Despite the horror genre seeming like purely adult stuff, kids love to be scared as much as their 18+ adult counterparts, and children’s entertainment has been all over spooky, scary, creepy, and gross stuff for kids forever. Sure, it’s been toned down, but that sometimes works in its advantage. When you can’t rely on gore and violent jump scares, atmosphere pushes your child-friendly content into what’s scary. You’re left with some intriguing material.
I started watching horror as an avid fan around age ten, and my mother didn’t care what I watched, so Hellraiser and Nightmare on Elm Street is where I cut my teeth. This Spooky Stuff for Kids series will look at three categories that any scare-loving kid (with more diligent parents than I had) should hit up for chills: television, movies, and books.
The topic currently at hand: terrifying TV!
Mona the Vampire
Definitely the gentlest entry on this list is a show I’d catch before school every morning on YTV. Mona the Vampire (1999) follows three friends Mona, Lily, Charlie, and Mona’s cat Fang as they imagine themselves as their supernatural battling alter egos Mona the Vampire, Princess Giant, Zapman, and Fang (but he’s got a little bat wing costume!). The three friends explore their small town solving supernatural mysteries. Their adventures always end with a rational explanation for what occurred (a bad sunburn is a mummy, a practicing violin player is the wailing of a swamp creature, a con artist tanning salon owner is an Aztec Sun God, etc.), but each episode also always ends with a wink at whatever that supernatural force was. Does this mean it is real? Are Mona and her friends the only thing stopping ghoulish forces from taking over their small Canadian town? You’ll have to watch and decide for yourself! The rockin’ theme tune is worth the price of admission on its own.
Archie’s Weird Mysteries
Another of the tamer options on this spooky list is Archie’s Weird Mysteries (1999). It’s bright, it’s silly, it’s got a bitchin’ theme song, and it’s totally the prototype of current-day Archie Horror Comics! I’m not pulling that from any specific source, but it’s just the sort of nonsense that could spark the idea that Veronica should be a vampire and Jughead a werewolf! The series premise revolves around a Riverdale High physics lab gone awry, making the town of Riverdale a “magnet” for B-movie style monsters. The 40-episode cartoon series follows Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead, and Reggie as Archie writes for his high school newspaper with a column called Archie’s Weird Mysteries. From science experiments gone wrong to invading aliens to ancient demons sealed in underground tunnels, enough weird stuff happens in Riverdale to fill the paper, but Archie only gets a weekly column? A weekly column in the high school newspaper?? Talk about suppression of the media!
The Real Ghostbusters
Here’s another one that’s not really that scary, but is still definitely a series that any spook loving kid needs to experience! The Ghostbusters are a staple in the world of spooks and comedy, and The Real Ghostbusters (1986) offers some creepy characters like the Boogeyman, Samhain, The Undying One, and a literal world-wide mythology of ghosts and ghouls to choose from. Plus, Frank Welker and Maurice LaMarche are there as Ray and Egon! You can actually learn from this show, too. The writers went to crazy-amazing lengths to research and represent ghouls from different cultures. The later seasons went to Hell in the proverbial handbasket when Dave Coulier came in to do a bad Bill Murray impression, and Broadcast Standards and Practices decided that there should be no references to real-world cults and cult lore. Hence, the second Cthulhu-based episode is such a mess, but the first 78 episodes are #lit.
Nightmare Ned (1997) was a 12-episode oddity that quietly aired on the Disney Channel for all of one summer and then disappeared just as quietly. Nothing on Earth is more neglected than Disney Channel original television. Originally a video game for the PC (that I continue to highly recommend to this day) that has a kid named Ned exploring his nightmares to prove they’re harmless, the animated series came shortly after. It ran over budget and under-viewed and went the way of the dodo so fast that only weirdos like me that actively looked for scary stuff as a kid even vaguely know what it is. The 12 episodes follow Ned as he proves time and time again that he’s narcoleptic and should probably go to therapy for his fright issues. It’s a better time than it sounds like, with the series going through different genres and tropes: a haunted camp ground one episode and a Kaiju monster the next. Of course, you’re likely to never see the series if you haven’t already. Tracking down much more than an intro and a Wikipedia page is a daunting task, though video game walkthroughs exist on YouTube if you’re curious.
Here’s another show I use to catch on YTV. Actually now that I think of it, there are five shows on this list that I watched regularly on YTV: truly Canada’s spookiest kid’s network! Anyways, Martin Mystery (2003). This Canadian/French/Japanese production is another supernatural investigation show that has main characters Martin, his sister Diana (possibly step-sister? I’ve never been clear on their relationship to be honest), a re-animated caveman named Java, and an alien named Billy going around the world to solve ghost and ghoul-related incidents. It has an X-Files (1993) for kids theme with Diana as the super-rational one looking for reasonable explanations rooted in science and logic and Martin as the borderline nut-job spouting one crazy theory or another. It’s the classic Mulder/Scully dynamic (with an added caveman and alien), and it works to lighten up the legitimately creepy things that happen in the Martin Mystery universe. Check out “The Haunting of the Blackwater” for a Stephen King-esque good time. It’s some very creepy stuff!
Freaky Stories (1997) is probably best remembered for the hosts of the show. Two puppets: one a cockroach, the other a slimy maggot. Yeah, it’s all coming back to you now, isn’t it? Freaky Stories was an anthology series that animated popular urban legends. Sort of a Twilight Zone (1959) for kids. Each episode had three stories in it, each story had a different animation style and narrator, but they all started with the same line: “This is a true story, happened to a friend of a friend of mine…” Urban legends like the rat that’s mistaken for a dog and the motel mattress stuffed with cockroaches are tackled. My personal favourite was the one with the beehive hairdo that was filled with spiders. Some fairly disturbing things got animated and, just in case they weren’t enough for you, the disgusting maggot puppet pops up in between each segment to remind us that life is short and here we are wasting it watching a disgusting maggot puppet… and loving it!
Treehouse of Horror Specials
Do your kids want to watch scary stuff that’s not age appropriate? Well, there’s a good chance The Simpsons (1989) have parodied it for a gentler option. Since their second season, The Simpsons have produced Halloween specials. With three segments per episode and 30 seasons worth of Treehouse of Horrors (with a confirmed two more seasons on the way as of right now), the selection is vast. The earlier seasons tend to parody horror movies like Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), The Shining (1980), and The Fly (1986), and the mid-seasons lean more to historical events like Jack the Ripper. Nowadays, it seems like the writers are using Treehouse of Horror as the non-canon story dumping ground. No, I don’t think Avatar (2009) and Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005) should be in the Halloween specials, which is why anywhere from season two to season 17-ish is what I suggest for a spooky Simpsons time!
I swear, everything I do is somehow tied to the Scooby gang. Scoff all you want, but Scooby-Doo (1969) is a great jumping-in place for kids curious about the macabre! There’s a spooky atmosphere filled with new and classic monsters, but it’s offset by a gang of wacky characters. It also almost always ends with a reveal that shows that the monsters aren’t real, which can be a comfort to younger children. Even adults can get a thrill out of it, too. There are movies that show the monsters are real (Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island (1998), Scooby-Doo and The Witch’s Ghost (1999), etc.) and with the newer series of Mystery Incorporated (2010) comes a collection of some truly freaky creatures and situations. Scooby-Doo has been around for 50 years, and almost all of it is good for chilling children! Though, as someone who is watching through it chronologically for a podcast, I suggest staying far away from most of the Scooby-Doo created in the 80s. The only thing spooky there is how much Hanna-Barbera is trying to make us like Scrappy.
Bump in the Night
I don’t know about the rest of you, but nothing gets me stoked as quickly as seeing spooky stop-motion animation. Stop-motion animation is like magic; both the making of it and the viewing of it. And the uncanny-valley nature of it lends itself so well to the strange and bizarre. So even though I never personally watched Bump in the Night (1994), I have no qualms suggesting it excitedly to others. Is it spooky? No idea. But look at those weirdo characters! It’s about monsters, so it has to be innately spooky at its core. And what monsters they are. Mr. Bumpy eats socks and is friends with a toilet blob! The catch phrase of the show is that it “rules to be gross.” And that theme tune? This is the good shit for weirdo kids. It speaks right to the little weird girl that’s still inside me and makes me wish I’d watched this way back when on ABC Saturday mornings!
Eerie, Indiana (1991) is live-action series that revolves around Marshall Teller as he confronts numerous urban legends in his weird town of Eerie, Indiana. Over the course of the 19-episode series, Marshall is faced with bizarre scenarios like discovering a sinister group of dogs set on world domination, Bigfoot, and a still-alive Elvis Presley. Each episode is filled to the brim with references to old horror films…and did I mention that Eerie has a population of 16,661 people? I think this series is trying to tell us that spooky shit goes down more often than not! And if you just can’t get enough of Eerie and it’s eeriness, the spin-off series Eerie, Indiana: The Other Dimension (1998) is down to fulfill all your dreams of a Stepford Wives (1975) parody, coffee that can speed up time, and a skin cream that slowly turns a girl to plastic!
Tales From the Cryptkeeper
Here’s another anthology series aimed at kids, and this one comes right from the adult anthology of the (mostly) same name: Tales From the Crypt (1989). Each episode of Tales From the Cryptkeeper (1993) is a scary animated story read by the Cryptkeeper, who is also animated because that freaky puppet was probably too much for the kiddies. A wide variety of spooks and scares happen with things like wax dummies coming to life, shrink rays, werewolves, invisibility, witches, ghosts, and goblins. It ran for three seasons with 39 devilishly delightful episodes to entertain the boils and ghouls. And plenty of horror-related word play to encourage your inner pun lover. My personal favourite episode is the “The Weeping Woman.” A classic ghost story of a haunted attic that’s highly relatable, because when one of the main characters asks that the light be left on in the night and the other one turns it off to be a jerk, I find myself nodding my head, agreeing that I would also do that to be a jerk!
I don’t know who saw the Tim Burton movie Beetlejuice (1989) and decided that the undead ghoul that likes to talk about fucking should be best friends with (more than likely) clinically depressed goth girl Lydia, but it happened. And we got the child-friendly version of Burton’s Beetlejuice where Beetlejuice is a ghostly con-man based entirely around gross-out gags, and Lydia is a pre-teen that wears the cutest little spider-web poncho (I want it real bad). The two of them hang out in the Neitherworld and do a bunch of spooky adjacent things, usually in the form of classic horror movie parodies. It’s funny, it’s fun, it does omit the “nice fucking model line,” but hey, nobody’s perfect, I suppose.
Usually, scary stuff for kids is produced as a cartoon; it comes with the territory of children. But there were two shows that bucked that trend. Goosebumps (1995), based off the R.L. Stine books of the same name, was one of the two. Each episode followed the plot of one of the books (though there were only 62 books for the 68 episodes, so something original seemed to have come from the series), and while some are really silly (I’m looking at you “My Hairiest Adventure”), there are a few that are pretty creepy. I think the one that freaked me out the most as a kid was “The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight.” The acting is primo cheeseball material, and it’s definitely showing its age nowadays, but there’s something ever so appealing to being able to tune in to watch your favourite Goosebumps story!
Are You Afraid of the Dark?
Are You Afraid of the Dark (1990) is the other of the two live-action shows that people usually reference when you ask them what they watched as a thrill-seeking kid. Are You Afraid of the Dark came before Goosebumps (1995), had more episodes, and was a lot more chilling in a lot of the episodes. The cheeseball factor and mostly-terrible child actors of Goosebumps are still there, but the situations they find themselves in are a lot scarier. Clowns, zombies, a creature in a closet that will grant riches in exchange for human blood? C’mon, “The Deadman’s Float” episode? With the melting ghoul thing in the pool? That there is some of the scariest stuff in kid’s television! With 91 episodes in total, there’s a chance that a fair number of these will send chills down your spine! Well, as long as you’re in the under-12 age group this show aims at.
Courage the Cowardly Dog
For something truly weird from the early 2000s Cartoon Network lineup, check out Courage the Cowardly Dog (1999). Set in the middle of a place named Nowhere, Courage the dog has to fight off many a-strange and frightening thing to protect his loving owner Muriel. This show is kind of disturbing even now, years of torture porn movies and increasingly freaky adult television later. Courage the Cowardly Dog plays around with a tonne of different styles, each episode is unique from the last, and it actually teaches a lot of life lessons, believe it or not. Courage the Cowardly Dog was ultimately cancelled because of an episode that had lesbian undertones that had a woman helping her best friend escape an abusive relationship. Touching and scary. The discerning child couldn’t ask for more.
Curious about more child-friendly scares? Check back for Spooky Stuff for Kids: Movies and Spooky Stuff for Kids: Books, coming soon!