Social & Emotional Development

11 Scary Movies Kids Will Love (and You Will, Too)

By: Michelle Back
Two kids holding carved pumpkins up to their faces.
6 minutes to read
For All Ages
Social Emotional

Kids love Halloween! Scary stuff can be so fun . . . or it can ruin bedtime. Common Sense Media’s Editorial Director Betsy Bozdech joins Christine French Cully, Highlights Editor-in-Chief, and Hillary Bates, Director of Purpose and Impact, on the Dear Highlights podcast to share her tips for seasonal media that’s scary, but not too scary. From Hocus Pocus 2 to Zombies to podcasts, tune in for her spooky picks for kids of all ages. For more recommendations visit Common Sense Media’s list of not-so-scary-movies.  

Christine starts by asking Hillary if she liked to watch scary movies as a kid. Hillary shares that she didn’t intentionally watch scary movies, but one time she put in an unlabeled VHS tape and started watching a movie about a family headed to a hotel. She says, “Friends, it was The Shining, and I didn’t sleep properly for over a year!” 

They both share that they are “scaredy cats” when it comes to creepy things and understand the feelings of Highlights readers who’ve written to say they don’t like to see scary movies or look at scary things.  

However, Christine says, most kids want to have a little fun with a seasonal scare, but it varies from kid to kid, and parents want to understand how much their kids can handle.  

Christine asks Betsy about why kids want to watch scary things.  

Betsy shares that although not all kids seek out spookiness, there are some kids who do and get a thrill from a jump scare. These spooky moments often happen in a safe environment, and she says, “kids can lean into the scare without worrying something bad is going to happen.” 

Hillary points out the difference between watching a scary movie as a kid and watching as an adult. She says some scary images had a major impact on her as a kid and asks Betsy if she had any experiences like that.  

Betsy says she absolutely did and cites the animated version of A Watership Down, which she watched when she was 7 years old. Her parents showed it to her because it was an animated movie about rabbits, but the imagery and content was powerful and terrifying. Kids have very vivid imaginations, and when they’re really young, she explains, they don’t have the developmental readiness to tell what’s real and what isn’t.  

Christine asks what kind of scary things are appropriate for younger kids and what’s appropriate for older kids.  

If a child is younger than 7, Betsy says, you want to stick to movies and shows that have very mild peril that’s positively resolved. She recommends the Hotel Transylvania movies because the monsters are goofy and silly and the movies are lighthearted. 

In the transitional ages, kids might be interested in haunted houses, mysteries, and maybe some jump scares, but sticking with animation helps them understand it’s fantasy. Live-action movies can be too intense. If the movie portrays danger and tension, it’s different for kids to see animated animals or inanimate object in danger than for them to see real-life kids.  

She notes that loss and separation can be scary for young kids, too. She mentions that her daughter can handle action and suspense better than two characters being in an argument or a character who is going to break a rule.  

Hillary appreciates how Betsy acknowledges that different kids are scared by different things. She shares that one of her daughters isn’t scared of things that are billed as traditionally scary, but is afraid of parental separation story lines.  

Sometimes, though, even when we know what scares our kids, there will sometimes be scary things we don’t expect. Hillary asks if there are strategies to handle those instances when you’re in the moment or the scare has already happened. She mentions showing your kids how an actor has played different roles from the scary one. 

Betsy agrees that’s a good strategy and notes it can help show that the people in movies are actors doing a job. It helps make the distinction between real and imaginary. She also stresses that if you’re in the moment, it’s fine to just stop watching. She lists a few other strategies:  

  • Pause the movie or show to talk about what’s going on 
  • Turn up the lights and turn down the volume 
  • Offer physical comfort and distraction 
  • Try magical remedies, like a nightly ritual of cleaning monsters out of the closet (this is great for really young kids) 
  • Avoid scary things leading up to bedtime. 

Christine likes how Betsy’s suggestions underscore the importance of watching movies with your kids. Betsy says that she and Common Sense Media are fans of co-viewing, and it’s a wonderful way to make memories.  

Kids can learn from scary movies, Christine says, and asks about the positive outcomes of watching scary movies.  

Betsy agrees and explains that scary movies allow children to stretch their comfort zone in a safe environment. If a kid watches a ghost story or a Jurassic Park dinosaur and “you’re in your house, with your stuff and your people, ideally there’s much less possibility for trauma if you have that safe zone around you.”  

Christine asks if there’s a difference in scariness based on the platform, like a scary podcast versus as a scary movie. 

Reading something scary, Betsy says, is going to be less frightening than seeing something scary. Podcast are a great screen-free alternative, she notes, to let those eerie moments in. They also tend to be shorter and can be broken into smaller pieces. She shares that Common Sense Media recently posted a list of scary podcasts for kids. It can be found here.  

Christine asks for recommendations for non-creepy Halloween movies for kids. Here’s what Betsy suggests, along with the recommended age groups: 

Ages 3 to 6+ 

  • Curious George: A Halloween Boo Fest (3+) 
  • Pooh’s Heffalump Halloween Movie (3+) 
  • It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (4+) 
  • Ivy and Bean: The Ghost That Had to Go (6+) 

Ages 7 to 10+ 

  • Hotel Transylvania (7+, for all four movies) 
  • Nightmare Before Christmas (7+) 
  • Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (7+) 
  • Zombies (8+, for all three movies) 
  • Coraline (9+) 
  • Hocus Pocus 2 (10+) 
  • The Witches (10+) 

Hillary loves the recommendations and suggests baking a themed cake or making goofy, spooky treats to make things less scary. Betsy agrees and says that humor can make things less scary, too. For example, she recommends movies like Shaun of the Dead, which is a Zom-Rom-Com (a humorous zombie movie with a love interest) that’s great for the teen years. 

Our goal of the “Dear Highlights” podcast is is to elevate the voices of children from these letters and help parents raise kids to be curious, creative, caring, and confident.

Author Photo
By: Michelle Back