The Fine Art of the Family-Friendly Scary Story

With "The House with a Clock in Its Walls," Eli Roth reminds us how much fun scary stories are for young and old alike.

I was able to see Eli Roth’s first family film, The House with a Clock in Its Walls, this weekend, and its opening at the number one box office spot was well deserved.

Based on the 1973 John Bellairs book, ten-year-old Lewis Barnavelt, whose parents have been killed in car crash, comes to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan and his neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman in the fictional town of New Zebedee. Lewis then discovers a world magic, adventure, and danger, as his new home is hiding a dark and perilous secret.

Roth and screenwriter Eric Kripke took a few liberties with the plot, which tends to annoy a book-loving purist like myself, but I still thought this was a wonderfully imaginative and fun film.

What I most admired about this movie is Roth got it right.

He took a 45-year-old story and brought it to life with nostalgia and color just in time for haunting season. The effects were clean and stylized and the lead performances by Jack Black and Cate Blanchett were done with contagious enthusiasm. The set was filled with remarkable eye candy, with a few Easter eggs for fans of Steven Spielberg movies, as well as Roth and Kripke’s own series Supernatural.

Most importantly, this PG-rated tale managed to be scary while avoiding the heavy profanity, gore or “kissy face” that creeps into PG-13 films.

As parent of a teen and a nine-year-old with over-active imaginations, I appreciate that.

Believe it or not, kids like to be scared of make-believe things.

There are some horrible things out there in the “real world” kids (and adults for that matter) should never have to encounter or see, and it breaks my heart what some children endure in this life. I also can’t stand it when adults take advantage of a child being genuinely terrified of something, irrational or not, and exploit their fear for cheap laughs. Don’t be a schmuck to your kids, know what they can and can’t handle.

That being said, kids love to jump and squeal around in those cheap haunted houses built for school fundraisers, wander hidden trails looking for monsters, and make up stories about "that one house" in the town or neighborhood. You know the one I’m talking about? The big old house where there was a murder…or coven…or alien abduction…or closet where the mouth of Hell opened and sucked the entire family in? Yeah, you know the house. Never go by there alone. The only safe way to pass it is with groups of peers, running, screaming, and laughing the whole time.

Don’t forget Halloween night. There were some pretty big bragging rights for those able to come away with the candy reward from the house with the "monster" hiding on the porch. This was usually our house, thanks to my dad and older brother. Judge all you want, but we had so many enthusiastic visitors my mom had to buy candy in bulk to keep up with the trick-or-treaters wanting to face the “creepy old dude.”

Personally, I love thrillers and ghost stories, monsters and gothic ghouls, but I’m not big on the slasher genre. I would rather see ghosts, ghouls and monsters than graphic depictions of man’s inhumanity to man. Yet, kids also love telling stories of the janitor who became an axe murder (after he died in the school basement, of course), or turning the lights off in a bathroom to try out the “Bloody Mary” chant. This is nothing new. I know we want our kids to be safe, stable, and sensitive to the suffering in this world, but sometimes their forays into scary tales are ideal ways to escape that ever-present reality all while giving their imagination a much-needed workout.

There’s a fine art to this that you don’t see very often anymore. Everything has to be over-the-top unsettling and blood-soaked. Yes, I fully realize Roth is known for this style of storytelling. This is why I am so pleased Roth also grasps the fine art of making something scary and still family-friendly. In fairness, the 2015 Goosebumps movie, another Jack Black vehicle (based on the R.L. Stine book series) did a pretty good job with this, as did the animated Monster House. Disney had a couple of creepy book-based stories in the early 1980s that still hold up today like The Watcher in the Woods and Something Wicked This Way Comes.

My first favorite scary story wasn’t even a movie. It was Disneyland Park’s Haunted Mansion attraction. I was four-years-old the first time I visited, and I didn’t even make it through the stretching room. Rules were a little more lax in the 1970s, so my dad had me on his shoulders allowing me to “see better.” The made me the tallest person in the room and when the voiceover started up, I had a little freak out and began pulling the hair of the people around me. They stopped the elevator before it really got going, and let my dad and I out. I wasn’t ready for that scare.

However, my morbid curiosity about what was in that mansion remained throughout the year. When we were blessed with Disney passes from a friend the following year, I was going to muster up all my bravery, and make it through that ride. My dad warned me I might get scared, but I was still going to make it through the entire ride. I did…watching through my fingers.

Eventually, I began to see the humor, creativity, and storytelling behind this beautifully imaginative and scary attraction. It’s one of my favorite Disney attractions today, and one of my bathrooms is even themed after it. That scary tale inspired me that much.

In a time when everyone takes things way too seriously, reveling in good, harmless spooky adventure is refreshing. I was very pleased with Roth’s achievement in The House with A Clock in Its Walls, and hope it continues to do well throughout the upcoming season.

This October, take your kids to see this new scary film, sit around a bonfire with marshmallows and cocoa, and spin a spooky tale. Make a pillow-and-sheet tent and read a ghost story together by the beam of a flashlight, or rent or watch a spooky family movie, and share a few scares.

Header image © DreamWorks. Haunted Mansion Image: Rick Tate.