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13 movies that define the spoopy canon

More silly skeletons than scary slashers

A collage of various family-friendly horror-comedies Graphic: Petrana Radulovic/Polygon | Sources: Various

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Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

With Halloween just around the corner, many are on the hunt for the perfect horror movie to usher in the spooky season. But as much as we like being scared, there’s another staple of the Halloween movie canon to consider: the Spoopy Movie.

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 blew up, with other users sharing their own spotted misspelled Halloween phrases. Eventually, the term became associated with Halloween, specifically the part of Halloween that indulges the fun and spooky, without ever being too scary.

The term captures the nostalgia-tinged Halloween of childhood, filled with trick-or-treating, buckets of candy, and movies that tickled that holiday itch (but were not traumatically scary). Spoopy movies embrace macabre aesthetics, without being too graphic, and tell scary stories, without being too traumatizing. They’re a cartoonishly giant skeleton instead of a rotting corpse, one with a smile and a quippy joke instead of an insatiable hunger for flesh.

Beyond celebrating the off-kilter Halloween aesthetic and presenting scary stories that kids can also enjoy, spoopy movies serve another vital purpose. Many of them also follow misfits — specifically outcast kids who struggle to find a place where they belong. And many of them end with said kids finding a community of their own, be it through other weirdos, supernatural beings, or realizing their own worth.

This list is far from comprehensive, but in the spooky spirit of Halloween, here are 13 quintessential spoopy movies that define this particular subgenre.

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

The headless horseman in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad holds his sword and pumpkin in the air Image: Disney

Where to watch: Disney Plus

… specifically The Legend of Sleepy Hollow section. Sure, there are some autumnal scenes in the Wind in the Willows part, but Walt Disney Animation’s retelling of an iconic staple of American folklore is pretty legendary. Bing Crosby narrates this spooky tale, and the Hudson Valley setting is gorgeously rendered in swathes of autumnal color. It’s a great little entry into not just spoopy movies, but also the Headless Horseman lore. This version is actually one of the most faithful to Washington Irving’s original story!

Beetlejuice (1988)

Michael Keaton as Beetlejuice with his arms outstretched Image: Warner Bros

Where to watch: Max

“I myself am strange and unusual,” proclaims Lydia Deetz, as played by Winona Ryder, in Tim Burton’s 1988 horror comedy. And it’s a sentiment that young goths, emo kids, and other alt-outcasts everywhere would cling to. Beetlejuice is equally about the misfit teenager making deals with the titular unhinged stripe-clad demon as it is about a couple (played by Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin) navigating the perils of the afterlife. Beetlejuice’s bold, bright sets put a colorful and zany spin on the dark and dreary afterlife, but it’s Lydia fearlessly going head-to-head with Beetlejuice that makes the movie memorable. By the end, the demon is vanquished, but the weirdness remains, and Lydia feels more at home in this new town than she did before.

The Addams Family (1991) and The Addams Family Values (1993)

Wednesday Addams (Christina Ricci), Gomez Addams (Raul Julia), Uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd), and Morticia Addams (Anjelica Huston) pile in the backseat of a car in The Addams Family (1991). Image: Paramount Pictures

Where to watch: Paramount Plus

Every iteration of the creepy and kooky Addams family makes for a spoopy time, but the live-action movies of the early 1990s are particularly iconic. Part of it is the superb casting. Every actor just embodies their designated Addams family member. Christina Ricci’s Wednesday is so definitive that Netflix brought her back for the Wednesday TV show in a separate role. Anjelica Huston is the perfect macabre matriarch, and Raul Julia caputes Gomez like no other. Christopher Lloyd’s batty Uncle Fester is just the icing on this spoopy cake. The first sequel continues this trend, with Joan Cusack sliding in as a scheming Black Widow killer. As a franchise, The Addams Family celebrates the joy in being weird, and that’s one of the tenements of a good spoopy flick.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas stretching his mouth full of fanged teeth open Image: Walt Disney Pictures

Where to watch: Disney Plus

When you think of spoopy movies — movies that embrace dark Halloween aesthetics without ever being too scary for children — you probably think of The Nightmare Before Christmas.

The stop-motion flick has been a hallmark of Halloween ever since the movie came out 30 years ago. And with its infectious music, enduring characters, and distinct visual style, it’s very easy to see why. Directed by Henry Selick — who would go on to direct James and the Giant Peach, Coraline (on this list), and Wendell & Wild (an honorary member of this list) — Nightmare Before Christmas was a beacon to budding counter-culture youths everywhere, misfits drawn to the dark aesthetic and who perhaps identified with wallflower outcast Sally or restless Jack Skellington.

There’s silly debate about whether it’s a Christmas movie or a Halloween movie, but considering by the end, Pumpkin King Jack Skellington realizes that he does love Halloween and wants to embrace it fully, I firmly believe it’s a perfect Halloween movie.

Hocus Pocus (1993)

The Sanderson Sisters (Kathy Najimy, Bette Midler, and Sarah Jessica Parker) look confused Image: Buena Vista Pictures

Where to watch: Disney Plus

… and this is the other movie you probably think of when you think of a spoopy movie. Apparently 1993 was the year in the spoopy canon! Hocus Pocus follows Max, an edgy teenager, freshly moved to Salem, Massachusetts from California, who thinks he’s too cool for Halloween. He reluctantly agrees to bring his little sister trick-or-treating, and then, in order to impress a popular pretty girl, he accidentally summons the Sanderson Sisters, three child-eating witches. Bette Milder, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker absolutely commit to the bit as three out-of-time witches bent on feasting on children in order to preserve their immortality. Seeing their wacky interactions with modern day (well, 1990s) life is hilarious. But Max’s evolution from Too-Cool-For-School to someone fiercely protective of his little sister is also sweet. Also! There’s a talking black cat! What more could you want?

Halloweentown Quartet: Halloweentown (1998), Halloweentown II: Kalabar’s Revenge (2001), Halloweentown High (2004), Return to Halloweentown (2006)

Kimberly J. Brown and Debbie Reynolds in Halloweentown. Image: Walt Disney Television

Where to watch: Disney Plus

There are plenty of spoopy Disney Channel Original Movies, reliably providing few staples for every generation that grew up with the family-friendly network. (After all, by virtue of being on the Disney Channel, the movie will never be too scary.) But the Halloweentown Quartet reigns supreme. It wasn’t the first Halloween-themed DCOM, but it spanned four movies, right as the channel was coming into its own, and thus really solidified the general tone of DCOM spoopiness.

The movies take place in a world where witches, goblins, ghouls, and more live in a realm called Halloweentown. Misfit Marnie Piper has always felt a call towards all things dark and spooky, even though her mother doesn’t approve. But she discovers that her quirky grandmother (played by the legendary Debbie Reynolds), who only ever visits on Halloween, is actually a witch — and ends up learning about her own latent powers and the world of Halloweentown, which she saves time and time again across the four movies. It’s some very fun world-building, though time spent in the titular Halloweentown varies from film-to-film.

Casper (1995)

A CGI ghost standing next to a dark-haired young teenager. They are grinning at each other. Image: Universal Pictures

Where to watch: Netflix

Christina Ricci is truly the undisputed queen of 1990s Spoopy Fare.

In Casper, she plays Kat Harvey, the daughter of a quirky ghost therapist (who is… a psychiatrist who believes he can talk to ghosts). She and her father move into a dilapidated mansion in an effort to help the ghosts cross over, after the young lonely ghost who lives there (the titular Casper) watches a TV special about them and conspires to bring them to him, longing for a friend. While the older, bigger ghosts mess around with the ghost doctor, Casper and Kat start to bond, and try to figure out who Casper was before he died. Two kids trying to solve the mystery of how one of them died is pretty macabre fare, but it never gets overly scary or depressing.

If you prefere vampires over ghosts, The Little Vampire — starring 1990s It kid Jonathan Lipnicki — has a similar story of a misfit kid moving to an old haunted mansion and befriending a supernatural creature.

Scooby-Doo! and the Witch’s Ghost (1999)

A goth girl playing a guitar and extending her hand to the audience Image: Hanna-Barbera Cartoons/Warner Home Video

Where to watch: VOD

Basically any Scooby-Doo movie is spoopy fare, since the whole premise involves a group of teenagers and their talking dog investigating rumors of supernatural creatures. The 2000s live-action films — where young actors from popular horror franchises play the main cast — are a particularly fantastic time, and there’s also a whole trove of direct-to-home-video animated movies, direct-to-TV live action flicks, and a 2020 CG animated film. But the spoopiest of them all is probably Scooby-Doo and the Witch’s Ghost. It is the most Halloween-y of all the Scooby-Doo movies, by virtue of centering around autumn festivities in a tiny New England town.

Witch’s Ghost introduced the iconic Hex Girls, the eco-goth musical trio whose pop culture legacy has eclipsed every other Scooby-Doo side character (they’ve since reappeared in multiple other Scooby-Doo animated movies). Like many spoopy movies, Witch’s Ghost follows a witch put to death in the not-exactly-Salem-but-still-a-town-in-New-England witch trials, and her haunting legacy as it affects said picturesque New England town.

Monster House (2006)

D.J. peering through his window at the Monster House. Image: Columbia Pictures/Amblin Entertainment

Where to watch: Hulu

Everyone goes off about Coraline being the scary animated film that first terrified them (more on that in a bit), but Monster House is up there in family-friendly scares that lean on allusion and metaphor to convey what could be graphic imagery!It’s literally about an anthropomorphic house that eats anyone who gets too close! The three main kid characters attempt to subdue the dilapidated house, so it can end its reign of terror on the neighborhood. They delve deeper into the creepy house, and learn more about how it came to be that way, a story that’s actually pretty chilling and heartbreaking. The house itself is a uniquely designed monster — architectural structures are body parts, like the jagged fence turned teeth and the lashing rug tongue.

Coraline (2009)

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

Where to watch: Max

Coraline proves that you can have a spoopy movie without the fall atmosphere — so long as you completely commit to the sheer terror. Laika’s stop motion film is famously scary, without actually being explicit in the moment-to-moment frights. As my colleague Nicole Clark puts it in her reflection on Coraline, the filmmakers depict the terror through “insinuations of gore and dialed-up theatricality.” Based on Neil Gaiman’s book of the same name (which is just as scary, especially the original accompanying illustrations), Coraline follows the titular heroine, who discovers a strange world that almost mirrors her own — save for the fact that everyone has buttons for eyes. Initially drawn into the vibrant other world, Coraline soon realizes that the Other Mother, the black button-eyed creature who took on the appearance of Coraline’s own mother, has sinister intentions. Coraline must save herself, her parents, and the souls of the other children that the Other Mother preyed on.

Paranorman (2012)

Norman hides under a bed as a zombie attempts to find his missing ear. Image: Focus Features/Laika Entertainment

Where to watch: VOD

A recurring trope in many of these movies is a witch from colonial times who died in a trial coming back in some way shape or form. Paranorman, however, cleverly deconstructs this trope in the second half of the movie. The first half is played pretty straight, though it hits all the quintessential spoopy movie marks. Norman is a young boy who can see ghosts, which alienates him not just from his family but the whole town of Blithe Hollow — except for Neil, a fellow victim of the school bullies who takes a liking to Norman and decides to befriend him. Laika once again flexes its stop motion skills, rendering an impressive world with wonderfully tactile little details, like rotting zombie flesh and graffitied school lockers.

The House With A Clock in Its Walls (2018)

Jack Black, Owen Vaccaro and Cate Blanchett in The House With A Clock in Its Walls. Photo: Quantrell Colbert/Universal Pictures

Where to watch: VOD

Jack Black adds a certain zest to spoopy projects. He played children’s horror author R.L. Stine in the 2015 Goosebumps movie, but it’s 2018’s The House With A Clock in Its Walls that snags the entry on this list. For one, Black and Cate Blanchett have excellent banter as neighboring warlocks. For another, it really pushes just how scary and unsettling a spoopy movie can be without actually being super duper scary and unsettling. Those clockwork puppet creatures! The animatronic baby Jack Black! Also, much of this one hinges on the idea of Found Family, and the young boy at the center learning about his own powers and finding a place where he belongs. And that’s just the spoopy way.

Muppet Haunted Mansion (2021)

gonzo and pepe in coffins in muppets haunted mansion Image: Disney

Where to watch: Disney Plus

There should be a Haunted Mansion movie on this list, because the Haunted Mansion is one of the best — and certainly the spookiest — Disney attractions. However, I cannot in good faith put the 2003 movie or the 2023 movie on here, since they’re both fundamentally okay. (Nostalgia might fuel the Eddie Murphy movie, while the wacky cast mostly keeps the 2023 one afloat in a sea of mediocrity). Thank goodness that someone out there looked at the Haunted Mansion’s legacy and fully understood that the attraction would work best with the Muppets. Muppets Haunted Mansion sees Gonzo and Pepe journey to a haunted mansion, where they encounter the ride’s grim grinning ghosts — only this time, in Muppet form. It’s a perfect marriage of two goofy properties and celebrates both in spooktacular Halloween fashion.

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