Parents have always shared horror with their children. Mom and pops of the 19th century read their little ones frightening and bloody books like Shockheaded Peter, a collection of gruesome drawings and moralistic verse, and bedtime stories like Hansel and Gretel, which begins with parents leading their children deep into a forest and leaving them to starve, and ends with the burning of a cannibalistic witch. Sleep tight, honey!
Watching horror movies together is the modern version of sharing these dark tales, and kids (well, some kids) love it. If your child is a budding goth, or just goth-curious, sharing a scary movie can be more than an entertaining way to spend an evening. Horror transforms abstract terrors like death, pain, loss, and zombies into symbolic monsters, letting us safely confront and conquer them. Watching a horror movie with your child is a way to acknowledge to them the eternal truth that life is cruel and terrifying, but that if we face the darkness together, we can get through it, and maybe drive the monster back to hell…for a little while, anyway.
Is your kid a horror kid?
As much as you might want to encourage an appreciation for all things creepy in your toddler, you don’t want to traumatize them, so you have to keep your specific kid’s personality, tastes, and age in mind when determining how much horror is too much.
Kids have different tolerances for scary imagery. Some are deeply affected by even the mildest suggestion of an eerie mood, and some kids can take in pretty hardcore horror content without a thought. Luckily, most “safe” children’s art contains horrifying elements, so you can gauge your kid’s reaction to scary villains like Cruella in 101 Dalmatians for a sign of whether they’re the kind of morbid thrill seekers who grow up to be horror freaks.
This has always been hard for me to believe, but some children don’t like being scared at all. My ten-year-old always hated movies with any scary imagery. I, on the other hand, had a subscription to Fangoria at his age, and had mastered the creation and application of theatrical blood. If that sounds familiar, don’t sweat it. Maybe your kid will end up sharing your horror passion later in life. Every once in a while, I’ll ask Dex if he wants to check out any of the innumerable horror movies in my DVD collection. So far, the answer has been “no,” but I’m still hoping.
Share horror the right way
Watching horror movies is way more fun as a communal experience, so gather interested family members and make an evening of it. Model reassuring behavior for your kids: Teach them the ancient fear-diffusing technique of watching the scary parts through slits in fingers and laughing after jump scares.
No matter their age, don’t try to convince your young’ins to watch something above their horror pay grade. Introduce fear in small chunks; maybe start with some of the scarier episodes of old The Twilight Zone TV show. They’re short, and the black-and-white photography and old-school presentation make them less threatening to many kids.
When watching scary movies with younger kids, make sure the viewing environment is as comforting and fun as possible, and assure them that the movie is only pretend and you will turn it off any time they ask. If your child does tell you to turn it off, do it immediately and without comment, and don’t shame them for being scared, even jokingly.
Oh great, now my kid is having nightmares
So your little one bit off more than they could chew and they’re having scary dreams of zombies in the middle of the night? Don’t sweat it too much. Just about all kids have nightmares occasionally, but kids are resilient, and it takes more than viewing a scary movie to damage their psyches in a meaningful way. So in the event of horror-movie induced nightmares, do the usual: Stay up with them, assure them that dreams are only in their heads, check the closet for monsters, then turn on the nightlight or offer to let them sleep in your bed. And lay off the horror movies for a bit.
Which horror movies for which age?
A four-year-old might tell you, “I want to see a scary movie,” but that doesn’t mean you should throw The Poughkeepsie Tapes into the Blu-Ray player. Even if your kid is a budding horror-hound, it’s important to be a responsible gatekeeper of appropriate content. With this in mind, here are some age-appropriate horror movie suggestions.
I think five to seven is a good time to introduce gentle horror to kids, but your mileage may vary. Here are a few movie suggestions geared to that age range featuring horror elements that aren’t too unnerving, but aren’t totally neutered either.
- The Nightmare Before Christmas
- Monsters Inc.
- Hotel Transylvania
All of these are animated. Younger kids can have a hard time telling reality and fantasy apart, and the animation helps make it clear that none of the scary things they see are actually happening.
When your little fright freak hits their ninth birthday, you can probably start breaking out more mature, live action movies with horror elements. Movies like…
By the time your kid is a tween, they’re ready for the uncut stuff, movies designed to deliver the jolts of fear and creeping dread that horror fans of all ages crave.
Personally, I’m squeamish about introducing children to very violent movies, so the choices below are non-brutal, PG and PG-13 flicks, but they’re still adult-scary.
- Poltergeist (the original only, please)
- The Ring
- The Conjuring
Ages 13 and Up
Teenage horror fans generally don’t need parents nit-picking the age-appropriateness of movies, but they might need help finding the really good stuff.
Left to their own devices, many kids will stick with the slick-but-disposable teen-scream movie that’s most available. Those are awesome, but if your kid is a budding terror cinefile, try introducing them to more artistically challenging examples of the genre like…
- The Shining
- Get Out
- The Innocents
- It Follows
- Rosemary’s Baby
- The Witch
A final, vital piece of advice
This is very, very important. Whatever you do, pandemic or not, do not take little kids to see R-rated horror movies in theaters. Seriously, who does that?
This story was originally published in 2018 and was updated on December 4, 2021 to meet Lifehacker style guidelines.