As young boys and girls, a lot of the things that happened in the movies we watched went right over our heads. But when you look with grown-up eyes at some of the ‘family’ movies we watched as children, it quickly becomes clear that some of them should not have been watched by such impressionable young kids as ourselves. Here are a few of the supposedly kid-friendly films that left us just a little bit scarred.
25. ET (1982)
While the plot of ET is pretty heartwarming, ET’s appearance is really quite disturbing – especially so for any kids who watched the film back in 1982. Not only that, but there are some pretty creepy scenes dotted throughout the film – like the moment where Michael finds an emaciated ET lying in a shallow pool of water. Or who could forget the tense scene where a bunch of doctors try to defibrillate ET while Gertie bursts into tears?
Even the scene where Elliott goes to say goodbye to ET in the morgue before sealing him into his coffin is pretty jarring stuff for a supposedly kid-friendly movie. Of course, ET comes back to life eventually, and is ultimately reunited with his family by the end of the film. Still, we came away with a few nightmares as a result of some of the more unsettling parts of the film, despite the happy ending.
24. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)
Is there any kids’ film more disturbing than 1968 musical adventure fantasy Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? The film’s terrifying Child Catcher is without a doubt one of the creepiest characters in the history of cinema. Portrayed by Robert Helpmann, the Child Catcher’s primary goal in life is to capture and imprison young Vulgarian children.
It’s pretty understandable, then, that countless kids were traumatised after watching the supposed family film. One contemporary critic suggested that Helpmann would “eternally frighten children as the demented child catcher.” They weren’t wrong – in 2005, CBBC voted the Child Catcher as the scariest kids’ villain ever.
23. Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Alice in Wonderland is a quintessential kids’ movie (and book), but it’s actually peppered with a lot of dark themes and visuals. First off: the Cheshire Cat. A perpetual grin on anyone would be terrifying – not least on an ephemeral cat. Creepy smile aside, the Cheshire Cat barely speaks, which only makes him more mysterious and sinister.
The Cheshire Cat is small fry compared to the tyrannical and despotic Queen of Hearts, however. The Queen of Hearts is happy to behead virtually anyone who annoys her, a habit that horrified us all as children. Ultimately, it’s no surprise that the story of an innocent young girl getting lost in another world full of creepy creatures haunted us back in the day.
22. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
It would be impossible to compile a list of creepy kids’ films without mentioning Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The scene where Judge Doom mercilessly dissolves an animated shoe in a vat of ‘dip’ still gives us nightmares to this day. What’s more, the scene where Doom reveals himself to actually be a toon himself is no less horrifying.
The image of Christopher Lloyd’s eyes turning red while his voice transformed into an evil screech was a truly terrifying moment. So terrifying, in fact, that in 2014 Buzzfeed listed the scene as one of the most traumatising moments from 80s kids’ films. We can all agree that unblinking Judge Doom is undoubtedly one of the scariest villains to come out of 20th century cinema.
21. Pinocchio (1940)
On the surface, you wouldn’t think the 1940 Disney film of Pinocchio was particularly dark or disturbing. But there’s one scene from the film which scarred every kid that had the misfortune to watch it. At one point, the film sees Pinocchio venture to Pleasure Island, where he’s led astray by his delinquent friend Lampwick.
However, Jiminy Cricket realises that the island is cursed, and the boys are turned into donkeys as punishment for their misbehaviour. The most terrifying moment in the film has to be the scene showcasing Lampwick’s protracted transformation into a donkey. The boy screams for his mother before he finds his voice replaced by panicked braying; he then runs around the room in a mad frenzy. That’s the last we see of Lampwick, as Pinocchio abandons his donkey friend on the island – pretty dark for a kids’ film!
20. Watership Down (1978)
“Look, a lovely animated movie about some gorgeous rabbits,” our parents must have thought, but little did they understand the horror that awaited us when we watched Watership Down. However, from the moment one has an apocalyptic vision of being mauled by a dog, it’s a full-blown nightmare. Never has a movie about cartoon animals been so unsuitable for children, featuring scenes of rabbits being gutted by a hawk, traumatically caught up in a snare, and even scratching the ever-loving fluff out of each other.
Not only is the film full of rabbit-on-rabbit violence, but it even has a gut punch at the end when – spoiler alert – Hazel dies and follows the spirit of the Black Rabbit into the afterlife. Most films only have one emotive moment, but Watership Down is choc-full of them. And, of course, we shouldn’t forget the haunting soundtrack to the film. Art Garfunkel was responsible for unsettling songs like The Sound of Silence, so of course he was the perfect choice to sing the wailing eulogy to a departed warrior.
19. The NeverEnding Story (1984)
A fun and fantastical journey it may have been, but The NeverEnding Story also contained some truly troubling moments that have stayed with us for many years. For one thing – which will become a running theme in this list – the child in the film’s framing device comes from thoroughly traumatic circumstances, and seems to live an utterly miserable life. Bastian is being raised by his widowed father and is regularly bullied, and forced to take refuge in books like the titular NeverEnding Story.
Atreyu, the character within the book, is pursued by the wolf monster Gmork while attempting to fend off the destruction of his world by the Nothing. And, of course, we have to mention the film’s most iconic and traumatising moment – Atreyu leading his beautiful horse Artax into a swamp, only for him to drown in the black goop. Thankfully, all is made right in the end, and the movie has an uplifting moral about the power of imagination.
18. Labyrinth (1986)
Directed by Jim Henson, that guy responsible for the whimsical and adorable Muppets and produced by George Lucas, the guy who did Star Wars, our parents should probably be forgiven for thinking Labyrinth was the ultimate film for kids. Don’t get us wrong, it’s an amazing and iconic film, featuring a timeless performance from David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King, but there are moments so creepy that they’re hard to forget.
Everything that made The Muppets so charming is completely turned on its head on this film – namely, the strange and flexible proportions of the creatures. Sarah, the protagonist, is set upon by creatures with detachable limbs who attempt to pull her head off. And let’s not forget about the ‘Helping Hands’ that imprison Sarah: horrible, scaly things that required a 40-foot rig and almost a hundred performers to operate. Imagine a 40-foot high wall of hands!
17. Ghostbusters (1984)
Wisecracking, slightly dorky scientists try to bust ultra spooky ghosts with ‘proton packs’ that spew out golden rays. What’s not to like? Ghostbusters remains a cultural touchstone and – despite initial doubts over the budget required for its hi-tech special effects – it became one of the highest-grossing films of 1984. But while most of the ‘horror’ and supernatural elements are tongue-in-cheek, there are definitely parts of the film that deliver on genuine scares.
Whereas Slimer has become an integral part of the Ghostbusters pop culture canon, the first ghost the ‘busters encounter is a lot more disturbing. Eleanor Twitty was a librarian who was murdered in cold blood, and while she at first seems harmless she transforms into an utterly terrifying phantom. When the demigod Zuul possesses Dana (played by Sigourney Weaver), her animalistic qualities really are scary. We’re confident that it’s the scariest film Sigourney Weaver has ever been in.
16. Gremlins (1984)
Most of us expected Gremlins to be a spooky but ultimately fun cinema excursion for kids. How wrong we were. Sure, the mogwai are cute enough and hijinx are an integral part of any family film. But what if those hijinx involve murder? What about a lot of murder? ‘Mogwai’ is actually Cantonese for ‘Devil’, and they certainly start acting that way. When Mr Hanson, the schoolteacher, is studying one, it kills him. Then, the gremlins kill a helpless old lady.
These less-than-suitable-for-kids elements weren’t unnoticed by the ratings board, and Gremlins was in fact one of the films that led to the introduction of a PG-13 rating. You could, however, argue that the new rating system backfired a little, as producers flocked to market their films as PG-13: a rating that suggested films were pushing boundaries and being exciting, while still being accessible to younger viewers.
15. My Girl (1991)
Unlike many of the movies on this list, My Girl wasn’t being dark or scary. Instead, it delivers an emotional gut-punch that made it extremely difficult watch when we were younger. As much as the poster makes it out that My Girl is a heartwarming story about two unlikely friends, the film is in fact obsessed with death and making small children cry at every turn. Vada’s mother has died, her grandmother has Alzheimer’s, and she has no friends. She struggles without female guidance in her life, and constantly thinks she is on the verge of death.
Things start looking up when she befriends Thomas (Macauley Culkin), but then he goes and dies of a bee sting and then we all died from the heartbreak. Do you remember the scene that features Vada crying over Thomas J’s casket? “Where are his glasses? He needs his glasses. He was gonna be an acrobat!” It gets us every time we watch it.
14. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has always been a dark and twisted masterpiece, but the Gene Wilder movie Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory went one step further when it came to the disturbing stakes. It’s no secret that the main plot of both the book and the film involves dispatching ungrateful and greedy children in an eclectic mix of gruesome fashions, while Wonka himself is cold and sociopathic, and treats his life with reckless abandon.
When he’s ascending with Charlie and Grandpa Joe in the Great Glass Elevator, he seems resigned to the fact that he’ll probably be cut into tiny little pieces and is unconcerned that he’ll be taking a child and an OAP with him. But we couldn’t mention Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory without talking about the notorious psychedelic tunnel sequence, featuring flashing lights, serial killer-esque singing from Wilder, and gruesome background footage that includes a centipede crawling over a dead man’s face and a chicken having its head lopped off with a cleaver.
13. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
There’s nothing like that rousing theme, Harrison Ford’s roguish wit and charm, and a whole bunch of spectacular stunts to really glue kids to the screen. Raiders of the Lost Ark inspired a sense of adventure in entire generations of children, but certain parts weren’t all that suitable for a younger audience. Whether it was Toht burning an imprint of the medallion into his hand, or the Nazi giant being cut up by propellor blades, there’s plenty to be traumatised by in this otherwise hearty caper.
Interestingly, it’s possible that Indy’s professed fear of snakes directly led to an increase in ophidiophobia; as a learned behaviour, we develop these irrational fears through seeing other people being scared, even if they were mostly just cut up bits of hosepipe. But the scene that’s really stayed with us is when the Nazis finally open the ark, Toht’s face graphically melts off, and the other Nazis’ heads explode. This scene initially earned the film an R-rating, and extra CGI fire had to be added to obscure the goriest parts.
12. The Dark Crystal (1982)
Just like Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal is a film full of monsters, many of whom look like they’ve just opened the Ark of the Covenant. While the plot is relatively benign, featuring two heroes on a quest to restore a powerful crystal, the universe of The Dark Crystal is just that: dark, and definitely more on the unsettling side. The Skeksis, who are seeking to rule over Thra, use the crystal to rejuvenate themselves, but still look like rotting vultures. Even worse, the Garthim are horrific crab-like creatures who act as violent enforcers.
Even the Gelflings, the heroes of the piece, have a distinctly Uncanny Valley look to them, having human enough hair and features, but overall looking like a combination of humans, cats, and little grey men. And never forget Kira being stabbed to death. She comes back in the end, but watching puppets getting impaled is something we just don’t need to see.
11. Return to Oz (1985)
1939’s The Wizard of Oz is an evergreen classic with plenty of scary moments – such as a vicious green-skinned woman who melts into a puddle, and her flying monkey demons. However, the sequel, written and directed by Walter Murch of Apocalypse Now and The Godfather fame, has far more traumatising moments than the original.
The film opens with Dorothy being institutionalised and prepared for electroshock therapy, as her family believes Oz was a fantasy. Dorothy is freed from the asylum after a lightning strike and mysteriously finds herself back in Oz. But it’s no longer a world full of yellow brick roads and tin men. Instead, the world is overcome by Wheelers, men with wheels instead of limbs who race around at the speed of light.
10. Bambi (1942)
70% of Bambi is adorable animal antics and stunning nature scenes, but the other 30% is pure tragedy. So famous is the traumatic moment that occurs in the middle of the movie, that it has practically become synonymous with the film. The plot is actually about how Bambi grows up, falls in love and becomes the Great Prince of the Forest, but you wouldn’t know it from the pop culture conversation that exists around the feature.
The moment we’re tiptoeing around – in part because the heartbreak still feels so fresh – is when Bambi’s mother is shot by an unnamed hunter. We never actually see Bambi’s mother get shot, but we hear it, and we watch Bambi wait mournfully for her return – but, of course, she never comes back. The trauma of this moment is echoed in the film’s climax, when a wildfire spreads through the forest and the hunter returns with more men.
9. The Witches (1990)
The Witches is another Roald Dahl classic that features a surprisingly dark plot. You might have forgotten, but protagonist Luke stays with his grandmother Helga because his parents were killed in a car crash, but then Helga falls ill and is given doctor’s orders to convalesce by the sea. It just so happens that they stay in the hotel in which the witches of the world are holding their annual conference.
Given that it’s a Henson production, there’s a fair amount of body horror, including the witches’ plan to turn all of the world’s children into mice, complete with a terrifying transformation scene. But the most unsettling moment comes when the witches take off their disguises, revealing hunch-backed, hook-nosed, bald monsters with feet that have no toes. Ew!
8. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
You might have thought literally putting the word ‘nightmare’ in the title might have dissuaded parents from showing off this Tim Burton classic to their children, but you’d be wrong. Yet again, the children of the world fall prey to a feature that’s animated, and therefore must be suitable for children. Now don’t get us wrong: we love The Nightmare Before Christmas, but did it leave us with unresolved trauma of creepy-crawlies and soft-spoken skeletons? Unquestionably.
Jack Skellington tries to take over Christmas with the best of intentions, but when he puts the residents of Halloween Town in charge of the festivities, they obviously start giving severed hands as presents. However, even the terrifying stocking stuffers have nothing on Halloweentown’s creepiest resident: Oogie Boogie. This potato sack with a soulful voice but no soul eventually unravels into a pile of chittering bugs. While that’s highly relatable, it was also hugely disturbing for us as kids!
7. The Wizard (1989)
The Wizard was hugely negative reviewed when it released, and achieved only tepid box office success, mostly because it was basically one big product placement for the Nintendo Entertainment system. While it’s since become a cult classic, in part because of its overblown acting and coverage of classic video games, for many of us it’s seared into our memories as being quite an emotionally traumatic story.
Not only does the protagonist get broken out of a mental institute, but Jimmy is constantly hustling people out of their money by beating them at video games, and also has to elude a child bounty hunter. When the children eventually drive off into the sunset, competition prize in hand, Jimmy first makes a stop at the Cabazon Dinosaurs, to honour his sister who died tragically and set the whole plot in motion. Don’t tell us you didn’t cry!
6. Dumbo (1941)
Another Disney film, and another mother in peril. But, this time, it’s an elephant being tortured by the circus. Not only that, but Dumbo is bullied, Dumbo’s mother is imprisoned for defending him, and Dumbo is then dressed as a clown and forced to leap from a diving board. All that, and then the extra sprinkle of sadness on the depressing cake, Baby Mine.
But it isn’t just the emotional hardship we endured while watching Dumbo – we were also freaked out by the pink elephant sequence, which happens after Dumbo and Timothy accidentally get sozzled on champagne. The hallucinogenic scene, in which elephants march, inflate and explode set to creepy music, scarred us for life. So you can see why they decided to remove the scene from the 2019 remake.
5. The Land Before Time (1988)
The Land Before Time is thoroughly underrated, and many think of it as a lesser-known Disney flick or knock-off. In actual fact, the movie combines the cutthroat plot of Bambi with cute dinosaurs and natural disasters, making for the ultimate in child-scarring cinema. The most affecting event happens towards the beginning of the film, when Littlefoot is attacked by a vicious Sharptooth, also known as a T-Rex.
Littlefoot survives and is rescued by her mother, who is fatally wounded in the attempt. Not only that, but at that exact moment an earthquake strikes, separating Littlefoot from her herd. Most of the herd dies, including her mother – and, in contrast to Bambi, the moments are most definitely shown in the film. Disaster nearly strikes later when Petrie the Pterodactyl is nearly dragged down to the watery depths with the Sharptooth in the film’s climactic battle, but thankfully survives the ordeal.
4. Antz (1998)
You don’t hear very much about Antz anymore, even though it was fairly successful at the time of its release. If anything, the film is most famous for the public feud that erupted between Jeffrey Katzenberg and John Lasseter of Pixar over allegations that Katzenberg had plagiarised the ideas behind the film before he departed to launch Dreamworks.
The movie follows ants doing battle with acid-spraying termites, which leads to some seriously messed up death scenes, and horrific drownings towards the climax of the film. “It’s so free, it turns visual cartwheels,” said Roger Ebert of the film. “It enters into a microscopic world–an ant colony beneath Central Park – and makes it into a world so vast and threatening that comparisons with “Star Wars” are not unjustified.” Which is another way of saying that the deaths are truly haunting.
3. Stand by Me (1986)
It might not technically be a kids’ film, but Stand By Me was definitely a movie we ended up seeing as kids, since the marketing was focused on the boys being obsessed with Pez. It’s an incredible film, and fully showcases River Phoenix’s star quality, but that doesn’t mean the whole thing isn’t terribly upsetting.
The plot of the film involves a group of four boys searching for a body they’ve heard was discovered out of town. They get caught up with a gang, find leeches on their groins, and generally ruminate on death and the grief they’re experiencing. The toughest moment of all, however, comes at the very end, when the older Gordie talks about how his friend, Chris, died trying to break up a fight. He wistfully says: “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”
2. Hocus Pocus (1993)
On its release, Hocus Pocus was such a flop at the box office that it’s thought to have lost Disney as much as $16.5 million. Since then, however, it’s become a cult classic and a staple of the spooky season. Starring Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker, the film centres on three witches in Salem Massachusetts who absorb the souls of children in order to achieve immortality. You know, a typical Disney comedy.
Despite being very funny, the film also has its spooky moments. The witches survive being burned in a furnace, only to meet gruesome fates as the sun rises. Two of the witches turn to dust, while Winifred becomes a sharp-clawed stone statue. Not only that, but at one point Winifred raises her former lover, Billy Butcherson, from the dead, and sets him upon the children who keep thwarting her plans. As well as having his mouth sewn up, he also grossly belches moths when he is finally released.
1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
For the top place in our list, we had to go with the most classic fairy tale of all: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As much as some might fondly remember the film as the adventures of a rag-tag gang of dwarfs and a beautiful princess, the evil queen certainly made an impression on our young minds. Jealous of Snow White’s beauty, the queen demands her heart be ripped from her chest and placed in a jewelled box, which is pretty dark all by itself.
However, when her huntsman fails to go through with the murder, she creates a demonic-looking poison apple and disguises herself as a hag. We’ll never forget the scene of Snow White fleeing in peril and encountering the horrifying faces on those trees as even nature seems to conspire against her escape. Thankfully, the queen eventually suffers a gruesome death, falling to her death after the precipice she’s standing on is struck by lightning.