A few weeks ago I interviewed Tom Holland, director of the iconic 1988 killer-doll horror movie Child's Play, and I let it slip that I'd watched the movie around the time it came out on video, which meant that I was probably 7 years old. “Oh, honey, that's too young,” he said, explaining that if he'd known kids that young were watching it, he would have toned down the scares. Nah. The next year, I saw Pet Sematary in the theater with my parents and it scared the shit out of me, but the joy associated with being afraid of things that couldn't really hurt me settled deep into my bones and I became a horror fan for life. Also, as my cousin Katie (who saw The Exorcist when she was way too young) mentioned on Facebook, young horror fans learn early to be scared of all variety of murderers, psychos and demons, which only heightens our sense of self-preservation.
That said, lots of parents don't want to lose precious hours of sleep tending to a child who's woken up in the middle of the night screaming because the roll shade in her bedroom flew up and it was definitely Zelda from Pet Sematary haunting her (true story). So here are some horror movies to help ease kids into perpetual dread. Warning: Some of these are genuinely scary and not for sensitive kids or kids who are nightmare-prone or kids who have parents who are going to write hate emails about one of these movies permanently scarring their child. But if your kid's a little creepy but you're not ready to throw Texas Chainsaw Massacre on the ol' Apple TV, these movies could be great primers. (H/T to April Wolfe for helping me create this list; CC her on hate mail.)
The Gate (1987)
Baby Stephen Dorf finds a smoldering geode in his backyard and invites a metalhead friend over so they can break it open with a hammer, like any good 12-year-old boys would. Big mistake, Dorf! A gate to hell in his backyard is opened, unleashing all manner of claymation homunculi and entombed construction workers. I've had nightmares throughout my life about people living inside the walls, and The Gate is definitely the reason. Also, the tagline is “Pray … it's not too late,” so it's basically just Christian propaganda.
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
Ray Bradbury originally intended for Something Wicked This Way Comes to be a movie (rather than the novel it eventually became) so it's no wonder this Bradbury-penned adaptation for Disney works nicely. A creepy carnival comes to an Illinois town way too late in the year for it to be normal (for me, this film conjures fall better than a dump truck full of pumpkin spice). A dapper Jonathan Pryce plays Mr. Dark, who knows and can fulfill your desires — at a terrible cost. Full of life lessons and creepy occurrences but no guts or gore.
The Watcher in the Woods (1980)
Another of Disney's late '70s, early '80s horrors for kids, this one is about a supernatural abduction and takes stylistic cues from kid-inappropriate horrors like The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror. And it's never too soon to introduce kids to Bette Davis. (Note: Lifetime just aired a reboot with Anjelica Huston.)
A teenage boy named Zach and his mom move to a new town and right next door to a fictionalized version of kiddie horror author R.L. Stine (played by Jack Black; from the looks of real R.L. Stine, I have a hunch he's not nearly as excitable as the Jack Black version). All of the ghouls Stine created have been trapped inside manuscripts in his house, until Zach inadvertently releases them, setting into motion a scary, fun Jumanji-style action-adventure. There's even a twist involving Stine's sheltered teenage daughter.
The Witches (1990)
The Jim Henson Company turned Roald Dahl's 1983 book into an appropriately grotesque film filled with prosthetic-nosed, bald-headed crones and imperiled mouse boys. I can guarantee this movie is a lot of fun, but I feel like I can't guarantee no actual mice were harmed in its making.
Mr. Boogedy (1986)
Part of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color (which makes it sound so old-timey), Mr. Boogedy follows a family to the creepy, dilapidated mansion they bought in a phony New England town called Lucifer Falls. The house is haunted by two good pilgrim ghosts and the one titular bad pilgrim ghost, who is gross and scary for a kids movie but who also leaves sticky green footprints all over the house that look irresistibly fun to play with. The cast is great: Joke-shop owner dad is played by Richard Masur and the kids are played by Kristy Swanson, David Faustino and the cute little boy from ALF.
The Lady in White (1988)
Frankie (Lukas Haas) gets locked in the school's cloakroom one Halloween and encounters both the ghost of a murdered girl and a real murderer. Comedic actress Katherine Helmond offers legit chills as a ghostly character who lives in a house on a cliff, and without giving away too much, Len Cariou really has a moment that'll give you nightmares. This one is definitely for slightly older kids (the story takes place in 1962 and there's a racially motivated murder that's pretty disturbing).
The Frighteners (1996)
In Peter Jackson's super-fun horror-comedy, Michael J. Fox plays a widower who develops psychic abilities in the wake of his wife's death and communicates with ghosts for money. Jake Busey channels his dad's gleeful psychopathy as the bad guy, and Jeffrey Combs is legitimately weird as an FBI agent out to get Fox's character.
A tiny town in the Nevada desert is being terrorized by underground fanged phallus monsters, and it's up to Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward (and Reba McEntire!) to save its residents, as well as Bacon's love interest, a young seismologist. It's full of jump scares and some visual grossness, but on the whole a way more appropriate way to foster a first crush on Kevin Bacon than seeing him get murdered in Friday the 13th.
The Monster Squad (1987)
All of the classic Universal movie monsters — Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, Wolfman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon — are running amok in a suburban town, and it's up to a bunch of cursing kids and a “scary German guy” to open a wormhole and send them all to limbo. Frankenstein, played by an unrecognizable Tom Noonan, is a good guy so the climax is bittersweet. It's a classic kids horror movie, but it's also very of its time (and raw) in terms of language, so be forewarned.