At first, the idea of horror films for children seems like an oxymoron. ‘Horror’ as a genre inspires thoughts of gore, body horror, screaming ‘final girls’ and overt sexuality. However, horror is more than this – a great deal more. Recent adult horror films such as A Quiet Place and IT can highlight tensions and fears of the adult human psyche: the invaded home, the transmogrified self, our deepest anxieties brought to life. While these films still present as violent and bloody, the real terror is bloodless and often a fate far worse than death.
Children, too, have their fears, as shown in IT, even something as seemingly innocent as a Modigliani-inspired painting can inspire fear. Children are afraid of some of the same things we are, such as transmogrification and threats to the home and the self, but taking precedence in children’s concerns are those anxieties surrounding parental figures. Powerless or absent fathers, wicked stepmothers and adults behaving ‘badly’ are the real figures of fear, and it’s worth acknowledging these in children’s media, be it films, television or books. At Den of Geek, we’ve created a list of films that understand these fears and use them to offer children a safe, but interesting, introduction to the world of horror, with archetypal tropes, characters and even the odd jump scare.
1. Watcher In The Woods (1980)
In the early 1980s, Disney wanted to target young adult audiences and so made a series of films including Watcher. Starring an eerie Bette Davis, the film centres on the mysterious disappearance of a teenage girl and supernatural forces within the English countryside. Although the film had production problems, it’s a good introduction to Anglo-Saxon folk horror and the potential for worlds beyond our own. The film was remade last year with Anjelica Huston, including a few more jump scares but retaining its PG rating.
2. Return To Oz (1985)
A sequel to The Wizard Of Oz, but with none of the musical technicolour. Dorothy is to undergo electroconvulsive therapy for treatment of her melancholia and is rescued by a mysterious girl only to be plunged into an Oz far less friendlier than she remembers. Millennial audiences will recall the horrifying Wheelers, half-man-half-machine, but Mombi, the witch queen, stands out as a hideous twist on a maternal figure, changing heads as quickly as she changes her mind and unleashing an unearthly, bone-chilling scream at Dorothy.
3. The Witches (1990)
One of the best adaptations of Roald Dahl’s works, this film centres on the idea that witches not only exist, but actively hate and want to destroy children. The subversion of the traditional maternal figure, along with the loss of Luke’s parents early on, creates a constant tension; a memorable moment is when the Grand High Witch caresses a baby in its pram before pushing it to its death. The Jim Henson Company adds an extra level of brief body horror to really get you squirming in your seat.
4. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
A film definitely made for children: “Boys and girls of every age/Wouldn’t you like to see something strange?” Introducing children to the ‘big bads’ of horror: werewolves, vampires, zombies and various other things that go ‘bump’ in the night, the film also acknowledges the monsters that children create for themselves. “I am the thing hiding under your stairs,” one monster sings. The delight in Christmas and imagination, as well as the musical numbers, keeps this film from being too dark, but it’s a worthy, Gothic introduction to the world of horror.
5. Hocus Pocus (1993)
Another witch-centric film, with children and teenagers as protagonists. Although this isn’t as scary as The Witches or Return To Oz, the acting talents of Bette Midler and Doug Jones make it a family favourite. Like Nightmare, it also introduces children to the ideas surrounding the supernatural, including the tripartite witch coven, hypnosis and zombies rising from the grave, although admittedly not every zombie is likely to then call his ex a firefly from Hell.
6. Casper (1995)
A ghostly caper starring Bill Pullman and Christina Ricci, the latter also known for the entertainingly spooky Addams Family films, Casper addresses themes of loss, especially that of parents. Kat’s mourning of her recently deceased mother is punctuated by her father’s at-times inept, but well-meaning, care, and Casper too mourns his father, who died of a broken heart. The film’s core concern is a real one for both adults and children: when you’re gone, are you remembered? The depiction of an afterlife in horror is often unpleasant, but the idea that something else may be out there is compelling.
7. The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit (2005)
Stop-motion animation from Bristol-based Aardman. Wallace and Gromit deal with a gigantic, ravenous beast, made gore-free and suitable for young audiences by the substitution of vegetables for flesh. The love of classic horror films is clear in Were-Rabbit; even in its official film poster, homage is paid to Hammer Horror films. A damsel updated for the 21st century and a broad brushstroke of comedy throughout make the film a brilliant and unique introduction to horror.
8. Coraline (2009)
Based on Neil Gaiman’s short story, this stop-motion animation from Laika is one of the more chilling entries on the list. Reminiscent of fairy stories in which unhappy children are lured to their deaths with promises of sweets or love, the film follows Coraline into a world created just for her. The creature presiding over this world first presents herself as Coraline’s better, prettier, more loving ‘Other Mother’. However, she eventually reveals herself to be a monster rather than a mother, with a scream as blood-curdling as Mombi’s. The animation allows for the extreme body horror of distorted human characters without losing its PG rating.
9. The Hole (2009)
With a 12 rating, sustained tension and suspenseful music, the film is more for young teenagers than children. While not the most original of films (our introduction to one of the teenage protagonists includes a checklist of emo haircut, Killers t-shirt and sulking), The Hole includes Pandora’s box-esque transgression and plays, IT-like, on the fears we create for ourselves. The real fear, though, is one common to children: that of the ‘bad parent’, similarly monstrous to the Other Mother of Coraline.
10. Paranorman (2012)
Another Laika film, Paranorman is about a young boy whose supernatural powers make him something of an outsider. Like Kat and Coraline, Norman feels misunderstood and is something of a loner. The film addresses this with the bonding power of family, while, similarly to Aardman’s Were-Rabbit, writing something of a love letter to the zombie genre. The real concern of the film is the question raised within the horror genre: who are the real monsters? In Paranorman‘s case, it turns out to be a group of frightened humans reacting to something they don’t understand: a lesson that even young viewers will understand.
11. Goosebumps (2015)
The film version of the popular books and television series of the same name, this fails to provide any real scares or entertainment. While a good introduction to more classic monsters of horror, much of the fright is lost in favouring CGI over plot and any suspenseful moments. Although there’s an interesting thread of dual identity between Stine and Slappy the dummy, Goosebumps the film can be taken as an instruction on how not to create horror for children, as it’s over-sanitised and ultimately condescending to younger audiences. At most, take it as a nudge to watch the Nineties television adaptations.
As adults, we go to a horror film for the catharsis of the jump scare and the reassurance of reality when we leave the auditorium. In watching a horror film, we can examine and even exorcise our fears; why shouldn’t we offer our children the same? Worth noting, too, is that when watching a horror film, we enjoy the carnage; children are arguably even more bloodthirsty audiences than we are as adults. In offering our children good quality, age-appropriate horror, we can also invest in a future generation which will have an interest in adding to and changing a constantly varied, fast-moving genre of film, and perhaps making a better Goosebumps adaptation.