Middle schoolers—or librarians—looking to host a spooky Halloween-themed movie night might find themselves in a bit of a pickle when it comes to selection: Which movies will raise goosebumps but not parental eyebrows? You need just the right blend of creaky stairs, dimly lit basements (“No, don’t go down there alone!”), and terrible decision-making, combined with ample dashes of humor and levity. The following films are all rated PG. They’re from various decades, so bear in mind that the MPAA ratings have changed over time, and, as with all media, what one viewer finds ho-hum the next is likely to find terrifying. You’ve been warned.
When TVs attack! A middle-class suburban family is tested when a series of bizarre and then increasingly terrifying events happen in their lovely new home. May cause fear of electronics, bedroom closets, and clown dolls (as if we weren’t already scared of those). Viewers into conspiracy theories may want to check out the legends about the cast and crew of the film being “cursed.”
Another classic from the 1980s, this might be a bit of a stretch for this list; it’s credited with being one of the films that launched the crusade to add PG-13 to the MPAA ratings list. A dad’s quest to buy his son a neat Christmas gift goes all to heck when the kid fails to follow simple instructions. May cause fear of microwaves, blenders, and cute, seemingly innocuous fuzzy toys.
Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetleju…. Yet another terrific and traumatizing film from the Eighties, Beetlejuice stars Michael Keaton as the eponymous ghoul haunting a recently deceased couple (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin) and the house’s new inhabitants (a young Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, and Jeffrey Jones). Gross, funny, and spooky. Adults of a certain age will appreciate the cameos by Robert Goulet and Dick Cavett. Likely to inspire a long-lasting appreciation for Harry Belafonte.
The Witches (1990)
This film has a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Based on the Roald Dahl book and imbued with the magical effects of Jim Henson, it’s the tale of a boy who accidentally stumbles upon an annual convention of witches. In one of the best—and most nightmare-inducing—scenes, the group of seemingly lovely ladies remove their disguises to reveal their grotesque, witchy selves underneath. Anjelica Houston as the Grand High Witch is delectably horrific. Also, keep your eyes peeled for a Mr. Bean (Rowan Atkinson) cameo. May cause fear of witches, obviously. Also wigs, being turned into a mouse, and British seaside resorts.
In this metafictional spin on the enormously popular book series by R.L. Stine, the author (played by Jack Black) keeps his terrifying characters locked in his books—until an unwitting new neighbor boy accidentally unleashes them on an unsuspecting town. Fans will appreciate seeing classic “Goosebumps” characters come to life, including the ventriloquist’s dummy and a rampaging werewolf. Breakneck pacing and handfuls of slapstick humor keep the creep factor from getting too high.
Got a strange case of horizontal book stacking? Every good librarian knows who to call when a disgruntled spirit invades the stacks! This classic starring Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd is great viewing any time of year. (The 2016 reboot starring Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon is a blast but has been given the slightly higher PG-13 rating, apparently due to “crude language,” though to this viewer it didn’t seem to be any cruder than the original.) Just don’t cross the streams.
The Watcher in the Woods (1980)
In the early 1980s, Disney made several dark and spooky live-action films designed to appeal to young adults growing up as seminal horror movies like The Exorcist were hitting the big screen. Though a flop at the time, The Watcher in the Woods has gone on to become something of a cult classic, due in no small part to a shiver-inducing performance by the legendary Bette Davis. In it, she plays the owner of a sprawling old manor house, newly occupied by sisters Jan and Ellie, who begin investigating the mysterious disappearance of a young girl decades before.
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
Another from Disney Productions, the screenplay for this film was written by Ray Bradbury, based on his novel. A creepy carnival show comes to a sleepy little town, and only two boys and the town librarian can save everyone from the soul-sucking plans of the nefarious Mr. Dark. There are some excellent performances by Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce, Diane Ladd, and Pam Grier. A haunting score adds to the sinister atmosphere.
A young Christina Ricci stars as Kat, the daughter of Bill Pullman’s Dr. Harvey, a “paranormal therapist.” While investigating a haunting at Whipstaff Manor, Kat befriends the titular friendly ghost, and tries to help him remember his life before the afterlife. Meanwhile, Casper’s trio of naughty uncles wreak havoc. There’s also a very sweet and swoony kiss between Ricci and Nineties tween heartthrob Devon Sawa, who plays Casper (briefly) in his human form.
The Monster Squad (1987)
While not particularly successful in its day, this film has since become something of a cult classic for today’s Gen X parents. With a Goonies-esque vibe, a band of kids obsessed with the classic Universal monsters encounter Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolf Man, and others, and must battle to vanquish them to limbo. More goofy humor and rad 1980s fashion than actual horror.
Hocus Pocus (1993)
Alright, so this is another film that is more comedy than horror, but it’s too good to leave off the list. Delightful performances by Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker elevate this madcap story about a kooky trio of witches bent on running amok (“Amok! Amok! Amok!”) on Halloween night in order to become immortal. Only three kids (among them a very young Thora Birch) can stop them and destroy their book of spells.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956; 1978)
Some kids may appreciate the vintage black-and-white McCarthy-era heebie-jeebies of the original (and learn the derivation of the term pod people), but for true scares, my pick is the 1978 remake starring Donald Sutherland as Matthew Bennell, a man who slowly comes to realize that everyone around him—though they appear exactly the same as before—is changing into oddly emotionless not-quite-humans. As more of his friends and colleagues fall victim to the change, the paranoia reaches a fever pitch. An ominous score and Sutherland’s innate creep factor keep the stakes high and the tension taut. This is one of those rare horror films that was both box office gold and critically acclaimed.
Very few book adaptations rival the source material, but 2009’s stop-motion animation version of Neil Gaiman’s brilliant horror-fantasy tale does just that. Upon discovering a secret door in her new house, Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) goes looking for adventure on the other side, finding an alternate and warped world populated by an “Other Mother” (voiced by Teri Hatcher) with button eyes and an army of rats. Though almost nothing could be as scary as one’s own imaginings while reading Gaiman’s shuddersome prose, the visuals and art direction here are both grotesque and beautiful.
What are your favorite tween-friendly scary movies? Share them in the comments below.
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