Inspired by the Nerdist post Ten Children’s Movies That Scared Us Silly, we asked our esteemed panel the following question…
Not much scared me cinema-wise as a kid, and I consumed some pretty spooky movies. The Shining, It, Psycho — these didn’t phase me. Although, to be fair, I do harbor a dislike for clowns, but I suspect that’s just a normal part of being a human. I mean, seriously, there’s something just not right about those outfits and and that make-up.
That said, here’s where I confess: Who Framed Roger Rabbit? scared the jeebus out of me as a kid. Seriously, how was this movie made for children? The plot was thus: some psycho (I’m looking at you, Judge Doom and your freaky eyes) had whipped up a nasty concoction called “dip” which was, when you looked at the ingredients, paint thinner, and was using it to wipe toons slowly and painfully from existence.
But apparently being judge, jury, and executioner of all toons wasn’t enough for ol’ Doomy. He had to take it one step further and create a giant dipmobile that was meant to spray all of Toontown with his vile brew. His master plan was literally to erase all toons from existence, forever. That’s your childhood he’s dissolving.
And look, while I feel for the toons, I gotta admit, the fact that toons were walking around in the real world was slightly creepy to begin with. Add onto it that their powers are controlled by the rule of funny which means, essentially, that they can get away with anything they think is funny, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. I mean, that’s just irresponsible worldbuilding. Because hey, you know what Judge Doom thinks is freaking hilarious? Dissolving sapient toons slowly in paint thinner while they squeal in pain. What a jolly old time!
My first introduction to anime was the adorable, terribly scarring movie titled Unico in the Island of Magic. It’s about a helpless pink and white baby unicorn that brings laughter and light to the world. Awwwwww. The gods despise him for this, so they order him killed. The West Wind takes pity on Unico, and drops him off in different places across the earth until it’s time to steal him away again.
How can this possibly be anything other than flower petals and rainbows?
Demons, that’s how. There’s a terrible witch/warlock/hellspawn/thing that lives in a giant bubble and floats around being creepy. He has a “hmmm” that makes the Skeksis from The Dark Crystal sound charming. His goal is to turn every living thing into a puppet and use them to build his castle.
That is right. He turns people into meat puppets and then LIVES IN THEM. Feel free to scream at any time. I certainly did.
But Lord Kuruku doesn’t do it alone, of course, because that would be too kind. He forces his assistant, a boy named Toby, to do it for him. There’s a powerful scene where Toby hides his younger sister away from Lord Kuruku and then plays his magical flute, turning their parents into meat puppets that slowly march away.
“Sorry, sis. Now we’re orphans.”
People turn into toys and are forced to entertain the villain, whose eyes pop out of his head like some sort of sicko squeeze ball. Dragons shriek. Lord Kuruku’s origins are chilling. The art is breathtaking and the entire thing is laced with sorrow and loss. Gods hate a thing created only to bring joy. And there’s another movie in this series having to do with a demon trying to date rape a drunken cat. Good times for all!
Fairy tales were meant to end happily and good always triumphs over evil. But in this cartoon, love destroys and the innocent get hurt. I didn’t realize it when I was younger, of course, but this show very much shaped how I see the world, and how I work in my own writing. Nothing is as it seems, and not everybody receives the ending they deserve. Children are more intelligent and thoughtful than we take them for. And I still, to this day, want nothing to do with puppets in any shape or form, thank you very much.
My favorite childhood movie was The Wizard of Oz, the 1939 version with Judy Garland. Most people don’t consider this a scary movie, but it filled me with a sense of dread that persisted for days.
One scene that I found particularly disturbing was meant to be a lighthearted break in the action. When Dorothy and company first enter the Emerald City, they visit a salon to freshen up prior to their audience with the wizard. This is a full-service salon that apparently caters to an extremely diverse clientele: the Tin Man gets buffed and polished, Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion get their hair and nails done, and the Scarecrow gets re-stuffed. My tiny human brain was not prepared to deal with the philosophical implications of what was happening to the Scarecrow. Here was a man, made out of straw, having all the straw he was made of removed and replaced with different straw. How could he possibly be the same person after that? The best explanation I could come up with was that the essence of the Scarecrow was in the clothes, not the straw, but even I didn’t find that particularly convincing.
Most people think The Wizard of Oz has a happy ending. Most people don’t pay as much attention to the frame story as I did. Let’s review (spoiler alert): in the beginning, Dorothy’s evil neighbor, Miss Gulch, arrived at Dorothy’s home with some sort of death warrant for Toto. This terrified me as a child; I honestly believed that Toto might die. The adults in Dorothy’s life were no help at all, so her only hope of saving her beloved dog’s life was to run away with him. That plan was thwarted when the tornado hit. Dorothy returned home, got hit on the head, and had a really cool dream.
When Dorothy woke up in the final scene, Toto’s story was unresolved. Miss Gulch could have arrived at any moment demanding they turn Toto over to her. (Yes, Miss Gulch was probably either the Wicked Witch of the West, who Dorothy killed by splashing water on her, or the Wicked Witch of the East, who Dorothy killed by landing a house on her, but both those deaths occurred in Dorothy’s dream, not in real-world Kansas). There’s no reason to believe any of the adults would have reacted differently the second time around. The only person who’d changed was Dorothy: as soon as she woke up, she promised never to run away again, leaving Toto in even more danger than he’d been in before.
The first time I saw Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, it was playing on cable television at my cousin’s house. They had the much-coveted Home Box Office channel back when remote controls were connected to the set by a long wire that I tripped over constantly.
I remember settling in to watch this magical movie. I sensed danger the moment Gene Wilder came on screen, limping slowly down the stairs as the on-screen audience quieted to watch. He faltered, seeming to hover over the ground for a moment before tumbling headlong into a perfect somersault.
The crowd in the film cheered Wonka, but I was wary of this adult who lied to the world so casually. What else could he lie about? Were any of us safe?
It turns out, none of us were safe. Not Augustus Gloop, who nearly drowned in a chocolate slurry: I held my breath when he disappeared in the brown liquid for nearly half a minute, becoming more panicked with every passing second.
Violet Beauregarde, who blew up into a human blueberry, terrified me with the idea of being juiced alive. I was obsessed with one question: From which end would the juice come out?! And being sliced to death by an industrial fan is *burp* hilarious, right?
Finally, of course, there is the tunnel scene. Inexplicably, in the midst of candy teacups and everlasting gobstoppers, the visitors take a boat ride through the most terrifying tunnel on the planet, filled with insect mandibles chomping menacingly, beheaded chickens, and a centipede crawling across a sleeping man’s face.
Thirty-ish years later, I still hold my breath while Augustus is under the chocolate river, but my kids shrug at the tunnel scene. Closeup shots of insects are apparently nowhere near as scary as a life-sized animatronic Freddy Fazbear stalking you through a closed-circuit security monitor.
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. I wasn’t bothered by E.T. himself — I even had a beanbag doll version — as Star Wars had well inoculated me to weird aliens. But no, what freaked me out was his spaceship. I have a very clear memory of being about three years old and essentially having a panic attack in the theater. My mom says I was sitting on her lap and I melted into her and buried my head against her shoulder. Afterward, I was ice cold and shivering. The ship’s return at the end caused the same thing again.
There was something about the music and the darkness…ugh! I used to get the same feeling as a kid when I would be outside alone and see a shooting star or satellite; part of me accepted this as something fascinating, and the other, more dominant part said AHH MUST GET INSIDE BEFORE THEY GET ME.
I’m a creature of habit, so after that, I knew I had to hide at those parts of E.T. every time. When it replayed on TV, I would leave the room or cover my eyes. I am 35. I still have not really seen E.T.’s mothership. At this point, it’s more of a tradition than anything.
Is there a more terrifying kids’ movie than Time Bandits? Thirty years after I first saw it, when I think back on it my mind still tries to skip the ending. One of the reasons why it’s so scary is because for most of the movie it isn’t: it’s a fairly typical portal fantasy, albeit with director Terry Gilliam’s trademark grotesque style, in which a young boy is whisked away from his humdrum life by a group of diminutive, time-traveling would-be thieves who resemble nothing so much as a distorted mirror version of the dwarves in The Hobbit. For most of the movie they are, technically, the bad guys — stealing, causing trouble, and on the run from their boss the Supreme Being, whose map of time they stole — and while we get glimpses of the Supreme Being’s opposite number Evil manipulating them from behind the scenes, he’s portrayed so comically that it’s hard to take him seriously. (Evil, in fact, has some of the movie’s funniest lines: at one point he says that when he’s in charge of the universe he’ll get rid of everything that is silly and unnecessary, like men’s nipples, and will skip straight ahead to the cool stuff — “Lasers, day one!”)
All of which makes the ending of the movie that much more terrifying, because when the boy and his friends finally confront Evil he defeats them, and the forces of good that they assemble from all across time, with literally comic ease, transforming variously into a giant pincushion and a deadly music-box to dispatch everything they throw against him. They’re only saved by the intervention of the Supreme Being himself, who leaves the boy to his own devices once Evil is destroyed.
That’s frightening enough, in an existential way, but what the movie still has in store is that this is the rare portal story where the portal works both ways: a tiny chunk of Evil somehow finds its way into the oven in the boy’s kitchen, starting a fire that drives him and his family out of their home. Then, over the boy’s protests, his parents can’t help touching the piece of Evil and are immediately disintegrated, leaving the boy alone with no home and no family in a universe that he now knows is run by someone more motivated by a desire to keep the cosmos tidy than any kind of compassion.
And that’s where the movie ends, with the boy getting smaller and smaller as the camera pulls up and away until we’re looking at the universe from the Supreme Being’s perspective, as a map to be rolled up and put away. If you ever had fears of abandonment growing up, that scene will never leave you: if you didn’t have them before you saw the movie, you will after.
Most children’s movies that are supposed to be scary didn’t scare me when I was a kid.
There are the ones that pretend to be children’s movies but are really preachy movies about death — Bridge to Terabithia and My Girl and Old Yeller being the worst of those offenders — that just make me annoyed and angry; if you want a children’s movie about death, watch E.T. or The Neverending Story. Bring the tissues.
Then there are the ones that are supposed to be surreal and disturbing — Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, The Dark Crystal, The Corpse Bride — that I find as delightful as swinging past the horizontal on the swing: dizzying but entirely safe.
And what about the ones that have some sort of grotesque element — Return to Oz, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Where the Wild Things Are? Normally I just find those as delightful as the surreal ones.
Finally there are the ones that are genuinely scary — Gremlins, The Witches, ParaNorman, Monster House — but those tended to hit a fun button for me, rather than a scary one.
No, it’s a dumb Saturday cartoon that gives me the sweats.
Which one? “The Purple Smurfs” episode of The Smurfs.
If you remember what I’m talking about, you’re probably nodding your head. Cripes, what were they thinking, putting that on a kids’ TV show?
If you don’t, let me tell you: it’s a proper @#$%^&* zombie story (actually taken out of the original comics…nine years before Night of the Living Dead), in which a nasty bug bites Lazy Smurf (or Grouchy, in the comics), turns him purple, and makes him run off into the forest yelling gnap gnap gnap, looking for other smurfs to bite.
The infection spreads quickly. A cure is found, but too late — as soon as a smurf is cured, he is reinfected by the hordes. One of the purple smurfs paints himself blue…so he can infect from within.
Finally only Papa Smurf is left…and out of the cure. He flees to his lab to get more…is trapped inside the lab with the traitorous fake blue smurf…the building starts on fire…
The traitorous purple smurf bites Papa Smurf and he turns. It’s all over.
The fire, improbably, causes the pollen-based cure to burst out of its container and cover all the smurfs. Even at the young age at which I watched the show, which might have been as young as six, I realized what kind of impossible, unbelievable chance this was.
How the story really ended was a march on Gargamel’s castle and an attack on the human world.
And, by extension, on six-year-old me. I had nightmares for days, and back then, when I had nightmares, I wasn’t screwing around.
The moral of the story, of course, was that if Lazy Smurf hadn’t worked so hard, none of this would have happened. In the last moments of the episode, Jokey Smurf calls out the purple smurf’s horrible word gnap gnap gnap from behind a building, laughing maniacally as his trick is discovered, at which point he is knocked into the air with a club.
High morals for a kids’ TV show.
Part of me wants to say that that kind of show doesn’t need to be put on TV, especially at like seven in the morning or whenever the Smurfs aired where I lived (it was early, right after the farm reports and The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show). But then again, that’s lame. Maybe our kids should all be watching cleverly disguised, eight-minute zombie episodes of all their favorite shows.
After all, it didn’t do me any lasting harm.
When I was growing up, my parents weren’t exactly conscientious when it came to regulating the media I consumed. They pretty much let me watch whatever I wanted, and I saw a lot of movies that most parents wouldn’t let kids anywhere near. In many ways, I’m grateful for this. If young encounters with violent, R-rated classics like Robocop or Conan the Barbarian hadn’t set me on the path of cyborgs and broadswords, I might not be writing science fiction and fantasy today. But my parents’ lax regulations also numbed me to horror and adult themes at an early age. When neighborhood kids would whisper about sneaking a copy of Friday the 13th, I’d shrug my shoulders and utter the classic playground tough guy line: “Meh. It wasn’t that scary.”
So imagine my surprise when I watched Return to Oz for the first time. I don’t recall how old I was, but I fancied myself something of a hardened veteran by this point. No late-night scarefest or rated-R bullet-bath could phase me. This? This was a fantasy adventure about a little girl named Dorothy. It was the sequel to the classic Wizard of Oz, which I’d seen at least a hundred times. This was a kiddie movie, and I fully expected a cutesy-wootsy, moralistic traipse through Goodfeelsburg.
What I got was the Nome King. Princess Mombi. THE WHEELERS.
If you’ve never seen it, Return to Oz opens with Aunt Em taking Dorothy to an insane asylum. Her Oz delusions must be cured, you see. With shock therapy. Dorothy meets a creepy doctor who introduces himself by showing her the machine he will use to electrocute her. After lightning brings a fortunate power outage, she escapes the asylum only to fall into a river, swept away by its current.
When the storm subsides, Dorothy finds herself in Oz. Under normal circumstances, this would be good news! But the land over the rainbow is not quite how she remembers it. There aren’t any munchkins waiting to greet her. The yellow brick road has fallen into disrepair. The once beautiful Emerald City is a mess of post-apocalyptic ruins, its inhabitants long turned to stone. Dorothy finds a warning written in blood-red graffiti: BEWARE THE WHEELERS.
Sound like a barrel of fun so far?
The Wheelers are a gang of giggling ravagers who roam the dead Emerald City. They have long, gangly arms they use as forelimbs, and they roll around on squeaky wheels instead of hands and feet. When they find Dorothy, they chase her into an alley, promising to tear her into little pieces and throw what’s left into a dessert. She narrowly avoids this fate with the help of a clockwork soldier, but soon they learn there is someone even the Wheelers fear: Princess Mombi.
Mombi seems nice enough at first. She welcomes Dorothy into her palace, showing off an extensive collection of severed heads. But hey, don’t worry. The heads are still alive! Mombi shows this by removing her own, exchanging it with one from a glass case. She then pleasantly informs Dorothy that she means to lock her in a tower until her head is prettier, at which point she’ll add it to the collection. Later, Dorothy attempts to sneak past the sleeping heads, and they all wake up and start screaming while Mombi’s headless body lurches after her.
I…think I’ll stop there. Though there’s plenty more nightmare fuel where that came from. Rocks with faces. Disembodied stone hands. Souls trapped in ornaments. Even one of the good guys is borderline creepy: the tree-limbed Jack Pumpkinhead, who calls Dorothy “Mom” for some reason.
Needless to say, Return to Oz was a traumatic experience. Princess Mombi became a permanent part of my nightmares. I used to dream of her climbing through the mirror in my room and kidnapping me while my parents slept. It also kept me from picking up any of L. Frank Baum’s books when I was a kid. Anything with Oz in the title was a big, fat NOPE. So thanks for that, Disney!
Of course, now that I’m all growed up, I’m able to look at this movie with some (warped) nostalgia. But if I ever have children of my own, you can bet I’ll do a better job monitoring what they watch than my parents did. And it won’t be the bloody action movies or the gruesome horror flicks I’ll be worried about. It will be those insidious kiddie movies.
All right, I admit it. I, a grown-ass adult, still find some kids’ movies pretty darn creepy, and most of the ones that I think are scary I didn’t manage to watch until recently. See, I didn’t watch many movies as a kid, mostly because I didn’t have access to many; we had a television and a VCR, and I mostly watched (and re-watched, and re-watched) the absolutely abysmal The Land Before Time sequels.
The first Land Before Time (1988) had a frightening tar pit sequence that culminated in a shambling tar-soaked effigy built by the lead characters to frighten away starving carnivores, but the rest of the series skipped the horror of being forced to choose between drowning slowly in hot tar and being eaten alive and instead focused on hastily composed musical sequences about friendship. I mean, singing dinosaurs, right?
I’d been reminiscing about those animated travesties of the ’90s with a close friend of mine, and she mentioned her favorite kids’ movie, the one she watched over and over until the tape wore out: The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985), directed by Will Vinton of fleeting California Raisins fame. It’s pretty much a collection of surreal claymation vignettes drawn from Mark Twain’s writings. The part that she immediately pulled up to show me was based on the The Mysterious Stranger, where Satan, a masked and hollow creature of capricious temperament, creates and destroys a city of apparently sentient clay people under the pretense of entertaining children.
I don’t know if the scariest part is the pallid mask against pitch darkness at the end of the scene, last echoing words the existentialism of a nihilist, or the fact that my friend adored the sequence when she was seven. Here, decide for yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BpaRouocBes