Secretly Dark Movies We Probably Shouldn’t Have Watched as Kids

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The ‘80s and ‘90s were a golden age for kids’ movies. Between Disney, Jim Henson, and Nickelodeon there was never a dull moment in children’s programming. Television was something parents used to get a few hours to themselves, leaving kids to explore the limits of cinema all on their own. But not every movie was all sunshine and rainbows from start to finish. A generation of kids soon learned that just because something was animated or had children in it, didn’t mean it wouldn’t scare the absolute crap out of you.

Everyone remembers that movie moment that changed your worldview forever and became nightmare fuel for years. The scene that gave you goosebumps, the reason you still can’t sleep without a nightlight. These are the moments that shaped us, and made us say, why the heck was that in a kids’ movie!?

Labyrinth (1986)

This modern fairy-tale follows 16-year-old Sarah as she is drugged, gaslit, and groped by disembodied hands on her quest through an obstacle-ridden maze to save her baby brother. The abuse narrative underlying the relationship between Sarah and Jareth, the Goblin King played by David Bowie who kidnapped said baby bro, is a fascinating exploration of unhealthy power dynamics, but it’s a little complex for a movie where most of the characters are puppets. Also, did I mention the DISEMBODIED HANDS??

Ghostbusters (1984)

You might think a film starring four of the most prolific contemporary comedians would be a romp, but Ghostbusters is actually a horror movie. The titular ghosts, which include scary dogs, possessive spirits, and a slew of other creeps with rotten flesh and glowing eyes, are legitimately horrifying. The film uses the same special effects employed in An American Werewolf In London — a horror movie! The sequel’s bathtub scene gives me goosebumps to this day.

James and the Giant Peach (1996)

This movie, ostensibly for children, opens with James’ parents being murdered ON HIS BIRTHDAY. Now orphaned, the boy is sent to live with his aunts, two women who would delight in the opportunity to kill him, while all the time living in fear of the cloud-born rhinoceros that took the lives of his mother and father. This all happens before James sails around the world on a giant piece of fruit that’s home to human-sized bugs that might want to eat him. Fun for the whole family, am I right?

The Rugrats Movie (1998)

Guys? Tommy tries to murder his baby brother in this movie. Our fearless, diapered leader gets so fed up with the days-old Dil Pickles that he attempts to pour mashed bananas on him in the middle of a forest where a pack of monkeys is waiting to attack. Sure, Tommy resists after catching his enraged reflection in a puddle, but that is some biblical violence. And people think Angelica is bad!

The Witches (1990)

When you look up “nightmare fuel” in the dictionary, it’s just a giant screengrab from this movie. Let’s revisit the highlights. A society of evil witches lives only to destroy the lives of children, as first evidenced by the young girl they trap in a painting for eternity. These witches live among humans wearing flesh suits, which they dramatically peel off in an unforgettable scene to reveal lumpy, vulture-like faces and haunting purple eyes. Their master plan is to turn kids into mice, which we see happen in real-time, and guess what? It’s horrible! WHAT PART OF THIS MOVIE IS FOR CHILDREN. Please. Tell me.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Flying monkeys, a melting witch, dog kidnapping, oh my! The Wizard of Oz is a cinematic masterpiece — one that has terrified small children for generations. Its general sense of dread has even led to many rumors of behind the scenes tragedies — most of which are, fortunately, false.

Return to Oz (1985)

It’s almost like the people who made this Wizard of Oz sequel were like, “I don’t think people get that these movies are supposed to be scary? Let’s really drive that home this time.” Return opens with Dorothy being sent to a psychiatric hospital to help her recover from her “delusions” of Oz, where treatments appear limited to electroshock treatments and solitary confinement. When she does land back in Oz she finds it in ruins and has to brave a series of awful villains including a headless princess who lives among her collection of talking faces to once again save the day. Thanks, I hate it.

The Lion King (1994)

It’s no secret that this movie is dark — I mean, it’s based on the famously somber Shakespeare play, Hamlet. The scene in which Scar pushes Mufasa to his death and then convinces his young son Simba that he’s responsible for his father’s death left a generation, well, scarred.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

We all know The Nightmare Before Christmas is dark in a fun, Hot Topic way, but this goth favorite still had some genuinely creepy moments. In a film with many fun scares, the greatest horror remains the sloppy, bug-filled Oogie Boogie. A slug man torturing Santa is hardly light fare for kids who still believe in Saint Nick.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964)

Without the candy coating, this movie reads like a straight-up horror film. An eccentric shut-in who tempts young children into his elaborate torture maze to teach them ethical lessons? Add a bad acid trip of a boat ride and you’ve got the next Saw movie on your hands.

The Brave Little Toaster (1987)

This movie went to the dark, sinister places Toy Story wouldn’t dream of until its third emotional installment. A group of misfit appliances are abandoned by their owner and must overcome fears of being replaced as they embark on a harrowing adventure to find their master. At one point an air conditioner unit commits suicide, and there is also a nightmare sequence that includes a firefighter clown?

Home Alone (1990)

Home Alone is remembered as a wholesome, zany Christmas movie, but in reality its darker than a true crime story. A family fully forgets their precious baby child at home, that home is invaded, and then that child must fight for his actual life? Sure, the hijinks are cute, but scratch the surface and you’re watching a horror film about two men risking it all to murder a child.

Matilda (1996)

Matilda is basically Carrie without the pig’s blood. This delightful young girl is ostracized by her family, and the trauma results in telekinetic powers that she develops to exert some control over her horrible life. Oh, and there’s also a torture-closet full of nails at her school where kids get sent for literally just being kids.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

Two words. Large Marge. If that name doesn’t send a shiver down your spine, you’ve never had to hitchhike with a trucker in Texas. Or, I mean, have seen Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. When you do? Tell ‘em Large Marge sent ya.

The Land Before Time (1988)

How many of you have felt personally victimized by The Land Before Time? Even seen in shadow, Littlefoot’s mother getting killed by Sharptooth is the kind of thing you don’t forget. On top of that, they figured out a way to make tar absolutely petrifying.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Look, I understand that Snow White isn’t a scary movie per se. But the princess DIES! After eating a poison apple that looks like a haunted skull! And don’t get me started on that creepy forest. WHY DO THE TREES HAVE HANDS?

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

This movie terrified a generation with the murder of a cartoon shoe, whose screams I can recall vividly to this day! It also offered one of the most sickening twists in film history, with the reveal of (spoiler alert) Judge Doom as a steamrolled, murderous cartoon character. Just… why did they have to make his eyes pop out like that?

Watership Down (1978)

This movie is one of the cruelest tricks ever played. Cute, animated bunnies are irresistible cinematic fare for children, until those cuddly bunnies are having dark psychic visions, being murdered gruesomely by hawks, and participating in gory, vividly animated murder. Fans of the book Watership Down know that the story is a political metaphor told through the narrative of farm animals rising up against their owners. Basically, it’s like if George Orwell’s Animal Farm got animated like a Disney movie.

The NeverEnding Story (1984)

Man, this movie is just brutal. In the very first scene the protagonist’s mother dies, and his dad basically tells him to suck it up and do chores. Later, his beloved horse drowns in a place that’s literally called the Swamp of Sadness. It’s a wonder any of us emotionally survived childhood.

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)

There will always be some controversy surrounding the quality of the Star Wars prequels, but the duel on Mustafar that concludes Revenge is inarguably gutting. A fight between our two favs, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, leads to the latter losing limbs and being melted nearly to death. Then our beloved Padmé dies in childbirth. Watch this movie again, it’s not for kids.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

Claude Frollo is deeply unwell. He covets Esmerelda to the point of madness, hates himself for it, thinks she’s tempting him when she couldn’t care less and then decides that if he can’t have her he’ll wage religious war. “Hellfire” is one of the creepiest songs in the Disney canon, and yes, I am including Winnie-the-Pooh’s “Heffalumps and Woozles.”

Pinocchio (1940)

Watching Pinocchio realize he is slowly transforming into a donkey that will be used to perform forced labor turns my stomach to this day. It may have been an effective morality lesson for the misbehaving youth of the 1940s, but at what cost, Disney!?

All Dogs go to Heaven (1989)

The whole concept of a dog getting drunk, gambling, and participating in a nefarious activity in a kids’ movie is already enough to raise an eyebrow. But the real terror in All Dogs go to Heaven is the nightmare sequence depicting our hero, Charlie B. Barkin, being dragged screaming through a psychedelic hell.

Jumanji (1995)

If not for the joy Robin Williams brought through his comedic delivery, the original Jumanji film would be a Goosebumps-level horror. It opens with the mysterious disappearance of a child, who we later learn has been stuck in board game hell for decades. It also features a frightening quicksand scene, which is one of the absolute scariest things for any ‘90s kid. 

The Dark Crystal (1982)

The uncanny valley, dead behind the eyes, ultra-lifelike puppets make this movie scary from beginning to end. No offense, but how can you root for a hero that looks like it might hypnotize you to sleep and then steal your soul? That, plus the Podling life-draining scene makes this one a little too much for your average slumber party.

Anastasia (1997)

Horrific nightmare sequences, a mass family murder, and the cartoon version of a haunting, real-life self-proclaimed mystic are just a few of the reasons Anastasia isn’t your average princess movie. There is a scene in which Rasputin’s skin is melted off the bones as he sells his soul. That’s not something a child easily forgets.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Despite what an uninitiated viewer might think, the alien that three children find in their backyard is not the scariest part of E.T. Heartless government agents and the brush with near-death of our highly empathetic child protagonist, Elliot, are the moments in E.T. that really stay with us.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

The grotesque, hyper-real human sacrifice scene in this movie is the reason there is a PG-13 rating. The MPAA felt an R rating was too harsh, but that seeing the beating heart ripped out of a man’s chest was just a hair much for the PG crowd. 

Spirited Away (2001)

Seeing Chihiro Ogino’s parents morph into pigs as they devour mountains of delicious food is chilling enough, and that all happens well before our brave young protagonist meets No-Face. Who is No-Face? Just a faceless spirit that devours everything in sight and can never be sated.

Coraline (2009)

If you’ve never seen this movie, even if you’re a full-grown adult… do it in the full light of the afternoon and with a group of supportive friends. Coraline, a grumpy young girl, is lured by a living doll that looks suspiciously like her mother into a mirror realm where nearly everything looks like her world, except everyone has buttons for eyes. Somehow Coraline is still chill with this, until her “Other Mother” reveals that Coraline, too, will soon have to exchange her eyes for buttons. The Other Mother is also a spider.