What’s the Scariest Movie You Can Watch With Your Kids? To My Horror, I Found Out.

What’s the Scariest Movie You Can Watch With Your Kids? To My Horror, I Found Out.

Do you remember the first movie that scared the holy living shit out of you? Of course you do. I certainly remember mine. And it’s been haunting me lately because…well, because I’m worried about being a terrible father. Let me explain.

One Saturday afternoon not long ago, I was sitting on the couch in our suburban New England home with my twin seven-year-old sons. The morning snow that we had woken up to was turning into bleak afternoon slush and sleet, and our plans to go sledding were dashed. Suddenly we were stuck inside with hours to kill before dinner, bath, and bedtime. So we all decided the best thing to do would be to whip up some hot chocolate, commit to hibernating in our pj’s, and throw on a movie. Sounds idyllic, right?

Wrong. Pretty quickly it became clear that our ideas of the perfect cozy shut-in movie couldn’t be more different. It’s not as if I were expecting them to suggest Touch of Evil or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly—after all, they’re seven. But when they tossed their top three picks at me, I felt like a deflating balloon. In descending order, they went like this: The Boss Baby, The SpongeBob Movie, and Captain Underpants. All three, I should point out, we’d already watched. Many times. So I told them I thought we could do better. That we ought to try something they’d never seen before. Something we could all love. I started flipping through the cable guide and saw that Gremlins was just about to kick off on one of the lesser HBO channels. I hit record. Then I went into the kitchen to warm up three mugs of cocoa and told them to fasten their seat belts. They were about to witness a classic.

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The first fifteen minutes zipped by. The boys thought the white-and-caramel-colored fuzzball, Gizmo, was adorable. They thought Corey Feldman was “weird,” but in a funny way. And they were so intrigued by the onscreen dad’s ominous set of rules for the care and feeding of a mogwai (no bright lights, keep them away from water, and whatever you do, don’t feed them after midnight) that they made me rewind the scene over and over again as if they were taking notes in case they got one for Christmas.

That’s when my wife walked into the room to retrieve her phone from the charger. She stopped and watched for a few minutes, rocking back and forth on her heels. She shot me a look.

“Do you think they’re old enough for this?”

“Sure, why not?”

“It gets kind of . . . scary. Doesn’t it?”

“Well, it’s not exactly Gremlins 2. Hey, guys, do you think you can handle this?”


“See, it’ll be fine.”

It wasn’t fine. As we kept watching and Gizmo started sprouting evil hellspawn that went feral, I felt a tiny hand reaching for mine. Its squeeze was tighter than usual. The laughter took on a nervous edge, then it stopped completely. Foolishly, I pressed on.

Cut to 3:00 a.m. and there I was trying to talk the older of the two down from a full-blown, Gremlins-inspired nightmare. Being a dad means feeling like an asshole a thousand times a day. But this was different because I also felt guilty. At that ungodly hour of the morning, wiping my son’s sweat-soaked hair back from his forehead and whispering that everything was going to be okay, I felt sure that this screwup would leave an indelible mark. I was trying to be a good dad. A cool dad. What had I done?

editorial use only no book cover usage
mandatory credit photo by warner broskobalshutterstock 5885108ag
gremlins 1984
gremlins   1984
director joe dante
warner bros
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Famous last words: “It’ll be fine.”

Warner Bros/Kobal/ShutterstockShutterstock

A few days later, I was on a Zoom call with my five best friends from high school. We’d been doing this every Friday night since last March, when it became clear that we wouldn’t be seeing one another in person for a while. Since then, it’s become a ritual—a welcome chance to shoot the shit with the guys who know me better than anyone, share a long-distance cocktail or three, and air out what’s been going on in our lives. We’ve been doing this in one form or another for the past three decades. But in recent years, the conversation has shifted. We still bullshit about stuff like the best concerts we’ve ever seen. We still toss around Fletch quotes and debate the Big Questions, such as: Has there ever been a better action-movie villain than Die Hard’s Hans Gruber? (The answer, of course, is no—although Richard Dawson’s Killian in The Running Man is a close second.) But now we also talk about other stuff . . . dad stuff, like: Hey, is it okay to show my kids The Mandalorian or are there too many guns? What about The Lord of the Rings?

I’m pretty sure my parents never worried about questions like these. I realize that growing up in the pre-helicopter era of the seventies and eighties was different. Parents worried less. Mine worried less than most. Don’t get me wrong: I hope to do half as well raising my kids as they did. But let’s just say they held a permissive attitude about the MPAA’s rating system. To them, an “R” was taken about as seriously as the surgeon general’s warning on one of their packs of Kent 100’s. When our family would go to the mall, my folks would drop me and my older brother off at the multiplex and buy us tickets to whatever the hell was playing, whether it was Dog Day Afternoon or The Omen or Piranha. On my sixth birthday, they took me to see Jaws. Jaws! For two hours, I sat there shaking, watching through trembling fingers. For the rest of that summer, I refused to go to the beach, swim in a pool, or take a bath. I was so terrified of a killer great white somehow managing to swim its way into our plumbing system that I could barely be talked into sitting on the toilet. You could say the movie was memorable for me.

But being a father is different now. For some reason, the stakes seem higher.

But being a father is different now. For some reason, the stakes seem higher. We all live in fear of being judged and caught doing the wrong thing—of exposing our kids to stuff that won’t only scare them but scar them. And I’m not sure it’s for the best. I’m not saying you should sit your fourth grader down in front of Total Recall or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but as someone who squirmed through Night of the Living Dead at nine (and somehow miraculously survived to be a relatively well-adjusted adult), should I really be all that concerned that a show about Baby Yoda and a bounty hunter on Disney+ is going to harm them? Where do we draw the line between making our kids aware of the darker things in life and inflicting permanent damage?

So here’s what I did: I decided to take baby steps, gently engaging in a parent-child ritual as old as The Odyssey and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I would hold their hands and we would face scary things together. I thought back to my earliest memory of being frightened at the movies. I didn’t have to think very hard. It was Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. I must have been five at the time. No, I didn’t flinch when the gluttonous Augustus Gloop was sucked up a tube after falling into the river of chocolate, and I wasn’t freaked out by the trippy boat ride through the psychedelic tunnel where Gene Wilder seems to go off his nut. Rather, it was the creepy face of the confectionery spy Slugworth that gave me night terrors. Skeletally thin, he whispered into those little kids’ ears like the Big Bad Wolf in creepy, Slender Man form, his every word a dark insinuation. He scared the living shit out of me.

So I put on Wonka one Sunday afternoon and watched it with my kids. Actually, they watched the movie. I watched them, paying close attention to their faces whenever Slugworth popped up onscreen. Neither reached out for my hand. In fact, when it was all over, they ran to the kitchen cabinet to see if we still had any leftover fun-size Kit Kats from Halloween.

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I forged onward, pushing my two little Skinner-box subjects as far as my conscience would allow. They didn’t have any problem with Star Wars or even the darker Empire Strikes Back. The flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz didn’t faze them a bit. We even made it through the first two thirds of Raiders of the Lost Ark without incident. (I turned it off before the Nazi-face-melting climax—I’m not a sociopath!)

All of these films over the past few months were a buildup toward what I knew, deep down, had been my endgame all along. You see, I write about movies for a living—they aren’t just an idle pastime to me. They’re something deeper. They’re not only a huge piece of who I am, but also a lens through which I view the world beyond the confines of a darkened theater. I believe they connect us and unite us in a way few other things can. What I really wanted to experience with my boys was sitting down and watching the greatest movie of all time together—the movie that once scared me away from both the beach and the bathroom at their age, the movie that elevated joy-buzzer B-movie schlock into capital-A Art, the movie that I have watched more than any other and am utterly powerless to click past anytime I cross paths with it on cable, especially if it happens to be during Quint’s blood-curdling U. S. S. Indianapolis speech—Jaws.

Since the day they were born seven years ago, I’d been looking forward to the time that we could share this rite of passage. A communion between a father and his sons, a passing down of my favorite film. It would be our version of playing catch in Field of Dreams. We would face our fears together, and we would come out the other side, shaken but stronger. It would start them down that long and often treacherous path from boyhood to becoming men. Jaws would be our shared trial, our bond . . . our thing.

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At least, that was the idea. The truth is, when the time came to put the film on, I chickened out. Or smartened up. I’d grabbed my well-worn Jaws DVD and loaded it. As it slid in, scenes from the movie began to unspool in my head. I thought of the opening, when the skinny-dipper Chrissie screams as she’s thrashed back and forth until her final gulps turn to silence. I thought of the moment little Alex Kintner is chomped in half while paddling on a kiddie raft, triggering geysers of arterial spray like some unbearable Bellagio fountain. I thought of Quint kicking and screaming as the great white swallows him whole on the aft deck of the Orca . . . and I couldn’t do it.

For the next few nights, I wondered whether I’d caved because I didn’t want to be seen as a bad dad. But I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s because, to me at least, they’re still sweet little boys. My sweet little boys. I don’t want to overshelter them—but I’m not ready to inspire more 3:00 a.m. nightmares, either. Maybe I’ll sound out my Zoom buddies next week and see what they think. For now, I’m drawing the line here. We have plenty of time to find the right time. And then we’ll have all the time in the world to joke about needing a bigger boat.


This article originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of Esquire. Get a print subscription + unlimited access to Esquire.com by joining Esquire Select.

Chris Nashawaty is a writer, editor, critic, and author of books about Roger Corman & Caddyshack. 

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