Spooky, Not Scary Watch-List

Do you love all matter of spooky ephemera, including (but not limited to) asymmetrical gourds, a crunchy walk through leaf-litter at dusk, black cats, swooping bats, a chilly breeze, the moonlit hoot-hooting of an owl, flickering shadows, the curling crackle of a bonfire with friends, your favorite elder’s throaty cackle? ๐Ÿ ๐Ÿ‚๐Ÿˆ๐Ÿ–ค๐Ÿฆ‡๐ŸŒฌ๏ธ๐ŸŒ•๐Ÿ”ฅ

Are you into that *swirls hands in the air over imaginary cauldron/crystal ball* distinctly witchy vibe? ๐Ÿ”ฎ๐Ÿ•ฏ๏ธ

Are you a young ghoul at heart? ๐Ÿ‘ป

Does your bedroom feature skulls, spiderwebs, and tombstones as year-round decor? ๐Ÿ•ธ๏ธ๐Ÿ’€

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you’re among friends (or fiends ๐Ÿ˜ˆ)! Halloween and all its haunted trappings gives my heart, in the words of young vampire Vlad the Rad, “bat wings” and “sugar-frosted lightning bolts,” but I have a confession: while I love all manner of the occult, I am just too tender-hearted for the harrowing thrills, over-the-top gore, scritchy-scratchy musical panic, and heart-pounding jump-scares that are present in many scary movies (and the horror genre more generally). Which means I have to be extra selective when it comes to figuring out how to best usher and revel in the ghastly glory of spooky season. So this year I’ve come up with a curated Spooky, Not Scaryโ„ข Watch-List perfect for anyone who wants to experience a spectre-tacular atmosphere without sacrificing their delicate nerves. Each tv show, movie or video is rated on a scale of 0-5 smashed pumpkins. The more smashed pumpkins (which I’ve metaphorically dropped out of terror), the closer the tv show/movie/video is to being truly frightening. Note: no gourds were harmed in the making of this list. ๐ŸŽƒ

You can access the full list here; what follows are my Top 6 with minimal spoilers! Happy Hauntings!

Over the Garden Wall

Promotional poster for the TV show Over the Garden Wall. Two brothers, one wearing a blue cap and red cone hat, the other wearing green overalls and an upside-down teapot on his head and holding a frog, walk through the woods. A blue bird follows behind them.
image courtesy of the New York Times

Two brothers and their trusty frog friend (name to be determined) are lost in The Unknown, “a place that few have seenโ€”a mysterious place. . . where long-forgotten stories are revealed to those who travel through the wood . . .” They come across a curmudgeonly woodsman and a talking blue-bird who warn them they must find their way home soon, lest The mysterious, mischievous, maleficent Beast find them first! Told in 10 ten-minute chapters, this limited series, which debuted on Cartoon Network back in 2014, is the perfect balance of ominous and ridiculous, spine-tingling and laugh-out-loud silly, and the soundtrack is made up of gorgeous, haunting, old-timey folk tunes. Watch each ten-minute episode in fevered bursts or binge the whole 100-minute delight at once. These episodes have range, from ๐ŸŽƒ to ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ smashed pumpkins, perhaps ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ when the boys finally encounter The Beast and “his mournful melodies.” ๐Ÿ˜ฑ


Promotional poster for the TV show Ghosts. Two adults, one white and one Black, are sitting on the floor next to a ladder and holding mugs of steaming tea. They adults are looking up at a variety of ghosts poking through the wall above them.
image courtesy of BBC One

Alison and Mike Cooper, two British millennials trying to make ends meet with a can-do attitude, suddenly inherit the very run-down aristocratic estate Button House and decide to fix up the place to convert it into a hotel/event space/movie set/potential home. But Button House, though in dire disrepair, isn’t exactly abandoned. Besides housing various critters (including one very annoying, near-uncatchable pigeon), Button House is home to a true gaggle of ghosts! After a near-death experience, Alison gains the ability to see and speak with these ghosts, who, after some unsuccessfully haphazard attempts at haunting, come to a truce: Alison and Mike can continue living at Button House as long as they treat the ghosts like the distinguished (read: ridiculous) roommates they are. This series is one of the funniest, sweetest shows I’ve ever watched! There are a couple of eerie/tense moments, especially early on as the ghosts and Alison negotiate their boundaries, but overall this is a comedy that explores the highs and lows of modern/afterlife living. ๐ŸŽƒ to ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ.

The Halloween Tree

Movie poster for The Halloween Tree, featuring four children running in a desert-like landscape. A creepy humanoid figure flies in the sky above the children. The stars and moon align in the blue-black sky to suggest the shape of a sinisterly smiling jack-oโ€™-lantern.
image courtesy of IMDb

This animated adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s 1972 novel finds four friends on Halloween eager for a night of mischief and candy, but when they arrive at the final member of their group’s home, there is an ambulance flashing outside. Though their friend, Pip, leaves a note saying they should enjoy their night without him, the four friends decide they’d rather visit Pip in the hospital, so they take a shortcut through a twisting ravine, only to encounter what appears to be Pip’s ghost leading them to the creaking front stairs of a huge haunted house. Enter the frightening figure Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud, who emerges skeletally from the darkness before whisking the children off on a magical adventure to find out the true history of All Hallows Eve and save their friend in the process. A classic that has slipped a bit under the radar, “The Halloween Tree” is a strange, macabre tale about the cultural histories of Halloween and mortality, in true Bradbury fashion. This adaptation has the added bonus of Bradbury himself serving as the esteemed, ominous narrator and Leonard Nimoy voicing the captivatingly chilling Moundshroud. ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ, maybe ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ whenever Moundshroud stalks on screen. . .๐Ÿ’€

Song of the Sea

Movie poster for Song of the Sea, featuring two white children standing on top of a rock in the sea in front of a huge full moon. The children's sheep dog and various smiling seals crowd around them on the rock.
image courtesy of YouTube

Ten-year-old Ben blames his mute sister, Saoirse, for the mysterious disappearance/death of his mother. But Saoirse, and their mother Bronagh, have a secret: they are selkies, the mythological seal folk who can change their form between human and seal. When Ben’s stern grandmother decides that the coastal lighthouse where Ben, Saoirse, and their bereaved father, Conor, make their home is unfit for the children, she takes them from the coast through the countryside to a city on the mainland. As a selkie, Saoirse needs to be close to the seaโ€”it is her literal home and the home of her magic, her lifeforce ๐ŸŒŠโ€”and soon grows sick, calling upon the Faeries on Halloween to help her and Ben get home. But there is a cunning evil in the city that has been alerted to Saoirse’s magical presence that will test both Ben and Saoirse and ultimately bring the two siblings back to one another. This is a stunning, breath-taking, heart-rending then heart-building film about grief, siblinghood, and the difficulties and joys of love, told against the lush backdrop of Irish mythology. It is the second film in director Tomm Moore’s Irish folklore trilogy; the other two films, “The Secret of Kells” and “Wolfwalkers,” are also amazing spooky-not-scary options! ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ to ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ, for painful themes and Macha, the Owl Witch ๐Ÿฆ‰๐Ÿ˜ฎ

Practical Magic

Movie poster for Practical Magic featuring the faces of actors Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, who play Sally and Gillian Owens respectively. Below the two faces is a row of lit candles. Shrunk down in size and superimposed on top of the candles are four adult and two child witches dressed in black and holding umbrellas.
image courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

I came to the “Practical Magic” fandom late, but this movie is so weird and so wonderful! It follows the story of the Owens family, who have been accused of witchcraft ever since their ancestor Maria Owens survived execution. This accusation doesn’t bother matriarchs Frances and Jet much because the Owens women are yes, definitely witches, though the source of their magic is also the source of their heartbreak. Ever since Maria survived, she used her magic to cast a powerful curse on any man brave or foolish enough to love an Owens’ woman. Sally, one of Frances and Jet’s nieces, experiences the brutal cruelty of this curse on both ends of the spectrum: she loses first her father (as well as her mother, who dies of grief) and then her husband to the deathwatch beetle’s ominous song. Sally and her sister Gillian were raised by Frances and Jet in the aftermath of their parents’ deaths, and Sally returns to the Aunts to raise her children after her husband dies. Gillian is also cursed in love, becoming involved with the menacing Jimmy Angelov, who may or may not be a vampire, but is definitely an abusive monster. When Jimmy tries to harm Gillian, she and Sally use their magic to protect themselves with disastrous consequences. I know all of this sounds like a very heavy, intense drama, and there are moments of actual terror in the film to be sure, but there is also a lot of love, laughter, whimsy, and, dare I say, practical magic that makes this film a rich and rewarding watch. I am especially compelled by the inventive, creative, and communal ways magic is experienced by the Owens women and in the world around them. Because even the most powerful witch needs a coven of support. ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ to ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ, especially for an upsetting, spine-chilling scene involving a cursed bottle of Tequila.

La Belle et la Bรชte

Film still featuring Beauty (Belle) fiddling with a butter knife while seated at a table piled high with various food, drink and ornate tableware. The Beast stands ominously behind her.
image courtesy of the MoMA, which hosted the 1947 premiere of Cocteau’s film in the United States.

Though shot in black-and-white and made over 75 years ago, there is much sumptuous, uncanny, fantastical magic to appreciate and enjoy in Jean Cocteau’s version of the classic fairy tale Beauty and the Beast. I won’t belabor the plot of the film, except to say that this is very much a more adult version of the story. Though dressed in finery, the Beast is extremely beastly, scouring the grounds each night for an animal to maul for his dinner, as well as to satiate his bloodlust and longing when Belle refuses his hand in marriage. The costuming, cinematography and special effects are production marvels, lending inspiration to Disney’s 1991 animated adaptation (also an entry on my list) with the introduction of ornate magical objects around the Beast’s castle, like the candelabras made from disembodied hands and arms. ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ.

I’ve also found that a solid documentary on ghosts, vampires, goblins, witches, zombies, and even the history of Halloween can satiate my spooky-times cravings without shivering me timbers. Here are a couple of my recs:

Cleanin’ Up the Town: Remembering Ghostbusters

Exhumed: A History of Zombies

The Haunted History of Halloween

Scary Stories: The Story of the Books That Frightened a Generation

And if you haven’t already, make sure to check out the full Spooky, Not Scary Watch-List!