Earlier this week, we shared our 100 Scariest Movies of All Time feature. I referred to them as “the movies that terrify us in a way that we never quite get over.” That sounds almost like signing up for psychological damage, doesn’t it? It’s a bit hyperbolic, for sure. But like the final girls, survivors, and walking wounded who somehow lasted the runtime of those films, we, too, will never forget Leatherface waltzing with a chainsaw, Jack Torrance stalking through the labyrinth outside The Overlook, or a possessed Regan MacNeil’s head spinning circles from her exorcism bed. Simply put, some scares just stick with you.
Which got us thinking. Before we were old enough to watch most of the fare on our list, there was a whole slew of book series, television shows, and movies intended to spook us — but not too much. The point was to scare us enough to pull the covers up just below our eyes but not so much that’d we’d keep our parents up all night with nightmares or requests to check under our beds or in our closets. Looking back at some of those movies, it’s actually remarkable how incredibly dark, disturbing, and grotesque some of the concepts are. No, we’re not talking slashers and gore. Instead, these films often tapped into the common fears of childhood like getting sucked down the bathtub drain or losing one’s parents and being all alone in the world. Rewatching some of these, it’s actually a wonder we didn’t turn out more fucked up than we did.
Some of these movies don’t seem very scary to us now as adults, or they disturb us for entirely different reasons. However, the memory of how they once made us feel — nervous, uneasy, and suspicious that the world wasn’t quite as safe as our parents assured us — is alive and well. In that spirit, here are the 10 Scariest Children’s Movies of All Time.
Here’s hoping your inner child doesn’t wake up screaming tonight.
10. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Nightmare Factory: MGM
For several generations, The Wizard of Oz has been one of the first non-animated films that parents have sat their kids down to watch. And for several generations, it’s also been one of the first films to give children nightmares. Once you get past heartless, dog-seizing neighbors and natural disasters, the basic premise follows that a sinister, green, cackling witch — who flies on a broomstick, teleports in clouds of red smoke, and commands both fire and an army of soldiers and evil flying monkeys — stalks a young, homeward-bound Kansan runaway (Judy Garland) and her pipsqueak dog (Toto, too!) down a yellow-brick road across a land somewhere over the rainbow.
What Scared Us as Kids: The witch’s appearances were enough to trigger a conveniently timed potty break or seven, especially the castle scene in which she turns over a blood-red hourglass and tells Dorothy she’s got only that long to live. Clearly, L. Frank Baum hated children, despite having four of his own.
What Disturbs Us as Adults: At least Dorothy knows where she stands with the Wicked Witch of the West. Glinda, on the other hand, puts the ruby slippers on Dorothy, making her No. 1 on the witch’s hit list, and then neglects to tell her that simply clicking her heels can send her home at any time. Dick move, Glinda. And Oz the great and powerful isn’t much better. Not only is he a fraud, but he tricks young girls into going out and doing his witch-melting for him. Yeah, trust doesn’t get you very far in Oz. All alone in a strange land with only a bag of straw, a rusty tin can, and an oversize pussycat to protect her and Toto, we give Dorothy slim odds of surviving and any little children watching even slimmer odds of making it through the movie without covering their eyes.
Fractured Moral: If you run away from home, you’ll get snatched up by a twister, and it’ll take more than a wizard, a pair of ruby slippers, and FEMA to bail your ass out.
09. Watership Down (1978)
Nightmare Factory: Embassy Pictures
Peter Rabbit this is not. The animated adaptation of Richard Adams’ 1972 allegorical novel, Watership Down, never once threatens to settle for being a cute film about bunnies. The story’s opening finds brother rabbits Hazel (John Hurt) and Fiver out of their burrows for the evening when the latter has a vision of their warren running thick with blood. From that moment on, the perilous journey of the brothers and a band of their fellows pits them against man, beast, and, worst of all, other rabbits as they strive to live safely and freely.
What Scared Us as Kids: Stark animation and a serious score coupled to create several terrifying scenes, but none scarier than Holly’s recounting of workmen filling in the burrows back at the old warren. It’s hard to ever shake that vision of red-eyed, suffocating rabbits panicking as they are buried alive, body on top of body, the score swelling, and the moans of the dying ringing out.
What Disturbs Us as Adults: An allegory, by definition, should make one consider one’s own life, and Watership Down, like, say, Animal Farm before it, can be enjoyed by children but also carries deeper themes. In their quest for a peaceful home, Hazel and Fiver come across several types of rabbit societies: caged rabbits, rabbits who accept death in exchange for food and shelter, and even a rabbit police state. It may be marketed as a children’s film, but it’s one that makes you question what true freedom entails and what parts of it we so often sacrifice in order to feel just a little bit safer.
Fractured Moral: Some rabbits are more free than others.
08 The Dark Crystal (1982)
Nightmare Factory: Jim Henson Productions
It’s The Muppet Show, and tonight our very special guests are two dying races on a decimated planet long ago. Um, did Dom DeLuise cancel last minute or something? If you took your kid to see this Jim Henson production promising them frogs, bears, pigs, and whatevers, they most likely still harbor resentment toward you for the once or twice a year when they wake up in a cold, panicked sweat from nightmares of Skeksis, Garthim, and even the eerie Gelflings. Instead of the usual zany and musical Muppet fare, Henson built a breathtaking world to tell the story of a young Gelfling, Jen, repairing a powerful crystal and bringing balance back to his planet. And he wasn’t about to do it with puppy dogs and kittens — or even pigs in space.
What Scared Us as Children: Seeing the Skeksis’ emperor disintegrate into dust. The concept of your essence being stolen and consumed so that vile, dying creatures could grow younger. All horrible. But was their anything worse than the Garthim — half beetle, half crab, and half tank (fuck the math)? If one of those burst into your bedroom at night, you didn’t have a podling’s chance in hell to escape.
What Disturbs Us as Adults: Okay, the Skeksis and Garthim are no less grotesque looking, even if they aren’t quite as scary as they once were. Casual dining is one thing, but the table etiquette of the Skeksis is something you never quite move beyond, and frankly, we don’t appreciate Henson teaching our children why girls have wings and boys don’t. We figured we could put off the birds and the Gelflings discussion for another five or six years.
Fractured Moral: Grand Conjunction, what’s your function? Hooking up Mystics and Skeksis and making urSkeks.
07. Coraline (2009)
Nightmare Factory: Focus Features
In this adaptation of the popular Neil Gaiman novel, spunky, blue-haired Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) moves to the gloomy Pink Palace Apts. with her extremely busy workaholic parents, a total drag as she’s forced to leave her old friends and inherit eccentric adult neighbors and an annoying neighbor boy named Wybie. Her boring new life picks up speed, however, when she discovers a hidden door to a parallel world where everything, including the button-eyed version of her mother (Teri Hatcher) and father, is absolutely perfect. It isn’t long, though, before Coraline realizes that things are too good to be true and begins to unravel a dangerous plot that threatens both her and her parents’ lives.
What Scared Us as Children: Once the cracks in the gorgeous Other World begin to reveal themselves, it’s really a case of pick-your-nightmare: ghost children, kidnapped parents, an even scarier than usual Teri Hatcher spider creature, and a false ending that never lets the viewer feel entirely safe. But the first moment that Coraline realizes that something’s terribly wrong really freaked us out most: when she’s given her own set of button eyes to be sewn on. Yikes.
What Disturbs Us as Adults: The idea of an evil being spying on us from another world and forever plotting to lure us into hers is still creepy. But to be honest, nothing’s quite as disturbing as how dysfunctional the Jones family has become at the film’s outset. That may sound lame, but to see them all so miserable and neglectful of each other are the things of nightmares for people my age just starting our own families.
Fractured Moral: The garden may be greener, but the Other Mother’s meaner.
06. Return to Oz (1985)
Nightmare Factory: Walt Disney Pictures
Apparently, there’s no place like Oz for scaring children shitless. Six months after Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) returned home to Kansas, she suffers from insomnia and a sadness linked to leaving the magical land of Oz. It frustrates Aunt Em and Uncle Henry to the point that they check their niece into a psychiatric ward where a crackpot doctor and callous nurse plan to use shock treatment to jolt the Oz right out of Dorothy for good. Luckily, Dorothy escapes during a terrible thunderstorm, but when she washes up in Oz, she finds a wasteland ruled by the Nome King and a head-swapping witch named Mombi and learns that all of her friends have either been captured or turned to stone. Simply put, it’s going to take more than an oil can to fix this mess. In fact, it’ll take an ordinary chicken egg. I’m not fucking kidding.
What Scared Us as Children: In another pick-your-nightmare smorgasbord, nothing is quite so frightening as the vain Mombi, who collects heads for any and all occasions like some women collect shoes. The scene when Mombi’s detached head awakes to catch Dorothy trying to escape, and Dorothy has a headless witch blindly chasing her about her boudoir sent this young one scrambling under his seat in the movie theater.
What Disturbs Us as Adults: Take your pick. That Em and Henry casually sign over Dorothy to be hooked up to 1.21 gigawatts in a mental asylum makes us want to call child services. Hell, the Wicked Witch of the West didn’t stoop to electrocuting the poor girl. When the Nome King seductively lifts his robe to reveal the ruby slippers — frankly, too much of a signature Harvey Weinstein move not to cringe. And even just seeing the yellow-brick road and Emerald City turned to rubble felt terrible — one of our magical childhood lands looking like it had just experienced a bombing campaign.
Fractured Moral: You’re inside now. Oops, wrong Oz. (Uuh!!)