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We need ‘spoopy’ horror movies

At the heart of all the kid-friendly haunts are messages of being yourself, no matter how kooky

cate blanchett and jack black flank a small child in a spooky house Universal Pictures
Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

This week’s The House With a Clock in Its Walls marks a departure for director Eli Roth, whose usual horror movies lean towards the bloody, R-rated gorefest genre. But The House With a Clock in Its Walls, based on a 1973 book by John Bellairs, isn’t without its scares, they’re just calibrated for the younger audience. There’s nothing that’ll traumatize them — unless they have a deep fear of Cate Blanchett and Jack Black — but there’s enough to leave them with chills.

Tim Burton made a career out of that type kid-friendly, scary movie, which is now finding cultural resurgence due to the rise of Halloween as a pseudo-internet-fandom. The internet even has a word for it: “spoopy.”

Spoopy originated from a (now-defunct) Tumblr post from 2011, which aggregated an even older Flickr photo of a misspelled Halloween sign. Instead of the word “spooky,” skeleton bones spelled out “spoopy.” The goof gained a massive amount of reblogs and likes, with users adding other misspelled Halloween phrases like “creppy” and making edits of “spoopy” over other images, sending the new word into meme territory. Every fall, images of the original spoopy sign creep out of the shadows to haunt social media once agian.

The term eventually came to be associated with a fun-spooky vibe — scary but not too scary. Think The Nightmare Before Christmas versus A Nightmare on Elm Street. Think Halloweentown versus Halloween. For those versed in theme-park lingo, think Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party versus Halloween Horror Nights.

The House With a Clock in Its Walls ditches bloody body parts and violent showdowns for a spoopier form of suspense. We first see the movie’s creepy clockwork puppet creatures when young protagonist Lewis is convinced his Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) is an axe-murder. While they’re just a disturbing piece of background imagery then, later on in the film they start whirring and coming to life.

The shadowed house with its infernal ticking, the moonlit scene where two young boys meet in the graveyard to summon a dead body, the black-and-white flickered flashbacks to the villain’s dark past — the elements are all tangibly scary and suspenseful, thought punctuated with kooky humor befitting of a family movie. At the heart of it all — at the heart of most spoopy movies — is the message that being unapologetically yourself, no matter how weird, no matter how bizarre, is important. Your real friends and family are the ones who’ll embrace that weird and see it as something special. After all, it just might save the day.

It’s a message of authentic weirdness that’s deep in the heart of beloved spoopy classic Beetlejuice, where Winona Ryder’s Lydia Deetz, a self-proclaimed strange and unusual person, finds companionship with the ghostly couple living in her house. They join together to try and scare Lydia’s oh-so cultured parents out of town, eventually summoning Beetlejuice, the fixer of the afterlife, played in the oddest way by Michael Keaton. That movie, too, is full of horrifying moments that would send you running out of the room if done by Wes Craven (see the shrimp cocktail turning into literal hands below), but like before, it’s not without its laughs and message of a found family.

Just one of the unsettling scenes in Beetlejuice — right before this, though, they break out into song
Warner Bros.

While Lydia’s parents don’t get her, the ghost couple she befriends — the Maitlands — do. By the end of the movie, after expelling Beetlejuice to the bureaucratic afterlife, the Deetzes and the Maitlands agree to live in harmony, as one strange and unusual family.

We’re all familiar with the creepy and kooky Addams family: matriarch Morticia tangoing with Gomez, Goth icon Wednesday Addams and zany Uncle Fester. The Addams Family became one of the first forays of this friendly, fun form of spooky when the original comic strip started running in 1938. There’s since been a sitcom, various animated series, three live-action films, and a pretty stellar musical. Now we’re getting a new animated version in 2019 — just in time for the spoopy revolution.

Fester teaches Wednesday and Pugsley about different types of wounds, as any good uncle ought to
Image: Paramount Pictures

The Addams family is not without its morbid and macabre indulgences, what with moonlit walks in graveyards discussing the gruesome deaths of family members with a poetic air and casual electrocutions as a form of fun. But in the end, Morticia and Gomez hold together a more functional family than most of the others populating the “normal” world: the two parents are madly in love and unabashedly support their children in everything they do.

The Nightmare Before Christmas might be the first movie that comes to mind for Tumblr’s spoopy-movie-loving community. Though it’s turned into the Hot Topic of Disney movies, the stop-motion adventure carries the mantle of the studio’s spoopiest film. The opening song alone has some pretty terrifying images (“I am the clown with the tear-away face!”) and the final showdown with Oogie Boogie’s beetle-filled sack body is definitely nightmare fuel.

Walt Disney Studios

But it’s the Danny Elfman-penned songs, and Jack Skellington’s quest to find meaning in his life, in which he ultimately remembers the passion he has for the Halloween, that give the ghastly plot an elegiac softness.

While the movie was based off Tim Burton’s characters, it was actually directed by animator Henry Selick, who’s also the mastermind behind the 2009’s Coraline. Based on Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name, Coraline quickly garnered attention for stop-motion studio Laika. Plenty who had not read the book had no idea of the sheer horror that awaited them. Just because it’s for kids doesn’t mean it’s not absolutely terrifying.

A creepy paper-mache woman points her spindly finger in Coraline. Image: Laika/Focus Features

Unlike The Addams Family and The Nightmare Before Christmas, which turn the fantastical scary elements into the primary antagonists of them film, Coraline, Beetlejuice, and The House With a Clock in Its Walls find young heroes relying on her own weird strengths to defeat the bad guy. Specifically for Coraline, it’s with the help of a spoopy icon: a sarcastic, mysterious black cat. In the end, our hero wholeheartedly befriends her eccentric neighbors and saves the day.

The House With a Clock in Its Walls follows in this grand tradition of spoopy movies, giving just enough taste of horror to genuinely scare, but with the heartwarming message of embracing weirdness, of finding those who will embrace it with you.

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