“I’m a master of fright, and a demon of light, and I’ll scare you right out of your pants!”
– Jack Skellington, The Nightmare Before Christmas
Halloween is a favourite time of year for many. The spooky decorations, costumes and sweets galore, Halloween is the perfect time of year to whip out the horror films and have a marathon. Also, given that we’re in a lockdown situation, it seems like a movie night will be the best way to celebrate the scariest night of the year. However, not everyone can stomach the gore of the Saw films or Midsommar but don’t fret, there are so many films available for younger audiences and the faint of heart. But why do people of all ages love to watch scary films? Filled with creepy costumes, unimaginable monsters and black magic, horror has always been relied on to entertain and stretch the imagination to its limits.
The first name that comes to mind when thinking of family horror is Tim Burton. Combining Halloween with a Christmassy texture in his earlier films such as The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) which features characters he created. His imagination sparked a new wave of gothic childlike films that have gained millions of fans around the world. From the magical music numbers to the vulnerability of his characters, Tim Burton’s vision is undeniably horror but also mixed a variety of genres such as comedy and musical to make it suitable and accessible for all ages. Even in his later films such as 2005’s Corpse Bride, he adapts this approach and it still remains as popular as ever.
Seeing how successful it was on release, Disney have taken ownership of The Nightmare Before Christmas since and before this appeared to channel their Halloween offerings into their live-action films. It’s rare to find someone who isn’t aware of the 1993 hit Hocus Pocus which follows the evil Sanderson sisters, a trio of witches set on killing the children of Salem to regain their youth once more. Led by Bette Midler in one of her best performances, Hocus Pocus follows the same approach at exploring the scary topics through comedy and music. It’s no surprise that, despite being critically panned, dedicated fans watch the film every Halloween. Between the likeable characters and the fantasy aspects introduced through the eyes of a Californian native who has recently moved to Salem with his family. What transpires is the terrifying resurrection of three witches who are hellbent on killing the town’s children before sunrise on Halloween night or they will vanish again. It’s a fun film with quite a bit of adult humour to appeal to older viewers and lots of creative costumes to captivate children. It’s such a great watch. Besides, who doesn’t love to sing along to Midler’s fantastic rendition of “I Put A Spell On You”?
Despite never having made a feature film for them, Burton did work at Disney in the 80s but was fired as his work was deemed too dark for children. However, it cannot be argued that his influence has had an affect on Disney’s approach to scarier films in the years since. This reasoning is odd considering that 1985 saw Disney release their scariest movie to date with The Black Cauldron bringing the Studio’s first PG rating. However, it may be due to the film’s failure at the box office that supported their decision to fire Burton. Aside from The Black Cauldron, the only horror animated films Disney had released by 1990 was The Tales of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1945) which, despite its dark ending, was much lighter in tone than The Black Cauldron. Needless to say, Disney is not the only studio producing horror content for a younger audiences.
Another popular way that filmmakers integrate horror into their films is through satire. Even if younger audiences don’t understand all of the punchlines or references, there are still plenty of laughs to be had. Take Aardman’s Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Laika’s Paranorman, two stopmotion animations that take the horror genre and change the rules. The former taking the classic monster werewolf and turning it to a vegetable-crazed were-rabbit and the latter making its protagonist the “monster” as he is a young boy who can see dead people. What makes these films so successful in their audience outreach is that the visuals and stories are enough to captivate and scare younger audiences and older audiences will understand the deeper context.
Halloween has always been a popular time for film fans with new horrors being released every year. Not only is it fun to watch new films but revisiting old favourites for nostalgia always makes for a great time and although it is entertaining to watch some the more gory offerings, it’s nice to watch a lighter family Halloween film as well. Just because a film doesn’t contain massive amounts of blood and guts doesn’t mean that a film can’t be scary and entertaining. Films like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Paranorman have become modern classics because of their fearlessness in bringing out vulnerability in potentially scary characters. No one has to miss out on the jumpscares and thrills after all.