Disney is sometimes the best at traumatizing kids.
Even though Disney is family-friendly entertainment, there are plenty of people who were traumatized by Disney movies when they were younger. In the midst of the singing and talking animals, there is truly some disturbing imagery, especially in older Disney works. The fairy-tales on which Disney often base their films contain plenty of darker themes that translate a little towards Disney’s films. It’s unfortunate that Disney doesn’t tend to go to the dark side as much as they used to because they truly brewed up some frightening images. From demons to witches to villain’s deaths, Disney can sometimes be more haunting than magical. Here are 9 times when Disney horrified their viewers.
Let’s start off at the beginning of the Disney timeline. Back in 1937, kids became terrified of this creepy old hag and it continues to startle many to this day. The transformation itself is already pretty horrifying. The Queen’s hair turns grey and her hands turn into bony fingers with nails as sharp as claws which is then followed by the reveal of her face which is amazingly creepy. The design is extremely effective, with beady eyes and a pointy nose with a protruding wart. The witch has plenty of scenes throughout the film where she continues to scare the audience, but the transformation scene is the most memorable. The scene ends with the witch recanting the spell and delivering a horrifying smile to the camera. Even the crow is terrified of the queen’s new appearance. The old hag certainly isn’t the fairest of them all, but she might just be the most terrifying.
Fantasia does have other creepy moments, like the T-Rex vs. Stegosaurus battle, but, the sequence featuring the music of “Night on Bald Mountain” is by far the scariest. The music itself is already fear-inducing but it's accompanied by the Chernabog, who is undoubtedly one of the scariest Disney villain ever drawn. His devilish eyes, giant stature, and massive horns make him a terrifying figure. In the sequence, the Chernabog is summoning his minions only to throw them into the mountain’s fiery pit. These minions are menacing skeletons and ghosts who can’t escape the Chernabog’s wrath. When the Chernabog’s reign finally ends, we are greeted by warm light and harmonic singing, but we can’t forget the Chernabog’s traumatizing night.
The Fox and the Hound is a wholesome story about a growing friendship between two unlikely animals, but, goodness, does it have a brutal climax. The scene involves Tod (Mickey Rooney) and Copper (Kurt Russell) fighting off a giant black bear. The animators must have been told to make this bear as frightening as possible (of Disney standards) and they certainly succeeded. The bear is massive with sharp teeth and dark red eyes and has a freaky roar that it bellows, giving it an even more harrowing feel. While Tod and Copper do win at the end, they’re both exhausted as they had to conquer this monstrosity of an animal. The beginning of this film and its ending are completely different in tones as it goes from cute and cuddly to violent and ugly. Only The Revenant has a bear attack scene that’s just as traumatizing.
Poor unfortunate soul, Ursula (Pat Carroll), commits some depraved acts throughout The Little Mermaid, but maybe she didn’t deserve such a violent death. After Ursula receives King Triton’s (Kenneth Mars) powers, she becomes a gargantuan sea witch who begins to impose her wrath on the sea. However, while trying to kill Ariel (Jodi Benson), she becomes distracted and doesn’t notice an incoming Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes) who ends up impaling her with the bowsprit of his ship. What’s most shocking about this scene is that Disney shows the impalement. It’s very quick and there’s no blood, but you do see the ship pierce Ursula followed by her spine-tingling roar. We then see Ursula get electrocuted, revealing her skeleton before she and the ship plummet to the bottom of the sea. Yes, we are rooting for our heroes, but did you have to be so sadistic about it, Disney?
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a story that already keeps kids awake at night and Disney’s version is no different. When Ichabod Crane and his horse travel into the woods, they become the next victims of the headless horseman, a legendary rider who carries his Jack-O-Lantern head in his hands. The design of the headless horseman is dark yet detailed and his wickedly evil laugh is sure to send shivers down your spine. His horse is also eerily creepy with a black mane and red eyes. The headless horseman rapidly swings his sword at Ichabod, creating a relentlessly frightening chase sequence that lasts for 30 minutes. What makes this scene even scarier is that there is no happy ending. Right when it looks like Ichabod is going to escape, the horseman throws his pumpkin head right at him. Then, all that’s left of Ichabod and his horse is his hat, we don't know where he went or if he’s alive. This is quite a change of pace for Disney’s storytelling as they typically value a happy, conclusive ending, but, in this case, they stay true to the source material.
Dr. Facilier (Keith David) gets his just desserts in this sequence. After Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) breaks his amulet, Dr. Facilier now has no way to pay off his debt to his “friends on the other side", and these so-called friends turn on him and even use his own song against him. He then gets attacked by voodoo spirits, like shrunken heads and voodoo dolls. Then, an emerging giant hand grabs him and drags him down to the underworld, and all that’s left of Dr. Facilier is a tombstone with his frightened face on it. Even though he’s a villain, it is creepy to see a character get dragged down to their death. What’s worse is the freaky masks and puppets singing at him which creates a haunting image as these spirits relish the act of taking Dr. Facilier with them. This scene is a reminder to never mess around with freaky voodoo magic as it will probably backfire.
This scene from Dumbo is completely bonkers. This is a sequence where Dumbo, our beloved, adorable, large-eared elephant, gets drunk and starts to hallucinate. He begins to see pink elephants as they dance around him and thus begins the most bizarre sequence of the entire movie. It’s a four-minute sequence of pink elephants changing sizes, dancing, and morphing into different objects. The whole sequence plays out like a bad acid trip as the animation and colors just get crazier and crazier. It’s an impressive sequence that really shows off the best aspects of hand-drawn animated movies from that era. The most nightmare-inducing image is of the person who is composed of elephant heads with creepy smiles. Its hard to tell whether the scene is just some fun like the rest of the film or terrifying as the scene just about lands on the line between weird but fun animation and utterly traumatizing.
Claude Frollo (Tony Jay) is already one of Disney’s darkest villains. He starts the film by almost murdering a baby, and if that isn’t bad enough, he later becomes so conflicted by his attraction to Esmeralda (Demi Moore) and hatred for gypsies that he almost burns her at the stake if she doesn’t share the same attraction. Luckily, Quasimodo (Tom Hulce) is able to save her and Frollo plummets to a fiery death. The animators really dialled up the creep factor here as Frollo’s face when he winds up the sword is utterly haunting. He has big, bulging eyes that are lit up by the yellow fire underneat and his smile is one of a serial killer who is clearly about to relish in the joy of cold-blooded murder. However, he slips and the gargoyle he grabs lights up and turns demonic, suggesting that he plummets straight to Hell. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of Disney’s darkest movies and did not hold back when offing its lustful villain.
This one may not be as well-known as the other entries because not many kids watched this 1985 flop. However, the ones that did watch The Black Cauldron may have been scarred for life by The Horned King (John Hurt). The Horned King is a terrifying figure with a skeletal form combined with sharp teeth and red eyes. In this scene, The Horned King uses the power of the black cauldron to resurrect his army of skeletons. The Horned King is armoured with Hurt’s creepy voice as well and the summoning of his army is quite a disturbing image. The skeletons all arise and immediately attack a group of soldiers and it feels like something out of a George Romero zombie film. The surprisingly dark tone of this film may have been the reason why it was't a success, but it’s cool to see Disney dipping their toe into the horror genre.
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Ross is a freelance writer for Collider. Ross is a recent graduate from the University of Maryland with a degree in English and Film Studies. He is a big Disney fan and an action movie junkie. When not watching the latest movies or TV shows, Ross is planning his next trip to an amusement park.
Disney is sometimes the best at traumatizing kids.