Just like adults, some kids are drawn to scary movies. And on the one hand, sometimes it’s good for them to get a little tingle down their spines: they get taken out of their comfort zones, they get to grapple with frightening ideas in a relatively controlled and safe environment and, if you’re into it, it’s fun! On the other hand, you don’t want to be up with them all night, searching under beds and in closets for monsters.
The best scary movies for kids offer those doses of adrenaline without being too violent, too shocking or too gory. Our favorites below hit that sweet spot for elementary schoolers to tweens and teens. They’re mostly PG, though some are PG-13 (and others were made before the PG-13 rating existed, and would probably get that rating if it came out today). As always, your mileage may vary when it comes to scares: Some kids can handle blood but can’t stand intense suspense, while others are fine with those frights but turn and run at the idea of ghosts. Find the one that matches your family’s sensibilities, throw these on at a sleepover and let the jumps (and giggles) commence!
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Widely considered to be one of the best kids’ movies ever, scary or no, Spirited Away is a masterpiece from beloved director Hayao Miyazaki. It’s about a 10-year-old girl who, while moving to a new neighborhood, and finds a world of enchanted beings, including witches, spirits and some scary creatures. When her parents are transformed into pigs, she must navigate this magical world to save them.
Muppets Haunted Mansion (2021)
The Haunted Mansion ride in Disney is notable because it’s kinda spooky, but kind of silly. So, how do you give a scary movie the same sensibility? You add the Muppets! In this hourlong special, Gonzo accepts a challenge to stay in the Haunted Mansion overnight, and has run-ins with all its famous grim, grinning ghosts.
If you have a prone-to-nightmares kid and want to make them think they’ve seen a scary movie when they’ve really seen a comedy, show them this flick — which definitely has ghosts and some intense parts, so it counts, but it has enough silliness to balance them out. If they enjoy it, they might like Ghostbusters: Afterlife even more, since kids get to don the proton packs and fight ghosts themselves.
With all their talk of eating children, the trio of witches from 17th-century Salem in this cult classic might send some chills up the spines of your little ones — but the goofiness will offset any scares. If they like the original, be sure to check out the newly released sequel, Hocus Pocus 2.
Coraline’s family moves to a new town, and they are immediately too busy to spend much time with her. Through a secret door in her new place, she finds an alternate reality where her “other mother” promises to give her everything her real mother can’t. Is it all it’s cracked up to be?
Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
This movie is rated PG-13, for obvious reasons (namely the carnivorous plant, and the murders it requires for food), but the songs by Alan Menken basically make it a Disney movie, right? Well, maybe not, but the upbeat, oldies-inspired songs and the B-movie vibe make the whole thing less disturbing.
The Dark Crystal is more fantasy than horror, set in a world of magical creatures like Gelflings and Skeksis locked in eternal struggle over the universe. But even without ghosts, man are those Skeksis horrifying! If your kids enjoy it, a prequel series is available on Netflix, and the advances in special effects make it look spectacular.
“Scary” is an interesting word to describe this movie. It’s PG-13 and definitely has its intense moments, but it isn’t full of ghosts, ghouls or even much horror. Instead, it’s about a psychological duel between two career-oriented fashion designers. It’s perfect for those tweens and teens with an edgy sensibility (and it makes for a great Halloween costume inspiration).
This trends on the edgier side of PG, but it has a mix of horror and comedy that helps mitigate the grotesque parts. This is a haunted-house movie from the point of view of the ghosts who want a family to leave, and who get a misbehaved demon (Michael Keaton) to help them.
The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008)
A family moves into a creepy old house in the middle of nowhere, only to discover a world of fairies, goblins and other unseen creatures. The scares come from suspenseful run-ins with goblins and ogres.
This is another PG-13 film — and it’s incredibly gross if you don’t like creepy, crawly things, so judge for yourself if your kids (or you) can handle it. If they can, they’ll be treated to John Goodman and Jeff Daniels starring as an exterminator and a doctor trying to save their town from a (really, really gross) infestation of killer spiders.
Based on R.L. Stine’s children’s book series, Goosebumps may be about ghouls, werewolf puppies and living dummies, but the action is really more antic than terrifying. Like The House With a Clock In Its Walls (more on that below), it stars Jack Black, who’s quickly becoming the Vincent Price for kids today.
The Secret of NIMH (1982)
Mrs. Brisby, a widowed field mouse, is told her son has pneumonia and must recuperate at home — only to find the farmer has started plowing early, so she must take him somewhere else. She’s told to seek the help of a colony of super-intelligent mice, only to meet peril after peril and uncover disturbing truths in this dark story of survival by Don Bluth (who also directed An American Tail).
This Sondheim musical isn’t scary in a traditional way, but it does take fairy tales kids are familiar with (and the witches and giants contained therein), turns them around and doesn’t necessarily give everyone a happy ending. Meryl Streep gives a memorable performance as the witch.
This stop-motion animated movie follows a boy who has the ability to speak to the dead, and must use it to save his town from a ghostly curse. It’s like a kids’ version of The Sixth Sense, without the twist.
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow gets gorgeously animated by Disney, with narration by Bing Crosby. If the Headless Horseman is too frightening, the other half of the feature is a romp based on The Wind in the Willows that should make kids forget all about their fears.
The terrors of Jaws may feel so visceral and adult, it’s hard to remember that it’s only rated PG (though, to be fair, PG-13 didn’t exist at the time), and lots of the scariness comes from what isn’t shown on screen (so there’s blood, but not a ton of gore). Tweens and teens can likely handle it — so long as you don’t plan on taking them to the beach right after. (Note: There’s also some brief nudity in this.)
You can tell right off the bat this sequel isn’t going to be as bright and fun as the original The Wizard of Oz: It starts with Dorothy getting electroconvulsive therapy for telling “stories” about Oz. But Dorothy isn’t just telling stories, and, when she finally returns to Oz, she finds it to be a much darker and more threatening place.
This movie isn’t just a scary story — scary stories are integral to the plot. In Nightbooks, a kid is abducted by a witch who demands he write her a new horrifying tale every night. He obliges, but only so he can plan his escape with another prisoner.
This is a perfect starter scary movie for kids, because it looks macabre, like the old cartoons, but most of the ghoulish elements are played for laughs. And, in the end, there’s a not-so-scary message about acceptance. A sequel came out last year, and, of course, you can always opt for the old, live-action The Addams Family and The Addams Family Values from the ’90s.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)
For older tweens and teens (it’s PG-13), this visually spectacular film takes the Snow White story and turns it into a dark, moody action film. Snow White goes on the attack to save her kingdom from the evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron), and the scares come from the visceral battles.
This movie follows a clan of trolls, with their snarling faces and their wrinkled skin, who find an abandoned baby boy and raise him as their own. But the real monsters in the movie are the gentlemen in the society above the trolls, as the boy finds out when he tries to live among the humans again.
The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
Big-name directors like Steven Spielberg, John Landis and Joe Dante (the director of Gremlins) teamed up to direct segments of an anthology movie based on The Twilight Zone. Some remade famous episodes, others came up with new material. It’s not a kids’ movie specifically, but your older ones might enjoy it.
The House With a Clock in Its Walls (2018)
When your kid is ready to get into the big-monster-attacks-city genre, start at the beginning, with the groundbreaking 1933 King Kong. Even if they already know about Kong’s climb up the Empire State Building, there are a lot of scares to be had on Skull Island, before he even gets to New York! Then you can move on to more recent fare, like Godzilla vs. Kong.
The Haunted Mansion (2003)
Based on the classic Disney attraction, this movie has all of the spooky, haunted-house elements you’d expect. But, starring Eddie Murphy, it’s really a comedy and not a horror film. (Don’t tell the kids!) A new version is planned starring Owen Wilson, Rosario Dawson and Tiffany Haddish, so get your fill of this one before it comes out.
The Watcher in the Woods (1980)
Bette Davis appears in this live-action Disney movie, which takes place in the English countryside. The film follows a girl who moves to the country and finds she looks just like the daughter of Davis’s character, who disappeared 30 years earlier under suspicious circumstances, and tries to unravel the mystery. The original is only available on DVD, but a 2017 made-for-TV remake starring Angelica Houston is streamable.
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