I don’t consider myself to be a scary movie fan, but I am a fan of good storytelling. And there are a number of scary movies that have wormed their way into my heart.
I’ve discovered they all have something in common- a dark setting sharply contrasted by good people with tender hearts. It is hard to be courageous in the face of fear. And it is hard to be kind when you are overwhelmed by evil. These movies are centered on that conflict, and once the characters are victorious, the movie ends. These are hard-won victories. The stakes are high. In a scary movie, no one is safe.
Introducing my new favorite sub-genre: wholesome scary movies. It’s an unusual combination, but the dark parts make the good parts shine even brighter. Even if you aren’t a scary movie fan, you’ll appreciate what these films are really about.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
PG-13 | 1hr 47m | RT: 86% / 90% | IMDb: 8.2
A therapist (Malcolm) helps a young client (Cole) who says he sees ghosts. Malcolm encourages Cole to try to understand the things that scare him.
- Understanding the things (or people) that scare you. Unlike other ghost movies, the ghosts in The Sixth Sense don’t need to be defeated, they just need to be understood. Cole’s problem is solved through communication.
- The quest to help scary ghosts (who then become less scary). Cole discovers that his ability is not a curse, it is a gift. He has the power to help ghosts. In fact, you could reframe this movie as the origin story of “Cole the Ghost Helper.”
- Cole’s kindness and sensitivity. He’s attuned to people’s emotions and seeing other people upset can reduce him to tears. It’s the same sensitivity which makes his ghostly encounters so chilling. He is sincere, observant, and thoughtful. He tries to help others without letting on that he can see ghosts.
- Cole’s budding relationship with Malcolm. At the beginning, Cole is wary of him, but by the end, Cole relies on him in scary situations and is sad when their time together ends.
- Cole’s relationship with his mom (Lynn). Lynn fiercely loves her son even when she doesn’t understand him. That moment where Cole runs to his mom for safety but won’t explain what’s going on, and Lynn wants so badly to protect her son – is heartbreaking
- The ending. All relational conflicts are resolved. Love is affirmed. Cole finally tells his mom that he can see ghosts, and she accepts him. The story ends in a perfect circle. You leave this film feeling whole.
The Black Phone (2021)
R | 1hr 43m | RT: 81% / 88% | IMDb: 6.9
13-year-old Finney is kidnapped by a serial killer and tries to escape. Ghosts of the previous victims help.
- Coming of age story about courage. Finney has avoided conflict his entire life. He runs from bullies and appeases his volatile, alcoholic father. But now, trapped with a serial killer, Finney must face his adversary. This film displays the full emotional journey of courage. It’s a study of human spirit, complete with desperation, fear, belief, and inner strength.
- Power of friendship. Robin’s belief in Finney is what finally motivates him to fight the killer.
- The siblings’ bond. Finney and his sister Gwen are close. They share secrets. They take turns looking after their father. And they are there for each other. In one incredible scene, Gwen stands up for Finney – running at his bullies (bigger and older) with a rock. Some time later, Finney comforts Gwen after one of their dad’s angry spells. After Finney’s disappearance, Gwen searches for clues through her supernatural dreams. Their bond is so powerful in every scene!
- Faith. I love Gwen’s relationship with Jesus. Her prayers are full-on conversations, like she’s talking to a friend, and nothing is off the table! She asks, bargains, questions, and even curses at Jesus. Her faith waxes and wanes: most days she is certain that Jesus gives her the clairvoyant dreams and some days she questions if Jesus is real. This is the most realistic depiction of faith I’ve seen.
R | 1hr 58m | RT: 93% / 93% | IMDb: 8.1
5-year-old Jack has lived his entire life in a single room with his mom, Joy. Joy informs Jack of her plan to escape their captor.
- Innocence and wonder. The whole story is told from Jack’s perspective. As a result, the film, especially the beginning segments, is filled with innocence and wonder. Jack wakes up happy and is unaware that there is a world beyond the four walls of their room. He lovingly greets each object inside the room.
- A mother’s love and integrity. Joy was kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and held captive for years. Jack is a child of rape. Joy could have given into despair or direct her frustrations onto Jack. Instead, she decides to do everything she can to raise Jack with love. She battles her depression and feelings of hopelessness. She transforms their prison into a home. And she hides the scary truth that they’re held captive until they can actually do something about it. Jack’s innocence and purity is a testament to Joy’s hard efforts to protect him emotionally.
A Quiet Place (2018)
PG-13 | 1hr 30m | RT: 96% / 83% | IMDb: 7.5
A family tries to survive in a post-apocalyptic world where monsters hunt humans by sound.
- Expressions of love. This film is about a family that takes care of each other. Expressions of love take center stage. There is weight to every embrace and kiss. Even the intense action sequences are about love – my favorite is when the father whisks his son away from a violent scene and has him look into his eyes to block his view of the monster feasting on human flesh nearby.
- Resilience. Despite these tense conditions where making too much sound means certain death, the parents have not put life on pause. Family dinners continue: food is cooked in an underground drawer and served on lettuce leaves. The children play games using cloth tokens and rolling dice on soft mats. The pregnant mom prepares a special bassinet which will soundproof the baby’s cries and supply the baby with oxygen.
- A loving family. You can feel the dimension of each family relationship (father and son, brother and sister, husband and wife, etc.) and the ways they help and care for one another, and care for the other’s relationships.
- A parent’s unconditional love. Throughout the film, the daughter blames herself for her brother’s death, and distances herself from her father, who she suspects must hate her now. At the climax of the film, when the daughter is about to be killed by a monster, the father signs, “I love you. I have always loved you,” and sacrifices his life to save hers. This is a powerful display of love over the backdrop of doubt, blame, and grief. The writer, director, and actor of A Quiet Place, John Krasinski, puts it this way: this film is his love letter to his children.
Scary movies can be told with compassion. In these sorts of movies, it is the people, not evil, that take center stage. Lives matter; a person’s death carries weight. When characters are put to the test, they reveal tenderness, courage, unconditional love. And when good triumphs over evil, there is thunderous applause.
So the next time someone recommends a scary movie, hear them out. Underneath its intimidating exterior, it may have heart.