This list was originally published in 2022 and has been updated to include a new Halloween movie for scaredy-cats, Haunted Mansion.
Halloween can be a pretty lonely time if you’re an adult who’s also a scaredy-cat. It’s a season when everyone else wants to watch the goriest horror films and pay money for haunted-house “experiences” where people jump out at you covered in blood. But what if you don’t like things that are that scary and you want to enjoy spooky season without your hands over your eyes?
Luckily for you, not all spooky movies contain actual horror. We’ve put together a list of films that are more “treat” than “trick” for those of us who find the world terrifying enough right now without adding any jump scares into the mix. Some are cult classics, some are set during Halloween, and some are for kids, but what they all have in common is that they (probably) won’t give you any nightmares.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
If you’re feeling left out this Halloween, what better way to counter it by heading to a theater filled with a welcoming community of movie lovers? Unlike a lot of the titles on this list, Rocky Horror is geared more toward adults than kids. Initially a flop, the film adaptation of the Rocky Horror Show has become the cult classic to end all cult classics. The tale of normies Brad and Janet stumbling upon Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s quest to build the ultimate man has stood the test of time, partly through incredibly catchy songs like “Dammit Janet” and, of course, “The Time Warp.”
Ghostbusters is about a gang of paranormal scientists who team up to fight the ghosts that haunt and harass their neighborhood … but you already knew that. What makes it the perfect Halloween film, other than its subject matter, is the not infrequent veers it takes into frightful territory — when Dr. Venkman’s (Bill Murray) would-be girlfriend, Dana, is possessed by Zuul, an evil demigod bent on opening the gate between dimensions — without being too scary. The villain does become a giant marshmallow, after all. For a double bill, watch Ghostbusters 2, yet another film featuring a kidnapped baby.
How scary can a board game be, after all? (Or at least one that isn’t Ouija.) Loosely based on the game of the same name, Clue sees six strangers invited to a dinner party at an out-of-the-way mansion. They are given pseudonyms — you guessed it, based on the game characters’ names — and told that they’ve been summoned because they’re being blackmailed by a seventh guest, a Mr. Boddy. He tells them that if he’s arrested, he’ll expose their secrets, then gives them different weapons with which to kill the butler, who arranged for them to come to the mansion. Now a beloved cult classic, the film is fast-paced, farcical, and very Halloween-appropriate. Also: It has three possible endings, which is always fun.
Nothing says Halloween quite like the image of David Bowie’s crotch in skintight pants. 1986’s Labyrinth is a year-round classic starring Jennifer Connelly as Sarah, a bratty teen who gets her baby brother kidnapped after wishing he’d be spirited away by goblins. To be fair, she shouldn’t necessarily have expected Goblin King Jareth (Bowie) to show up at her window and make good on her wish. When she takes it back, he gives her 13 hours to solve the labyrinth, make her way through the realm, and save Toby from being turned into a goblin forever. Cue dancing, singing, and very, very stinky bogs. High stakes, low scares.
Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
For those of us still in the throes of a houseplant obsession, a man-eating plant is pretty much the most nightmarish scenario you could dream up. In Little Shop of Horrors, the Frank Oz–directed adaptation of the 1982 Broadway musical, Rick Moranis (of Ghostbusters fame) plays Seymour, a flower-shop worker in a run-down part of New York City. Hoping to spruce up the window display, Seymour buys a plant from a local shop during a solar eclipse — not realizing that it’s actually, well, an alien. Everything kicks off, and while Little Shop gets pretty dark (especially if you’re surrounded by leafed friends who may or may not want your blood), it errs just this side of too gory.
The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
The Witches of Eastwick gets a spot just for its flawless casting. Directed by George Miller, it stars Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer as three friends (Alex, Jane, and Sukie) who meet up weekly to exchange their gripes and exorcise their demons. Unbeknownst to the women, they have supernatural powers that were bestowed during a storm — so when they lament their singleness during another major storm, they manifest Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson), who just happens to have all the qualities they desire. While it is all quite clearly too good to be true, they agree to share Daryl — before things start to go south for the people of Eastwick. The women become aware of their powers and take control to vanquish Daryl, learning the true meaning of friendship on the way (teaming up to raise kids and destroy men).
There is one true king of creepy-but-not-terrifying: Tim Burton. This is the first film that large audiences would associate with Burton’s now iconic, instantly recognizable motifs. Beetlejuice, starring Michael Keaton, sees a family (the Deetzes) move into a home that’s haunted by the couple (the Maitlands) who used to live there. Fed up with the Deetzes, the Maitlands weakly try to scare them away but are befriended by the Deetz daughter, Lydia (Winona Ryder), in the process. The two families go on to engage in all sorts of creepy stunts and hijinks but — spoiler — end up finding a pretty wholesome, if dark, solution.
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Another Tim Burton! The director made his name in the ’90s with fun, eerie films like Beetlejuice, Corpse Bride, Ed Wood, and 1990’s fantastic Edward Scissorhands. The film follows a man (Johnny Depp) with, yes, scissors for hands as he’s adopted by a suburban family, takes on a new hairdressing career, and comes up against scared, cruel locals who just want to paint him as a monster. Sure, some people are frightened by the gentle man with scissors for hands. But at its heart, Edward Scissorhands is a love story about someone not quite creature or human navigating the world and trying to be loved despite his outwardly grotesque appearance. Relatable!
Death Becomes Her (1992)
Death Becomes Her was pretty divisive on first release, but like many of the movies on this list, its campy humor has given it new life. The film stars legendary actresses Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn as fiercely competitive rivals who, after a lifetime of fighting, both drink a potion that promises them eternal youth — with some caveats. When the pair actually die, they end up coming back to life as corpses, something that required a fair bit of impressive visual-effects trickery to pull off. The women’s bodies need constant maintenance: a commentary on the chase for eternal youth and the endless quest to fix and cure the unfixable as we age. The women’s resilience and struggles have made the film a touchstone for the LGBT community, and it’s every bit worth a revisit.
Addams Family Values (1993)
With Netflix’s new series Wednesday premiering in November, what better time to return to the best Addams Family movie? Addams Family Values has the perfect balance of dark and hilarious to be just spooky enough without giving you actual nightmares. It sees our favorite goth anti-nuclear-family unit come up against evil Debbie (Joan Cusack), a woman who wants to marry Uncle Fester to steal his fortune and murder him. Meanwhile, Wednesday and Pugsley are wreaking havoc on a summer camp. The Addams Family have always gone against convention by loving one another wholly while embracing their darkness, and this one is worth a thousand rewatches for the performances, the black comedy, and some of the greatest spooky one-liners in film history.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
No, not the show. The film of the same name, which was released five years before the series, is often criminally overlooked because of the TV version’s success. Granted, the movie doesn’t star Sarah Michelle Gellar, but Kristy Swanson, who plays Buffy here, is every bit as fun. Fans of the show will recognize the movie’s story line, which follows shopping-obsessed Buffy as she learns via her “watcher” that she actually has a destiny as a slayer. Initially rejecting this, she tries to come to terms with it while keeping up with her duties as a normal high-schooler. Joss Whedon, who wrote the film, was reportedly not too happy with it, but for Buffy fans (and even those who aren’t), it’s a spooky, silly high-school film that laid the groundwork for the beloved TV show. Plus, the soundtrack rules.
Hocus Pocus (1993)
Honestly, reading this list really hammers home how long it has been since the ’80s and ’90s golden age of spooky-but-not-scary films. In our current horror-film-obsessed world, it’s good every so often to return to the comforting arms of Hocus Pocus, a film directed by Kenny Ortega (of High School Musical fame) about a trio of witches who are resurrected on Halloween by a young boy who wants to impress a girl. The witches attempt to acclimate to the future but wreak havoc all the same, trying to suck the souls out of all the children of Salem before being defeated by young Max and going back whence they came. A Halloween essential.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Even more Tim Burton! There are a lot of musical-esque films on this list because, for some reason, nothing makes people want to sing like spooky bones and ghouls. The Nightmare Before Christmas is about Halloween Town, a place filled with goblins and ghouls. Their esteemed leader, Jack Skellington, accidentally stumbles into Christmas Town and is amazed by what he finds. He decides his residents will take over Christmas and put their own spin on it by giving creepy gifts to the general population. The Nightmare Before Christmas has been hugely influential and is a perennial favorite, so much so that Disneyland lets it take over the Haunted Mansion at Christmastime.
Shortly after Christina Ricci was Wednesday Addams, she became Kat, a grieving 13-year-old who wants nothing more than a friend. It’s a relatable tale if a sad one, and, in Kat’s case, it sees her befriend Casper, a friendly ghost who’s looking to be loved. Having no memory of his life as a boy, Casper needs Kat to prompt him, and he learns that he died of pneumonia and became a ghost, driving his father to become obsessed with bringing him back to life. In the film’s bittersweet ending, Casper is temporarily transformed into a human boy by the angel of Kat’s mother at a Halloween party. He gets the chance to dance with Kat, and after kissing her, he transforms back into a ghost.
The Craft (1996)
Now an underground favorite, The Craft stars Robin Tunney as Sarah, a girl who joins a new school and befriends Nancy (Fairuza Balk), Bonnie (Neve Campbell), and Rochelle (Rachel True). The three girls are outcasts and believed to be witches; after displaying some supernatural powers, Sarah is welcomed into their coven. They use magic to get revenge and to get what they want, becoming increasingly cruel and reckless. It’s an old-school cautionary tale about the meanness of girls and the danger of power, and it’s just spooky enough to feel Halloween-y without giving you nightmares.
Spirited Away (2001)
If you have a small child in your life who needs the concept of death explained to them behind a smoke screen of nice colors, there’s no better place to start than Studio Ghibli. If you’re a grown adult who wants to be kinda spooked but not traumatized by your Halloween viewing, it’s also a good place to start. Spirited Away, the 2001 story of 10-year-old Chihiro, is full of (mostly) playful ghosties — though No Face is more threatening than he looks in his closed-mouth form. Chihiro’s adventure begins when she is separated from her parents while moving across the country. She ends up in a bathhouse that isn’t quite what it seems, and her poor parents are turned into pigs. Chihiro works for the witch who runs the bathhouse, mingling with yōkai, while trying to break her parents’ curse and leave the spirit world. It’s one of Ghibli’s best, and a great entry point for anyone looking to be just a little bit frightened.
Listen. Would this article be comprised solely of Scooby-Doo movies, both cartoon and live-action, were it entirely up to me? Oh, absolutely. But while I would like to give an honorable mention to 1999’s Scooby-Doo! and the Witch’s Ghost and its girl-power rock band the Hex Girls, Scooby-Doo is the best one for a Halloween rewatch. It proves once and for all that dogs are the only creatures on earth with truly pure souls. It’s funny. It has a stellar cast of ’90s legends like Sarah Michelle Gellar, Freddie Prinze Jr., Matthew Lillard, and Linda Cardellini. But above all, it’s pretty spooky, with missing souls, big monsters, and a bizarrely muscular Scrappy-Doo that might just slip into your nightmares.
Jennifer’s Body (2009)
Teen flick Jennifer’s Body is a must-watch. It’s a little gory at times, but the initially badly received and recently reappraised Megan Fox–starring film has more than earned its place in a spooky Hall of Fame. Directed by Karyn Kusama and written by Diablo Cody, the movie centers on a girl named Jennifer (Fox) who goes on a murderous rampage after being killed as a sacrifice by a rock band. From the perspective of her put-upon best friend, Needy, the film examines dangerous men and vicious female friendships with more finesse than it was initially given credit for. Jennifer’s Body uses humor and some classic Cody-isms to keep things just north of “extremely horrific,” so while it can be intense, it’s at least free of jump scares and psychological torture.
Hubie Halloween (2020)
As far as settings for Halloween movies go, Salem, Massachusetts, is a surefire winner. Most infamous for the 1692 witch trials, the historic locale has spookiness woven into its DNA. In 2020’s Hubie Halloween, directed by Steven Brill and starring Adam Sandler, witches aren’t the star of the show, but it’s still a creepy Salem-based treat. Sandler plays Hubie, a naïve deli worker obsessed with Halloween who monitors the city during the holiday as the “Halloween Helper.” Desperate to earn the respect of the cruel citizens who play pranks on him, Hubie tries to track down a kidnapper — finding that they’re closer to home than he thought. Fun with a heavy dose of humanity, Hubie Halloween doesn’t play any nasty tricks.
Hocus Pocus 2 (2022)
There may have been a dearth of spooky-but-not-frightening movies since the early aughts, but there are some signs we’re on the right track again. One is Hocus Pocus 2, the long-awaited sequel to the 1993 original. Starring Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy reprising their roles as the Sanderson Sisters, Hocus Pocus 2 sees the witches resurrected by some unwitting teenagers playing around with black magic. Of course, the sisters have their reasons to take revenge on Salem — almost three decades wasn’t long enough to drop a grudge that big. Available on Disney+, the movie seems to have hit the spot for fans of the original — and just in time for Halloween.
Haunted Mansion (2023)
Maybe the scariest thing about the new Haunted Mansion movie is that, much like many other recent movies for both kids and adults (see: Barbie), it can at times feel like a two-hour-long commercial. Not just for the Disneyland ride, but for everything else: Zillow, Yankee Candle, Best Buy, CVS, etc. Look beyond that, however, and you have a fun, spooky thrill ride that captures the spirit of mid-aughts ghoul flicks. Haunted Mansion builds on the 2003 Eddie Murphy movie with a story about a mother (Rosario Dawson) who moves into the titular mansion with her son and needs a helping hand to shake its 999 ghosts. Niche references to the ride are abundant enough to keep Disney Parks nerds happy, but not so much that it’s alienating to someone who doesn’t know what a Doom Buggy is. Suspend your cynicism, strap in, and enjoy grim grinning ghosts and all-timer performances from an all-star cast that includes Danny DeVito, LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, and Owen Wilson.