Disney films are generally thought of as the antithesis to horror. Their films are for kids, after all, while horror is for adults. These are sweet and uplifting productions made for the widest possible audience, all distinctions that don’t really apply to the horror genre.
Yet horror and children’s entertainment have always walked hand in hand. Children’s horror is its own, extremely wide and lucrative subgenre. Even though they are considered the pinnacle of kids’ entertainment, Disney films account for some of the darkest content ever produced for children.
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Most of the original Disney movies were based on the Grimm’s Fairy Tales which were stories of absolute and total horror. Even in cutting out the dismemberments, cannibalism, and necrophilia from those stories, much of that darkness is retained even among the bright cartoons and musical numbers. So many Disney films contain moments of absolute, genuine terror that this list is really only the tip of the iceberg. So if you’re wondering whether or not your kid is ready for horror, think about all that they’ve already seen depicted onscreen.
The Broom Stick Massacre in Fantasia
Honestly, Fantasia contains several scenes that could count for this list, probably more than any other Disney feature. From the slow, unflinching death of the stegosaurus and the lingering shot of its body to the entire “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence. But this one takes the cake. Mickey Mouse himself is the cause of the horrific deed here, apparently resorting to witchcraft to get some housework done and bringing several brooms to life. When he can’t get them to obey, he takes an ax to them in a way that would make Jason Voorhees proud.
Adapting a story that was already filled with ghosts, death and devastation, it’s no surprise that there are moments of terror in Disney’s version of A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is taken to the cemetery by the hooded, shadowed Ghost of Christmas Future who shows him his own grave. The gravediggers are remarking that nobody even came to his funeral, he was so disliked. Scrooge falls into his own grave, which then opens up into Hell itself, while the Ghost stands over him laughing.
The most recent flick on the list, Tarzan is not without its share of pure Walt-inspired horror. Most villains in Disney films fall to their death. It’s a convenient way to show death without having to actually show it. By 1999, however, so many villains had perished the exact same way that they felt a need to one-up themselves. So not only does our antagonist fall, he falls while trying to cut himself loose from being tangled up in vines. As he does, one of the vines wraps around his neck, causing him to come to a very abrupt end before he even hits the ground. We don’t see the moment itself, but a flash of lightning illuminates the silhouette of the hanging corpse, which is probably worse.
Sure, the villain here also meets with a violent end, but the horror is really the crone herself. The Evil Queen takes on the form of a monstrous old woman to disguise herself in order to trick Snow White into eating the poisoned apple. While I understand having to disguise her form, she turns into the worst salesperson ever. I wouldn’t buy a thing from that crone, I’d cry in a corner until she went away. The transformation scene is the real moment of horror here. Some of it comes from the way the scene was shot and some of it comes from the fact that the Queen is a character whose defining trait is her vanity. The fact that she hates Snow White so much, wants this girl dead so badly that she would give that up makes for a truly scary villain.
Dumbo and his friend Timothy Q. Mouse are subjected to a series of horrific hallucinations after their drinks are spiked. This is not a Dumbo parody or anything, that’s really what happens in the film itself. The pink elephants sequence is infamous by now for its strangeness and horror. It terrified children and critics were quick to point out that it was a scene that probably had no place in a children’s movie. This sequence is so out of place, which only makes it more terrifying. For just a moment, this tale of one young elephant’s journey of self-acceptance turns into Walt Disney’s Naked Lunch.
This whole segment makes the list because it’s an adaptation of a horror story. Not only that, but one of the most beloved horror stories of all time, Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” This adaptation, narrated by Bing Crosby, makes Ichabod out to be kind of an ass. Which I guess makes some sense for a kid’s adaptation. If he has to die at the end, then you might as well make it look like he had it coming. Still, it’s a moment of genuine horror when Ichabod is pursued through the dark forests of Sleepy Hollow by the Headless Horseman, a chase that ends with the screaming man getting his head crushed by a large Jack O’ Lantern.
Again, it looks like Scar is going to fall to his death, a poetic end after killing Mufasa. But once again the good folk at Disney remembered that they did the falling thing too often and had Scar survive the fall only to have to explain himself to the hyenas, who he had been abusing and manipulating from the very beginning. They’re not too interested in anything he has to say and gang up on him, eating him alive as he screams in pain and terror. We see some of the feast in silhouette before flames rise up in front of the camera and obscure the view.
I mean, how could it not make the list, right? It’s probably one of the most horrific moments in all of cinema, let alone Disney. It’s paced, animated, and executed (no pun intended) in the most devastating manner possible. The scene starts off perfectly happy and perfectly normal. Bambi’s mom takes her son out to graze on some grass. They’re sharing a meal. Then she looks up, hears, knows exactly what’s about to happen and tells her child to run. Always a good listener, little Bambi runs his ass off, only to eventually realize that she’s not following him anymore. Yes, we’d heard two shots as he was running, but we’d seen one of them miss, so it felt safe to assume the other had missed as well. Not the case.
Anyplace that has to call itself Pleasure Island is probably hiding something pretty dark, whatever it is. In this case, it’s a cursed amusement park that turns mischievous young boys into donkeys. With all the things that have been covered on this list so far, it doesn’t seem like that should be anywhere near the most frightening. But it all comes from how it’s done. There’s no cloud of smoke and then suddenly the boy’s a donkey. This is an American Werewolf in London-style transformation. It sounds horrific and painful and the child is absolutely terrified of what is happening to him, which is what makes it the most nightmare-inducing Disney scene of all.