12 Scariest Moments in Kids' Films - Rolling Stone
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12 Scariest Moments in Kids’ Films

From Oz’s flying monkeys to ‘Large Marge,’ these children’s movie scenes are the stuff of nightmares

12 Scariest Moments in Kids' Films

When it comes to the movies that petrified us as children, we tend to talk about them as though the frightening moments were some kind of mistake — the byproduct of a tonal miscalculation or the sick work of a rogue Disney animator bent on corrupting America's youth. But there's a certain subset of films aimed at the underage for which a short, sharp shock — or a long, nightmare-inducing set piece — is a key part of the package. Kids' movies can stimulate imaginations and offer thrills, spills and family-friendly chills. And, every so often, they're perfect for scaring the shit out of the young 'uns as well.

In fact, a startling number of the most beloved children's classics of all time tend to take detours towards terror, providing sudden jolts of horror before returning to their adorable tales of talking woodland creatures. (The traumatizing moments in Disney toons alone is enough to fuel therapist bills for decades.) And whether or not this weekend's No. 1 box-office attraction Goosebumps will ever be considered a "classic," the big-screen meta-take on R.L. Stine's popular YA-horror book series is a great reminder that a few well-placed scenes of ghosts, ghouls and creepy talking ventriloquist dummies in a kids' movie offer the perfect Fright 101 primer for middle-schoolers and tweens. 

So whether you're looking to relive the scenes that scarred your youth or simply looking for a step-by-step guide to safely instill your brood with a healthy measure of fear, check out our chronological list of the 12 scariest moments in the history of kids movies. From the Wicked Witch of the West's sky-high simians to Coraline's button-eyed alt-parents, these dozen scenes are chock full of the stuff that dreams are made of. Bad, bad dreams.


‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939): Flying Monkeys

Just because the Wicked Witch of the West insists that they retrieve Dorothy alive and unharmed doesn't make her army of flying monkeys any less gruesome. First off, the ability to fly is pretty much the only thing that still separates us from monkeys, so these hideous chimeras are unsettling on an evolutionary level. Second, there's roughly four zillion of these things, and each one of them is targeting Dorothy with the relentlessness of the T-1000, if it had wings and a horrific simian screech. Kansas has never looked so good.


‘Fantasia’ (1940): Chernabog Raises Hell

Walt Disney's attempt to class things up by combining classical music and cartoons may be 75 years old, but the eighth and final sequence of this anthology remains the scariest (and most fiendishly sustained) tangent in any kids movie — let alone one featuring Mickey Mouse as a plucky sorcerer's apprentice. Set to the hair-raising cacophony of Modest Mussorgskys "Night on Bald Mountain," animator Wilfred Jackson's terrifying short is like being dropped straight to the bottom of Dante's Inferno. For 12 minutes, we watch as the winged devil Chernabog summons all manner of ghouls and goblins from their eternal slumber — dancing spirits molt into hounds of hell, topless harpies scream from the flames, and this alpha-demon's glowing eyes won't let you out of their sight until sunrise.


‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’ (1971): Boat Ride

You could argue that nothing that happens in this early-Seventies take on the Roald Dahl sweet-tooth classic is as scary as anything that happens in Tim Burton’s remake (notably Johnny Depp's creepy-as-hell performance). But no joke: the acid trip of a boat ride in Mel Stuart's version has probably messed up more children than skateboarding. The indelible genius of the sequence is that the miasma of hallucinogenic effects — a kaleidoscope of swirling lights, floating heads, and scary lizards — isn't nearly as terrifying as Wonka himself, as Gene Wilder loses himself in a rhyming evangelist’s trance in front of a boatload of children: "Is the grisly reaper mowing? Yes! The danger must be growing for the rowers keep on rowing!" Dude must make some really good candy.


‘Watership Down’ (1978): Field of Blood

When it comes to unnerving rabbit imagery, all apologies, Donnie Darko; you have absolutely nothing on this animated adventure that unfolds with all the charm and levity of a Lars von Trier film. Based on Richard Adams' notoriously soul-shattering novel, director Martin Rosen's adaptation refuses to pull any punches, beginning with a scene in which an adorable rabbit seer named Fiver is treated to a vision of the apocalypse. Suddenly, the furry little guy is watching trails of blood pour through the fields outside of his warren, foretelling the brutal wave of death that will soon be visited upon all of his furry friends. (Head right to the 50-second mark in this trailer for a glimpse.) Genocide has never been so fluffy.


‘Gremlins’ (1984): Kitchen Confidential

Joe Dante's Spielberg-esque horror-comedy isn't just terrifying for a kids' movie; it would be terrifying for a snuff film. Sure, the titular fuzzballs look cute as can be, but this Eighties classic isn't kidding about the dangers of feeding them after midnight. Hatching from their cocoons — cocoons are never good news in a film like this, folks — a hideous reptilian breed of the creatures wreaks havoc in the first kitchen they can find. Part frog, part bat, and all homicidal, the gremlins are enough to make any kid rethink getting a pet. No wonder adults love this movie, too. And watch out for that microwave and blender!


‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventure’ (1985): Large Marge

It's now common wisdom that no kid can emerge from a Tim Burton joint perfectly unscathed — but nobody knew any better back in 1985. In a scene almost completely irrelevant to Pee-wee's search for his stolen bike, the bow-tied man-child hitches a ride in a haunted semi — one being piloted by the ghost of a truck driver (Alice Nunn) who launches into the gruesome story of her own death. Welcome to an eerie turn into The Twilight Zone, complete with a popcorn-spilling shock for the ages thanks to the Claymation wizards behind such classics as Killer Klowns from Outer Space. Tell 'em Large Marge sent ya!


‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ (1988): Judge Doom

This won't be news to anyone who lives in a world where American Dad! was just picked up for its 12th season, but even bad cartoons can be extremely hard to kill. And no toon has ever been worse or harder to stamp out than Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), who tries to bring both the live-action and animated sections of Hollywood to their knees from behind the bench of the District Superior Court. Masquerading as a man until he's flattened by a steamroller — "Holy smoke, he's a toon!" — Doom’s reveal comes in stages, but it's his red and unblinking eyes that truly convey the horrors of animation gone wrong. Very, very wrong.


‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989): Ursula, Supersized

Disney's stable of canonized princess movies is filled with horrifying, blood-curdling moments, from Snow White's run through the dark forest to Maleficent's climactic Game of Thrones cosplay in Sleeping Beauty. But let's be real, people: The movie that kicked off the company's second animation renaissance featured one truly terrifying villainess. To wit: Ursula was not fucking around. A campy sea witch with an insatiable thirst for power — imagine the offspring between Divine and Donald Trump — Ursula is the baddest bitch in the seven seas, and after she finally gets Ariel's dad to fork over his magic trident, she grows to the size of a small kraken. Thanks to this one scene, The Little Mermaid nearly did for bath-time what Psycho did for showers.


‘The Witches’ (1990): Behind the Mask

It's still hard to believe that Warner Bros hired Nicolas Roeg to direct an adaptation of a Roald Dahl novel (it's like hiring Dario Argento to direct Bridge to Terabithia). But if you've ever wondered what a YA movie would like if it was done by the guy responsible for the grotesque psychic nightmare that is Don't Look Now, well…you have your answer here. A quaint little boy's-adventure story before it becomes a non-stop parade of latex terrors, The Witches keeps things whimsical until Roeg reveals the truth behind the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children — at which point Anjelica Huston pulling back her scalp and we meet the child-eating ghoul that lurks underneath. All that's missing is an intertitle card that says, "Kids, you may run screaming from the theater now."


‘Toy Story’ (1995): Spider Baby

Not every toy is lucky enough to be owned by a nice kid like Andy. Some poor, unfortunate dolls wind up with a serial killer in training like Sid Phillips, a local bully who moonlights as the Doctor Moreau of plastic. When Sheriff Woody and Buzz Lightyear are taken hostage and deposited inside Sid's house of horrors, they're greeted by a motley crew of mangled toys unlike any they've ever seen before — including a one-eyed baby's head moving atop six metal spider legs. The franchise has its share of unbearably tense moments (our nails have still not grown back after being chewed to the quick during Toy Story 3's furnace escape). But the appearance of this creepy monstrosity is arguably the single scariest thing that Pixar has ever done, their recent press release announcing Cars 3 notwithstanding.


‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’ (2005): Voldemort Strikes

As Harry Potter got older, things got a hell of a lot darker, and nothing was more shocking for the Boy Who Lived (or for the children who followed along with his saga) than the death of the handsomest guy at Hogwarts. In the flash of a wand, golden child Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson) is reduced from an all-star quidditch player to a corpse with high cheekbones, which is a sure way to ruin a perfectly good Triwizard Tournament. Naturally, Lord Voldemort — he of the reptilian hiss, the lack of nose bones and the ability to magically make tween viewers wet themselves at will — is behind the carnage. He'd come back to increasingly haunt viewers' dreams as the series went on.


‘Coraline’ (2009): Meet the Parents

The only way that Henry Selick could be better at terrifying children is if he worked a side job as a party clown. The twisted genius behind The Nightmare Before Christmas, Selick knows what kids are really afraid of — and his stop-motion version of Neil Gaiman's novel taps into fears they may not even know they have. Following a neglected 11-year-old girl into a parallel dimension where everything's a bit too good to be true, the film eventually turns into a through-the-looking-glass phantasmagoria, but it's scariest moment comes long before that when our heroine first meets her parents' bizarro doppelgangers. Complete with buttons for eyes and a permanent Stepford smile, her Other Mother is the unnerving answer to Coraline's prayers for attention.

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