To this day, the only movie that has directly given me nightmares is Watership Down. I saw it when I was 7 or 8, and I’m sure that my parents had only the best of intentions. Yes, it was based on a serious book about societal conflict, but it was also an animated movie about rabbits … some of whom happened to be absolutely terrifying, with their ragged appearance, red eyes, and evil intentions.
You can argue that Watership Down isn’t really a little kids’ movie—and I would be the first to agree. But what about movies that are targeted at kids and families and seem innocent enough at first glance? Some have scary scenes that seem to come out of nowhere — or just happen to push the wrong buttons for certain kids. An informal survey of our readers, editors, and friends turned up these prime examples (Warning: possible spoilers!) of scary scenes they didn’t necessarily see coming:
- Annie: The climactic moments in which Annie flees from her captors by climbing up a raised railway drawbridge is the kind of peril that can leave young children cowering.
- Bambi: As with the monkeys in The Wizard of Oz (see below), the scene in which Bambi’s mother is killed remains one of the most well-known examples of potentially upsetting scenes for kids.
- Beauty and the Beast: From the angry mob storming Beast’s castle to the rooftop battle in the rain, there’s plenty here to keep kids on edge.
- Brave: Pixar’s mother-daughter tale is beautifully animated, but the scenes that feature large, angry bears may leave you ducking for cover.
- Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: This fantastical tale of a flying car features a supremely creepy “child catcher” character who could be the stuff of nightmares for sensitive kids.
- Coraline: The spooky “other” world that the main character discovers turns into a frightening, dangerous place where she could very well die (and other ghost children already have). And don’t forget those button eyes!
- Curious George: George getting caged up and sent to the jungle might be too distressing for the youngest viewers.
- Disney’s A Christmas Carol: All versions of Charles Dickens’ ghostly classic are at least a little bit eerie, but this one in particular has scary images of skeletons, corpses, and spirits, as well as sad scenes.
- E.T.: Plenty of kids who love the little alien are still afraid that he might be living with their stuffed animals in the closet.
- The Good Dinosaur: In addition to the emotional trauma of being separated from his family, timid dino Arlo endures several extremely intense storms, attacks by carnivorous beasts, and other deadly threats.
- The Great Mouse Detective: When the father mouse gets kidnapped by a bat, your kid may run for cover.
- The Land Before Time: Everything comes out OK, but the young dinos face scary predators, natural disasters, and emotional separations.
- Matilda: Anything based on a book by Roald Dahl will have scary moments. Be ready for scenes in which kids who displease an evil principal are put in “the chokey,” a dark closet lined with nails and broken glass.
- Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure: Two words: Large Marge. Plus, there are chases and peril and a couple of nightmare sequences with scary clowns, devils, and dinosaurs.
- Pinocchio: There are lots of grim scenes in this classic Disney movie: Pinocchio is kidnapped and caged and threatened with destruction, and he encounters an enormous whale. And then there’s Pleasure Island, where “bad boys” are turned into donkeys and sent to work in salt mines.
- The Secret of Nimh: Rodents are far from cute and cuddly in this serious, often dark adventure. There’s blood, a death, a murder plot, frequent peril, disturbing flashbacks to scientific experiments, and more.
- Toy Story 3: The junkyard/incinerator scene is a truly harrowing sequence in which the toys seem headed for certain destruction. (And even the first movie had some pretty scary toys in Sid’s room.)
- Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: In a movie that’s pretty trippy overall, the infamously psychedelic boat-ride-through-the-tunnel scene stands out as a “yikes” moment. (Like Matilda, this one is a Dahl adaptation.)
- The Wizard of Oz: Most people find the Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys extremely creepy, and the scene in which Miss Gulch turns into the witch in the tornado often frightens kids (as do the times she appears and disappears in a plume of red smoke).
Much as we might like to, it’s impossible to protect our kids from every potentially scary scene in every movie they’ll ever see. And as they get older and learn to distinguish fantasy and reality, they’ll be better equipped to handle the things that go bump on the screen. (Some of them will, anyway; I can still count on one hand the number of real horror movies I’ve seen.) In the meantime, these tips will help prepare you for this parental rite of passage:
- Before you push play, check out detailed movie reviews (like ours!) to look for potentially upsetting scenes.
- For kids 7 and under, scenes that deal with loss, separation, scary suspense, kids and parents in peril, and even coercion can be particularly unsettling, so save them for when your kids are ready.
- For kids between the ages of 8 and 12, watch out for scary scenes that are particularly realistic (kidnapping, torture, and the like)—at this point, kids can distinguish between fantasy and reality much more clearly, so the more believable the scary stuff is, the more likely it is to genuinely frighten them.
- Watch with your child, and be ready to offer a comforting hug or pause the movie to talk about why a scene was scary.
- Don’t be afraid to say no to a movie your kid isn’t ready for (they may not thank you later, but at least they won’t be having nightmares about killer rabbits).