The Scariest Movies I Saw as a Kid
I may have been a sheltered child, but some of the classic kids' films of my youth creeped me out to no end. Did I still watch scary movies, and in a weird way enjoy being scared? Heck, yes. Even children enjoy a good scare every now and then--think of Halloween, campfire ghost stories, Goosebumps books.
With that in mind, I decided to take a look back at the kids' movies that scared the bejesus out of me as a child. What was it about them that got under my skin, made my heart beat faster, and made me cover my eyes (and peek through my fingers)?
I've Got a Golden Ticket
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) seems like a good place to start. It remains to this day one of my favorites, but I can't ignore the fact that it always left me with an unsettled feeling. The orange-skinned Oompa-Loompas are creepy, for one, showing up with their pom-pom shoes and moralistic ditties every time a child meets his or her just deserts.
And about the Wonka kids: even though they're meant to be absolutely horrid, bratty children, I always thought their punishments were extreme, bordering on disturbing. I mean, I needed to know that they'd be returned unharmed in the end, not jammed in a chocolate-filled chute (very claustrophobic), blown up like a blueberry, stretched out like taffy, or incinerated in the garbage bin. And it was probably author Roald Dahl's intention to make children think about their bad behavior, because my guilty conscience would start working overtime as I tallied up my childish offenses. (Oh, God, no! I didn't make my bed!)
If there's one scene in particular that most people would agree is genuinely terrifying, it's--yes, you guessed it--the trippy, psychedelic boat ride. The kids just get done exploring the enchanting, brightly colored candyland paradise, when Wonka takes them on a boat trip through the dark recesses of hell, I mean, his factory. Let's count the disturbing images that appear in this sequence, shall we? Close-up flashes of bugs and lizards; a snake slithering across someone's face; a chicken beheading. Yeesh! And all the while, Wonka's singing in that eerily quiet voice, a demented smile on his face. There's enough nightmare material in that two-minute segment alone to last a kid for weeks! (If there's one thing really funny about it, it's Veruca telling her daddy at the end, "I do not want a boat like that.")
That's another weird thing about this movie--Willy Wonka himself. What's up with him? Are we supposed to like him or run away screaming? One moment he seems like a sweet, albeit eccentric candyman (Mother always warned us to mistrust men offering us candy), then he suddenly unleashes his wrath on poor Charlie Bucket ("You lose! Good day, sir!").
Gene Wilder intentionally portrayed his character in this ambiguous manner, I've heard. He fought to have his Wonka first appear walking with a cane, only to suddenly somersault in front of the astonished crowd. His reasoning: from the start, we should wonder if we can trust him, or is all not as it seems? Still, I give Wilder a lot of credit for taking a manic, inscrutable book character, not wholly likable, and giving him a gentler side. (I won't even go into Johnny Depp's reinterpretation of the character, evidently inspired by Michael Jackson, which is frightening in and of itself.)
Which Wonka kid was the brattiest?
Not Clowns Again
My mom always hated The Brave Little Toaster (1987), she told me recently. I was surprised, but I could guess why--it's such a dark, freaky movie for an animated kids' cartoon. Let's leave aside for a moment the idea of our common household appliances being alive and having feelings (how could we ever again in good conscience throw away an old toaster or scrap a beat-up car?), but focus on one of the scariest nightmare sequences featuring, of all things, a demonic clown. That's right: kids don't have to wait to read Steven King to develop an unhealthy fear of clowns, just pop in Brave Little Toaster. Add in another scene with an air conditioning unit working itself into such a fit of rage and psychosis that it dies a spectacularly fiery, smoky death. Oh yeah, kids, watch this scary movie again as an adult--it's a doozie!
A Touch of the Supernatural
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), a rollicking good adventure film, was beloved in our household, but the mix of violence and spooky mysticism was a tad intense for me at a young age. I could handle the prolonged fight scenes, the underground chamber of asps, even the guy sliced up by the chopper blade (thankfully implied, not shown). What got to me was the climactic scene, the showdown between the Nazis and, well, the power of God.
After years of Sunday school, we knew all the Bible stories about what happens to people who displease God: They get fed to a whale, turned into a pillar of salt, cursed with the pains of childbirth, what have you. What you get in Raiders is a stunning visual demonstration of the Lord's smiting abilities. When those Nazis break open the ark, God goes Old Testament on them. One man's head bursts open like a pimple. Another's face turns bloodless white and melts away like wax. I watched with a mix of horror and fascination, probably through my fingers. Indiana Jones says the ark belongs in a museum. Are you kidding me? I think having it buried under the earth with a million snakes guarding it was working just fine!
Beware the Nothing
The Neverending Story (1984) has all the elements of a classic children's fantasy: magical beasts, a quest, a princess, a brave young warrior with a faithful steed. It still has its share of creepiness, too. As a little kid I was freaked out by wolves. Mom would tell us the Three Little Pigs or Little Red Riding Hood, but when she got to the part with the Big Bad Wolf, I'd cover my ears and cry. It was the idea of long, sharp teeth, and the savage eyes. Yeah, I'm sure I nearly wet myself when I saw this movie in theaters and the G'mork appeared with its glowing green eyes. (I was five or six, people, give me a break!)
Fans always bring up the scene where Atreyu's horse sinks into despair, quite literally--the horse sinks into a mudhole, too sad to save itself. It's a horribly sad scene, to be sure. I was rewatching the film with some friends recently, though, and when it came up, my husband and I both broke into uncontrollable laughter. I sound totally heartless now, don't I? Our friends let us know we were sick freaks, trust me. It wasn't the horse dying; for me, it was the next shot of Bastian with tears flooding down his face. I don't know, it just made me crack up. But I digress.
Even that's not the scariest part of the film. What about the entire world of Fantasia being obliterated by a vast creeping...nothingness. That's right, just a total void sucking away all life as efficiently as a black hole. The Nothing is supposed to symbolize people's lack of imagination and wonder. It seems so...I don't know, existential for a children's film.
Often it's the villain that makes the movie, the bad guy who sticks out in people's memories of the film. Take Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), for example: a delightful family musical with a floating and flying automobile. Oh yeah, and a character known as the Child Catcher who lures little kids into his dog-pound wagon with the promise of sweets. Boy, we're back to that don't take candy from strangers lesson again, aren't we.
And then look at Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). When I was little, I didn't understand that it was a clever parody of the hard-boiled detective stories of film noir mixed with the slapstick antics of beloved cartoons figures. What I thought about when I watched this as a kid was, Ooh, there's Dumbo! And look at Daffy Duck and Donald Duck playing the piano! The sly adult humor went right over my head. What frightened me most, though, was Judge Doom, played with deliciously evil humor by Christopher Lloyd. Who doesn't remember quivering with shock and terror when Doom put a poor little cartoon squeaky shoe in the Dip, a green acid substance that made 'toons shrivel up? At the end, Doom's true cartoon identity is revealed, and it's a psycho killer cartoon at that--with bugged out red eyes, a high-pitched maniacal laugh, and Christopher Lloyd's face. According to film trivia, Tim Curry auditioned for the role, but director Robert Zemeckis and the producers found it too terrifying. This is what they consider less terrifying!
Surrender to Electroshock Therapy, Dorothy
Everyone knows the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz with Judy Garland. Perhaps not as many people know of the "sequel" Disney put out years ago, buried in the heap of dark eighties movies: Return to Oz (1985). If Wizard of Oz is the darling child of film history, Return to Oz is the disturbed younger sibling that sets fires. There's no "Over the Rainbow" here. Consider that it starts out with Dorothy receiving electroshock therapy because she believes her original visit to Oz was real! Honestly, the girl's medical treatment is about as unnerving as the strange things she sees when she returns to Oz and finds it in turmoil again.
My mom probably rented it once thinking it would be a lovely children's film. Until I rented it again recently, I had just vague memories of the film, impressions of bizarre characters and some truly demented scenes. Oh my gosh, those Wheelers! The hallway of screaming dismembered heads! This was Disney? Not surprisingly, the film has a cult following.
I'm sure my parents were in Blockbuster one day, picked up the case for Watership Down (1978), and thought it looked like a cute animated movie about bunnies. What neither they nor I expected was an intense story of survival featuring a group of outcast rabbits breaking away from the warren and facing "a thousand enemies." Now, when I was in middle school, I fell in love with the novel by Richard Adams. But when I was an eight-year-old expecting a happy tale of fluffy bunnies, I was in for a shock. These rabbits encounter so many savage creatures and they fight back hard (and I thought rabbits were only portrayed fearsomely as a joke, like in Monty Python and the Holy Grail!). There are battle-scarred rabbits baring bloody teeth, portents of doom, and a million other dangers in this breathtaking film. I wouldn't say it's intended for children, even though people automatically assume an animated film is a kids' film. But because it slipped into my hands when I was a kid, I've included it here.
More recent films with good scares for kids
Is it good for kids to be scared?
What someone considers scary is subjective. You may look at this list and conclude I was a wussy kid! I'll say in my defense that I didn't shy away from these scary movies, even when they spooked me silly. My family had a sort of twisted sense of humor when it came to scary movies--every time we went to the beach growing up we made it a point to watch Jaws. We may not have understood the deeper storylines and themes running through that film, but we children certainly picked up on that primal fear of the unknown, the monster from the deep that you can't see. Later, when my brother and I were in our early teens, we saw The Exorcist. That night my brother stood at the bottom of the stairs muttering prayers, too afraid to set foot in the basement alone.
Some parents worry about kids watching stuff that's too scary or disturbing. Now I'm not recommending people let their seven-year-old watch Saw (I can't even watch Saw, and I'm sure there are some kids who have). But when it comes to the occasional spooky kids' film, children are more resilient than you'd think.
When Coraline came out not too long ago, I heard from so many adults how scary it was. How did their eight-year-old handle it? Just fine. It's not that surprising, really. What scares adults is different from what scares children. Kids' minds are still working out the blurry lines between fantasy and reality. Their minds are fertile ground for all that the imagination has to offer. They may, like I did, fear things unlikely to happen--the house catching fire, or being attacked by wolves or sharks or vampire bats. And at the same time there are the nameless fears, the monsters lurking in our closets and under our beds, the age-old Bogeyman.
Even the suggestion of something out of the ordinary can spark a child's fear; after being read a storybook in which a character leaves the faucet on and floods his house and the entire town, my little brother was terrified of taking a bath!
What's truly scary and dangerous, as some children unfortunately discover, is the threat posed by adults who betray a child's trust. Even the Brothers Grimm recognized this. In Hansel and Gretel, who is scarier, the witch who wants to throw the kids in her oven, or the parents who abandon them to die in the woods? It's a toss-up.
It all comes down to parents knowing their children--knowing how sensitive their kids are to frightening images and judging whether they are ready to handle it. Don't give scary movies and TV shows too much credit for your kids' psychological development, either. We all turn out fine in the end! And whatever issues I may have as an adult, they didn't come from Oompa Loompas!
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