In an earlier blog post, I asserted that Halloween is a valuable time of year for children because the holiday, as it has developed, enables children to safely engage in a variety of difficult topics. Halloween gently exposes children to human mortality and sinister forces, because there is no use in pretending these things do not exist. Children should be protected, but they will become adults soon.
I think screening children’s Halloween movies is an important way to engage children with these topics. They don’t always have to be about Halloween nor do they have to be straight up horror films. What these movies do is take scary and creepy stories and weave in uplifting and useful messages for children. These movies package unpleasant themes in a way children can manage and digest. They can absorb important lessons by feeling the age-appropriate shock only a horror movie can give you.
Though I didn’t quite realize it, children’s Halloween movies taught me some valuable lessons growing up. So I decided I wanted to take a trip back to Halloween Past. I decided I wanted to share my favorite children’s Halloween movies and some of the very personal life lessons I took from them. I hope kids in the future continue to watch these movies and learn from them, as I did.
1. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966)
Even though it’s not a scary movie, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is a quintessential Halloween kid’s movie. It’s positively legendary—what other children’s Halloween movie is broadcasted annually on network television? It has come to symbolize Halloween for me and children of many generations. There’s no doubt this film popularized and cemented our modern Halloween traditions like trick-or-treating, dressing in costume, or visiting pumpkin patches.
As it pertains to the movie itself, it was always fun to watch the kids have adventures. It felt like Charlie Brown and his friends were in charge of their little world. Parents and other adults are largely absent, reduced to a disembodied voice spewing unintelligible words if they were around at all. In The Great Pumpkin, the children work through their conflicts as and fears together without any help from grown-ups, which carries an important message of independence. I can still remember feeling childlike frustration at how adults acted like they were bigger and smarter and more capable than me. Nothing could change the fact that it was true. I was smaller and dumber and less capable. But I could learn. I could challenge myself. I could be like the Peanuts kids and go off on my own.
2. Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
This movie was one of the only children’s Halloween movies that scared me (the other being The Witches). If you’ve never seen this movie, believe me when I tell you that it is dark. Based on the novel written by Ray Bradbury, this movie capitalizes on and ramps up the Halloween theme of absent adults placing children in danger. Not only does wicked circus owner Mr. Dark threaten to steal away the children for his nefarious plans, but he’s incredibly good at tricking the adults into becoming slaves in his diabolical traveling carnival. The way Mr. Dark accomplishes this by identifying each adults most fervent desire and ruthlessly exploiting them. He draws out their weaknesses and renders them helpless.
As a child, the idea that adults could be easily duped shocked me. Adults were supposed to be rational and composed, always ready with a solution. They were supposed to be disciplined, for God’s sake. They weren’t supposed to be taken in by a carnival game or pretty yet sketchy women. This movie broke a fundamental rule. It’s one thing to make adults inattentive but quite another to make them weak. As a kid, I didn’t know if the good guys or the bad guy would win. I didn’t know if Will’s father would master his regret or if Mr. Dark would claim his soul. Eventually the boys and Will’s father defeat Mr. Dark, but the whole struggle really struck home how adults are just as vulnerable as children, in some ways more so.
3. Ghostbusters (1984)
I’ll admit it, Ghostbusters isn’t really a horror movie and it’s not a kids’ movie, but I grew up watching this movie every Halloween. It wasn’t until years later I realized just how inappropriate some of the jokes were, because as a kid I didn’t under the jokes at all, thank God. A lot of the adult subtext went completely over my head.
That’s part of the reason why I loved Ghostbusters—it felt like a very grown up movie. It was so cool, a scary movie and an action movie rolled into one. It had gross ghosts and obnoxious demons and a cute but terrifying marshmallow monster. Those things alone made this movie extra cool, but when you added in four guys with intense-looking ray guns fighting ghosts, the cool factor went off the charts.
Ghostbusters was unlike any other movie I’d ever seen. It blew my mind. Like many children’s movies, it taught me to never give up in the face of unsurmountable odds and that teamwork was what would defeat the evil Keymaster who had attacked and possessed the dad from Honey I Shrunk the Kids. (As far as seven-year-old me was concerned, that was an unforgivable sin.) It was also an important lesson in trusting your gut instinct. If you discover the portal to Zuul’s realm in your refrigerator, you should listen to your guy and get the hell out. Truly, an essential life lesson for any child.
4. Beetlejuice (1988)
Beetlejuice is a weird movie. It’s such a bizarre movie that it should be off-putting yet it’s delightful. It was wildly successful upon its release. It spawned a Saturday morning animated TV series. It has been culturally relevant for decades. It is outlandish and funny, and kind of scary in a thrilling way. I didn’t quite understand why I liked it as a child. I didn’t know the word for it, but Beetlejuice was surreal, especially for a kid’s movie. I think this is where Beetlejuice succeeds. Director Tim Burton knows how to present surreal, whimsical stories that speak to a child’s infinite imaginations.
Beetlejuice also speaks to a child’s reality, specifically about the expectations children have for the adults in their lives. Lydia was my favorite character because she was older and smart and glamorous in her goth outfits, but she was also just a kid. She needed her parents, but her parents awful, completely self-absorbed and shallow. Lydia was nothing more than an accessory for them and she knew it. But she gets a happy ending and finds the parents she’s always wanted in sweet Adam and Barbara. They don’t judge her, they support her, they worry about her, they care about her.
All children go through a phase where they recognize how their parents are flawed people. Everyone has had a moment where they realized their parents could never live up to their expectations. I first saw Beetlejuice when I was ten, right around the time my parents separated. Obviously, Beetlejuice struck a chord for me, a kind of lonely kid who felt neglected and lonely. Watching Lydia find unconditional love and acceptance from Adam and Barbara was important to me. It was a 90s-latchkey-kid-and-child-of-divorce nostalgia dream come true.
5. The Witches (1990)
As I mentioned above, this movie, along with Something Wicked The Way Comes, was one of two movies that freaked me out most as a child. The Witches had some of the worst, most unsettling villains because I’d ever seen in a kids’ movie. They were masters of disguise, passing as normal nondescript women or little old ladies. They looked nice enough until they cast aside their disguises and revealed their toeless feet, bald scalps beset by scaly rashes, and their leathery claws. And the head witch, played with wonderful campiness by Angelica Houston, was the most revolting of them all. When the Grand High Witch removed her human mask, literally peeling off her face like she was peeling an orange, it was the grossest thing I’d ever seen in my life.
I always knew that The Witches was a tale about stranger-danger. I remember feeling like I had learned something very important since the film spends a lot of time depicting how harmless the witches initially, and then successfully explains how they use their appearance to lure children into their clutches. They may seem like they want to give you candy and small gifts, but you had to be wary of strangers. This was how children were turned into mice and magically trapped inside paintings. I think The Witches was an effective safety lesson for me because it helped me realize that bad people aren’t always easily identified. In real life, people who want to hurt children can and often do look normal. Bad people don’t always look like a Disney villain; a fact they use to harmful effect.
6. Adams Family Values (1993)
As I get older, I’ve realized that adults don’t give kids enough credit. They have their own little personalities from birth, though it takes time for those personalities to grow and blossom. Consequently, a lot of children are made to wear clothes they don’t like, play with toys they don’t like, and do things they don’t like. It’s one of the most frustrating things for a child all too-aware of his or her dependence on parents. We’ve all felt like this.
So a movie like Addams Family Values, about a creepily eccentric but loving family felt like rebellion in a small, manageable way. I loved how weird the Addams were. I loved how strange Wednesday and Pugsley were and how neither of them gave a fuck what people thought. I loved how the parents were supportive of the children, never fretting about getting them hurt and always defending them against people who wanted to them be “normal.” As an adult, Wednesday and Pugsley’s hijinks make me gasp, but that’s beside the point. As he does in many of his films, Burton creates a fantasy of acceptance for children who feel different and a little misunderstood. Addams Family Values gives children everywhere permission to be themselves, whatever that looks like.
7. Hocus Pocus (1993)
For a kid born in the 1980s, like me, Hocus Pocus is the definitive children’s Halloween movie. It has everything: three evil yet bumbling witches, a cute teen couple to lead the children’s charge against the witches, an annoying kid sister, a cursed cat, a lovable zombie, and completely self-absorbed adults who have no clue what’s happening. Like a lot of children’s Halloween movies, the parents in Hocus Pocus are largely absent and aren’t there to protect the children from the witches. And make no mistake, the Sanderson sisters might be clumsy and easily distracted, but they are capable enough to put their sinister child-murder plan in motion.
What always struck me as a child was how the children end up proving that they can and will defeat the witches without the help of any grown-ups. This was no small feat, because the Sanderson sisters really are evil and terrible and don’t feel any remorse for killing children or turning them into immortal cats. Those are some bad bitches, and as a child I knew the stakes were very high. It was very important to my development and the development of many children to see these frightening witches defeated by children. Hocus Pocus taught me that children have enough strength and power to combine forces and overcome evil without depending on adults.
8. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
In my opinion, The Nightmare Before Christmas is more of a Christmas movie than a Halloween movie, but I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t shown on a loop at my school come Halloween time. Christmas movie or not, I always enjoyed how creepy and morbid it was for a children’s movie, because kids, like adults, don’t want sappy, sterilized entertainment all the time. Sometimes a little darkness is good. Sometimes, a lot more darkness is best. The Nightmare Before Christmas had darkness and spookiness in spades, but it also had a lot of whimsy and heart.
As a child, I always thought it was one of the coolest movies. It combined my favorite holidays into one movie, which was awesome. I think Halloween and Christmas are complimentary, probably due to this movie. Looking back, I think the mixture of Halloween and Christmas, scary and whimsy, softened the more morbid elements, which made the movie palatable to me. The stakes were not high, and even though some of the scenes were ominous, I could handle it. A shrunken head isn’t that bad if it was wrapped as a beautiful present! A woman’s arm falling off isn’t horrifying if she’s a doll and can sew it back on!
The Nightmare Before Christmas was imaginative, weird, and new. It was like something a kid might doodle after having a bad dream, but made real and fun and put up on screen. This was the type of world any little kid might imagine; a fantasy unto itself, with a striking the perfect balance between feel-good Christmas and skin-crawling Halloween.
9. Casper (1995)
When I was in elementary school, Casper was a slumber-party movie staple. My friends and I loved this movie because, if I’m being completely honest, every girl had a mad crush on Devon Sawa, who played Casper in his human form.
There is, of course, more to it than that. Casper was another of those macabre kids’ movies that tipped the scale in favor of the ghoulish but didn’t fail to have healthy doses of slapstick comedy to lighten the mood. It was cute and funny, but still dealt with death in ways that would reach children. While Casper’s sense of morbidity doesn’t come close to several movies on this list, Casper is one of the only films that focuses on a dead child. It was rare for me to see a children’s film gently admit that children die. It’s unfair and sad, but it is a sad fact of life.
Casper was also a film about finding friendship in unlikely places and acknowledging loneliness. It is about feeling like you had a place in the world and that someone really did care about you. The one thing Casper really wanted was a friend, just like Kat. They had such fun together, filling a hole in each other’s lives (does Casper technically have a life?). And as much as Casper wanted to be alive again, he knows what he would have to take from his friend in exchange. Like true friend, Casper cannot bear for Kat to live without her father, so he makes a great sacrifice and gives up his chance at life to bring her father back. It was a powerful act of love and selflessness, exemplifying what friendship is supposed to be.