This article contains spoilers. It comes from Den of Geek UK.
Everyone remembers their first horror movie. Or for me, horror adjacent movie – it was Quatermass and the Pit and I was about 10 (ages all approximations, I can’t honestly remember). I loved it completely, was slightly terrified, completely fascinated, totally inspired, and it marked the start of a lifelong love affair with the genre.
At a little older (circa 13), I fell in love with Poltergeist, then with The Omen trilogy, then a little later with BBC2 series Moviedrome and selections from Doctor Terror’s Vault of Horror recorded off the TV on a VHS player, watched back on a Saturday morning. A little later, I was introduced to Don’t Look Now, my mother’s favorite movie, an absolute masterpiece of foreshadowing with a strange, terrifying ending. It’s unsettling but it’s also gorgeous with a sort of nightmarish fairytale feel, as the protagonist is led through labyrinthine Venitian streets in pursuit of a Little Red Riding Hood figure he’s come to believe is his dead daughter but turns out to be much more big bad wolf.
And then there’s that sex scene, explicit but also lyrical, intercut with scenes of the couple (Julia Christie and Donald Sutherland) getting ready to go out. It’s very intimate and very beautiful. Slightly awkward to watch with your mum when you’re a teen, but still…
Years later, I asked her why I was allowed to watch it, what with all the shagging, when certain other genre films were off the table. She told me “because it’s loving sex between married people.” Wise. Although each to their own, of course.
No one wants to show their kids/grandkids/nieces and nephews/other people’s kids something disturbing and leave them sleepless and troubled, but horror can also be a wonderful space to explore fears and unleash the imagination. But what makes a horror “safe” or “unsafe” for teenage viewers? We’re not talking small children – here are our suggestions for horror movies to watch with younger kids.
Here are some things to consider.
Disclaimer: All kids are different and Den of Geek is not suggesting any of these films are necessarily suitable for everyone. This is more of a thesis on ways to look at what might be appropriate for different individuals, by theme.
Yes to Poltergeist, no to The Amityville Horror
Just because no one dies in a horror movie (there’s zero body count in both of the above, unless you include the grandma, off-screen, dying of natural causes in Poltergeist) doesn’t mean it’s safe. And just because something is pretty scary and deals with children doesn’t mean it’s unsafe. As well as being soaked in Spielberg-esque playfulness (he was the producer and co-wrote the screenplay), Poltergeist is also about a loving family who has to come together to overcome a supernatural presence in their home.
While there are scary bits in there – a scary clown, a scary tree, etc – at the end of the film the status quo is resumed and the family is actually stronger for it. The parents have to come together to rescue their kids and they do – there’s comfort in that. While Amityville is also about a family, and no one dies, and by the end they too have abandoned their house and remain together as a family unit, the film sees George, the father, turn on the family and try to kill his kids with an axe. The concept of your dad turning evil and trying to kill you isn’t anywhere near as easy to reconcile as the ethereal (if malevolent) TV people.
Yes to The Omen, no to The Exorcist
Both involve demons or devils and have a religious bent with priests involved, and both include biblical evil messing with children, but these are different beasts. While The Omen is certainly gory (a total precursor to Final Destination – head lopped off by an errant plate of glass, priest skewered by a church spire, etc), it’s also self-contained – i.e. it’s not something that could happen to anyone. In The Omen, it turns out Damien is the Antichrist: the first in the trilogy focuses on his parents’ inability to accept that, and ends when his adoptive father (Gregory Peck) hesitates before offing the boy, turning the child’s head away and thus losing precious moments, giving the police time to intervene and shoot him dead. It’s a terrific dramatic moment. But unless a kid is worried that they themselves might be the Antichrist (and to be fair, it actually works out alright for Damien anyway), it’s unlikely to be something that lingers too long after, except in a good way. If you’re a parent and worry your child might be the Antichrist, well that’s different.
The Exorcist on the other hand, while an altogether more disturbing and upsetting film — from the wee-inducing intercut frames of Pazuzu to young Regan coming out with some terrible swears and masturbating with a crucifix — suggests that there are demons out there and they could well be coming for you. The movie (depending on how you read it) also deals with adults’ fear of teenage girls, which isn’t a great message for young folk either.
Yes to Don’t Look Now, no to I Spit On Your Grave
Loving sex between married people vs. brutal rape and revenge. Sounds pretty obvious but young people with the internet are likely to be exposed to sexual content anyway so good, positive depictions of sex don’t have to be an instant no. Violent, sadistic rape probably not so much. On the other hand, the ending of Don’t Look Now is pretty scary, so you might want to give this a hard pass regardless of the yay sex.
Yes to What Lies Beneath, no to Ringu
Scary films about ghostly things in the house are a horror mainstay but there are ghosts, and there are GHOSTS. In the very underrated What Lies Beneath (spoilers to follow), the specter that’s haunting Michelle Pfeiffer’s home is the least of her worries – it’s actually a benevolent spook trying to protect her from her terrible husband (Harrison Ford). Fun fact: Clark Gregg aka Agent Coulson wrote the screenplay for this, while Back to the Future’s Robert Zemeckis directs.
Meanwhile, Ringu, the J-horror masterpiece about a haunted videotape, makes the audience complicit by forcing them to watch the cursed footage before they know what they’re viewing and then breaks through the glass screen of the TV to assure us that we are definitely cursed and will die in seven days. Very much not ok. Its only saving grace is that most teenagers these days probably don’t know what a VHS cassette is.
Yes to Jaws, no to Open Water
Ok, so there’s every chance that showing a youngster a shark movie might make them nervous about swimming in the sea. If you can live with that, then Spielberg’s brilliant action-adventure Jaws is the one to go for, not just because it’s a cracking time but also because by the end the shark is in bits and our heroes are victorious. Unlike Open Water, which is truly harrowing. Based loosely on a true story of two divers left stranded in shark-infested waters after their dive boat accidentally leaves them behind, it’s horribly plausible, highly realistic, and like watching people you know die.
Yes to Scream, no to A Nightmare On Elm Street
Slasher movies are a bit case-by-case, some people find them scary, some people really don’t. Halloween, arguably the pinnacle of the genre, is theoretically “not safe” in that it tears through picket-fenced suburbia, has a home invasion element, and posits that some people are evil for no reason. But in this day and age, so long after the slasher heyday when the iconography is so ubiquitous, it probably counts as safe.
Safer still and more youth-friendly though is Scream, which manages to pack in some scary moments and some gruesome bits but is self-contained (the killers are specific to those circumstances, they’re not going to come and get anyone else). It is unlikely to give you nightmares, unlike, of course, A Nightmare on Elm Street, which specifically says that your bad dreams are definitely real. Though it’s packed with gags and one-liners, it’s still genuinely pretty disturbing and could potentially mess with your sleep for years.
Other hard nos: Anything Ari Aster makes. Home invasion movies. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. A Serbian Film. The Human Centipede.