterpiece in cheese and silliness, D.J. McHale’s Tower of Terror is classic 90’s Disney fare. Made for television as part of their slew of ride-based feature films, of which only Pirates of the Caribbean would ever go on to become anything more, it features Steve Guttenberg and Kirsten Dunst as an uncle-and-niece team solving the sixty-year old mystery of the Hollywood Tower Hotel, where famed child star Sally Shine (Lindsay Ridgeway) and four others disappeared in the elevator on Halloween night. Ghosts, witches, and curses abound as our heroes race to solve the mystery and try to break the spell so that the dead may rest in peace! A wholesome, by-the-numbers, and occasionally awkward little movie that will creep out younger viewers without inducing any pulse-pounding nightmares. Despite its bumpiness, it is oddly likable and endearing, especially for nostalgic older viewers. Plus a large chunk of it was filmed at the actual Tower of Terror ride in Orlando! I mean, come on. They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
Beetlejuice (1988) - Dani Vanderstock
Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara (Geena Davis) are an adorable couple vacationing at home. They spend their days decorating and trying for children, and everything is perfect. Until they meet their untimely demise, that is. Upon returning home from a drive, they realise that they never survived the crash, and they’re trapped forever in their home as ghosts. That wouldn’t be so bad, were it not for the new owners, who want to make drastic changes to the couples dream home and render it unrecognisable. Desperate for a solution, they seek out an expert called Beetlejuice, who might just have a diabolical plan of his own.
Beetlejuice isn’t just a perfect spooky film, it’s one that was incredibly important to me growing up. Armed with an amazing cast of characters, it uses pitch black humour to tackle some really dark themes.
As a kid I was always told that my fascination with death and other dark things was too morbid, that it was impolite to talk about. And then along came Beetlejuice. Not only did it allow me to explore my natural curiosities, it showed me what a stable and happy relationship looked like in Barbara and Adam, and I loved them. But the best part was that it allowed me to truly see myself in a character for the first time.
Lydia Deetz (Winona Ryder) was strange and unusual, she didn’t fit in with anyone but ghosts and was intensely curious about death. She also clearly dealt with depression, something the film never once shied away from, which meant a lot to me. What I appreciated most about her story was that she didn’t have to change who she was in order to get her happy ending. She remained a weird kid that just learned to enjoy life in her own way, and, most importantly she didn’t have to stop hanging out with her favourite ghosts.
Gremlins (1984) - Jay Krieger
Whether the vocal minority of the horror fandom want to accept it or not, family-friendly horror remains imperative to preserving the genre. Films featuring bite-sized frights that families can enjoy together alongside their genre staples welcomes new generations of horror fans for years to come. Few PG horror films push their rating to the limit quite like Joe Dante's 1984 film Gremlins, which strikes a risqué balance between family-friendly fun and creature feature horror.
Gremlins has always stuck with me for Dante's ability to interweave legitimate horror moments into a classic family-friendly fantasy film (with its own share of problematic ‘80s stereotypes). In particular, the scene in which Mrs. Peltzer (Frances Lee McCain) fights off a trio of gremlins who have invaded her kitchen. Mrs. Peltzer using all manner of kitchen implements to kill the parasitic invaders serves as a chaotic display of the film's fantastic puppetry. From shoving a gremlin face-first into a blender as the room is showered in green blood, to a Norman Bates style stabbing of one with a kitchen knife, to microwaving a gremlin until its head explodes into goopy chunks, the film was a horror awakening for me. Dante managed all of this without realistic blood or gore, and more importantly, referenced horror films that I would seek out later in life. It's films such as Gremlins that prepared me for a lifetime love of horror.
Tower of Terror (1997) - Jeffrey W. Hollingsworth
It’s that time of year again when us ghouls, ghosts, and goblins get to come out and rejoice in the magic that is Halloween. It’s a time of binge-watching favorite horror franchises, breaking out the unjustifiable amount of decorations and feeding our gluttonous appetite for the macabre. Once upon a time though, Halloween was a more tame, innocent, and dare I say, wholesome holiday for me. One specific Halloween sticks out more than the others, though the experience began in the summer of 1997. I was eight years old and stoked to visit Disney World Orlando. Throughout our several days of exploration of the park, a tall, intimidating, looming structure watched over me in the distance. I could have sworn this tower was sentient and sinister, reveling in my fear: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Eventually we made our way to the attraction, and while at first I was apprehensive and scared, I left that ride feeling exhilarated and knowing I absolutely loved the rush of being scared.
Later that year, when the leaves radiated with exquisite oranges and fair yellows, we were fast approaching my new favorite holiday. I was elated when I learned that ABC would be premiering Disney’s seasonal Halloween film, Tower of Terror (1997). I loved the film and having just been to Disney World made it even more special. Aside from my longtime crush on Kirsten Dunst, who played a central character, I made it a priority to revisit Tower of Terror every Halloween. I know I’ve missed several years, especially recently; so, watching it now solidified it as one of the strongest nostalgic family Halloween films for me. The relationship between Buzzy (Steve Guttenberg) and Anna (Kirsten Dunst) is genuinely heartfelt, even if it is cookie-cutter in many ways. The quirky character of Q, played by character actor Michael McShane, is also a blast to watch. The “scares” are, of course, mild and age appropriate, but I always found the lightning strike scene frightening as a kid. It was mirrored excellently on the ride.
Tower of Terror is as corny as 90’s television Disney films can get and may be little more than cozy fodder for newcomers unfamiliar with the film or ride as a child. Still, for me and undoubtedly many other young horror buffs in the making who cut their teeth on films like this, it serves as a nostalgically fun way to be transported to a simpler time. Now that I’ve rekindled my love for this film, I’ve vowed to never a miss a year of Tower of Terror again.
Don't Look Under the Bed (1999) - Kalani Landgraf
Is there anything scarier than the monster in your closet or the monster under your bed? As a kid I often feared what lingered in the dark, and the Disney Channel Original Movie (aka DCOM) Don’t Look Under the Bed reminded me just why we should fear the boogeyman. The story, directing, and acting set it apart from any other Disney Channel movie I’d seen before or since its 1999 premiere. Perhaps the movie’s most memorable element was its makeup effects for the boogeyman, done by Rick Stratton, Jill Rockow and Brent Armstrong. Together they created a creature so unnerving in every scene that the frights and laughs are just as worth the watch today as they were if you grew up in the era of DCOMs.
The Addam's Family (1991) - Katelyn Nelson
I’ve always wanted to be a member of the Addams Family. Ever since I first discovered the show and films, I knew they would be important to me. Any media that casts the outsiders in a loving light has a spot in my heart, but 1991’s Addams Family may have been one of the first. The kid-friendly dark comedy and its 1993 follow-up has a lot to say about the importance of family and acceptance, and I find something new to love with every watch. Though society looks at them a little askance in the process, Morticia, Gomez, and the rest of the clan have built an incredibly strong bedrock of love in their family. Wednesday and Pugsley are more than encouraged to pursue their unique interests, from Shakespearean bloodshed to the Bermuda Triangle to post-college witchcraft. When Gomez falls on hard financial times, the entire family pitches in: Morticia goes job hunting, Thing becomes a mail courier, and the children sell lemonade, all in the name of getting back up when you get knocked down. Perhaps my favorite aspect of Addams Family the movie, however, is Morticia’s fierce protection of her family. They are probably aware how many people take them for fools, but Morticia doesn’t fuck around when it comes to family. When she senses Fester’s potential as an imposter, she takes him around the graveyard in back of the house, explaining how each member died and their legacy upon the family. She stops at the grave marked with the family credo. “We gladly feast on those who would subdue us. Not just pretty words,” she tells him before leaving him out to wander back to bed with his thoughts. Beyond its endlessly quotable script, infectious mamushka dance number, and fully inhabited characters, who wouldn’t want to live in a family with a mother willing to consume for the protection of the ones she loves? Mysterious and spooky they may be, but unfuckwithable too.
Coraline (2009) - Mark Gonzales
In 2009, I sat down in a packed theater to watch Coraline, a film based off of a work by a beloved author (Neil Gaiman), helmed by a charming director (Henry Selick), and starring two of my favorite actors (Keith David and Ian McShane). The film’s detailed stop motion animation melded perfectly with the dark subject matter. Dakota Fanning’s performance as the lead hinted that she would be much more than a child actor and that her talents were beyond her age. The film was haunting, entertaining, and kinetic and was my second favorite film of the year. When the house lights came up, I realized I was surrounded by 13-year-old children and their parents. It was only after the film ended that I realized I had watched a film made for children. The detail, passion, and love of horror that drove the production of this film elevate it beyond children’s horror and make it an amazing film that everyone should watch every Halloween.
Ernest Scared Stupid (1991) - Matt Konopka
When I was a kid, I didn’t think there was a monster under my bed. Monsters under the bed? Ludicrous. Because I knew for a fact that if I turned over in bed, that’s where the hideous, snot-nosed creature would be, grinning at me with its beady eyes!
Thank you, Ernest Scared Stupid, for scarring me for life.
Also, screw you, Trantor.
From the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties, one man ruled the live-action, made for kids comedy genre, Ernest (Jim Varney). In all, there were nine Ernest films, but the one we all remember more than any, (and for some of us, the only one we watched), is Ernest Scared Stupid. Following Ernest and a group of kids as they try to stop an ugly troll named Trantor from stealing their souls and turning them into wooden trophies, this film wasn’t funny to me as a kid.
Never mind Ernest cosplaying as numerous characters. Never mind the adorableness of his doggy sidekick, Rimshot. For me, it was all about that troll. That goddamn troll. “A Nightmare on Troll Street,” as one kid in the film refers to the town's legend, and he’s right. Ernest Scared Stupid scared an entire generation of kids stupid. Stealing souls is bad enough. But this thing mimics the voices of others (nothing creepier than Trantor giggling in a little girl’s voice saying it’s going to get you). Trantor’s offspring were done using repurposed Killer Klowns from Outer Space masks, explaining why they all unnerved me to no end (I hate clowns). It pops up out of nowhere (jump scares have been scaring us forever). And Trantor has an obvious infection, snot constantly running down his face, which is an all new kind of terror these days.
When Ernest kisses the troll? Yeah, he has the troll-flu now.
Ernest Scared Stupid had me afraid to sleep at night, but that’s why I loved it. That’s why it’s a classic. And it’s why it’s still worth watching today, especially with your kids if you have them. Ernest Scared Stupid is the type of kid’s horror that doesn’t talk down to them, and instead trusts them to handle a light taste of what it means to be really scared.
Goosebumps: The Haunted Mask (1995) - Patrick Brennan
Back in the day, the Goosebump books were my life. Mom, my first horror guru, didn’t want me to read her collection of Stephen King novels so she would pick me up just about anything written by R.L. Stein to cultivate my spooky passions while attempting to keep them age appropriate. My favorite of the beloved author’s books (at least in the Goosebumps series) was The Haunted Mask, which I read over and over again until the pages fell out. So, when it was announced that the series was being adapted for television AND it would debut with a Haunted Mask hour-long special, I was obviously ecstatic. Watching it live with my Mom, who would pass away a few years later, is my most cherished Halloween memory.
Revisiting the special today, I’m happy to report that it still has the ability to scare all these years later. The mask’s design remains terrifying and the story’s premise is simple but effective. I doubt any kid who read the book or watched the show ever felt entirely comfortable wearing a Halloween mask again. I know I sure didn’t, and that little tingle of fear that ran up my spine every time I put one on afterward helped cultivate the love of horror I have now. My son Arlo is only two years old, but you can rest assured I’ll be sharing “The Haunted Mask” with him when the time is right. Hopefully we’ll bond over the genre like my mom and I did so many years ago.
Hocus Pocus (1993) - Paul Bauer
Some of my earliest childhood memories involve Halloween and witches, or, in the case of my fourth Halloween when I dressed as the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz, both. My mom could tell you a fun story about a year when my Christmas list to Santa Claus involved all of the requisite apparel to fashion myself after Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch from The Witches. Suffice it to say I’ve always loved witches. So imagine my delight when 1993 rolled around and Hocus Pocus gave this five year-old not one, not two, but three iconic witches.
It’s funny, it’s spooky, it’s thrilling, and it occasionally pushes the envelope of humor that’s acceptable for a kids movie, one of the reasons it’s aged so well for so many of us that grew up with it and have, like myself, watched it almost every year around Halloween. It’s a nostalgia trip for ‘90s babies but timeless enough for today’s kids. It’s honestly hard to go wrong with a trio like Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker acting an absolute fool in buck teeth and bustiers. What’s not to love about three 17th Century witches back from the dead in ‘90s Salem, out to exact revenge and claim immortality by drinking the life force out of every child in town?
Musical numbers, talking black cats, back fat candles, and witches on vacuums? Check, check, check, and check. Also, I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t pretend to ride a vacuum around the living room as a child, so if you’re showing this to a wee spookling for the first time, expect shenanigans. It’ll definitely put the perfect spell on the family looking to scratch that itch for something spooky.
Halloweentown (1998) - Tim Beirne
One of my favorite family-friendly movies to watch around Halloween every year is the Disney Channel original movie Halloweentown. In Halloweentown, the three Piper siblings discover their family’s secret: they are descendants of a long line of witches known as the Cromwells from a secret place called Halloweentown, where witches and monsters live normal, peaceful lives separated from humans. When they first arrive in Halloweentown, the Piper kids find a quaint village inhabited by fantastic creatures, but things aren’t as peachy as they seem; a powerful evil is working to take control of the citizens of Halloweentown and force them to return to the human world.
Halloweentown is a lot of fun and features everything from animatronic, taxi-driving skeletons to werewolf barbers. It’s got the fully developed world and all the lighthearted, family-friendly comedy you might expect from a Disney Channel movie. For me though, the appeal of Halloweentown, outside of the obvious celebration of one of my favorite holidays, is in the theme that power comes from accepting your own weirdness. Marnie, the eldest sibling, is in love with Halloween and all the creatures and rituals associated with it, but she’s considered odd because of that love. When she arrives in Halloweentown and discovers she’s a witch, she learns to embrace her difference and access the magic that comes with it. Halloweentown teaches the lesson that there’s a place for all of us in this world, no matter how different we may seem, and that learning to be comfortable with who we are is where our true power lies.
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