These days, Hollywood seems to be worried about scaring kids with its family movies – but filmmakers had no such qualms back in the day. Terror-inducing scenes can be found in many a classic family-friendly movie, and below we’ve selected some that still haunt us to this very day. How many of the following scenes do you remember being scared of and traumatised by as a child?
20. Dumbo: Pink elephants on parade
Walt Disney loved nothing more than to enchant and delight children everywhere; but at the same time, he was also more than happy to well and truly freak them out every now and then. The legendary animated film producer and his team did just that with the notorious pink elephants on parade sequence in their classic 1941 film Dumbo.
The truly nightmarish scene sees the young elephant of the title and his mouse friend Timothy suffer bizarre and unnerving hallucinations of giant pink elephants. The duo endure these alarming visions as a result of getting drunk on champagne, so over the years this scene has gone some way to dissuade younger viewers from ever touching alcohol.
19. The Wizard of Oz: The flying monkeys
The Wizard of Oz has been an enduring family favourite for decades, and still has a distinctive charm and magic all of its own. Even today, when kids are used to seeing computer-generated creations in every new movie, the simpler practical effects and make-up creations of the 1939 film have not lost their power to captivate the audience.
By extension, The Wizard of Oz also hasn’t lost its ability to leave younger viewers cowering behind sofa cushions. Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West is scary enough on her own, but nothing in the film left us recoiling in horror quite like the Witch’s fleet of flying monkeys. There’s just something about their movements and their make-up design that creeps us out, even as adults!
18. Watership Down: The destruction of the warren
It’s an animated film about rabbits, so naturally millions of parents in the 80s were more than happy to sit their kids down to watch Watership Down. However, young and old viewers alike soon found out the hard way just what an intense, and at times truly terrifying experience the 1978 adaptation of Richard Adams’ novel really is.
There’s no shortage of scary moments in Watership Down, but the warren sequence frightened us the most. In case you don’t recall, the scene features a rabbit staring down the dark tunnel, listening to a heartbeat that gets louder and louder, whilst at the same time hearing another rabbit tell a story of how the warren was destroyed by diggers.
17. Pinocchio: Donkey transformation
Disney’s second animated feature Pinocchio may not be the first movie you think of when you’re trying to recall scenes that traumatised you as a child, but how about the moment when Lampwick turns into a donkey? If you remember, the poor child starts screaming “Mama! Mama!'” whilst making horrible donkey sounds and destroying the room around him.
When we see the little wooden hero of the title beginning to suffer a similar fate, that proved enough to push many of us over the edge in our younger years. Pinocchio’s whole Donkey Island sequence was designed to caution children against misbehaving; we’re not sure if it was entirely successful there, but it definitely gave us nightmares.
16. Gremlins: The kitchen scene
Today, Gremlins is remembered as one of the key films which inspired the introduction of the PG-13 certificate (hand-in-hand with another 1984 film we’ll come back to later). At the time, however, it was generally considered perfectly suitable for little kids, despite the fact that the madcap action gets pretty nasty at times.
Surely the nastiest moment in Gremlins comes when Mrs Peltzer (Frances Lee McCain) battles three of the little monsters in her kitchen. On the off chance these moments haven’t haunted your dreams since childhood, Mrs Peltzer deals with the Gremlins by mashing one in a food processor, stabbing another with a kitchen knife, and blowing up the third in the microwave.
15. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory: The Tunnel of Terror
Proving once and for all that they don’t make ‘em like they used to, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, released all the way back in 1971, features one of the most bizarre and terrifying scenes we ever saw as children. The scene in question sees Gene Wilder’s already eccentric chocolatier seemingly go completely insane as he leads his guests on a boat ride.
Wilder’s performance is chilling enough on its own, as he murmurs, “there’s no earthly way of knowing which direction we are going…” But things are only made more unnerving if we pay attention to the imagery flashing up in the tunnel. Believe it or not, this includes a worm crawling over a dead man’s face and a live chicken having its head cut off with a meat cleaver. Family-friendly!
14. Who Framed Roger Rabbit: Judge Doom kills the shoe
There weren’t many characters back in the 80s who were quite so scary as Judge Doom. His name alone is ominous, his dress sense even more so, and Christopher Lloyd plays the role with a sinister relish. However, Doom didn’t really leave a mark on younger viewers until that key scene where he proves just how ruthless he really is.
In a scene that’s still unnerving to us now, Doom demonstrates the power of his Toon-killing chemical named Dip by picking up a cute and completely innocent animated shoe, and sadistically lowering the terrified piece of living footwear into the liquid. It’s a particularly upsetting moment given how slowly the shoe dies, in clear pain and distress.
13. The Land Before Time: Littlefoot’s mother dies
Today, most of us remember The Land Before Time mainly for its seemingly never-ending series of straight-to-video sequels, most of which were genuinely fine for toddlers to watch unsupervised. However, as those of us who grew up with the original film will know, the franchise didn’t shy away from getting seriously intense at times.
The moment that really messed us up as kids is when poor Littlefoot’s mother dies right in front of him in the first film, as all the while the helpless infant can only sit there and watch. While characters had died in animated films before, there weren’t many times where we’d literally seen the moment of someone’s death right there in front of us.
12. Labyrinth: The helping hands
Considering it opens with a baby being abducted by goblins, Jim Henson’s fantasy adventure Labyrinth naturally has some dark elements throughout. However, no moment in the film is quite so nightmarish as where Sarah plummets down a hole, only to be grabbed by the ‘helping hands’ which come out of the wall and make her choose her fate.
As inherently creepy as this scene is, it only becomes scarier to watch when you learn that Sarah actress Jennifer Connelly – then 14 – was genuinely in some danger: she was hanging from a harness 40 feet up, with nothing to hold on to. She was also told that if she tried to touch the back of the shaft, her fingers would be chopped off by the hinges!
11. The NeverEnding Story: Artax drowns
Fantasy epic The NeverEnding Story may have given us Limahl’s unforgettable theme song (immortalised in Stranger Things season 3), but it also gave us some genuinely scary and emotional moments. Far and away the most traumatising moment of the film comes when Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) attempts to cross the Swamps of Sadness with his horse Artax, but Artax drowns in the mud.
This is still an upsetting scene for many adult viewers, not least because of the fact that a real horse was used for the scene, and is clearly in real distress as the mud creeps up past its neck. (For years, rumours have circulated that the horse really did drown whilst shooting the scene, but we’re happy to report this is just an urban legend.)
10. Raiders of the Lost Ark: The melting Nazis
It may have a high body count, a fair bit of blood and a few rude words, but back in the 80s the original Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark was considered just fine for a PG rating. Millions of youngsters dreamed of being Indy when they grew up – but those dreams occasionally turned into nightmares thanks to the film’s spectacular climax.
In case you don’t remember, the ending sees Indy (Harrison Ford) and Marion (Karen Allen) tied up whilst their Nazi captors perform a ceremony to open the Ark of the Covenant. Phantom figures then fly out of the Ark, and brutally wipe out all the villains, and we get a few nice close-up shots of their faces melting off. That’s an image that stays with you!
9. Ghostbusters: The librarian ghost
Ray Parker Jr’s unforgettable theme song may have had us all singing, “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts!” In reality, though, most of us would have to admit that the spooks and spectres of Ghostbusters left us quaking in our little Wellington boots. Surely the scariest of the bunch was the very first ghost we see in the movie, in the library scene.
After a slow, eerie build-up, our heroes Peter, Ray and Egon find the floating figure of a woman reading a book, who seems harmless enough at first. Then, of course, Ray misguidedly yells at his colleagues to “get her!” – at which point, the little old lady immediately transforms into a raging ball of fury. For most of us, that was our first experience of a jump scare.
8. Bambi: The death of Bambi’s mother
Once again, we’re touching on a Walt Disney production that touched generations of viewers with its overwhelmingly cute vision of a little deer and his woodland friends. And yet, as few among us will ever forget, that cuteness goes hand-in-hand with overtones of real threat and a genuine sense of loss and pain when Bambi loses his mother.
The two of them are minding their own business being adorable in the snow, when the mother suddenly senses a threat, and tells her child to run to the thicket – whilst gunshots come thundering behind them. When Bambi finally makes it to shelter, his mother has not come with him. It’s a chilling, tear-jerking moment for young and old alike.
7. The Dark Crystal: The podling is drained of life
For those who grew up with the Muppets (isn’t that just about everyone?), our first viewing of Jim Henson’s first non-Muppet movie The Dark Crystal is a serious eye-opener. On top of dealing with some heavy philosophical themes, the hard-edged fantasy sports truly scary monsters in the Skeksis, and a number of very creepy sequences.
Most disturbing of all is the scene where a podling is strapped down and forced to stare at the crystal, the effect of which drains the helpless creature of its life essence. As we watch, the adorable little podling’s face shrivels and all the colour drains from its eyes. We’re a long way from Kermit and Miss Piggy here!
6. Superman III: Vera Webster turns into a cyborg
Looking back, the most upsetting thing about Superman III is how poor it is in comparison to the two ground-breaking superhero movies that preceded it. Even so, Christopher Reeve’s third film in the iconic tights and cape was popular family viewing back in the 80s, and most of us enjoyed it just fine – up until the final showdown, that is.
In a bid to defend itself, the villain’s super-computer grabs hench-woman Vera (Annie Ross), pulls her into a metallic embrace, and as she stares out toward the camera crying out in anguish pieces of metal circuitry are forcibly clamped down on her face and body, turning her into a killer cyborg. Few kids could ever watch that without being seriously freaked out.
5. The Black Cauldron: The Cauldron-born
Today, we scarcely bat an eyelid when a Disney movie gets rated PG, but back when The Black Cauldron arrived in 1985 (after a long, troubled production), it was the first time one of the studio’s animated features had been slapped with the rating. Not for nothing were parents cautioned about the film, as it features scenes almost certain to render younger viewers hysterical with fear.
Main bad guy The Horned King is sinister enough on his own (not least thanks to John Hurt’s creepy vocals), but when he uses the titular cauldron to raise an army of ‘Cauldron-born’ – i.e. heavily armed walking skeletons – it really tests the nerves of the kids in the audience. Reportedly these scenes were even more disturbing until top brass at Disney demanded the removal of the scariest moments.
4. Return to Oz: The Wheelers
Belated sequels to much-loved classics are always controversial, but Return to Oz took things to a whole new level. Wildly different in tone and content to 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, the 1985 follow-up presented a considerably darker take on L. Frank Baum’s stories, with a very real sense of threat to Fairuza Balk’s Dorothy throughout.
We could list plenty of disturbing things in the film, from Dorothy almost getting electro-shock therapy in the earthbound opening, to Jean Marsh’s Mombi taking her own head off. What tends to stay with most viewers, however, are the Wheelers, menacing antagonists with wheels for feet and hands, and who chase and terrorise Dorothy with sadistic glee.
3. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: The death of E.T.
There arguably wasn’t a single movie that touched audiences more in the 80s than E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Steven Spielberg’s moving tale of the friendship between a lonely boy and a marooned alien became the biggest box office hit of all time on release, and a vital part of the film’s enduring popularity is its emotional impact.
This reaches its peak when E.T. and Elliot, having developed a physical bond, both fall ill and are hospitalised – but whilst Elliot starts getting better, E.T. does not. Watching the beloved cute alien turn chalky white and slowly die is agonising for young and old viewers alike, while child actor Henry Thomas does a remarkable job conveying heartbreaking grief.
2. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: The sacrifice
Having melted some faces at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas decided to get even more horrific midway through sequel Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The scene in question pushed the PG rating to breaking point, and was a key factor in the introduction of the PG-13 rating later in 1984.
In the ominous temple deep beneath Pankot Palace, acolytes of the Thuggee perform a sacrifice in which a protesting man is bound to a rack and has his heart removed from his chest, before being lowered into a lava pit where his body bursts into flames. Needless to say, a lot of kids (not to mention their parents) were a bit upset by this spectacle.
1. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Child Catcher
For many years now, kids have been told about ‘stranger danger.’ From an early age, most of us know that if a mysterious unknown adult ever shows up and offers you a treat of some kind, you get away from that person as quick as you can. Sadly, this was a lesson that Caractacus Potts (Dick Van Dyke) failed to adequately drum into his children.
As such, when the sinister Child Catcher (Robert Helpmann) tells Jeremy and Jemima Potts that he has sweeties for them in his cart, the foolhardy youngsters stroll on in – only to find themselves locked in a cage whilst the captor laughs with sadistic glee. No matter how old you are, if you’re not filled with dread by the notion of a creepy man abducting helpless pre-teens, there’s something wrong with you.