I was always fascinated by death when I was a kid, even though no one really discussed it with me except in terms of “going to a better place” at funerals. I knew it was actually a VERY important part of life and wanted to know everything about it. What do people look like with no skin, blood, or soft inside bits? What happens after death? Can the dead come back? If they do come back, could they be ghosts or zombies? Could the dead speak?
I became obsessed with kids movies that laugh in the face of death, movies that sing when hearts are grieving. I learned that death can be a celebration as much as life can, and that death can help you to imagine magical otherworldly places of adventure where improbable things happen. I learned that most people want to believe that, after death, life goes on somehow. Even if I’m not sure life does go on after death, I like to imagine it, too, and get a taste of what it could be like on the other side.
Check out some of my favorite life-and-death kids movies:
Miguel accidentally ends up in the Land of the Dead while running from the pressure of carrying on the family legacy in shoe making. Of course Miguel loves the one thing his family hates above all else: music. But, through the power of family love and shared tradition, Miguel manages to get his family’s blessing to pursue his dream of becoming a musician like his ancestors before him. The scariest part of the film for me was the fact that the dead can disappear from existence if they aren’t remembered by living people. So leave your mark on the people you love and make sure somebody remembers you!
LIFE LESSON: Try to make it home before sunrise. (Also, your goofy dog might be a secret spirit guide.)
A little girl scuttles through a tiny door in her new house—spoiler alert, it’s home to a creepy spider-mommy-lady—to rescue her parents and avoid becoming a ghost child with button eyes. She’s REALLY mean to the boy who only tries to help her. She calls the most prominent black character Wybourn AKA Wybie, “why-were-you born,” which seemed unnecessary. The difference between truth and lies, real and fantasy start to bleed together. But eventually Coraline chooses reality, her real parents, real friends, and real life.
LIFE LESSON: Do NOT go through little doors! And definitely do NOT eat the food there. You might not be able to get back home.
Corpse Bride (2005)
A shy, awkward little man (Victor) ends up married to a corpse (Emily) when he’s really in love with an equally awkward woman (Victoria) who ends up betrothed to a lecherous, murderous creep. The complex love triangle (love square!?) is not what interests me about this movie, but that Emily, the murdered bride, finds her freedom and peace. In the end, the creep gets what’s coming to him (in life and in death), Victor marries Victoria (because of love, not obligation), and Emily turns into a flock of butterflies and escapes the pressure of life and death altogether. She’s over your “love squares” and your web of lies, thank you very much.
LIFE LESSON: Don’t marry the creep OR the nice guy. Take your time and be yourself first.
A ghost boy lives in a mansion with his three obnoxious uncles who also happen to be ghosts. A father and daughter move into said haunted mansion and the father tries to convince the ghosts to “move on” to the next life through some sort of ghostly therapy. The building is also home to a machine that can bring a person back from the dead (just one!) and all sorts of steam-punky time-saving devices that the late owner invented. Just GUESS which invention the villains are willing to die over?
LIFE LESSON: Don’t try anything fancy: once you’re dead, you stay dead. Also, maybe leave a recipe for how to make the mysterious life-saving liquid that your machine needs to operate.
Hocus Pocus (1993)
Winnie, Sarah, and Mary LOVE the taste of children’s souls. So much so that they come back from the dead and start harassing every child they can find by smelling for them. (To be fair, children are smelly most of the time, so I bet the scent trail is not that hard to follow.) Three kids kids try burning the witches in a kiln by luring them with French lessons. But ultimately the witches meet their end by being greedy and vengeful. They MUST have the girl child who calls them ugly and “hurts their feelings” instead of going for the easy meal.
LIFE LESSON: Don’t go around lighting other people’s candles...the smell might attract witches.
Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
A skeleton man tries to dissect Christmas rituals scientifically because he’s tired of his boring old job as the master of Halloween. There’s kidnapping, torture, and a creepy scientist who keeps a girl locked in his house. At best, this is a sort of cultural appropriation of “Christmas Culture” from Halloween World (but it goes badly, showing that you shouldn’t appropriate things you don’t understand). But remember to watch Sally, because she’s the ACTUAL brains of the operation who knows that Jack has gone off the rails—she ends up saving everybody in the end.
LIFE LESSON: Listen to the smart, capable women around you. They know things.
The Addams Family (1991)
The Addams Family: Frankenstein monster butler, vampire-esque mother, psychopath father, and the little demon children who aspire to be witches and torture chamber aficionados. (The “prodigal brother/uncle returns” plot doesn’t really make sense, so I usually ignore those parts.) I’m here for Wednesday’s deadpan statements to cheerful “well-adjusted” humans. What I get from this movie is that you should let children play with dangerous objects and to ALWAYS tell children the truth because they can handle it.
LIFE LESSON: Being a regular human is overrated. So be as creepy as you can, you little weirdo.
Two ghosts, Adam and Barbara, hire Beetlejuice to get rid of the living people staying in their old house. Unfortunately for them, Beetlejuice only succeeds in scaring Lydia, the petulant teenager who has been through a lot of crap and doesn’t deserve this added trauma. Beetlejuice takes his job WAY too seriously and unleashes his poltergeist powers on the humans, tries to take Lydia as a child bride, and irritates even the ghosts who hired him. But in the end, Lydia gains a set of pseudo-ghost-parents who are way more responsible and caring than her living ones.
LIFE LESSON: Do not hire questionable persons out of the first ghostly newspaper you read.