Your Kids Like Sorta-Scary Movies. Is That OK?

kids watching scary movie

You don’t need to look at a calendar to know that Halloween is creeping closer. All you need to do is check out Plugged In and see what movies are coming out for kids.

Hocus Pocus 2 (Disney+) features a trio of witches with an axe to grind against teens in Salem, Massachusetts. Monster High: The Movie (Paramount+) and The Munsters (Netflix) bring a few traditional “monsters” to comedic life. This week, we’ll be covering Netflix’s The Curse of Bridge Hollow—about a teen girl and her Halloween-hating dad who must team up to deal with a bunch of sentient Halloween decorations.

Now, all of these kid-centric films are designed to be more funny than fearsome. Still, the fact that Hollywood is pumping out so many Hollow-centric stories tells us something about not just our culture, but our kids. Many of them kinda like to be scared … at least a little. And for parents, who do their best to protect their kids from an all-too-scary world, that can be a bit mystifying … and frustrating.

So how should we think about this seasonal turn toward tot-targeted terrors? Let me offer a few thoughts.

It’s natural for many kids to seek out low-key scares.

Count me, back in the day, among them. When I was little, I loved all sorts of “scary” stories. I enjoyed all manner of Scooby Doo shows, even the ones with Scrappy. When I watched old Looney Tunes cartoons, the ones that featured the occasional ghost were always my favorite. When I visited my grandparents in Arizona and discovered I could watch reruns of The Addams Family, I was in pint-size heaven.

And yeah, while all those shows were designed for laughs, they had a nice shellacking of creepiness to them. And it was that spooky vibe that drew me.

Now, Looney Tune ghosts and Addams Family reruns didn’t cause nightmares. I had plenty of those, too—but they were triggered by other elements, both real and imagined. Everything from sentient statues to my parents dying. And that brings up a sobering truth: As much as you try to protect your children, they already know the world can be a pretty scary place. And psychologists say that kids are sometimes attracted to slightly scary media because it’s a way to deal with those fears—or fear itself—in a safe environment.

Fear is a part of all of our lives, to some extent. We have to deal with it. “Part of developing resiliency is being able to identify the positives, and identify the coping strategies,” Dr. Shelli Dry, a pediatric therapist, told Parents magazine. In other words, kids sometimes practice how they’ll deal with real fears through scary media—be it movies or books or even pictures. I’m sure not every child needs this sort of practice, but some apparently benefit from it.

That sort of reminds me of a rather famous (if misquoted) saying by Christian writer and apologist G.K. Chesterton:

Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.

G.K. Chesterton

So, secular experts say that allowing your kids to watch slightly spooky stuff isn’t all bad. But that suggestion comes with a couple of huge asterisks.

Know Your Child.

Take two 7-year-olds. One might watch an “age-appropriate” scary movie and get age-appropriate goosepimples—chills enough to smile. The other might watch the same movie and have nightmares for weeks. And make no mistake: As silly as something like Hocus Pocus 2 might look in the trailers, the original Hocus Pocus scarred many a kid well into adulthood. “The opening is utter nightmare fuel,” a user wrote on

And, of course, it’s not always readily obvious how your child is going to react to any given entertainment stimuli. (I was deeply scared, as a child, by a Love Boat episode.)

At Plugged In, we’ll often tell parents that it’s best to not let your children watch or consume any entertainment in a vacuum. Watch it with them. Talk about it afterward. I think that’s especially true in the case of kid-centric scary movies. If you’re in the room with them, watching along with them, your mere presence will help calm their fears, putting the film in perspective and reminding them it’s just a movie. (It’s the same sort of dynamic that takes place when you walk into your child’s bedroom after she has a bad dream.)  

And if there’s a point in the movie that bothers the young viewer especially, he’ll have the opportunity to ask you questions about it. If you notice something bothering your child, you can stop the film and talk through it or, simply, turn the movie off altogether.

Know the Movie.

This is where Plugged In can help. Many scary movies use the supernatural or occult to trigger their chills—and lots of parents, especially Christian parents, are discomfited by any such content. We’ll let you know about what a movie contains well before you turn it on.

And even if your family is A-OK with letting your kids watch a film with a ghost or a vampire in it (take, for instance, the Hotel Transylvania flicks), sometimes these “kid” movies can have some very problematic content. All you need to do is take a spin through Emily Clark’s Hocus Pocus 2 review—where comic witches have literally pledged their immortal souls to Satan—to see that not all kid-oriented creepy pics are cut from the same cloth.

Obviously, if you think that a movie meant for older kids, or adults, is just fine for little Bobby or Susie, we’d caution you to think twice—or perhaps 11 or 12 times until you think better of it. A 2006 study found that toddlers and young kids who watched violent movies, including horror films, may be more likely to experience anxiety, sleep disorders and be more aggressive.

“Watching Friday the 13th with your child is probably not a good idea,” says Dr. Daniel Schechter, presumably with a deadpan delivery. “Children under the age of 5 may be too young to actually watch and understand violent movies; however they are psychologically affected by the scenes they are exposed to.”

So, are scary, kid-centric movies bad? As is the case with so much in the world of entertainment, the answer is a frustrating it depends. But as you walk through these issues, know that you’ll not be going it alone. We’ll be with you with every click of the remote.

Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

3 Responses

  1. -Agreed, I also thought this was a strong and well-reasoned article that didn’t demonize its subject matter. I’m going to be pedantic and ask, “Why is the movie scary, because of its overt content or because of the implications of its premise if taken to their logical conclusion?” In hindsight, though I felt the Pixar movie “Wall-E” generally wasn’t creepy (I can totally empathize with why Wall-E, even with detachable and replaceable pieces, would be scared of seeing Eve get her head removed for repairs), I thought the premise was scary in hindsight (the remnants of humanity are totally dependent on an Amazon spaceship whose prescribed lifestyle bombards them with monopolistic advertisements 24/7 and implicitly atrophies their bone structure). Likewise, the Jennifer Aniston movie “The Switch” sounded like its premise centered on a life-altering instance of assault despite being billed as a romantic comedy. In this case, though, I do suppose you’re referring to movies that reference either monsters or the occult.

    I grew up watching reruns of the original Addams Family and would recommend that for younger viewers who are ready for a dash of macabre but who want or developmentally need a heavy emphasis on comedy.

    1. -(I realize that not all of the movies I mentioned are billed as being appropriate for kids, but then again, neither are slashers, and too many children watch those anyway.)

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