Another year, another return to…
Instead of looking at one Halloween special at a time, I have chosen to do a Top 10 list for this first installment. Below, you will see the ten most memorable moments in kid and family movies that gave me endless nightmares as a youngster.
I tried to dive in as deeply as I could, talking about the scenes themselves but also about what makes them so scary. I find that the psychology driving effective horror scenarios can be pretty common for most people, and surprisingly basic and traceable. But that doesn’t make them shallow by any means. Some people say that the root of all good comedy is that someone has to be miserable. No matter how elaborate you make the joke, there always has to be a “butt” of it. The same can be true of horror, but there are more roots, or “butts,” to choose from.
10) The Donkey Scene (Pinocchio)
I’ve seen Pinocchio maybe 5 times in my life. It’s not a Disney movie I come back to often, and I have no idea how faithful it is to the source material, but when I watch it again, I’m always struck by how dark and mean-spirirted it is, even as fairytales go. It’s like if Don Bluth made films back in the 40’s.
This one scene is pretty screwed up. It’s basically body-horror for children, and while it might not be as grotesque as a David Cronenberg production, it’s almost as frightening.
What is body horror, you ask? In short, it’s the whole concept of unwanted, uncontrollable transformation, which stems from a fear of not being in control. The one physical thing that any human being can own completely is their own body, so the notion of it changing without your consent, and most likely in a very painful way, is terrifying. This fear is in a similar vein with that of petrification; both of which most people don’t think about or wouldn’t admit to being afraid of, but totally are.
What sells this particular scene are Lampwick’s panicked screams and thrashing, but the lighting and music are pretty intense as well. He’s a kid, albeit a smug little jerk, so there’s an element of protectiveness that can be involved. But more importantly, this perversion of nature is what will happen to Pinocchio, our main character, who is nearby watching but unable to help. It seems to be going slower – possibly because he’s not a real boy yet – but it’s assumed that it will happen like that.
It’s a scary moment on its own, but also for the danger it poses to the person we most care about in the movie.
9) The Hollow (Ichabod and Mr. Toad)
I might have mentioned this in my full review of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, but this scene is hilarious and scary at the same time.
The build-up is great, when Ichabod is on edge and thinks he can hear the Headless Horseman coming after him. The scene is mostly quiet – silly of course, but tense nonetheless – and when you’re first watching, you never know when the ghost will actually show up. It could be during any one of the little scares Ichabod basically gives himself, as he inexplicably travels alone in the dead of night after a party, where he probably could have found several someones to walk most of the way home with him. Or he could have booked a room with the Van Tassels and called it a night.
Walking or generally being alone at night is a common fear, particularly for women, and it feels even worse when other people tease you for being paranoid. Katrina chuckles at Ichabod’s fear during the party, and the fact that the schoolmaster’s horse just moseys along, not paying attention or speeding up when Ichabod tells him to, would certainly add to my frustration, not knowing whether or not I’m going crazy or should seriously get the hell out of dodge.
Ichabod and his horse have a good laugh when he thinks his imagination got the better of him (after all, he thinks a frog’s croaking in the background sounds like “Headless Horseman”)…and then suddenly, a third voice joins in with a chillingly demonic cackle.
Then, we begin a scary…hilarious….scare-larious chase scene. Seriously, it’s morbidly delightful.
8) Donald’s Mental Breakdown (Fun and Fancy Free or Mickey and the Beanstalk)
Did you ever want to see one of your beloved childhood icons go kill crazy?…No? Well, here you go anyway!
I’m not sure how much more I can say about this one. It’s screwed up. Donald Duck gets crazy eyes and decides to kill his farm’s only cow, because he’s sitting there starving in his own home. I know the guy needs some anger management therapy, but damn!
On a side note, in a world of walking, talking, anthropomorphized animals, why does the cow not talk or wear clothes? Why can it be sold, but not Mickey, Donald, or Goofy? Is it that some characters can be captured and domesticated for slave labor, but these guys are somehow untouchable?
I have no idea how this world would work!
7) The Reveal (The Witches)
“Stranger danger” is practically beaten into every child’s brain, because they’re exceedingly naïve and their parents are terrified. The makers of this Roald Dahl movie adaptation probably made a bet with themselves to see if they could reverse that, because many adults happily rented it and their children were then soundly traumatized.
I saw this movie at a friend’s sleepover, and I could not sleep for the rest of the night. The Willy Wonka Tunnel of Hell may have the element of surprise on its side, but it has nothing on an entire movie full of disturbing concepts and imagery, all of them posing threats to innocent kids, simply because they are kids. Imagine if Willy Wonka was an army of hideous, vicious old women who had a more active loathing of children, beyond just the bratty ones, and decided to kill/eat them as a result.
The scene where a grown woman pulls a snake from her purse and attempts to coax the main character out of his tree house is nightmarish enough, but then you have the scene where the witches go to their witch conference or whatever. They remove their disguises in a hideous fashion, talk about their plans for child murder, and then turn the boy into a mouse after he is caught spying on them.
So we have “stranger danger”, yet more body-horror, and a race to foil the plans of a powerful, secret group that few other people realize is a threat, with only the boy’s grandmother to help the kid along. The one adult he can rely on is only so useful, and the other adults are either dangerous or ignorant. That’s encouraging to know, right?
6) The Cauldron Born (The Black Cauldron)
Some people consider this film a cult classic, while others demonstrate why it did so poorly at the box office. It’s a very flawed, mixed bag, but I would put myself in the former group. The villain has an intimidating, cool design; the art style is dark, but also fairly whimsical; and personally, I thought Elmer Bernstein’s music fit this movie better than it did Ghostbusters.
There’s nightmare fuel aplenty, too.
In one scene, the Horned King becomes a necromancer, resurrecting a bunch of dead warriors from various places and eras. An eerie green fog begins rolling out of the cauldron, becoming almost like a soup in places as it fills the room, and one of the king’s henchmen stupidly jabs it with his spear. Suddenly, skeletons erupt in a jump scare, descending on the man. We don’t see what happens to him, but we can assume he’s dead, as the scene cuts to the remaining humans looking away in horror. Then the Horned King sends his undead minions out to “destroy all in (their) path,” and I think about how they would go to the ends of the earth, murdering helpless, unsuspecting villagers like a plague.
The scares in this scene is pretty shallow for me. It’s mostly about the imagery and the music, but for what it is, it’s damn effective. The zombie sun-genre of horror isn’t really my forte, but these evil undeads unnerve me every time.
5) Charlie Goes to Hell (All Dogs Go to Heaven)
The concept of eternal punishment is scary enough by itself. Human beings don’t like pain, and the idea that we’d suddenly have no control, no way to stop the unpleasantness happening to us, and be stuck that way forever is a hard pill to swallow. Even worse, what if we don’t know what we did to deserve it, or the act/acts themselves were miniscule? Arbitrary? Does God even have an appeals court?
Hell is a fear that is instilled in Christians (and other religious folks with Hell-esque parallels) from an early age, and it’s hard to shake off the vague, but ultimately disturbing imagery that comes to mind when that word is uttered. It can be uniquely terrifying to each person, but the basic conceit is the same, and so the fear holds some universality as well.
In this movie, the main character, a German Shepherd named Charlie, stole a second chance at life while he was in Doggy Heaven. As punishment for this, he will go to Hell. Directly to Hell. He can’t pass Go, and he certainly can’t collect $200.
While he feigns indifference initially, we can see that Charlie is fearful of the consequences of his actions, and no scene shows this more clearly than the Dream Sequence. There’s fire, brimstone, demons, and most poignant of all, a crushing sense of being unable to escape or stop what is happening to him.
Don Bluth movies in general have this great way of capturing what it’s like to feel small, insignificant, and prey to the whims of the world around you…Probably because so many of the movies involve mice or other small creatures dealing with vicious predators, or the indifferent reactions of humans and nature. Bluth’s world either doesn’t care or is actively working against them, isolating and tormenting the characters but also providing great catharsis when they finally achieve their goals.
Charlie’s torment is necessary, showing his growth as a character and the loss of the innocence/ignorance that once shielded him from it, but that makes it no less terrifying.
4) The Bear (The Fox and the Hound)
Things that make this scene stick out:
- It’s jarring as all hell! It comes right out of nowhere; what you thought was going to be the climax of the story – Todd either escaping Copper and Amos or getting killed by them – is kicked out of this giant moving car to make room for a random bear attack.
- It looks like some weird, mutant cross between a Grizzly Bear and Black Bear. And what bear has freaky demon eyes like that?!
- Amos gets knocked down a hill, losing his gun in the process, and then he gets stuck in his own trap, which I’d imagine was pretty painful in and of itself. Despite how much I hate him during the rest of the movie, and despite knowing he provoked the attack by shooting the bear, I can believe his terror and helplessness. He’s old, and now suddenly rendered defenseless.
- Despite the lack of blood, the scene is full of violence. You can almost feel the impact of every bite and scratch, especially followed by all of those grunts and yelps. The Great Mouse Detective, which Disney put out a mere 5 years later, has a similar effect in its climactic showdown. Every blow and reaction shot seems heavily focused on.
As a kid, it was fairly easy for me to picture myself or someone I loved in place of whoever was being hurt or scared in any given movie. Animal attacks are particularly scary because you’re not facing something you can possibly persuade. All you have left is your speed (assuming you can move at all) and your wits (assuming you wouldn’t go stupid with panic and adrenaline).
KILL IT WITH FIRE!!!
3) A Wild Beast Appears! (Beauty and the Beast)
How many animal attacks make up this list now?
I’m not trying to go for a theme here. Honestly, there is just something viscerally upsetting about seeing terrified, defenseless people (particularly old folks, women, and children) being helpless in life-or-death situations.
In his first major appearance in the story, the Beast is a large, jagged black shape with white slits for eyes, towering over Maurice, who can only cower and beg for mercy. He stalks forward, enormous claws and fangs bared. He is unrelenting, unmerciful, and just plain scary-looking, all while the scary music swells and the audio engineers overlay his vocal track with loud, deep bestial snarls and roars. Every bit of him appears to be a monster; though unlike the monsters Maurice just escaped outside, this one could potentially be reasoned with. The Beast just refuses to hear him out.
Once again, the fear comes from imagining yourself or a loved one in place of Maurice. What would you do? Despite the Beast being a hand-drawn creation, you can watch him and feel the threat that he possesses. Everything about the scene screams “RUN AWAY NOW!” Lumiere and Cogsworth just cower and stand there, barely making an attempt to calm the Beast in his territorial fury. How comforting is that? One guy invited Maurice to come in and make himself at home, but then fails to defend him, and the other guy just constantly tries to cover his own ass at your expense.
Even later, when the Beast saves Belle from the wolves, he looks as monstrous and feral as the very things he’s fighting. This is another reason that I look down on the remake; their Beast is not even remotely scary or threatening, which removes his bite, so to speak. Nevermind that the CG effects are fake-looking as hell, which also distracts from the believability, but it then removes the sense of real change when the Beast finally starts coming around to Belle and acting more human. He wasn’t just a grump hermit in a fur suit; he was regressing in despair, to the point of mentally becoming an animal.
But I digress.
2) Any Hag Scene (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves)
Particularly the one in which she is “born.”
Queen Grimhilde’s regular character design is unsettling, what with her frozen face yet sporadically widening eyes. But once she transforms into the Hag, using a potion literally made out of the stuff of nightmares, the woman becomes completely terrifying.
It is said that the actress removed her false teeth to achieve her older voice, and the Hag’s cottony cackles couple well with her poorly-aged, clearly-evil, “oh-my-God-only-an-idiot-wouldn’t-realize-this” disguise. She talks out loud to herself constantly, plotting needless cruel tortures for Snow White, and she often looks directly into the camera, as if she knows you’re there and will probably be coming after you next.
Aside from her physical repulsiveness, I think some of the fear also comes from the Queen essentially hating this little girl for an unbelievably petty reason, and being willing to kill her so sadistically. “Kill Snow and bring back her heart in a box.” “Have the dwarves bury her alive because they don’t know she’s just sleeping.” It’s all so simplistic, but brutal. Her insecurity and jealousy makes her into a complete monster, and had she survived, who knows what this depraved madwoman would have done next?
She also has a secret alchemy/black-magicky lab in the castle dungeons, which she can apparently slip in and out of unnoticed. There’s nothing like seeing a clearly dangerous person in power, roaming the streets and doing whatever she wants with no supervision or legal repercussions.
…Whatever happened to the Huntsman, anyway? Is his head on a pike, festively adorning the castle walls? Did he get away scott-free while Queenie was busy with premeditated princess murder? We’ll never know for sure, but she did say, “You know the penalty if you fail,” which I figure involves an execution of some sort…The less I think about this, the better.
1) Wolf Attack (Beauty and the Beast)
An old man gets lost in the woods, loses his horse, and then has to run from ravenous wolves.
Belle gets attacked by wolves as well, but that scene is actually very different. It comes hot off the heels of another major conflict, the music transitions fluidly, and the background and lighting are consistently…well, for lack of a better word, brighter all around.
Blue tends to be a more calming color. Plus, you can see every element clearly.
In Maurice’s scene, by contrast, the score starts out calm, but eerily discordant and all over the place. I couldn’t even find the track on the official soundtrack; it was released on a bonus CD sold separately, that’s how unnerving it is.
It also does what is called “Mickey Mousing”, a term that refers to how the music follows and embellishes the actions happening on screen, rather than just setting a general background tone. For example, at one point a shadowy wolf rushes by, and even if your eyes missed it, the music let you know that something bad had just happened.
Eyes and other animated facial features morph quickly from nervous to fearful (I have always found creepy or expressly afraid eyes chilling). Even Phillipe the horse knows that something bad is going to happen, and frustratingly, he realizes as quickly as the audience does. His rider, meanwhile, is stubborn and distracted, ignoring the obvious warning signs.
The lighting is predominantly composed of reds and yellows (colors that tend to excite and agitate, according to Psychology), and it’s limited because it comes from the inventor’s lantern. The light is soon put out, however, in an extremely quick and violent way, and then all is left in darkness as Maurice’s one immediate hope of escape, his horse, is driven away in terror.
Much like with The Fox and the Hound’s Bear, there is a lot of motion and violent energy in this scene. A chorus of wolf howls goes up, causing Phillipe to back his cart into a tree. A mass of angry black bats comes flocking out, scaring the horse into nearly running himself off of a cliff. Phillipe rears, knocking Maurice off and leaving him alone in the forest. Just as the old man picks himself up, he gets chased by a group of wolves and falls down a cliff. He then reaches a gate and manages to get inside, but a wolf bites his foot and almost drags his whole leg out into biting range. The pacing of it all rarely gives the audience a break, and depending on your imagination, it can be like experiencing the danger yourself, if secondhand.
Belle’s scene is still scary in its own way – it’s still a defenseless person possibly going to be mauled to death – but it’s not filmed the same way and it doesn’t really sneak up on first-time viewers. As soon as she starts riding into the woods, you already have an idea of what she’s going to face. The wolves themselves shown up more on screen, coming from predictable directions, and they are also a lot easier to see in their horrific entirety.
Maurice’s chase scene was shorter, but it was more uncertain and suspenseful.
What were your scariest movie moments from childhood? Please share in the comments below. If you’re wondering why something isn’t on this list, I most likely didn’t see it until I was older or it didn’t bother me all that much.
*None of the images, soundbites, or clips in this post belong to me.