As soon as the first cool breeze blows a few crunchy leaves off their branches, horror movie fans come crawling out of the woodwork, eager to indulge their love of Halloween movies that feature a chainsaw, a massacre, or a chainsaw massacre. Meanwhile, people who prefer to celebrate Halloween without having to sleep with the lights on return to a few safe favorites—classics like Hocus Pocus (1993), Beetlejuice (1998), and The Addams Family (1991). While your steel-nerved friends are busy with slashers and scream queens, here are 15 gently spooky movies for you to check out.
1. Halloweentown (1998)
What Bette Midler did for Hocus Pocus, Debbie Reynolds does for Halloweentown (though, regrettably, Reynolds doesn’t get a chance to show off her singing chops beyond the odd incantation). The Singin’ in the Rain star plays a kooky, kindly witch whose three grandchildren follow her to Halloweentown—home to every magical creature imaginable—and battle evil forces with their newly discovered powers. The film was first released as a Disney Channel Original Movie, and it quickly became a fan favorite among ’90s kids. Unsurprisingly, Disney happily capitalized on this success: By 2006, three sequels had been made.
2. What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s 2014 mockumentary—the basis for the equally hysterical FX series of the same name—follows a few wacky vampires trying to navigate roommate conflicts, nightclub dynamics, and other modern-day situations without drawing attention to their more murderous predilections. Not only will the film have you screaming for mercy (due to laughter, not pain), it’ll also make it impossible for you to ever fear a vampire again. Warning: Though the movie is undoubtedly a comedy, there is a lot of blood featured.
3. Young Frankenstein (1974)
Mel Brooks’s 1974 mock horror film stars Gene Wilder as Dr. Frankenstein’s grandson, a doctor who has spent his life trying—and failing—to distance himself from his embarrassing elder relative. The younger Dr. Frankenstein reluctantly takes a trip to Transylvania to scope out his inherited castle and ends up embroiled in experiments that involve several creepy servants (played by Cloris Leachman and Marty Feldman, among others) and, yes, an undead monster. Wilder is wild-eyed, wild-haired, and side-splittingly hilarious throughout the film, making this a must-see for everyone who thinks all horror films should actually just be comedies.
4. The Phantom of the Opera (2004)
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic musical been acclaimed as a feat of theater for more than 30 years. But not enough people appreciate Joel Schumacher's 2004 film adaptation, which boasts earnest performances by Emmy Rossum, Patrick Wilson, and Gerard Butler (plus Minnie Driver in a standing-ovation-worthy supporting role). It’s not exactly a ghost story, since the titular phantom is a real man, but it does have plenty of eerie organ music, secret passageways, and possibly the best underground lair of all time.
5. Practical Magic (1998)
Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman star as spirited sister witches with cursed love lives (literally—their beaus always die young) in this big-screen adaptation of Alice Hoffman’s beloved novel. One accidental murder and an ill-advised resurrection spell later, the pair ends up being investigated by a dashing, steely-eyed detective played by Aidan Quinn. Think Gilmore Girls, but with magic.
6. Death Becomes Her (1992)
Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn play aging frenemies who toss back questionable cocktails from the enigmatic Lisle Von Rhuman (Isabella Rossellini), who promises them wrinkle-free eternal life. They soon find out that “alive” and “not dead” aren’t exactly the same state, and plastic surgeon-turned-mortician Ernest Menvill (Bruce Willis) scrambles to keep them from (quite literally) falling to pieces. It’s equal parts campy and macabre, complete with creaky old mansions and dark stormy nights.
7. Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
Some films may have a bloodthirsty talking plant, a sadistic dentist, or Rick Moranis, but the 1986 remake of 1960’s Little Shop of Horrors is the only one with all three. Said dentist, by the way, is played by Steve Martin, and Levi Stubbs lends his bluesy baritone to the plant. Bill Murray and John Candy both make memorable cameos, and Tisha Campbell heads up a ’60s-inspired trio that narrates the action, Greek chorus-style. Did we mention that everyone is constantly singing?
8. Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017)
Based on Mary Stewart’s 1971 children’s book, this enchanting movie from a couple former Studio Ghibli filmmakers tells the story of a girl who stumbles upon a magical flower and gets carried off to a witch’s school in the sky. She has to fight a few evildoers, of course, but the film overall exudes the same curative charm as Ghibli projects like Howl’s Moving Castle (which easily could’ve landed on this list, too).
9. Scooby-Doo (2002)
Everyone’s favorite inarticulate Great Dane and his meddling friends head to a theme park called Spooky Island to investigate possible demon activity. The mystery itself is mildly engaging, but the cast’s commitment to their caricature-ish roles is what does the heavy-lifting for this goofy movie: Linda Cardellini as Velma; Sarah Michelle Gellar as Daphne; Matthew Lillard as Shaggy; and Freddie Prinze Jr. as Fred. And in case you forget mid-movie that this takes place during the early 2000s, Sugar Ray’s beach concert should help you remember.
10. Van Helsing (2004)
This kitschy monster mash features Dracula, Frankenstein, Mr. Hyde, some werewolves, and Kate Beckinsale’s Transylvanian accent. The unifying factor is Hugh Jackman’s Van Helsing, an upstanding monster assassin with the swagger of Robin Hood and the general vibe of Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. It’s almost as if writer/director/producer Stephen Sommers (best known for 1999's The Mummy) challenged himself to see how many monsters he could fit into one film in the same way that you might stuff your cheeks full of marshmallows. The result is just as entertaining.
11. The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
A devilish stranger named Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson) shows up in a small Rhode Island town and promptly begins seducing three local friends, played by Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Susan Sarandon. As the women grow closer to their mysterious new man, they start to discover some latent powers of their own. (Their hair also gets significantly bigger, which seems to be some stylistic indication that magic is afoot.) The film isn’t scary, but it will teach you not to enter into a polygamous relationship with a man who keeps hinting that he’s the devil.
12. Corpse Bride (2005)
The Tim Burton-produced The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) has all the obvious trappings of a Halloween film—pumpkins, skeletons, monsters, a town called “Halloween Town,” etc.—but his 2005 fantasy Corpse Bride is just as spooky. Through almost no fault of his own, a spindly young groom ends up married to a dead, maggoty maiden, who leads him through the underworld to help him get back to his real bride. It’s very Gothic, vaguely Orphean, and much more quirky than scary.
13. Beautiful Creatures (2012)
In modern-day South Carolina, a teenage caster (as in spellcaster) races to break a curse that will determine whether she’s good or evil as soon as she turns 16 years old. Listening to Emma Thompson and Jeremy Irons drawl in syrupy Southern accents is a good enough reason to watch this box office flop, and the fact that there’s a giant spell book with shadowy ink spilling from its pages (among other seasonally appropriate special effects) justifies doing it around Halloween.
14. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
When a doe-eyed young woman (Susan Sarandon) and her clean-cut fiancé (Barry Bostwick) run into car trouble, they happen upon a creepy old castle that they hope has a working telephone—so far, pretty predictable. What follows is anything but. Inside, a self-described transvestite named Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) is hosting various ghoulish punks for the Annual Transylvanian Convention, where he debuts a glistening, muscly boy toy of his own creation. Innocence is lost, the Time Warp is performed with gusto, and this film (which is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year) is not appropriate for young kids. It is, however, appropriate for Halloween.
15. The Witches (1990)
If 1991’s The Addams Family and its 1993 sequel made Anjelica Huston a Halloween icon, 1990’s The Witches set her on that path in the first place. It’s a Jim Henson-produced adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel, and Huston plays an elegant, cackling witch with big plans (namely, to transform all children into mice).
A version of this story ran in 2020; it has been updated for 2021.