For obvious reasons, kids’ movies have a reputation for being kind of simple. They usually have a formulaic plot, bright colours and loud noises to keep young children entertained, as well as a guaranteed happy ending to stop parents from worrying. However, throughout the 80s, several movies were released that were aimed at children that also happened to feature some utterly surreal and nightmarish visuals.
Whether it was villains that were too scary for any child, weirdly intense situations or just horrifying character design, these moments from 80s kids’ movies were actually pretty traumatic.
20. The Spirit Book in The Care Bears Movie
What could be more wholesome, harmless and 100% kid-friendly than a movie starring those delightful 80s cuddly toys and TV cartoon stars, The Care Bears? Well, it seems the makers of 1985’s The Care Bears Movie felt the best way to emphasise the cute, non-threatening nature of their furry protagonists was to pit them against an extremely sinister adversary. The villain they settled on was the Spirit Book, a magic talking book with a woman’s face inside which talks to the one who opens it.
What makes the Spirit Book all the more fearful is how she seems friendly enough at first, persuading her new ‘owner’ Nicholas that she’s helping him, but gradually appears more fearsome as her corruption becomes clear. If the makers of The Care Bears Movie were trying to do more to keep children of the 80s from reading, they may have succeeded; we definitely thought twice before picking up a book again afterwards.
19. The Skeksis in The Dark Crystal
Most terrifying, though, is the sheer ruthlessness and cruelty of the Skesis – particularly when they utilise the power of the crystal to suck the life essence out of an adorable, innocent Podling. Recent Netflix prequel series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (which features Simon Pegg as the voice of the simpering Chamberlain) proved the Skeksis are every bit as scary to younger viewers today – and many of the older ones among us will also admit they still freak us out!
18. Rooster in Annie
Tim Curry has played a lot of villainous characters in his time, from an evil haunted piano in Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas, to Stephen King’s famous clown Pennywise. With that having been said, arguably more unnerving than any of Curry’s roles is Rooster in Annie. Rooster is not supernatural or particularly powerful; he’s just a slimy conman and criminal who is always looking for an easy way to make money.
However, his strange, unhinged grin and his willingness to kidnap the most lovable orphan in the world had many children hiding behind the sofa the first time he showed up on screen. There’s just something inescapably sinister about those staring eyes, that venomous smile, and that menacing mustache…
17. The hospital visit in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
E.T. is one of the most beloved family films of all time, and is full of heart-warming and funny moments, from the adorable alien hiding out amongst the toys, to the final scene where the creature takes a bicycle basket ride through the sky. However, one of the often more overlooked aspects of the story is actually really hard to watch. The scene in which both E.T. and Elliott get sick features a lot of things that are traumatising for kids.
There are strange men in uniforms invading the family home, hospital equipment blinking and beeping, and wires and electrodes being stuck to E.T. and Elliott’s body and face. Not only that, but both characters spend the sequence crying and reaching for each other, making it a scene that launched a thousand hospital phobias in kids of a certain age.
16. The Fratellis in Goonies
The Goonies is a classic adventure movie that many watched over and over as kids, wearing out the VHS tape and even mouthing along to the most iconic lines. The most obviously scary thing about the film is Sloth, with his hulking frame and monstrous visage. Still, it doesn’t take long for the Goonies to learn that Sloth isn’t just a sympathetic character, but a heroic one.
With that said, the true villains of the story are the other members of the Fratelli family – Anne Ramsey’s Mama Fratelli in particular. The torture scene, in which Mama Fratelli captures Chunk and threatens to pulp his fingers in a blender, is scarier than all the crawling through caves, looking at pirate skeletons and escaping tight tunnels combined.
15. Hell in All Dogs Go to Heaven
All Dogs Go to Heaven is supposed to be an animated comedy aimed squarely at young children. However, this didn’t stop the animators on the Don Bluth-produced film from including some seriously dark imagery. At one point in the film, the main dog, Charlie, is told that he is unconditionally doomed to Hell because he stole a pocket watch, and is subsequently shown exactly what that entails.
Compared to all the other adult scenes in the movie, which show dogs drinking alcohol, setting up gambling rings and even getting hit by cars, the actual scenes that depict Hell are truly terrifying. The landscape is filled with smoke and horrifying demons, but the worst part is that Charlie himself looks, like the audience, absolutely traumatised.
14. Large Marge’s story in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is a movie based on a beloved children’s property, so there’s a temptation to question how scary it could really be. However, the film was directed by Tim Burton (here making his first feature film), and his entire brand is centred around walking the line between creepy and whimsical. Considering that, it’s less surprising that the movie contains a few genuinely horrifying moments and characters.
The most iconic is Large Marge, who tells a scary story while Pee-wee hitchhikes in the passenger seat. Her story is tense enough by itself, but it ends with Marge’s face transforming into a claymation nightmare, complete with popping eyes, a demonic tongue, and a blood-curdling scream.
13. The Dip in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is generally remembered for its colourful characters and larger-than-life comedy, but it’s actually one of Disney’s darkest, grittiest outings. The abundance of iconic cartoon characters (from Mickey Mouse to Daffy Duck) found prancing around every corner means there’s plenty in director Robert Zemeckis’ film to laugh at. However, there are some genuinely frightening moments in there too – the most memorable and nightmare-inducing of which is when the villainous Judge Doom demonstrates the power of the dip for the first time.
The poor cartoon shoe is the literal embodiment of innocence and cuteness, and he doesn’t stand a chance. We see him reduced to ink and bubbles in seconds, while his fearful squeaking is still ringing in the audience’s ears. The fact that Doom is portrayed by Christopher Lloyd – someone loved by all kids of the 80s thanks to his role as Back to the Future’s kindly Doc Brown – only makes the whole spectacle more unsettling.
12. The Clown in The Brave Little Toaster
The Brave Little Toaster is another animated movie which was clearly written for, aimed at and promoted to children. Despite this, it contains scenes so scary that no child can watch it without having those horrifying visions burned into their brains forever. In particular, The Brave Little Toaster features a firefighting clown that Toaster sees in a nightmare, complete with a face that no child can ever forget.
Forget Pennywise: it was the clown in The Brave Little Toaster who really triggered the coulrophobia in a generation of young viewers in the 80s. The janky, cheap-looking animation only makes the clown scarier, and he ends up crossing over into far-too-terrifying for kids territory.
11. The Wheelers in Return To Oz
The original Wizard of Oz is already pretty frightening, thanks to the iconic Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West, not to mention a whole hoard of flying monkeys, scary palace guards, and even grumpy apple trees with a tendency to throw things. However, the belated 1985 Oz sequel, Return to Oz, ramps up the creepiness tenfold, it ranking among the creepiest movies of the 80s (never mind just kids’ movies). For starters, the film sees Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) almost given electro-shock therapy to ‘cure’ her visions of Oz; then, when she returns to the magical land, she finds it in ruins thanks to the sinister Nome King.
Scariest of all, however, are Return to Oz’s Wheelers, horrifying creatures that are bent over on all fours, and who zoom from place to place thanks to the wheels they have instead of feet and hands. The worst part is that these creatures are not supposed to be evil but neutral, even though it’s impossible not to be scared just looking at them.
10. The Smooze in My Little Pony: The Movie
One would imagine that nothing could be less threatening than a movie centred on an ultra-cute, pre-school friendly toy line. However, while 1986’s My Little Pony: The Movie may be a very bright and colourful affair, it also features a threat that many younger viewers found more than a little bit ominous. The film sees our beloved ponies come under attack by a wicked witch named Hydia, who conjures up an evil force called the Smooze.
The Smooze is a tidal wave of purple slime, filled with roaring faces out to gobble up everything standing in their way. Sure, the people behind the My Little Pony movie may introduce the Smooze with a cheery upbeat song and give it Cookie Monster-esque characteristics, but youngsters are still liable to be disturbed by the idea of an unstoppable wave consuming all in its path.
9. A bedroom full of spiders in Something Wicked This Way Comes
Kids’ movies don’t get much more alarming than Disney’s 1983 adaptation of the classic Ray Bradbury novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, starring Jonathan Pryce as the diabolical ringmaster Mr Dark. The story centres on two young friends in a small town visited by Mr Dark’s carnival, which quickly seduces the adult population with its mystical delights. However, when the boys suspect something is amiss, they find those same magical powers used against them in increasingly horrific ways.
No one scene in the movie is quite so terrifying as when the boys suddenly find their bedroom overrun with huge hairy spiders, crawling ominously in their direction. For such an attack to occur in the traditionally safe haven of a bedroom, plus the fact that it was done 100% practically with real tarantulas… never mind the kids, is there room behind the sofa for the parents too?
8. The hallucination sequences in Young Sherlock Holmes
Written by future Harry Potter director Chris Columbus, this 1985 adventure presents the classic literary heroes Sherlock Holmes and John Watson as schoolboys solving their first mystery. Young Sherlock Holmes may be clearly geared toward younger viewers, but it still makes for extraordinarily creepy viewing at times. Holmes and Watson’s investigation uncovers a sinister occult society, who are responsible for a series of unconventional murders: the victims have somehow been driven mad and taken their own lives
This hint of a suicide theme in a kids’ movie would be chilling enough, but the deaths are the result of horrifically lifelike hallucinations induced by blow-darts of an exotic poison that sends the victims to despair. Among the horrific scenes are a man being attacked by his own chicken dinner, a reverend terrorised by a knight from his church’s stained glass window (featuring an early use of CGI), and Holmes’ love interest Elizabeth seeing herself buried alive. Eek.
7. The Owl in The Secret of NIMH
Don Bluth’s 1982 film The Secret of NIMH follows a mother mouse named Mrs Brisby, as she attempts to navigate the woodland looking for medicine for her children. Put that way, it sounds like a fairly sweet and calm story, filled with minor obstacles but an ultimately happy ending. The truth is that the film is actually majorly harrowing, and filled with fearsome beasts that would make anyone afraid to go down into the woods today.
Despite the many evil animals – such as guard rats and monstrous cats – that menace Mrs Brisby throughout the film, the scariest of them all is the Great Owl. The Great Owl is kind of a morally grey character whose main quality is his wisdom, but his huge hulking presence and glowing ember eyes make him far scarier than any amount of snapping jaws or sharp claws.
6. When Artax drowns in The NeverEnding Story
Director Wolfgang Petersen’s 1984 adaptation of Michael Ende’s novel is a time-honoured family favourite with a colourful cast and an utterly unforgettable theme song (doubly so if you saw season 3 of Stranger Things). Any great adventure has to run the gauntlet emotion-wise, from laughter, to excitement, to fear – and, of course, moments of devastating sadness. The worst such moment in The NeverEnding Story comes when the heroic Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) is crossing the dreaded Swamps of Sadness, a journey which proves too much for his noble steed, Artax.
Under the weight of both deep mud and deeper despair, Artax proves unable to fight back – and slowly drowns before us, as Atreyu bursts into tears. A huge part of what makes the scene all the more distressing is that the filmmakers really did submerge a horse in mud. This would surely not be allowed today, although urban legends that the horse drowned for real are not true.
5. Pretty much all of The Watcher in the Woods
Another extraordinarily creepy live-action Disney production is 1980’s The Watcher in the Woods, which sees a family take up residence in a remote house surrounded by woodland. You’d think the most unnerving thing they’d have to deal with was having Bette Davis as a next-door neighbour, but the family’s teen daughter Lynn-Holly Johnson soon starts experiencing all manner of weird psychic phenomena. It turns out that years earlier some kids performed a seance at the property that went badly wrong, unleashing restless spirits which plague our young heroine; and in this case, there’s so much inherent creepiness to the whole movie that it’s hard to pinpoint any one moment as the most disturbing.
In fact, critics and audiences were so creeped out by The Watcher in the Woods on release in 1980 that Disney took the unprecedented step of pulling it from cinemas after its first week, and re-releasing it in 1981 in a re-edited version with newly shot footage. And there we were thinking the most disturbing scene Lynn-Holly Johnson ever did on film was when she attempted to seduce Roger Moore in For Your Eyes Only.
4. The Horned King and his skeleton army in The Black Cauldron
1985’s The Black Cauldron isn’t one of the most celebrated Disney animated films, but it’s one that really stands alone in their body of work, primarily thanks to its astonishing darkness. A loose adaptation of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain novels, The Black Cauldron is a sword-and-sorcery adventure centred on a young would-be adventurer who is charged with protecting a pig with magical powers. Sounds like typically cute Disney fare – but that’s before you’ve seen The Horned King, the terrifying skull-faced arch-villain who needs the pig in order to capture the Black Cauldron, a mystical device with which he plans to conquer the world.
So – firstly, he’s called the Horned King; secondly, he has a skull face and long claw-like fingers; third, he has the rasping, sinister vocal tones of the late, great John Hurt. All this considered, he’s instant nightmare fuel. Add to that the fact that, once he gets the cauldron, The Horned King uses it to conjure an army of undead skeleton warriors – and, well, it’s a wonder we ever slept again afterwards.
3. The goblins kidnapping Toby in Labyrinth
After The Dark Crystal, Jim Henson’s next puppetry-based fantasy adventure, Labyrinth, took a considerably lighter tone, with an emphasis on broad comedy and funky music courtesy of leading man David Bowie. Even so, while the 1986 film is more Muppet-like in tone than The Dark Crystal, it’s still pretty darned sinister at points. The most patently distressing sequence in Labyrinth comes just prior to the start of the adventure, when emotional teen Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) discovers her baby brother Toby has been kidnapped by the goblins.
It plays out like something from a horror movie: Toby’s persistent cries suddenly cease, the light won’t come back on, and Sarah slowly paces over whilst lightning strikes and mysterious shapes move in the corners around her – then she finds the crib empty. Sure, the goblins aren’t too threatening once we get a proper look at them in action, but there’s no mistaking the very real sense of dread when they first make their appearance.
2. The post-credits scene in Masters of the Universe
1987’s big screen take on the animated adventures of He-Man has always been a bit divisive, in part because of how far it deviates from the source material. Many fans were dissatisfied with how little time the film spends on Eternia, the absence of many favourite characters, and the fact that Dolph Lundgren’s He-Man could barely speak English. However, surely no one could have been unhappy about Frank Langella’s casting as the evil Skeletor. The mask might not be the greatest (it’s screamingly obvious those are bits of black fabric posing as nose holes), but classically-trained stage actor Langella approaches the villain with Shakespearean relish, delighting in the numerous overwritten monologues.
Masters of the Universe is also notable for featuring something which, though commonplace now, was rare at the time: a post-credits scene which suggests dramatic developments to come. In this instance, Skeletor – presumed dead after plummeting down a massive pit in his final battle with He-Man – pops up from a pool of ominous pink liquid, stares directly into camera and roars, “I’ll be back!” Okay, Arnold Schwarzenegger definitely delivered that line better than Langella, but this moment was still enough to scare the pants off any unsuspecting youngster who hadn’t bothered pressing stop and rewind on their VHS tape once the end credits started.
1. Optimus Prime’s death in The Transformers: The Movie
Children of the 80s knew that there was no hero more indelible than Optimus Prime, noble leader of the heroic Autobots in the TV cartoon and toy line Transformers. So when The Transformers: The Movie showed up in 1986, just about the last thing anyone expected was for Optimus Prime to be killed stone dead. However, that was the very fate that awaited our fearless hero, along with the bulk of the other original Autobots (and a good few of the villainous Decepticons), in the big screen offshoot of the beloved Transformers animated series.
Set in the then-far off date of 2005, The Transformers: The Movie introduces a new wave of Autobots and Decepticons who pick up the battle after their forebears are spectacularly slaughtered in the first 20 minutes or so – and it’s gruesome stuff (gushing smoke and oil are pretty close to blood when you get down to it). At the time this a truly shocking spectacle, both for younger viewers and the parents who took them to see it – and it feels all the more distasteful when you learn that Optimus and all the other classic Transformers were quickly killed off under orders from toy company Hasbro, so that the movie could focus on promoting the new characters, and boost their toy sales.