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Debate Club: The best scary movies for kids this Halloween

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Jan 25, 2021, 3:50 PM EST (Updated)

Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.

The funny thing about Halloween is that it's a holiday for kids, and yet the films most suited for the season are entirely inappropriate for kids.

It's fun terrifying children but, you know, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is perhaps a bit much.

Thus, this week at SYFY Debate Club we look at the best scary movies that are kid-appropriate. You don't need gore to scare the pants off people. But be warned: These movies can turn out to be just as freaky for adults.


ParaNorman (2012)

Norman is a sweet boy. Sure, he can talk to the dead, but otherwise he’s your typical slightly uncool kid. ParaNorman was produced by Laika, the gloriously handmade animation company that previously concocted Coraline, an equally macabre offering. We prefer this film, though, which is a loving celebration of outsiders and outcasts, while at the same time grappling with loss. (One of the ghosts with whom Norman communicates in his late, beloved grandmother.) Pixar remains the high-water mark for cutting-edge animation, but ParaNorman's lo-fi ingenuity and big heart are thoroughly winning. This is a movie that treats kids with sophistication, giving them lots of fun adventures and spooky moments while also finding an emotional nuance you don't often see in family films.


Arachnophobia (1990)

Director Frank Marshall said that audiences "like to be scared but laughing, like a roller coaster. No one wants to be terrified." We're not sure if that's exactly true, but that's precisely what Arachnophobia does: It scares you, but only a little, and it always makes sure to comfort you anytime you get too unsettled. It's basically Spielberg (who produced) but a little more watered down, so while there's a ceiling for how much Arachnophobia can affect you, it can still get under your skin. It is, after all, all about spiders. And if you hate spiders … this is terrifying.


Beetlejuice (1988)

Tim Burton's breakthrough remains profoundly weird three decades later — how in the world did this movie ever exist, let alone be bankrolled by a major studio? Today, the cast is almost unfairly stacked. (You probably couldn't get Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Winona Ryder and Michael Keaton in a movie together again.) The movie is prickly yet silly, the perfect template for Burton — a template that he, perhaps inevitably, would some day run into the ground. It's still a blast today, though, anchored by a truly bizarre and inspired Keaton performance that is even more fun when you pair it with his later work in Burton's Batman films. And this, unlike some of Burton's other films, remains compulsively watchable. And, for crying out loud, Dick Cavett is in it.

nightmare before christmas

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

The movie’s full title may be Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, but a lot of credit for this animated wonder goes to the film's actual director, Henry Selick, whose stop-motion genius gave this tale of Halloween Town its air of magic. Burton conceived the film's look and characters, most importantly Jack Skellington, who discovers there's this crazy realm where people celebrate something called Christmas. One of the '90s' funniest and funkiest musicals, The Nightmare Before Christmas proves to be a witty mash-up of those two very different holidays as Selick and Burton conspire to craft a kids' movie with a spooky, romantic undertone.


Gremlins (1984)

"My first thought was that it had come to the wrong address." That's how director Joe Dante described his feelings when he received the script to Gremlins, written by a young unknown named Chris Columbus, who would later go on to direct Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire. Initially conceived of as a fun, cheapo horror movie — the sort of thing that Dante (The Howling) specialized in — Gremlins soon morphed into an all-ages adventure that featured an adorable pet that happens to spawn some gnarly, malicious creatures. It's hard to imagine Gremlins coming out now — the Internet would explode with "Won't anyone think of the children?!" freak-outs — but the film's grownup scares remain a great first step for impressionable kids dipping their toe into horror movies. (Unrelated, but worth mentioning: we love the irreverent sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, even more.)

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.