In theory, I love to get scared while watching a horror movie. But in reality, I was the person who requested the lights stay on at slumber parties. Even as an adult, after watching an especially creepy movie I see faces in dark corners and hear strange noises coming from empty rooms.
Despite this, I’m not destined to be left out of this month's horror movie craze altogether. For those who, like me, can only take so many James Wan movies (Insidious, The Conjuring) before I start to fear the day as much as the night, here’s a list of 20 not-too-scary horror movies (my movie buff husband calls them “Gateway Horror”). Some are straight-up horror-comedies—with no shortage of thrills. And all are mild enough that even a scaredy cat like me can sleep soundly after viewing.
Army of Darkness (1992)
The scares-to-silliness ratio skews heavy on the latter with this time-traveling sequel to Evil Dead (1 and 2). Bill Campbell's Ash is extra hammy as the obnoxious chainsaw-for-a-hand anti-hero battling demons while stuck in King Arthur’s court.
The production design and animation in this modern classic are some of director Tim Burton’s wackiest (watch for the dinner party scene alone). The gist: After their lame attempts fail to drive out the humans now living in their home, two mild-mannered ghosts enlist an annoying demon named Beetlejuice to finish the job.
A lonely boy befriends a rat named Ben, whose army of rodents protect the sweet kid from bullies. Then, they start to kill. If you get too creeped out, Michael Jackson’s sweet theme song for the movie will bring you back to your happy place.
The sexy vampires and their partying subculture give this movie lots of style and may leave you longing for the darkness rather than fearing it.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1992)
The movie that predates Sarah Michelle Gellar is still plenty badass. A self-centered cheerleader learns she’s part of an ancient order destined to rid the world of evil vampires. This movie made me want to be a cheerleader—as long as I could kill the undead as well.
Chopping Mall (1986)
Killer robots and an 80s shopping mall after-hours? Sold!
The Craft (1996)
Girl gets bullied. Girl gets back at bullies with witchcraft. Witchy friends turn on her and she shows them all who’s got the real power. This movie has made a bit of a resurgence in the last few years, thanks to our recent cultural fondness for witches.
Fright Night (1985)
Not as serious or as dark as the Colin Farrell 2011 remake, this movie centers around a horror-obsessed teenager and a late-night television host who team up to defeat the charming vampire next door.
The Gate (1987)
Eighties movies are full of absentee parents, so it’s no wonder the two kids left alone in The Gate open a portal to a dark dimension and release a legion of small but terrifying creatures in their backyard. Those tiny dirtbags will haunt your dreams.
What seems like a Disney princess movie to some could be another’s fright fest. In this classic but controversial choice (for this list anyway), a motley crew slap modified vacuums on their backs and hoover up ghosts around a New York City suddenly plagued by paranormal activity.
Another classic, but this one is a non-controversial pick because those gremlins are menacing AF. When a teenage boy receives a strange creature for Christmas, his father warns him never to get it wet or feed it after midnight. You know what happens—he doesn’t listen to any of it and unleashes evil little monsters on the town.
The Monster Squad (1987)
This kids' picture features Dracula and a gang of other classic horror characters teaming up to take over the world. Fortunately, a group of scrappy outcasts foil their plans. Mwahahahaha!
Night of the Comet (1984)
After an asteroid strikes Earth, the only folks alive or not turned into zombies in Los Angeles (and possibly the world) are two valley girls. In the end, they have to get to the mall and save humanity.
Night of the Creeps (1986)
Nineteen fifties sci-fi meets Revenge of the Nerds meets John Hughes. After two goofy fraternity pledges accidentally defrost the body of a teenager who was infected by an experimental brain-eating lifeform in the 1950s, Greek row is overwhelmed with zombies. And boobs. (It’s very 80s like that.)
The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Despite its misleading title, this is not actually part of the same universe as Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead (those are legit scary). This relies more on zombie jump-scares and a colorful cast of characters. My favorites are the punk kids making out in the cemetery.
The feature debut of James Gunn (now better known for the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise) has slug-like creatures from outer space invading a small rural community. It’s funny and gross and will make you squirm with delight.
There’s something about remote desert towns: The folks are always quirky and bad shit goes down. In this case, the creatures come up from underground and people start disappearing one by one. The weirdos are the best part of this and, frankly, every movie.
Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
A movie made up of four mini movies. My favorites are the two directed by Joe Dante (Gremlins) and George Miller (the Mad Max movies). Dante’s “It’s A Good Life” is visually arresting and the bratty kid at the center of it all is creepy in the way only kids can be. Miller’s take on the classic gremlin tale is truly horrifying. Tip: Don’t watch it on or before you board a plane.
The Watcher in the Woods (1980)
Probably the scariest movie on my list—and it’s rated PG and made by Disney! Ghost kids are always super scary and as a suburban kid, I know nothing good ever goes down in the woods. Plus, there’s chanting and British accents. The happy ending will help, but the image of the lost girl will stick with you. (Bonus: They rebooted it for Lifetime last year.)
Clever, fun, and (dare I say?) realistic. What would you do if zombies had taken over the planet? Find your people, look for cool places to hang out, eat what you want, and kill anything that got in your way, including *spoiler alert* Bill Murray.