Spooky, Not Scary Watch-List: Volume II aka BOO! ๐Ÿ‘ป

Pink poster with the words SPOOKY NOT SCARY curved around an image of two ghosts watching TV. Around the ghosts is a bunch of Halloween candy and three purple bats. Below the ghosts are five glitchy/smashed jack-o'-lanterns. At the bottom of the poster written in blood-red is the phrase "Vol. II aka BOO!"

Calling and/or caterwauling all ghouls, goblins, gargoyles, gremlins, and giggling green ghosts: Spooky Season has arrived with all of its ghastly delights and gnarly frights. Hip-Hip-Horroray! Which means it’s time for another installment of Spooky, Not Scaryโ„ข๏ธ, a watch-list of titles for all of us soft goths, tender terrors and nervous nellies. A quick recap for those of you just joining in: while Halloween and all its eerie marvels are my top vibe, I avoid the deeply distressing and downright disturbing imagery and atmosphere of most “scary” movies, tv, and even musical soundtracks, mostly because I have always had an immersively detailed dream and/or nightmare life, which often means I don’t really need the help or inspiration or taunting hauntings that that kind of media provides. Thanks, horror genre, but I can terrorize myself all on my own! ๐Ÿ’€

So, to still celebrate this terrifically chilling time of year, I give you the following titles that are avowedly Spooky, Not Scary. Each title is rated on a scale of 0-5 smashed pumpkins. The more smashed pumpkins (which Iโ€™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, though some may have been consumed. It is also PSL season after all, and I find that a hearty snack calms any frayed nerves (ร  la Scooby Doo).

You can access the full list here (and volume one there); what follows are my Top 3 with minimal spoilers. Happy Hauntings! ๐Ÿฆ‡ ๐Ÿ•ฏ๏ธโฃ๏ธ

Hall๐ŸŽƒweentown & Hall๐ŸŽƒweentown II: Kalabar’s Revenge

Movie poster for the films Halloweentown and Halloweentwon II: Kalabar's Revenge

Where are all of my Disney Channel Original Movie (DCOM) peeps at? While there’s been robust critical discussion on the cultural influence of the feature films created during the Disney Renaissance in the 1990s, there’s still a lot to unpack about the made-for-TV movies that the Disney Channel began releasing around the first decade of the new millennium, especially since the rise of Disney+ as a streaming service has granted more consistent access to this special cache of B movie-adjacent films โ€” a gentle critique I bestow with love.

Before, as in maybe around 2005 or so, you had to hope that the cable powers-that-be might re-run your favorite installment on a Friday night or way early on a Saturday or Sunday morning. Now, you can rent or stream these so-bad-they’re-good flicks electronically โ€” or check a select few out from your library โ€” whenever, to your heart’s nostalgic content. I myself have happy, excited memories of how, every late September and early October, the Halloweentown promos would start, beginning a kind of ritual countdown to October 31st. The film sort of answers the age-old question “What would it be like if you could live somewhere where it’s Halloween every day of the year?” and centers on 13-year-old Marnie and her younger siblings Dylan and Sophie who discover one fateful Halloween night that the reason their mom is so strictly anti-Halloween is because โ€” surprise! โ€” they are all actually witches. ๐Ÿงน

To add to the complicated family dynamics, the children also learn in the same conversation that the reason their grandmother, Splendora Agatha “Aggie” Cromwell (played incredibly by Debbie Reynolds), visits only once a year on Halloween is because she lives in another magical world, Hall๐ŸŽƒweentown, and can cross over to the human world only when the portal is open on Halloween night. Marnie has always been drawn to the magic brewing inside her and becomes even more eager and even incensed to explore this heritage when she learns from Grandma Aggie that unless Marnie begins her witch training by her 13th Halloween โ€” aka tonight! โ€” she will lose access to her powers forever (which seems to have been her mom’s plan all along). Besides wanting Marnie to have agency over her ancestral magic, Grandma Aggie has her own pressing agenda, too: she needs more Cromwell witches to save Halloweentown from a frightening foe, a mysterious and horrifying Sith Lord-like “shadow creature,” who has been kidnapping Halloweentown’s local monsters and threatens to destroy the town forever.

๐ŸŽƒ – ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ for a couple moments of TV-PG terrors, as well as for good old family drama. ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ for Halloweentown and Halloweentown II’s villains, who are actual misogynistic creeps. ๐Ÿ‘ฟ

๐ŸŽธ๐Ÿต๏ธ Coco ๐Ÿต๏ธ๐ŸŽธ

Movie poster for the film Coco.

It has always felt right to me that Halloween arrives during the seasonal shift from fall to winter, a time when days shorten, night lengthens and the world becomes almost permeable, as spectral and gauzy as leaves blowing in the wind or an early morning fog creeping over the fields. Of course, Halloween occurring when it does is no accident: culturally, the holiday shares roots with various traditions, such as All Hallows’ Eve (Christian), Samhain (Gaelic) and Dรญa de Muertos (Mexican), which celebrate the halfway point between the summer and winter solstices and mark a moment to pause, reflect on and hopefully savor what has come before โ€” summer, abundance, harvest, ancestorsย  โ€” and what is yet to pass โ€” the unknowable, alluring future.

In the middle of all of these seasonal, physical and emotional in-betweens is where you’ll find Miguel Rivera, the plucky, passionate protagonist of “Coco,” a cinematic love letter to Dรญa de Muertos and the holiday’s reverent, joyful commemoration of family. But things aren’t entirely rosy or marigold-en for Miguel at the beginning of his story: “Sometimes, I think I’m cursed,” he announces in the film’s opening lines, before detailing his family’s painful, yet proud history. A couple of generations back, his great-great-grandfather abandoned the family to foolishly pursue a musical career, leaving Mamรก Imelda, the revered matriarch, alone to (literally) cobble together a living for herself and her daughter, Coco, making shoes. Mamรก Imelda’s hard work and familial devotion pays off, as she creates both a family and family business to pass down to future generations, but all of her exertion comes at a challenging cost: in her anger and grief, she renounces music as a practice and pastime, forbidding everyone in the family under and after her from enjoying it (lest it remind her of all she has lost. . . ๐Ÿ’”)

Miguel both understands and doesn’t understand this history: he’s grateful for Mamรก Imelda’s sacrifice and strength, but he adores music. And even more than adoration, there’s a gnawing sense inside Miguel that music is somehow a part of his destiny, if only he could prove it to his lovingly overbearing family. When Miguel’s secret spills out and his Abuelita brutally destroys his guitar, doubling down on the ancestral ban, Miguel ends up, heart-broken, at the crypt of his musical hero, Ernesto de la Cruz, and makes a shocking discovery: could it be that Ernesto de la Cruz is his long-scorned great-great-grandfather? With one strum of Ernesto’s skull-white and haunted guitar, Miguel finds himself on a boundary-crossing journey to uncover the truth about his family’s tormented history and make amends for the future.

๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ – ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ for ancestral wounds, curses, betrayals and ultimately the healing powers of memory, grief, love โ€” and music, of course!

๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ (or papayas!) for Frida Kahlo’s zestful afterlife performance art and Pepita, Mamรก Imelda’s fierce alebrije (spirit guide/guardian).

A Wrinkle in Time
Two movie posters for the two film adaptations of the novel A Wrinkle in Time.

Since so much of Halloween and the overarching seasonal shift from fall’s harvest to winter’s condensed scarcity is about the relationship between what is living (here, now) and what is dead (there, gone), what could be more seasonally appropriate โ€” a.k.a. spookier โ€” than time and space travel?

As an overly responsible โ€” if you ask my siblings, probably annoyingly so โ€” elder and eldest sibling, I identified so much with Meg Murry, the outwardly withdrawn yet inwardly emotionally turbulent tween at the center of Madeleine L’Engle’s Newbery-winning classic novel, “A Wrinkle in Time.” At the beginning of her story, Meg is struggling with all kinds of pressure, rage and emptiness. There is the literal hole that her father has left after mysteriously disappearing, forcing more parental responsibilities on Meg in caring for her younger siblings, but there are also the psychological holes that can arise around mid-childhood and early teenhood when we begin to agonizingly question who we are and why we are here, alive.

Thankfully, Meg has three magical, mystical guardians โ€” the magnificent Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, whom I consider to be benevolent angels, aliens, and/or witches ๐Ÿง™๐Ÿฝโ€โ™€๏ธ๐ŸŒ  โ€” to guide her through her fraught family reality and fractured sense of self. First, the three Mrs. Ws introduce Meg to the power of the tesseract, a device which allows for interdimensional time and space travel and which her father was researching despite disbelief and ridicule of the concept by other scientists on Earth. Then, after traversing through the universe to rescue her father and her precocious younger brother, Charles Wallace, Meg discovers a power even more astonishing and essential: the simple yet radical gifts of love and acceptance.

There are two film adaptations of L’Engle’s novel (so far!), and I honestly recommend them both. It’s a visual treasure to experience two versions of each Mrs. W, who are glamorously weird, but, as fans of the novel have argued, the omission of Aunt Beast from the 2018 adaptation is a little misguided.

๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ – ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ๐ŸŽƒ for Meg’s arduous journey thru self-discovery to love for others and herself + the menacing impossibility of “perfection,” exemplified by the disconcerting suburban environment on the planet of Camazotz. ๐Ÿ˜ณ

Bonus Spooky, Not Scaryโ„ข๏ธ Strategy ๐Ÿค“

If you’re wanting to experience the fun treats of Halloween and less of the mean scary tricks, a great way to get into the spooky spirit is to watch Halloween episodes of various low-stakes comedy/dramas, such as Abbott Elementary, Parks and Recreation, The Office and more! Here are a couple of my favorite workplace/family-friendly sitcoms and their corresponding Halloween episodes:

Abbott Elementary

Season 2, Episode 6 – “Candy Zombies”

Modern Family

Season 2, Episode 6 – “Halloween”

Season 4, Episode 5 – “Open House of Horrors”

Season 6, Episode 6 – “Halloween 3: AwesomeLand”

Season 8, Episode 5 – “Halloween 4: The Revenge of Rod Skyhookโ€

Season 9, Episode 5 – “Itโ€™s the Great Pumpkin, Phil Dunphy”

Season 10, Episode 5 – “Good Grief”

Season 11, Episode 5 – “The Last Halloween”

The Office

Season 2, Episode 5 – “Halloween”

Season 5, Episode 5 – “Employee Transfer”

Season 6, Episode 8 – “Koi Pond”

Season 7, Episode 6 – “Costume Contest”

Season 8, Episode 5 – “Spooked”

Season 9, Episode 5 – “Here Comes Treble”

Parks and Recreation

Season 2, Episode 7 – “Greg Pikitis”

Season 3, Episode 7 – “Harvest Festival”

Season 4, Episode 5 – “Meet N’ Greet”

Season 5, Episode 5 – “Halloween Surprise”

Season 6, Episode 7ย  – “Recall Vote”


Season 2, Episode 7 – “Halloween Theft”

Season 3, Episode 5 – “Sal’s Dead”

Season 4, Episode 4 – “Costume Competition”

Season 5, Episode 6 – “Trick-or-Treat”