Four Family Films That Are Also Great Gateway Horrors

Gateway horror comes in all shapes and sizes. It can be anything from children’s horror movies like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Nightbooks to accessible slashers like Freddy vs. Jason, so there’s no fixed mold these films have to fit. In fact, they don’t even need to be horror movies. For example, I’d argue that the Pixar film Coco is an excellent gateway horror, and it’s by no means an outlier. There are plenty of other family movies that can introduce young viewers to the spooky side of film fandom as well, and here are four of the best.

The Wizard of Oz

Dorothy and two witches

The Wizard of Oz occupies a bit of a weird place in our culture. On the one hand, it’s arguably the most popular family movie of all time, so it’s been a cornerstone of American children’s cinematic education for generations. But on the other hand, it’s also notoriously scary for little kids. The Wicked Witch of the West, her flying monkeys, and the titular wizard himself have terrified more than their fair share of budding film fans, so if it wasn’t such a beloved classic, parents might be a bit more reticent about showing it to their young children.

In fact, it’s not hard to imagine a parallel universe where The Wizard of Oz is considered a legit kids’ horror film. The whole thing is pretty much just Dorothy trying to get home without being kidnapped by the evil witch, so on a purely narrative level, it’s not far at all from the horror genre.

And on a visual level, it’s even closer. When you think of a stereotypical witch, what comes to mind? Most of us probably imagine a woman with a pointy hat, a big nose, and a broom that helps her fly, and we might even picture her with green skin too. In a word, we basically think of the Wicked Witch of the West, so even though The Wizard of Oz isn’t normally considered a horror film, it’s definitely influenced the genre in a profound way.

To be fair, I don’t know if The Wizard of Oz invented those tropes, but it definitely popularized them and cemented them in our collective consciousness, so this movie is a perfect example of just how thin the line between horror and fantasy can be. In fact, you might even say that the film has one foot in the horror genre, so at the very least, I think we can all agree that it’s a nearly perfect gateway into more potent forms of horror.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

A boat in the chocolate factory

Much like The Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is also a beloved family classic that’s often considered a bit too frightening for younger kids, but this time, the scares are much more contained. Instead of being scattered throughout the entire movie, they’re mostly limited to a single scene, the (in)famous boat ride. It’s one of the most terrifying moments in any family film, so naturally, children who enjoy it are almost certainly going to seek out even more cinematic frights.

On top of that, the second half of the movie also has a bit of a slasher vibe. Soon after the children arrive at the factory, they get picked off one by one in an almost Saw-esque manner as Wonka looks on with little more than amused apathy. Granted, we never actually see any of them die, but their fates are uncertain enough that you can’t help but wonder. It makes for the kind of story you rarely get outside of slasher flicks, so once again, kids who like it are going to have to turn to horror movies to scratch that itch some more.

Granted, I don’t think that quite makes Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory a borderline horror film like The Wizard of Oz, but it does make the movie a legit gateway to the genre. It introduces children to some of the fun frights horror films have to offer, and if you ask me, that’s pretty much the definition of gateway horror.

The Lego Batman Movie

Batman and Robin

To some people, The Lego Batman Movie might be the most unexpected entry on this list, but if you’ve seen it, you know it more than deserves its status as a gateway horror movie. It’s a hilarious, heartfelt, and super fun celebration of Batman’s cinematic history, and surprisingly, it’s also a bit of an homage to the horror genre as well.

Unlike most of the Caped Crusader’s films, this one doesn’t just pit him against his typical villains like the Joker and Bane. At one point in the story, the Joker goes into a parallel dimension called the Phantom Zone, and he recruits a whole array of villains from other franchises, including a bunch of horror icons, to help him take down his archnemesis. For example, we see King Kong, the Gremlins, and a creature that looks like a mashup of Godzilla and the Kraken from Clash of the Titans.

It’s almost like a children’s version of The Cabin in the Woods, so it’s a huge treat for longtime horror fans and a perfect gateway to the genre for younger viewers. It introduces kids to some of the biggest and best monsters the horror world has to offer, and if they like those characters, they’ll almost certainly want to check them out in other films as well.

Turning Red

A giant panda and a kid

Last but not least, we have quite possibly the most obvious movie on this list, Turning Red. It’s about a teenage girl named Mei Lee who turns into a big red panda when she gets overly emotional, so it’s basically a werewolf film with a panda instead of a wolf. In fact, it’s pretty much just a twist on the 1980s cult classic Teen Wolf, so its status as gateway horror is just about undeniable.

And if there’s any doubt about that, the third act of Turning Red seals the deal for us. Much like in Teen Wolf, the therianthropy in this movie is hereditary, so we get to see more than one werepanda. The film shows us the animal forms of Mei’s mother, her grandmother, and a few of her aunts, and one of them is especially monstrous.

When the girl’s mother turns into a panda, she grows to gigantic proportions, so this isn’t just a therianthrope movie. It’s also a kaiju flick, and that makes it doubly effective as gateway horror. It introduces kids to two kinds of horror, so it’s a nearly perfect entryway into the wonders the genre has to offer.

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Written by JP Nunez

JP Nunez is a lifelong horror fan. From a very early age, he learned to love monsters, ghosts, and all things spooky, and it's still his favorite genre today.

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