There’s an endless supply of titles meant to unsettle adults, but when I was younger, some of the movies that horrified me the most weren’t horror movies at all. Here are 10 films that (mostly) unintentionally terrified me as a kid.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
This classic movie is easily one of the most beloved and influential films in cinema history. It’s also terrifying. Sure, we’re supposed to take joy in the adventures of plucky Dorothy Gale and her Ozian pals, but who can enjoy their journey to see the Wizard with those horrifying flying monkeys flitting around? The Wicked Witch’s hench-primates still strike fear in many a little one today, and made the trip down the Yellow Brick Road one I could only watch with my hands covering my eyes.
Watership Down (1978)
“Bunnies! Bunnies! It must be bunnies!” The novel Watership Down was required reading in my freshman English class, which just re-opened wounds for those of us who had already been traumatized by the animated movie. Famine, murder, chaos—how in Frith’s name is this movie appropriate for children? If Watership Down’s filmmakers were trying to toughen me up, they weren’t successful: I avoid rabbits to this day.
The Dark Crystal (1982)
Everything about this Jim Henson and Frank Oz movie is deeply upsetting. I thought Muppets were supposed to bring you to your happy place, not a hellscape of power-hungry, menacing creatures with nothing but murder on their minds. I’m sure many parents took their kids to see The Dark Crystal in theaters based on 1979’s adorable Muppet Movie, but this tale of the Gelfling Jen and his quest to heal the Dark Crystal and protect his world from a species of malevolent creatures is way, way darker than The Muppet Movie. Sorry Mom and Dad, but it’s one of the reasons I’m in therapy.
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E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Adorable wrinkly alien befriends adorable human child. Sounds like a recipe for a family-friendly film, right? Wrong! Not only was kid-me highly suspicious of E.T.’s ominously glowing finger, but the scene where Elliott first encounters E.T. in the garage scared the heck out of many a young viewer in the 80s, myself included. To top it all off, later in the film—once I’d finally come to see E.T.’s cuteness—scary men in hazmat suits tried to kill my new friend. Why did you toy with me so, Spielberg?
The NeverEnding Story (1984)
What monster decided to kill a horse in a children’s movie? Watching Atreyu’s faithful horse Artax drown in quicksand was not only frightening, but gave me my first broken heart. I know I’m not alone in this. As if Artax’s untimely end wasn’t traumatizing enough, the Nothing and his henchman Gmork have featured in my nightmares since the 80s. Seriously, I think the 80s were trying to kill me.
Return to Oz (1985)
Oh, so the Wizard of Oz wasn’t frightening enough for you? How about this 1980s sequel where Dorothy returns to Oz to find the magical land under the thumb of a genocidal king? Also, how about we swap the affable Scarecrow and Tin Man for an unsettling pumpkin-man and a truly terrifying robot? In returning to this movie as an adult, I appreciated the award-winning effects—but as a child, this movie was straight-up nightmare fuel.
The Brave Little Toaster (1987)
Who knew a children’s movie about sentient appliances would have such an impact on so many kids! When I asked folks on Twitter about what films from their childhood scarred them the most, The Brave Little Toaster came up numerous times. After watching the movie’s appliance protagonists be tortured by a sadistic junkyard crusher and crane, many of us never looked at construction equipment the same way again.
All Dogs Go To Heaven (1988)
This animated movie opens with the murder of the lead character, and only gets darker from there, as the film shows him facing the prospect of eternal damnation. What made the movie even more upsetting was the fact that Judith Barsi, who played the young orphan girl Anne-Marie, was murdered by her father before the film’s release. There is a heaviness to All Dogs Go To Heaven that betrays the movie’s lighthearted premise.
Little Monsters (1989)
If Little Monsters didn’t give you a lifelong fear of Howie Mandel, then you must be tougher than I am. I’m not sure if the filmmakers intended for this film to be truly frightening, or more of a whimsical comedy, but the end result is chilling. Mandel plays Maurice, a blue, baby-scaring, misanthropic monster who eventually befriends a young boy named Brian. He and Brian visit the monster underworld, where it’s all fun and games until the adventure turns downright scary and Brian's brother Eric becomes a target of the monsters. I may or may have cried into my Milk Duds out of fear at the theater.
Spirited Away (2001)
Even though I wasn’t technically a child when Spirited Away came out, this Hayao Miyazaki fantasy film deserves mention for capitalizing on two of the most common childhood anxieties: fear of becoming lost, and fear of something happening to your parents. In Spirited Away, 10-year-old Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs, leaving her abandoned and forced to fend for herself against a variety of spirits and creatures. The mere sight of the spirit No-Face can still strike fear into the hearts of millennials (me too, and I’m in my 30s!). Just seeing the many memes inspired by this movie still gives me the creeps.
Featured still from "The Dark Crystal" via Universal Pictures
This article was originally published on October 24th, 2016.