14 Terrifying Moments in Movies Meant for Children
Yes, Virginia. There IS a Doggie Hell. And also, rats will totally eat babies, there IS a demon on that mountaintop, and your parents are probably dead.
I know I’m not alone in my fascination with the darker pieces of our childhood favorites. I mean, The Nightmare Before Christmas basically glorifies and celebrates our fascination with the macabre, and it’s such a fan favorite that you can’t throw a rock at a convention without hitting somebody with a Jack Skellington something on their person.
… Not that you should be throwing rocks at conventions. It’s bad, and so are you if you do it. But …
What about the times we weren’t planning on a good creeping-out? Like, when you’re watching a movie about cartoon bunnies or mousies, and suddenly there’s despair, war, drowning, terror, experimentation … what is with the Feels Critters, people? Watership Down? The Secret of NIMH? Our cartoon animals need therapy at this point, after being experimented on, climbing about on piles of bones of their own kind, witnessing the bloody death of their friends and families, and being separated by traumatic shipwreck. The life of a cartoon mouse is not an easy one—even if you’re in the Rescue Aid Society, you’re still a mouse and in danger of being eaten by predators at every turn. Or stepped on. Or only living, like, three years, because mouse.
And, moving on from Trauma Rodents to other disturbing things, here are some of the most terrifying moments in children’s movies for me, in no particular order of degree of horror.
1.) Pinocchio – Donkey slavery as punishment for not making good decisions? Kinda overkill.
Hello? Punishments Disproportionate to the Crime—like, for example, turning kids into donkeys for not making good decisions? Kids aren’t always capable of making good decisions. That’s why we (usually) seal juvenile records and don’t try kids as adults (usually.) Pinocchio? Yes, I’m talking about you! I dare you to watch this scene and not feel a sense of horror. I mean, Lampwick was a rotten kid, but I’m pretty sure a life of enslavement as a salt mines donkey is a pretty stiff penalty for playing pool, smoking, and drinking. This scared the crap out of me as a kid, especially how the ones who can still talk are all crying for their mothers. Yeesh, Disney! Am I supposed to spend the rest of my life worrying that the sweet-faced little jackasses I see out and about in the world are actually magically transformed children? That must be what they were going for, right?
2.) Lady and the Tramp – The Rat Wants to Eat the Baby!
This rat … is definitely a Rodent of Unusual Size. It has clear intent to get into the house and … do what to the baby, exactly?? I think it wanted some sweet, sweet infant flesh, which makes it not only the scariest rat in ever, but also possibly a demon rat. It’s large and aggressive enough to wound a dog that is larger than a Cocker Spaniel, so there you go. And, as if the imminent rat death of the baby isn’t a big enough threat of danger and fear, that idiot auntie blames the hero dogs and gets rid of Jim Dear and Darling’s dog while they’re out of town. How completely unacceptable is that anyway? House/baby/dog sit for someone and just … dispose of the family’s beloved pet? Worst auntie ever. And scariest rat. And … if animals are basically like human-level intelligence in this story, the rat is even more sinister!
3.) An American Tail – Sweet, cartoon mouse child washed overboard in a scary storm.
I love An American Tail. It’s one of the best non-Disney animated movies, in my opinion. One of the best things about it is the film score—it’s scored like a live action movie. The characters have themes, there are orchestral swells, cool choral stuff—all of which served to make the scene where Fievel is swept overboard even more terrifying. One of James Horner’s (may he rest in peace) best scores ever. Listen at the 1:10 mark for the percussive hits that introduce the impending danger. Fievel! Listen to the music! Be careful, you sweet little mousie-child! Then, listen again at the 2:10 mark for some cool choral stuff that leads into the main theme, and then back into ocean-y terror music that literally sounds like crashing waves. The animation is good, but it’s honestly the music that made this near-drowning scene the scariest!
4.) The Secret of NIMH – The Owl, the experimentation, and the generalized rodent-trauma of it all.
First up, The Great Owl. He’s voiced by John Carradine in his best deep, scary tones. Mrs. Brisby, the bravest mama mouse ever, enters his lair and is faced by piles and piles of rodent and small animal bones. She’s pretty much possibly climbing over the remains of Uncle JimBob Mouserton and his entire family. “Grandpa? Is—was that you?” As if climbing over the bones of your kind into the lair of the thing that eats you isn’t traumatic enough, a giant spider that rivals Shelob in degrees of spidery nope, is stalking her. Just when it seems like Shelob Aragog the 12th is about to get him/herself a mousie sammich, the Great Owl appears and squashes the mouse-sized spider like it’s … well, a bug. Right in front of Mrs. B. Yikes! Fortunately, the Great Owl is mainly just … creepy. He doesn’t threaten to eat her, but he does seem to enjoy getting his big, owly-jowly face right up in hers. He gives her the information she needs, which is great, but then he flies off into the night to hunt. Probably for mice. His menace is mostly implied, but daaang, if it isn’t an emotionally charged scene!
So, it turns out that NIMH stands for the National Institute for Mental Health, and the animals were lab critters being experimented on in the name of science. If you want to lose a piece of your soul, look at the .52 mark of the video below, at the sad, scared bunnies in the cage. And, if you really want to hurt yourself, wait for the 1.03 mark, where the little beagles are crying. What the fresh hell, people? I’m imagining a scenario where Don Bluth parts ways with Disney over disagreements regarding cartoon rodents. Mr. Bluth wanted sad, scared, experimentation rodents in his films, and Disney wanted singing, sewing, child-rescuing rodents in theirs. That’s how it went down, right?
5.) The Lion King – The Death of Mufasa. (Otherwise known as, “Your father is dead, Simba. And it’s all your fault.”)
There is, arguably, no sadder moment in kid-movie history than when Mufasa races off to save Simba from the stampede, only to be betrayed by his own brother, and the little baby lion crawls under his dead father’s arm and just curls up. Holy shit. And then, Scar tells Simba it’s all his fault. Even more effed up is that Scar was going to kill Simba anyway—he orders his hyenas to kill him after sending him off into the desert alone. Why would he bother emotionally scarring him if he was going to kill him anyway? Because he was evil, that’s why. Extra, extra bad. That scene was intense, painful, and emotionally complex. Remember that time I was bawling my eyes out over cartoon lions? Yeah. Me too.
6.) All Dogs Go to Heaven – Doggie Hell.
Well, clearly this movie was going to be sad. The very title begs the question that a dog is going to die. But … he’ll go to heaven right? Because all dogs go to heaven? Well, most do. There is, in fact, a Doggie Hell. And they show us. So, if little Johnny watches this movie and has recently lost Spot, he now gets to carry a little bit of extra anxiety about Spot’s place in the afterlife. Thanks, Don Bluth. Yes, the man who brought us sad, science animals also brought us—dogs who die and might not go to heaven! (I kid because I love. I love most of the Bluth movies, but there is a thread of pain that weaves its way through. It’s a good thing, ultimately, but it sure packs that emotional punch!) I mean, next you’re going to tell me that Bluth was also responsible for Littlefoot’s mom—oh, wait. He was. What do you have against happiness, Don Bluth? :-D Okay, back to Doggie Hell and how that’s so not okay. Check out the clip below and see just how unnecessary it is at the 1:20 mark for the bitey things to jump out of the lava and add insult to injury. Doggie hell seems a lot like depictions of regular hell, and I refuse to believe even bad dogs could deserve such a thing!
7.) Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (the old one, not the new one) – Boat Ride to Hell.
Yeah, fires of hell a-glowing? Grisly reaper mowing? What were you smoking, Wonka? You can’t make acid trip candy for children. It’s simply not allowed. Granted, every family except for Charlie and Grandpa were pretty awful, but I’m not sure they deserved permanent disfiguration for being non-criminally unpleasant. Violet stayed blue, right? And Mike was kinda flat forever? Not to mention that freaking boat scene! The movie went from candy paradise to Satan’s boat ride in like, five seconds. I still don’t quite get what he was going for with the boat ride and scary poem. Was he trying to see who would put up with his shenanigans indefinitely? I guess Charlie and Grandpa win that prize, such as it is.
8.) Watership Down – Bloody Bunnies in a Field, Bloody Bunnies Fight to the Death, and Bloody Bunnies Give Us All Nightmares.
Few things in this world are less okay than Watership Down. An animated movie about bunnies trying to find a new home—who could know what would happen? That we would be seeing images like this in our dreams for the rest of our lives?
How you’ll spend the movie if you’re a sensitive soul:
What to tell the Watership Down-innocent:
Seriously, it’s a good movie. It really is. It’s just filled with surprising amounts of horror: Bunnies killed by gassing, tripping over the dead bodies of their friends and families trying to escape with their lives, a little bunny with devastating visions of imminent death and destruction in the future (*hugs Fiver*), a bunny tortured and mutilated by his own kind (*covers my eyes*), bunnies shot, snared, gored by dogs and cats, murdered by each other … it’s a bloodbath, but it’s worth watching at least once.
9.) Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – Yes, “Child Catcher” is a career choice in Vulgaria.
In the fictional land of Vulgaria, children are illegal. You can’t have them. You can’t be one. In fact, the kids of Vulgaria are holed up in a cave system just … trying to grow up fast and stay alive, I guess. The Child Catcher was a creepy man who drove around a cart of candy, offering ice cream and sweets to attract any child-stragglers. When kids came out to the irresistible siren call of sugar, they were caught and thrown into the back of the wagon and taken away. He’s the Vulgarian equivalent to the stereotype of the creeper luring children with candy and kidnapping them. Yikes!
10.) The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – The death of Aslan.
When I was really young, the cartoon version was on TV, and I watched it. It was my first exposure to the Narnia characters. Color me horrified when the cool lion character was taken to a stone table, tortured, and killed while the children watch. Lucy and Susan trying to help their dead friend …. was a bit much for me at that age. Especially since I was young enough that I hadn’t read the books yet. See? This is some rough stuff:
That scene is sad whether you’re reading it or watching it in any of the TV and film adaptations, but this cartoon version was my own introduction, and it really stuck with me.
11.) Robin Hood (the Disney one with foxes and stuff) – “Not in Nottingham.”
Because nothing is sadder than an entire family of baby bunnies imprisoned—except for the little raccoon brothers all chain-ganged out. And the elderly dog. And—well, pretty much all of it. The thing that made it even worse was the song. Not in Nottingham has got to be one of the most depressing songs in the history of music.
12.) Honorable Mentions:
- The Demon Thing in Fantasia‘s A Night on Bald Mountain. It’s seriously creepy. If you ever thought that a rock kind of looked like a demon king or a tree looked like a witch or something … here’s confirmation of your worst fears. Not only is the mountain a demon, there are probably more of them under your bed!
- My Girl: Death by Bees. Yes, kids. Your friends can die. From bees. Life is pain, kids. Let’s all learn to suck it up.
- Bridge to Terebithia. Your friends can even die just from playing in the woods. Either don’t have friends, or keep them in a padded room. Without bees.
The point of the article is not that these movies shouldn’t exist—I love most of these movies even though they have parts that are hard to watch. The main point I want to make is that sometimes, the unexpected in our entertainment—random bunny death, etc.—can help shape the people we grow into. Unexpected sadness is a part of life, and in this case, art imitates life, providing us with a “training wheels” version of the kinds of distress we can expect to encounter throughout our lives. It also helps us interact with and react to others with empathy.
Empathy for all living things is important, and I believe that a dash of fear, loss, pain, etc. into the emotional stew of a movie experience can teach us how NOT to behave as much as how TO behave, and seeing the reaction of beloved fictional characters to the terrifying and the unknown instills in us a sense of responsibility and empathy for those around us. So … thank you, Great Owl for showing me Mrs. Brisby’s courage. Thank you, Watership Down for instilling in me the knowledge that life is pain and even cute bunnies can be evil. Thank you, Lady and the Tramp for showing me that situations aren’t always as they seem, and that it is important to be kind to animals. And, thank you to Don Bluth for … killing Littlefoot’s mom, inventing Doggie Hell, and showing me terrified lab animals. Wow.
Just kidding. Love your movies, guy!
Sara Goodwin has a B.A. in Classical Civilization and an M.A. in Library Science from Indiana University. Once she went on an archaeological dig and found awesome ancient stuff. Sara enjoys a smorgasbord of pan-nerd entertainment such as Renaissance faires, anime conventions, steampunk, and science fiction and fantasy conventions. In her free time, she writes things like fairy tale haiku, fantasy novels, and terrible poetry about being stalked by one-eyed opossums. In her other spare time, she sells nerdware as With a Grain of Salt Designs, Tweets, and Tumbls.
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