When we think back to our childhood, most of us fondly remember the films we watched as colourful and exciting, with plenty of important life lessons learned along the way.
However, everyone has at least one so-called family film that genuinely disturbed or terrified them. The reason why isn’t exactly clear. Yes, children are sensitive, but when you watch back some of these classic movies you’ll still be every bit as horrified now as you were then, so how exactly did these titles ever get away with living rent-free in our heads all these years?
On a related note, I’ll be starting a petition to have their box office figures adjusted to reflect the amount of wet sheets and therapy they caused over the years.
In the interest of holding these films accountable for their deeply unsettling subject matter, here are 9 of the most disturbing moments in “family” movies.
9. Pink Elephants on Parade – Dumbo (1941)
Disney have been a staple of children’s entertainment since long before most of us were born, meaning that a staggering percentage of the population has a decent knowledge of the animated classics.
One such classic is Dumbo, the tale of a circus elephant born a little different.
Like many early Disney titles, Dumbo hasn’t aged particularly well, but one scene in particular stands out. With Dumbo’s mother locked away (for daring to defend her big-eared son), the little elephant finds himself sobbing so hard that he gets hiccups. Dumbo’s friend, Timothy Q. Mouse, proceeds to get Dumbo drunk on champagne, and what follows is the young elephant’s drunken hallucination of eyeless pink elephants playing their trunks like trumpets.
It’s not necessarily disturbing in the traditional sense, but it’s weird and incredibly confusing for young children – y’know, like the ones the film is aimed at – who won’t understand that Dumbo is having the Disney equivalent of a bad acid trip.
8. Spider Baby– Toy Story (1995)
Toy Story is, in every sense, a family classic. It’s loved by children and adults alike, and holds up perfectly even after more than two decades.
Watching it as a child, though, that scene where Woody and Buzz find themselves in Sid’s house – someone who’s already been established as being more than a little unpleasant – is terrifying.
With our heroes frantically trying to escape, they find themselves surrounded by Sid’s creations, spliced together from parts of toys (many of which once belonged to his younger sister). The worst part is the Spider Baby, a decapitated doll’s head with one missing eye and eight mechanical limbs, two of which have crab-like pincers on the ends. How this didn’t utterly traumatize every child watching is beyond me, but I personally didn’t sleep for weeks.
7. Helping Hands – Labyrinth (1986)
Labyrinth is widely remembered as a ’80s fantasy classic, but it’s not without its fair share of creepiness.
The premise alone is pretty messed up – a teen girl wishes her baby brother away, and he’s kidnapped by the Goblin King – but the worst part was a short, almost throwaway moment in which protagonist Sarah falls down a vertical tunnel lined with countless scaled hands, all groping blindly towards her.
Once the disembodied hands catch Sarah, they identify themselves as “helping hands” by arranging themselves into vague face shapes and talking to her. For a full minute or so, hundreds of human hands are groping towards a young girl, and there’s something so pervasively unsettling about the scene that it stands out as singularly disturbing in a film as weird as it is revered.
6. Wing Amputation – Maleficent (2014)
Just because Maleficent isn’t aimed at young children, doesn’t mean it isn’t capable of deeply disturbing its audience.
The movie opens with a young fairy named Maleficent befriending and falling in love with a young human boy. It’s all very sweet – for about two minutes, that is.
Even after giving her something he calls “true love’s kiss”, the boy, now a young man, decides to betray Maleficent in order to become king. That’s upsetting enough, but the manner of his betrayal? That’s a different beast.
He drugs her, then severs her wings while she’s unconscious and takes them back to the human world in order to win the crown. The worst part is Maleficent’s anguished screams as she wakes and realises what’s happened.
With that as the basis for the entire story, Maleficent is a pretty dark tale, and not one that you’d necessarily want to watch with the whole family.
5. Unmasking – The Witches (1990)
Roald Dahl’s classic stories regularly feature some pretty unsettling stuff, which has made for some pretty creepy movie moments.
One that many quote as a major source of childhood trauma is this particular scene in 1990’s The Witches, based on Dahl’s story of the same name.
If you’ve seen it, I hardly need to describe it. After finding himself in a hotel with a large convention of child-eating witches, our young protagonist becomes trapped while spying on the women. He’s helpless to watch as the witch-filled conference room begins to collectively unmask, then talk about how they love eating children, all while sniffing the air to try to root him out of his hiding place.
I honestly get pretty creeped out just thinking about it, even after all these years.
4. In the Dark of the Night – Anastasia (1997)
Anastasia‘s Rasputin is one of the most menacing figures in animated movie history, and this movie’s (loose) basis in history only makes this particular moment all the more disturbing.
After spending a decade in limbo, Rasputin is suddenly reunited with his fruitbat minion Bartok, who delivers a magic reliquary that enables him to bring himself back to life. The decomposing, undead Rasputin sings a lovely little song about murdering young Anastasia, all while parts of his body drop off and he summons various demonic and insectoid minions to further his child-killing cause.
The scene is pretty scary for young children, but it also comes seemingly out of nowhere, and it’s a bit much for what’s supposed to be a children’s film.
3. Pleasure Island – Pinocchio (1940)
Another earlier Disney title with some pretty heavy scenes is Pinocchio. To be fair, the story itself is more than a little disturbing, with the wooden puppet coming to life and then running away with a couple of conmen who sell him to an unpleasant marionette master who locks him away. After magic sets him free, he’s once again taken in by the conmen, which is where this particular entry comes in.
The dubiously named Pleasure Island is an amusement park where wayward children drink beer and smoke cigars until they’re turned into donkeys and then sold into a lifetime of slavery and humiliation.
The whole story is something of a relic from a very different time, but telling children that they’ll turn into animals and then be sold into a lifetime of misery if they misbehave? Uncool, Disney.
2. The Wheelers – Return to Oz (1985)
The Wizard of Oz is a long-standing family favourite, but how many remember its 1985 sequel, Return to Oz?
Anyone who does will likely remember it as one of the most terrifying non-horror films ever made. Early on, before returning to Oz, Dorothy is sent to a clinic for some barbaric electro-shock therapy, but she manages to escape the hospital in a storm and finds herself back in the magical land. Here she meets the Nome King, a giant malevolent stone-dweller who has imprisoned all of her friends, Mombi, a witch with a collection of heads in glass cabinets that she wears and discards like clothing, and last but not least, the Wheelers.
I vividly remember watching Return to Oz as a child, and I can honestly say that practically every aspect of it both horrified and intrigued me, but the Wheelers were by far the worst part.
Basically, imagine the Droobs from A Clockwork Orange crawling around on all fours, but with wheels instead of hands and feet – and you’ve got the Wheelers.
They terrorise Dorothy upon her return to the ruined Emerald City, chasing her into a dead-end passageway before delivering her to Mombi.
If I’m honest, I still don’t trust anyone on roller skates.
1. The Tunnel Scene – Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
It really couldn’t have been anything else.
Another Roald Dahl creation, Willy Wonka is basedon Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with the adapted screenplay written by Dahl himself.
Despite being a family film, four of five children taken on a tour of the factory meet grisly ends, then have Wonka’s diminutive slaves perform an individual choreographed song and dance about their demise.
The creepy implications of that aside, the most disturbing part of the film is actually the boat scene, in which the members of the tour are taken on a nightmare ride through a tunnel on a river of chocolate.
There’s a kaleidoscopic array of colours, and as Wonka hysterically recites a poem, flashing images behind him show worms slithering on a corpse, a chicken being killed and several cockroaches.
The scene is every bit as iconic as the film itself, and it’s been scarring children for generations.
Did we miss your own personal nightmarish family film moment? Well, hang tight, because we’ve got a follow-up list on the way! Don’t forget to follow Corner of Film everywhere to keep up with the endless fresh content!