What do you show a younger child who wants to join in the fun of watching scary movies at Halloween - or even a kid a few years older who just can't handle too much creepiness without having nightmares? (Personally, I saw The Exorcist way too young.) These five movies - roughly listed from least to most scary - won't make any horror connoisseur's list of essentials. But they should provide enough chills to help kids get into the Halloween spirit without traumatizing them for years afterward. (DISCLAIMER: you know your kids better than I do! Judge wisely...)
The Wizard of Oz (1939): Maybe not what you think of when you think "scary movie". But the standard Halloween witch image - a green-skinned, hook-nosed, broom-flying crone in a pointy black hat - wouldn't be the same without Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch of the West. Throw in the flying monkeys, the apple-throwing trees, and the cyclone itself, and you've got an ideal "horror" movie for the kindergarten set.
The Peanut Butter Solution (1985): Ghosts, spells, a paintbrush sweatshop manned by kidnapped children, and yes, a scene involving runaway pubic hair: this French-Canadian '80s comedy is nothing if not weird. But its good humor and happy ending should endear it to your favorite 2nd grader. For grownups, the creepiest part is the music by a young Céline Dion.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001): If there's still anyone out there who hasn't seen it... this one really depends on the kid. Lots of ghosts haunt the halls of Hogwarts, but they're more eccentric and funny than scary. The three-headed dog Fluffy is a little more frightening, and there's also some talk about Harry's parents being killed, and one scene where the kids find a dead unicorn. Not too much for a typical 8-year-old to handle. But the most disturbing moment occurs during the climactic confrontation with Professor Quirrell. If your kid is on the sensitive side, hit the "skip ahead" button as soon as Quirrell starts unravelling his turban.
Monster House (2006): all the kids are scared of the spooky house on their block, which turns out to be the actual monster in this clever animated creeper. It gets pretty intense, but I can't imagine anything in here would seriously bother a 10-year-old. And if your kid does get anxious, just assure him or her that everyone that the house eats comes out OK in the end.
Gremlins (1984): The ultimate kids' monster movie or cheap, manipulative ickfest? The high gross-out quotient and nasty little beasts garnered this movie some bad reviews, but that was what the 10-year-old me loved about it - and I was a kid who scared pretty easily. You'll have to ask yourself how your own kid will handle the exploding gremlin in the microwave, or Phoebe Cates's story about how her Dad died (the only part of the movie that freaked me out even a little).
What movies do you fire up when your kids want to get scared - but not too scared? Which movies from your childhood left pleasantly creepy memories without leaving any scars?