Before we jump in, first a bit of context. I’m presuming some parents might stop reading at this point, wondering why in the deep-fried holy hell they would even want to introduce their kids to the horror genre.
For this movie-loving father figure, horror is precisely where my love of film originated.
The horror genre provides a benefit few other film types can offer a view: catharsis. What is this mystical and semi-obscure idea?
noun: the process of releasing,
and thereby providing relief from,
strong or repressed emotions
We watch horror movies as a way of purging negative emotions and/or as a way to relieve pent-up aggression, which is also an argument proposed as to why some people love to play violent video games. For more on the benefits of horror movies, as explained by psychologists and very real scientific research, check it out here.
As a kid with an Atari 2600 and a handful of cartridges though, violent video games hadn’t been invented yet, so at the age of 8, I fully dove into the horror genre with all the zest of Ralphie at 6:00AM on Christmas morning, hunting for his beloved Red Ryder rifle.
To this day, I still recall my first “horror” movie with zeal: Twilight Zone: The Movie. Note that I place quotes around the genre, since this movie may not technically be considered horror by pretty much anyone other than an 8-year-old. Having been a fan of the Rod Serling series on Nick-at-Nite, I looked forward to the film version with bated anticipation.
However, as I also explain below in my review of the movie itself, when the kid who gets his every wish brings the freakishly terrifying cartoon characters to life by making them pop out of a box and shake like my hands after a quad-shot caramel latte, I nearly sharted my Sears brand Toughskins. I remember crying, running away to my room, and pretty much fearing that I would never sleep again, lest I see those hideous creatures in my dreams.
My mom’s advice? “You’ll get over it.” Yeah, thanks for the support.
Without any other source of advice, I had to make up my own solution to the nightmare problem, a solution I call, “palate cleansing.” This process involves watching another movie or show before bed with a significantly more innocent feel (usually a comedy) to wash the brain clean of any appalling images or themes. After the Twilight Zone, I watched a bit of My Little Pony that *happened* to record after an episode of Transformers, and next thing I knew, I was falling asleep unaffected. Following my one scare, I never had another episode, thanks to this method.
After a while, I built up a cathartic tolerance, at which point, I expanded my repertoire and continued pushing the envelope. As I consumed more and more horror, my infatuation inspired me to start reading Fangoria Magazine (which is all about special effects makeup and the latest horror movies – it’s making a comeback!) and learning more about special effects/makeup to the point where I started making my own Halloween masks and costumes. That, in turn, sparked an interest in amateur film-making, and I started writing screenplays, making short films with friends, and having the time of my young life on the weekends whenever we could get our hands on someone’s video camera.
While those hobbies never panned out to anything bigger, today, the horror genre is not only my favorite, but also my wife’s fave. She and I probably consume more crappy horror movies on Netflix than any one couple probably ever should (but on occasion, there are still a few gems out there).
Yo Netflix, if you’re reading, hook a guy up with some sponsorships?
Recalling my fond memories made me want to see if I could recreate some of those with my own children, but the question arose between my wife and I: How old should they be, and how do we introduce them to the genre without scaring the crap out of them and ensuring years of trauma therapy later in life?
At first, I suggested we start at 8 or 9 years old, since that’s when I started, but my wife pointed out that today’s movies are probably a lot scarier than movies when I was that age. That gave me the idea to warm them up with the very same movies I enjoyed as a kid. They’re fake, cheesy as all get-out, and they could potentially build up that very same tolerance before graduating the kids to more modern horror classics.
My wife agreed with me but wanted to start out the kids with something more modern. So, you’re wondering, what was the movie?
Ugh. All I could picture at that point was that we were recreating the Twilight Zone moment for my kids, so I braced for the worst. We watched it in broad daylight, with the curtains open and plenty of light pouring in, we all cuddled up under blankets on the couch, and gathered up our usual smorgasbord of movie treats. Much to my surprise, the kids laughed. There was no squeezing of my hand, shuddering under the blanket, nor were there any screams or running away. Even bedtime later that night caused no problems whatsoever.
My. Kids. Were. Hooked.
Below, I offer up a smattering of horror films, this time in order of the way we watched them, because I think the order is somewhat important. It need not be followed exactly, but keep in mind the idea that you are building up a child’s cathartic tolerance. You can’t jump straight into The Conjuring with a 10 year old without expecting to pay for a good therapist later to undo the damage caused by your poor decision making. Please, just don’t do it. Warm the kid(s) up slowly by starting with cheese-enriched celluloid from the 80s or even earlier, and then they’ll be ready in no time for more modern cinema.
I fully realize this list is incomplete (as with my previous 80s list), but it’s our story and progression. There are SO many more horror movies for us to watch in the years before the last of my kids is off to college or whatever, and even beyond that, I’m sure our tradition will likely continue well into adulthood. Feel free to add your favorites in the comments, and we might even find our next movie night!
Included are links to IMDB.com for more info on each film, including its availability, trivia, quotes, etc. (You listening, IMDB? I’d be down for a sponsorship from y’all as well!), and I’ve included a brief description of my take on each movie and how my kids reacted.
My take: “The Goonies meets the horror genre” is the best I can come to describing this classic. Talk about a great way to ease your kids into the genre, too! The movie shows kids being independent, not needing to depend wholly on adults, and overcoming all odds to beat back the baddies.
Kids’ reactions: The word “obsession” comes to mind. I think my son may have watched this one no less than 9 times in a row on Netflix before Halloween one year. Definitely a keeper!
My take: Sure, it’s a cute movie with little fuzzy creatures, but it’s also a monster movie with scary, scaly, toothy creatures. Hulu classifies it as a holiday movie, a comedy, an 80s movie, and, yes, a horror movie as well. It’s one of those genre-bending flicks that’s fun no matter what time of year it is (but I still say it’s a Christmas movie). As for the sequel? Just say no, kids.
Kids’ reactions: My son will watch the entire Friday the 13th series and the entire Nightmare on Elm Street series (to be reviewed separately on a blog on essential horror movies for family movie nights), but this one still scares him. I think it’s a mental block.
Goosebumps (the series – 1995-1998)
My take: Okay, so it’s not a movie, but I found that this was a fantastic primer on the horror genre for my kids. It’s Canadian, it’s cheesy 90s entertainment at its prime, and it’s-ahem-bland enough for even young children. Its cousin series, also written by R.L. Stine, The Haunting Hour, is a good series you can graduate your kids to once they’ve been desensitized via the original Goosebumps series. Pair it with the books, and you’ve got a recipe for a good time for months.
Kids’ reactions: My kids were absolutely ENTHRALLED with this series! When it came to Netflix for a while, this was pretty much the only thing ever playing.
My take: Two words – Jack. Black. This movie was absolutely minted and unexpectedly good. However, make sure your kids have seen the original series (above), because otherwise, they won’t get the inside jokes to the original stories.
Kids’ reactions: As I predicted, they loved it – not as much as the original series, since it didn’t have that wonderful cheese-enriched Canadian quality to it and a much bigger budget – but good fun nonetheless. This movie was pretty much on repeat for the duration of a month in my house.
My take: “Feed me, Seymour! Feed me!” My mom took me to see this one, and I fell in love. I walked out of that movie wanting a venus flytrap, but back then, you could only order them out the back of a comic book, and I never got around to trying. Still, some little part of me fears dentists because of Steve Martin’s acting in this movie.
Kids’ reactions: My son HATES musicals, but he loves this movie. It’s the singular exception, and he’ll probably kill me someday for outing him like this.
Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
My take: “You wanna see something really scary?” Confession time – the story with the kid who can wish anything into existence? Good lord, that scared the freaking piss out of me as a kid. If you haven’t seen this one, it’s a compilation of four stories, all directed by different directors, book-ended by a couple of related vignettes. I took several “lessons” away from each story. I learned to not be a racist prick from the first story (Time Out), and I learned the value of remaining young no matter your physical age in the second tale (Kick the Can). On my first viewing of this film, in the third story (It’s a Good Life), when all those cartoon-like monsters start popping out and shaking, I screamed and ran out of the room. I had nightmares for days after that. As for the fourth story (Nightmare at 20,000 Feet), this was John Lithgow at his most golden, and to this day, if I’m flying at night, I will NOT look out the window at the wing!
Kids’ reactions: They laughed at me when I cringed at the scene mentioned above in the third story, but then they wanted to go outside and try out kick-the-can after watching the Spielberg piece.
My take: Who Made Who, by AC/DC, was made specifically for this movie, thanks to writer and director, Stephen King, who was, at the time, a fanboi of the group and had the money to make it happen. This was another movie I recorded off a free HBO weekend and another VHS tape I wore out because I watched it so frequently. Although this is in both my horror guide as well as my 80s guide, it really isn’t all that scary. Stephen King today admits that he was “coked out of my mind” the entire time he was making this picture and often didn’t know what he was doing. He remarked that he’d like to try directing again someday, this time sober. When asked why he hasn’t directed a movie since, King responded “Just watch Maximum Overdrive.” I don’t care what he or anyone else says. I freaking LOVE this film. On another note, about a year after the movie was released, the Green Goblin truck was taken to a junkyard in North Carolina. The jaw, lower teeth, tongue and tops of the ears were gone, and what was left was burnt severely. Some dude saw it there and purchased it but later had to sell it. The owner displayed it at his video store for years, until he sold the business. He moved it to his backyard for about 20 years, and it was then moved into his garage, where he started restoring it in 2011. He spent 2 years, nights, and weekends restoring the head. Now, he travels across the USA and Canada, taking it to horror & comic cons. Someday, I’d love to see it in person.
Kids’ reactions: My son is now a mega-fanboy of AC/DC, thanks to this film. He also wants to see the truck in person.
My take: The first Stephen King book I ever read was Cycle of the Werewolf, the novella that would become this 80s classic. It was a great introduction to horror for me, and the movie became a beloved addition to my collection. It features a very young pre-drug addiction Corey Haim, as well as the girl from Anne of Green Gables. Although it isn’t the greatest in terms of special effects or even scare factor, it belongs in this list.
Kids’ reactions: I knew my son would love it, but my daughter hasn’t seen it (yet). She doesn’t have the some love for cheesy 80s flicks as my son and I. After seeing this movie, my son begged me to make him a wheelchair like the one Haim drives. “Hell no” was my response.
My take: I skipped past the original on purpose, because, in my likely flawed opinion, invalid as many may think it is, the second movie in the franchise was the best. It was the first one I saw, and as such, the one I recall with most fondness. In fact, I just recently tried rewatching the original, and I STILL like AlienS better than Alien. What I love about this movie is how Sigourney Weaver gives my kids a powerful woman role model to look up to. Despite my opinion on which was my personal favorite, the entire franchise is well worth watching. Also, head into the Alien vs Predator (AVP) series for even more fun!
Kids’ reactions: My son hit Amazon after this movie, hunting for a xenomorph costume for Halloween. Definitely an ambitious decision, but he ended up settling on a xenomorph action figure instead.
My take: John Carpenter, in general, is a pretty good place to start kids on horror movies. His work was some of the best of the 80s, and he really set the stage for later horror. While nearly any of Carpenter’s early work is a great starting point, The Thing is especially good because for the most part, it lacks “real” fright. Sure, the story is a bit on the creepy side, but nothing truly terrifying takes place.
Kids’ reactions: This was a good starter, for the most part. It’s a little bit sci-fi, a little bit horror, and it pairs very well with Aliens above. Plus, John Carpenter – you can’t go wrong.
My take: Continuing with the John Carpenter theme, no collection of horror fanaticism is complete without one of the greatest original slasher flicks. Jame Lee Curtis is the queen of all scream queens (she was the only female actor in this movie who really WAS a teenager at the time!), and Michael Myers would go on to become a horror icon. Interestingly, the mask was a modified James T. Kirk mask with the hair teased out, the eye holes widened, and the skin painted white. You’re welcome. Now, you won’t be able to un-see it.
Kids’ reactions: My son is now obsessed with Michael Myers and all things Halloween. Thanks, Carpenter. Now I have to live with your Halloween theme music as my ringtone.
My take: Some might argue against this one being on a list for kids, partly because of the coarse language inherent with a Stephen King story, but you know what? My wife and I firmly believe that, when we take the sting of those words away by not overreacting to them, we teach our kids resilience when it comes to such language. Anyway, that’s our take, and when introducing my kids to scary movies, I immediately thought of this one. Because no shitter ever came between me and ol’ Christine.
Kids’ reactions: John Carpenter wins again. This film got us talking about cars, about other Stephen King stories, about my memories of reading King’s books as a kid, and resulted in my son going to a used bookstore and picking out 6 new novels to work on reading.
My take: This was one of my first scary movies, which was an early example of the genre. It definitely made me look differently at a murder of ravens or a flock of seagulls (no, not the 80s band with the funky hair). Despite the movie’s age and dated parts, Hitchcock was still a master storyteller, and this movie never fails to creep.
Kids’ reactions: My son didn’t like it. The dated portion didn’t do very well at keeping his attention, but he did appreciate the storyline and the action scenes.
My take: I’m not ashamed to admit that this one got to me as a kid. I don’t think I saw it until I was around 11 or so, but Tobe Hooper really did a great job with the setup, the pacing, and even the special effects for the early 80s. When I saw the 2015 remake, I was sorely disappointed. They swapped out Hooper’s masterful storytelling with bling, and it fell flat.
Kids’ reactions: My son absolutely LOVED this one! It sparked an interest in the paranormal, looking up ghost stories online, and even reading scary short stories from the library.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
My take: This George Romero classic has long been in my top 10 favorite horror films of all time, partly because it was one of the first films period to feature a Black man as a main character and partly because it’s just so much awesome. Even the special effects were brilliant, given the time period and technology!
Kids’ reactions: So, my son developed an odd fear of zombies, so we stayed away from zombie flicks for quite a while, but when he developed an interest in starting The Walking Dead, we built up his tolerance by starting with this one. Normally, he wouldn’t go for a B&W movie, but he loved this one.
Night of the Living Dead (1990)
My take: This is one case where the remake is nearly as good as the original, if not slightly better. Tony Todd (of Candyman fame) delivered a phenomenal performance in one of the most important roles of horror film social history, while the master of makeup, Tom Savini, ensured the film would outdo the original in the effects department.
Kids’ reactions: I didn’t show both versions on the same evening because the films are nearly identical, but we did watch them in short succession for the sake of comparison. My son echoed my sentiment for this remake.
The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
My take: Maybe it was the glorious cover to this movie that drew me in as a kid perusing the rack of my local video rental store, or maybe it was my love for Romero’s original classic, but either way, this was one of my favorite horror movies of the 80s. It’s SOOOO cheesy and campy, but at the same time, a fun thrill ride with all the best the 80s had to offer. There is literally NOTHING scary about this one, so it’s a great first one for kids.
Kids’ reactions: My son has an uncanny ability to hear songs and name the movie or TV show they were in, and one day, we heard an 80s song that I didn’t even know, and he piped up with this movie. I had to look it up, but damn if he wasn’t right! I guess that shows how engaged he was by this one.
My take: I do so love horror comedies, and this is one of my favorites in the subgenre, particularly with Bill Murray’s brilliant cameo. Once I felt like my son had fully gotten over his fear of the undead, I knew he would appreciate this one. In fact, this may have been the movie that fully eliminated those fears.
Kids’ reactions: Interestingly enough, BOTH my son and daughter enjoy this one. My daughter is a big fan of Emma Stone, while my son loves the campy humor. To this day, we still use the “rules” as occasional conversation filler, particularly when playing video games: “Double-tap.”
My take: Yet another kickass movie cover drew me in, but also, it’s based on Stephen King stories, so how can you go wrong? It’s specifically aimed at kids by telling the stories through a kid’s eyes as he reads his comics, and there are five short stories in this thrill ride. Hal Holbrook shines in “The Crate” as a husband and professor who has had enough and sees an opportunity to even a few scores, Stephen King plays a main character (instead of his usual cameo) in “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” and Ted Danson throws down a grand performance as the boytoy on the side in the aptly titled, “Something to Tide You Over.”
Kids’ reactions: This movie was part of a multi-week horror romp through Stephen King movies with my son, and it became an instant classic, especially with “The Crate” and the one starring Stephen King. TONS of laughs to be had here!
My take: We can’t discuss the original without bringing up the sequel, which makes a great companion for a double feature. Also based on Stephen King stories but also, the screenplay was written by George Romero of Night of the Living Dead fame. There are only three tales in this one, so they develop the characters a bit more. There’s a great tale of Indian revenge in “Old Chief Wood’nhead,” a terrifying story of swimming out to a floating dock in the middle of a lake in “The Raft,” and one of the more memorable yarns of horror movie lore in “The Hitchhiker.” Thanks for the ride, lady. Thanks for the ride.
Kids’ reactions: If you play your hand right with little down time between the original and this one, it almost seems like one extra long movie. Win-win.
My take: Be careful with this one, as it somewhat ups the ante on the chill factor. While still somewhat cheesy 80s horror, the final story in this three-tale anthology can be a bit unnerving for kids. “Quitters, Inc.” is a great anti-smoking campaign to show kids, and “The Ledge” makes for great suspense, but “The General” is a story of a cat who protects a very young Drew Barrymore from a vicious troll that aims to suck the life out of her while she sleeps. That troll, cheesy as the special effects may be, is still a pretty frightening thought for kids.
Kids’ reactions: On the bright side, my kids ended up appreciating our family cat MUCH more after seeing this. Definitely pair this one with the “palate cleanser” activity detailed up above.
My take: How could any writer worth his or her salt NOT discuss the Evil Dead series? This one is essentially a staple of every horror buff’s library, and the trivia behind it is even more interesting. Director Sam Raimi and star Bruce Campbell were friends from high school, where they made many super-8 films together. They would often collaborate with Sam’s brother, Ted Raimi. Campbell became the “actor” of the group, as “he was the one that girls wanted to look at.” The film ran out of money, and only half of it was completed in the winter of 1980. To complete it, Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert and Bruce Campbell did everything they could to complete the film, including taking out high-interest bank loans, borrowing money from friends and family, and even making cold calls to businesses around their hometown state of Michigan. The cold calls worked in that they actually got catering, gasoline and other necessities that the cast and crew needed. The cabin used as the film’s set was also used as lodging for the thirteen crew members, with several people sleeping in the same room. Living conditions were terrible. The actors went days without showering or bathing, as the cabin did not have plumbing, and they fell ill frequently in the freezing weather. Things got so bad that, by the end of production, they were burning furniture to stay warm.
Kids’ reactions: LOTS of laughs, followed by multiple requests to watch it again and again. ‘Nuff said.
My take: Wait, skulls don’t have eyes. What is UP with that poster? Anyway, Sam Raimi credited Stephen King for making the sequel possible, as well as the popularity of the original. Raimi couldn’t acquire enough money to fund the sequel, so Stephen King made a few calls since he was a huge fan of the original and convinced financiers to give Raimi the money he needed for the sequel. It’s often considered a higher budget remake of the original, though the rights to show scenes from the original could not be obtained to re-cap what happened, so the beginning was remade to explain how Ash got to the cabin, etc.
Kids’ reactions: As with Creepshow and its sequel, show these movies in succession. They make a fantastic double header.
My take: I have a hard time considering this a “horror” movie in the strictest sense, but since it goes well with Raimi’s other movies above, I’m including it. This movie is ridiculously chock full of quotable lines, and to this day, my kids and I still randomly pull out “THIS is my boomstick” or “Klaatu barada nikto!” Shop smart. Shop S-Mart.
Kids’ reactions: My son randomly saw an Ash action figure at Toys R Us (rest in peace, Geoffrey) one day when we were looking for some stupid Pokemon figurine, and he opted for it instead. Atta boy.
My take: Man, those 80s horror movie covers are works of art, aren’t they? For some reason, I really loved this one as a kid, even though I’m not really all that into vampire flicks. Maybe it was due to my other love, Lost Boys, but this one gripped me pretty good. I have yet to see the remake (and probably won’t as a matter of principle). It was Chris Sarandon’s idea to have Jerry eating apples throughout the film. While researching Vampire lore, Sarandon looked at information about bats and concluded, “Jerry had a lot of Fruit Bat in his DNA.”
Kids’ reactions: “You’re SO cool, Brewster!” They loved that it had laughs along with some pretty great effects.
My take: The first in the immortal “Cornetto Trilogy” (Hot Fuzz and The World’s End being the other two), this is my favorite Simon Pegg/Nick Frost creation. In fact, I dressed up as Shaun for Halloween one year, complete with a homemade cricket bat and a bit of red on me. This one is great for kids because of the laughs, but also the great storyline.
Kids’ reactions: This has become an old standby for our Daddy-Kid Movie Night, in case we can’t think of anything else to watch. It’s quotable, lovable, and we even have a poseable action figure of Shaun, complete with box of throwing records.
My take: Okay, I admit it – I’m not a fan of the original that started the franchise. This one [SPOILER ALERT] ends in learning that Jason isn’t even the killer, but instead, it’s his mommy, and she’s not even all that scary. She’s just pissed about her son drowning. It’s kind of stupid, really, but hey, it’s earned its place among the pantheon of horror classics, so you have to see it at least once.
Kids’ reactions: Sheer disappointment that the dude in the hockey mask doesn’t even make an appearance.
My take: Seriously, Hollywood? Look at those two covers. They deleted the woodsy scene behind the silhouette and changed the knife to an axe. LAZY! Also a somewhat disappointing film, although Jason is the killer this time. It’s basically gore and blood and jumpscares that drive this craptastic sequel, but again, it’s part of the original pantheon, so you have to plod your way through it.
Kids’ reactions: “Dad, when do we see Jason with a hockey mask? Why are you making me watch this?”
Friday the 13th Part III (1982)
My take: I hope this studio’s graphic designers were fired. Seriously, this is getting ridiculous. Just look at those crappy covers! This sequel was marketed as being in 3D, and the film made $36,985,198 with a budget of $4,000,000. As Mel Brooks quipped in Spaceballs, this was definitely “the search for more money.” This film’s saving grace is that it was the first in the franchise to use the iconic hockey mask, making it a must-watch. However, the special effects are an absolute joke. You can literally see the strings they used without even trying.
Kid’s reactions: Any time my son wants to revisit this film franchise, he always starts with this one, thereby ignoring parts 1 and 2.
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)
My take: Looks like the studio finally hired a decent designer for the covers! This is my personal favorite of the 80s portion of the franchise. Like the 3rd movie, it was released on Friday the 13th, and on a budget of $1,800,000, the film made $32,600,000 at the box office, further cementing this series as a profitable venture. Perhaps that’s why they went on to make SIX MORE MOVIES. Tom Savini worked special effects in this one, partly to right the wrongs that were done on the last film. Seriously, the visible strings were embarrassing.
Kids’ reactions: As with me, this is my son’s favorite of the 80s series. Now, I’m not going to belabor the article by detailing the rest of the movies in the series, but they’re worth killing time if you can’t think of any other movies to watch.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
My take: Important note – this was Johnny Depp’s first movie! That’s something, anyway. Wes Craven was an absolute master in the 80s, and this was possibly his crowning achievement. Over five hundred gallons of fake blood were used during filming, and it has another interesting connection to other movies on this list. The original Freddy glove was later used in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge and was also seen hanging on the wall of the work shed in Evil Dead II. This was in response to the use of The Evil Dead on a television screen in this film and part of a continued banter between directors Wes Craven and Sam Raimi. However, when Wes Craven loaned the glove to the A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors set, it was lost and has never been seen again. Whomever has it, you can send it to me; no questions asked.
Kids’ reactions: Now, I thought my son was going to be at least a bit frightened, but instead, he was fascinated by this movie, so much so that he BEGGED me to buy him a replica glove when we saw it at Target for Halloween. I won’t detail the rest of the franchise here, but suffice to say that they get worse as time went on, and part 2 was by far the WORST of the entire saga.
My take: I REALLY liked this remake of the original, to the point where it is one of my favorite Romero creations of all time. Zack Snyder did a bang-up job with respect to casting and recreating the original story very well. Ving Rhames gives an outstanding performance, as do Sarah Polley, Jake Weber, Mekhi Phifer, and Michael Kelly. Add in an awesome montage to Richard Cheese’s version of Down with the Sickness, and you have a recipe for a classic. We haven’t hit up the rest of the series, nor have I introduced the kids to the original, but they’re definitely in the queue.
Kids’ reactions: After seeing the other Romero zombie movies on this list, this one fully eliminated my son’s odd fear of the undead. Now, whenever we go on an airplane, this is the movie he requests that I download to my iPad for him to watch. Not sure why, but it’s good fun regardless.
My take: I won’t lie: I was a bit hesitant to show this one to my son, given his past with the undead. But, technically, these aren’t zombies, right? They just sort of act like them? Anyway, we love apocalyptic movies, so we gave it a whirl after seeing Dawn of the Dead and confirming that his fear of zombies was over with. This is a favorite of mine, as Danny Boyle did an amazing job with the whole thing and created, in my mind, a classic that belongs in the pantheon of horror.
Kids’ reactions: Turns out, my son loved it. There was no fear, no visible negative reactions, and he asked to watch it again.
My take: I was initially hesitant on this one, not because of the scare factor (because it’s honestly not all that scary), but for the gore and psychological aspect. However, after the trek through the movies above, I felt we were ready to give it a shot and see how it went. I told my son (10) that we could always shut it off at any time. Personally, I love the entire series (some more than others), and I won’t detail them all here, but the whole concept, which is generally well done throughout all the movies, is fascinating and provides for some great discussions on morality.
Kids’ reactions: BIG win! He loved it so much, he begged to see the rest. He now incorporates, “Shall we play a game?” into his normal conversation when applicable. We have plans to continue the series later.
My take: Folks, if you’ve read this far, then you’re in for a treat. I probably should have placed this one much earlier in the order, but I ran across it in my memory one day and realized what a great addition it would be to our romp through the genre. It is 90s Hollywood at its zenith, and the inclusion of actors such as Neve Campbell, Skeet Ulrich, David Arquette, Courtney Cox, and the inimitable Matthew Lillard, make this movie absolutely iconic.
Kids’ reactions: My son FLIPPED out for this movie! The ending (no spoilers) was sublime, and we had to watch the big reveal three times to really appreciate it. In fact, he loved it SO much, that we plowed through the rest of the series in two consecutive nights, before starting the Netflix original series. Truly a favorite!
I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)
My take: Once I popped the cork on 90s horror, this film was the next choice, easily. Basically, it’s Scream with a slight twist, and although not as beloved as the Scream franchise, this one is still good for a few weeks of movie nights.
Kids’ reactions: “Dad, did they just recycle all the same actors and actresses in the 90s?” Me: “No, kiddo, that’s Jennifer Love Hewitt. She and Neve Campbell are different people.”
My take: I can already hear readers asking, “Why, Josh, is the Stanley Kubrick classic so far down on the list?” Well, dear reader, it’s because The Shining scared the bejeezus out of me as a kid. Maybe that makes me an ultimate puss-cake (my wife laughed the first time she saw it – said I’m a wuss), but I didn’t want to traumatize my kids with a horror movie night. The trick in introducing a kid to horror and teaching that kid to really appreciate the intricacies of the genre is in not terrifying the kid all at once by immediately going nuclear, so to speak. This film is one of the best in the King library, even if King didn’t like it because it detoured too much from the book. As an adult (or maybe even with the kid, depending on how much they enjoy the movie), I also highly recommend watching the documentary, Room 237 (2012), which REALLY dives into the trivia behind the film, and it’s bloody fascinating!
Kids’ reactions: I watched with nervous anticipation, particular as things started getting intense after the halfway point. I think it unnerved my youngest just a bit, but other than a case of the creeps, he loved the movie and didn’t react nearly the same as I did. I guess this speaks to the changing nature of horror movies and our reactions to their pushing of the envelope.
My take: Okay, so the book scared the pants off me as a kid, and developed a strong sense of coulrophobia that continues to this day as a 40-something quasi-adult. The mini-series was reasonably well-developed, and the screenplay mostly follows the book, though much had to be left out due to being made for TV. However, Tim Curry as Pennywise masterfully set the bar for all other terrifying clowns to come, and his performance is the contention for the 2017 remake. This is (obviously) a long viewing, so it takes up all the time for a single movie night.
Kids’ reactions: As with The Shining above, I was nervous about this one, but also as with above, the boy was mostly unaffected, proving once again my sensitivity as a youngin. Definitely worth a watch, as well as several revisits.
My take: I’m of the opinion that the book should be read before seeing the movie, but since my kids haven’t finished It yet, well, we saw it anyway. They related much more to this one than the miniseries, and the acting and special effects are FAR superior to the original miniseries. However, Tim Curry is still the O.G. Pennywise, despite a powerful and commanding performance by Bill Skarsgård.
Kids’ reactions: We went to see this one as a family on opening day, which was soon followed by another viewing in the theater. We purchased the movie on iTunes the day it was released and watched it about four more times. We’re looking forward to the second chapter being released in 2019.
My take: If you’d love even further proof of what an apparent wuss I was as a kid, look no further than one of Stephen King’s other masterpieces. This movie scared not only me, but also my wife when she was younger, so I anticipated saving this one for when the kids were older, but then my youngest son demanded it one day. I warned and warned him about its terrifyingness (not a real word), but he persisted.
Kids’ reactions: Loved it but totally unimpressed with the scare factor. I’m guessing today’s kids are immune to the horror of the 80s.
My take: So, this movie didn’t scare me, and as a result, I assumed the same for my children. It didn’t terrify me of dogs, nor did it make me afraid of the St. Bernard breed. I may have gotten hesitant of purchasing a Pinto, but that may have had more to do with gas tank placement than this movie.
Kids’ reactions: Yeah. So… DO NOT SHOW THIS MOVIE TO YOUR KID IF YOUR KID IS A SENSITIVE DOG LOVER! Big mistake. We’ll never be watching this one again. What the hell kind of kid freaking cries at the end when Cujo dies?
My take: I am of the opinion that there were two Drew Barrymores: One child actress and one adult actress. Seriously, they’re two different people in my mind. Anyway, I tend to consider this movie more sci-fi than horror, but since it’s Stephen King, I put it here anyway, especially since my son and I watched it while on a King binge in 2017. That stated, I do NOT recommend watching the more recent remake. That was a dumpster fire on board an ongoing train wreck.
Kids’ reactions: My son loved the idea of being a telekinetic pyromancer. He thought that was so unbelievably cool and I could literally see him fantasizing about it at times after seeing this movie.
My take: This story, written by Stephen King as Richard Bachman, is also more sci-fi than horror, which is why it makes this list AND my 80s movie guide. If I recall correctly, I think I saw this one with my older brother as well (thanks for this one AND Predator, bro). Not only does this have classic Arnold-esque quips and one-liners, but it has that Stephen King flair that I love oh-so-much. And after seeing where reality TV is heading, I don’t think we’re all that far off from this being more of a documentary.
Kids’ reactions: Laughter, some cringing at the more dated parts, and giggling at the part where Amber Mendez has to pay like $6 for a soda at the machine.
My take: I was (understandably) leery of watching this with children. After all, they may get ideas. However, it fit right in with a good, long Stephen King binge of 2017 with my kids, so here it is. The 1980s were so good to King, and it’s somewhat depressing that we don’t have more great King films still being made today (hint, hint, Hollywood!).
Kids’ reactions: Okay, so maybe I was being a bit paranoid. My kids didn’t try to kill me in my sleep, which is good, and they did learn a little something about cults and brainwashing in our subsequent discussion afterward.
My take: Stephen King wrote this as an original screenplay since he had always wanted to do a haunted house story. VERY much based on the story of the Winchester House just outside San Jose, CA, this series watches a bit more like a 90s movie than an early-00s film. There is decidedly a cheese factor to it, but the story itself is fascinating, and Stephen King makes a great cameo as a pizza delivery guy. Just don’t expect too much from the special effects.
Kids’ reactions: My kids are now begging me to take them to Thornewood Castle near Seattle (the site for the film), because they want to do the haunted tour and even stay the night!
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
My take: As a kid, I thought this movie was going to be the end-all, be-all of horror films. I was convinced I would puke at all the gore and have nightmares for months. When I was in 7th grade, my first girlfriend invited me to her big birthday bash, at which we were all slated to watch this movie. As we watched it, her father went out the back door, put on a hockey goalie mask, grabbed his chain saw, and proceeded to start the saw on the front porch outside the living room window where we all were watching the movie, and the best part? He waited until the perfect scene, when Leatherface comes running out for the first time. There is nothing quite like a pile of terrified teenagers on a living room floor to get the blood pumping.
Kids’ reactions: Totally unaffected. Again, I’m the wuss. However, it did spawn a love for the franchise and a desire to watch all the rest.
My take: Confession time – I’ve never seen one of these movies all the way through. It’s not because they’re scary, either. I just find the whole concept intrinsically stupid, so sue me.
Kids’ reactions: My son, on the other hand, LOVES them. I introduced them to him when discussing the My Buddy dolls of the 80s and how Chucky was designed specifically after the My Buddy doll, resulting in the company losing so many sales that they pulled them from production. What a dick move. Those dolls were showing young boys that it’s okay to play with a “doll” (wish there were a less loaded word than that) and that learning to be play “dad” with one is actually healthy. Child’s Play ruined all that. However, my son, to this day, has a My Buddy, a Kid Sister, AND a Chucky doll, all of which share the same room with him. So there.
My take: When I saw this movie in the theater, it blew me away. I mean, it was never destined to be Oscar material or anything, but the whole concept of it was so original and innovative that it got me thinking philosophically about death and whether there’s a deterministic design or if it’s all just random. Throughout the rest of the sequels in the franchise, despite them all having nearly the exact same formula, provided a fantastic ride through these same thoughts. I’d rank this one up there with Saw in terms of modern movie franchises.
Kids’ reactions: As of this writing, the last sequel in the series is the only one I haven’t watched with my kids, and like me, they ate them up voraciously. We also had great conversations afterward about the aforementioned philosophies.
My take: As we made our way through the above horror movies, over time, I knew we were well on our way to developing a stronger resistance to getting freaked out, a desensitization, if you will. I also knew that my little guy would eventually want to push the envelope a bit more, as we humans tend to do, so one night, he started asking if we could watch “something really scary,” at which point I started quoting Dan Aykroyd’s character from Twilight Zone: The Movie. Once I was done with my [SQUIRREL!] moment, I started looking through me and my wife’s horror movie library, and we settled on this one. Disturbing and brutal, this movie definitely pushes the limits, but not so much as to go over the edge into trauma.
Kids’ reactions: Surprisingly, my son enjoyed the ride, got a bit creeped out (and subsequently cuddled up with me tightly during those parts), and at the end, actually requested to see the sequel and continue pushing the envelope. I was honestly a bit shocked.
My take: Ask and you shall receive. My wife and I were talking about how to raise the proverbial bar and really push our kids’ limits without going over the edge, and I suggested The Conjuring, at which point, my wife glared over her glasses at me. That glare means business. We went back to the library, and we figured that another James Wan movie (other than the aforementioned one) would be a good way to go. Now, I liked this one. It had some pretty great jumpscares, though the ending left a bit to be desired for me. Not terribly scary, but scarier than Sinister was.
Kids’ reactions: This is the last movie on the list for a reason. We found the kids’ limit. As a result, we backed off, returned to watch the other Final Destination sequels and rewatch some of the older 80s flicks to effectively cleanse the palate and build up tenacity again. Perhaps in a few more years, they’ll be ready to push the envelope again, but let this stand as a warning: KNOW YOUR KIDS’ LIMITS!
When it comes to developing resilience with respect to that which frightens us, especially with our kids, we sometimes need to bravely play a bit of proverbial Russian Roulette, so be prepared to deal with the consequences. Have a plan, otherwise you may find yourself getting very little sleep as you console your children after nightmares. Some tips to avoid these unfortunate situations:
- Don’t be in a rush to introduce the kid to the horror genre. As parents, you know your kids better than anyone. Some kids are ready at 8 or 9, like me and my kids were, while others may not be ready until their 20s or later.
- Discuss fear with them before you begin: Talk with them about their fears freely and openly, without judgment or telling the kids that they’re wrong for fearing whatever they do. Know what fears to avoid and which ones to challenge. As with my son’s odd and unfounded fear of zombies, we put those movies a bit further into the progression so that we could build up a bit of tolerance for other horror themes first.
- If your children do experience a bit of terror during the journey, comfort them. Don’t ridicule them, but allow them to experience the emotion and be there for them. Figuratively and literally hold their hands as they make their way through the process of getting scared, constructively confronting that fear, and moving past it. Consider this a workout for their confidence.
- Take it slow and be patient: Even if you don’t consider a movie part of the horror genre, such as the initial movies on this list, it still provides kids with an introduction, or a foot in the proverbial door, that affords them the opportunity to become braver. Remember that fear resides in the eyes of the beholder, and if you take it too fast, you’ll end up with your own Insidious moment.
- If you find a limit, don’t give up and walk away: Teach your kids that fear is a normal part of life, but that it is also important for us to face our fears and learn from the process. That’s one of the most valuable lessons in taking kids through the horror genre; the whole process builds character and confidence.
- Teach your kids about what is and is NOT appropriate with talking to other kids about their movie experiences. They may want to go to school and talk to everyone they know about Pennywise, but other kids may cringe at even the mere mention of the name. Also, other parents may have stricter standards, and you don’t want your kids to implicitly introduce other kids to movies their parents don’t want them to see yet. Lastly, remind them of the supreme importance of the no-spoiler code. Teach them how to approach other kids and bring it up in conversation and remind them that not all kids like it.
- Speaking of teaching, it is CRITICALLY important to discuss the inherent issues one finds in the horror genre:
- Talk about how women and minorities tend to get killed off faster and in greater numbers than white men, and ask them to critically think about why they think that is.
- Reinforce how this is fantasy and completely divorced from reality. Discuss what happens in real life when the genre comes to life.
- Ensure that your kids are able to, without a doubt, separate truth from fiction.
- Your role as a parent is to ensure an appreciation for all that the horror genre has to offer, without creating a metaphorical monster.
- Your constant communication with your children is the key to enjoying this wonderful genre without experiencing ill effects as a result.
- Media studies have proven that “co-viewing” of media like this with children produces a significantly greater understanding and drastically reduced chances of kids essentially getting the wrong ideas from consuming this type of media. Your presence as parents is actually making your kids stronger!
Traveling back in time to explore some of the horror greats has been one of the most rewarding parenting activities I have experienced to date. It has allowed me to revisit my childhood by seeing it happen again to my own children, but it has also afforded me the opportunity to generate incredibly valuable conversations about writing, acting, storytelling, special effects, philosophy, social issues, and much more.
I understand this process isn’t for everyone, but for those who are feeling up to giving it a shot, I hope you enjoy it as much as I have!
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