The Disney brand is one that’s long been associated with saccharine family-friendly fare since Walt Disney launched it, and Mickey Mouse, in 1928 before it grew into the mega media conglomeration that it is today. Between the Mickey Mouse cartoons, cinematic sweet retellings of fairy tales, and family aimed theme parks, Disney is a name that parents can trust to provide squeaky clean entertainment that won’t give their children nightmares. Or is it?
Horror has a way of creeping into everything, and even Disney isn’t immune. When Disney decides to go dark, it’s unsettling. There’s something inherently terrifying about the safest of places being invaded by nightmares, so when Disney dabbles in horror, it’s often worth celebrating. At the least, it’s the perfect way to introduce burgeoning horror fans to the genre. These 10 Disney films took a detour into horror and were responsible for many childhood nightmares. They’re perfect seasonal viewing to share with a budding horror fan.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
There’s cleaning up twisted Grimms’ Fairy Tales for innocent audiences, and then there’s cleaning up Victor Hugo’s gothic 1831 French novel for a younger audience. Which is to say, there’s only so much scrubbing of the source material’s adult content that you can do while still retaining familiarity. For the most part, Disney succeeds thanks to the comedic relief of the gargoyles and the plucky Quasimodo. But Judge Claude Frollo is the creepiest, most horrifying Disney villain of all as the pious Minister of Justice of Paris with a serious god complex. The corrupt religion angle gives this Disney animated feature a bleaker depth than any before, but it’s Frollo’s lusting for Esmerelda that’s chilling. His song, “Hellfire,” revolves around sin, damnation, and lust, vowing that if he can’t have Esmerelda then she should burn in hell. Whoa. Seriously adult content, guys.
Aired as an episode of “The Disney Sunday Movie,” in 1986, Mr. Boogedy follows a novelty-salesman and his family as they move into a new house. While initially believing the series of strange occurrences is dad just playing practical jokes, they eventually learn that their new house is haunted. For the budding horror fan, Mr. Boogedy is that perfect blend of haunted house scares with practical joke laughter to chase the chills away. Perhaps most telling of all, though, is that the writer, Michael Janover, drew inspiration for the ghost’s name from Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye. In “The Ledge,” Cressner taunts Johnny Norris along his death walk across the narrow ledge by popping out and yelling, “Boogedy! Boogedey!”
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
This animated feature contains two segments; The Wind in the Willows based on Kenneth Grahame’s novel, and an adaptation of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The first segment lulls the viewer into a false sense of complacency while watching Mr. Toad’s adventures, making the spooky Halloween segment that follows even more terrifying. For the easily spooked Ichabod Crane, he’s already scared before that infamous trip home through the dark woods when his rival tells him of the Headless Horseman. Even still, it doesn’t quite prepare him for the actual encounter. Brilliantly designed and animated, the menacing Headless Horseman and his flaming jack-o-lantern is pure Halloween thrill. The chills don’t stop there, either; when Ichabod’s hat is found on the bridge the next day, the viewer is well aware this is one Disney story without a happy ending for its lead.
The Watcher in the Woods
Based on the novel by Florence Engel Randall, this creepy tale follows a teen who moves to the countryside with her father and younger sister. Their new home is a giant manor befitting of typical haunted house fare, and their new neighbor is the spooky Mrs. Aylwood (Bette Davis). From there, things go from atmospheric to downright weirdly occult and beyond. The girl in the mirror is the stuff of nightmares. Upon release in 1981, The Watcher in the Woods traumatized a generation of kids that are still scared to go into the woods.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
Based on Ray Bradbury’s novel, this is the essential Halloween viewing. Set in late October, two young boys visit a traveling carnival, led by the mysterious and ominous Mr. Dark. This may be a Disney production, but by Disney’s standards, it’s rather dark and creepy. For one, it’s very Faustian with its theme; this carnival will offer whatever your heart desires in exchange for your soul. A haunting carousel, a blind witch, and more, there’s enough Halloween tricks and treats here to creep out the kids, but with the requisite feel-good Disney ending that keeps this from becoming too intense.
The Black Cauldron
The film that earned Disney its first ever PG rating also nearly killed Disney Animation for being the most expensive animated film ever made (at the time) and subsequently tanking upon release. It’s thanks to The Black Cauldron’s failure that Disney revamped its animated features and heralded in a new wave of classic like The Little Mermaid. It’s not the financial gamble that makes this one so scary, but the dark tone and content. It sounds cute and simple on paper, in which plucky Taran is given the task of protecting a magical pig to find the magical black cauldron before the Evil Horned King does. But that doesn’t quite cover just how dark this kid’s feature really is. The Horned King wants to raise an army of undead, and these characters face shocking mortal peril.
The Black Hole
Released in 1979, in the wake of Star Wars and Star Trek, the minds behind The Black Hole opted to take their action sci-fi in a much more surreal, hellish direction. It’s basic plot setup, looking back, feels quite similar to that of Event Horizon, in which a crew comes across a ship long presumed lost. That ship, the Cygnus, is parked outside of a black hole and inexplicably counteracts the hole’s gravitational pull. Inside the Cygnus is pure insanity. Truthfully, The Black Hole is a pretty dull, slow-paced story. None of it prepares for the ending, either, in which everyone enters the black hole and it’s a literal descent into hell. A surreal sequence that sees the lead character merge with a robot amidst a burning hellscape. Oh yeah, cue the angelic heaven imagery, too.
Return to Oz
Set six months after the first film (or first novel if we’re being accurate), Aunt Em (Carrie’s Piper Laurie) and Uncle Henry’s farm is a wreck thanks to the tornado, which means they’re in financial trouble. Dorothy, now played by Fairuza Balk, suffers insomnia after returning from Oz- a place her aunt and uncle don’t believe exists. So, the opening scene sees Dorothy committed to a mental hospital to be subjected to electroshock therapy. She’s freed and nearly drowns in her escape. When Dorothy finds herself back in Oz, it’s a grimmer, creepier place ruled by rock dwelling demon Nome King, and his underling Princess Mombi, a terrifying witch with many, many heads. That’s only the beginning of this horror-tinged sequel that takes Dorothy’s grim reality and applies it to an even grimmer adventure in Oz. It’s nightmare fuel.
Don’t Look Under the Bed
The first PG-rated Disney Channel Original Movie to premiere on television, in 1999, received many complaints from parents for being too scary for kids. New high schooler Frances begins noticing strange occurrences happening in town, pranks that seem to be framing her as the one responsible. She teams up with Houdini, an older kid that reveals himself to be an imaginary friend. He tells her that it’s the Boogeyman that’s framing her. There’s an interesting mythology behind the Boogeyman here, and this movie also explores some rather adult themes on death. But more importantly, the boogeymen (yes, plural) in this film are pretty freaking creepy. Especially for a Disney film. Seriously. They look like they’re beginning their transformation into full-blown demon from Lamberto Bava’s Demons.
This animated anthology features eight segments all set to pieces of classic music, nearly all performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra. The lack of dialogue already gives a sort of disoriented, dreamlike quality, but these segments have a tendency to get darker and darker as the film progresses. Mickey Mouse’s brush with terrifying power that overwhelms him in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, to the depressing extinction of dinosaurs in Rite of Spring, and even a strange Bacchanal featuring mythological creatures, Fantasia feels like an animated film kids were never meant to watch. It’s the final segment, Night on Bald Mountain, that really hits that sentiment home as the demonic Chernabog summons haunting spirits and souls from their graves, all set to Ave Maria. What the hell, Disney?