Fairy tales are for kids, right? Well, not always. A fairy tale by definition is “a children’s story about magical and imaginary beings and lands.” However, when the Brothers Grimm collected and compiled many of the beloved fairy tales that we now know from Disney films (Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, among others) those same stories were far darker and scarier than the stories we remember.
In the original Snow White, the evil Queen is forced to dance in red hot metal shoes as a punishment for her vanity, and Cinderella’s evil stepsisters have their eyes gouged from their faces by doves sent from God. The “happy endings” in these fairy tales tend to be a bit more complicated than their Disney counterparts.
In other cases, filmmakers were inspired by the dark, imaginative stories of folklore. Here are Screen Rant’s 10 Fairy Tale Movies Too Scary For Kids. Some of these films are based on old folk tales, while others are merely inspired by their ideas and the imagination behind them.
Return to Oz (1985)
One could easily show Return to Oz to their children by accident, thinking that they would be introducing them to a magical land of innocent fun. The classic 1939 The Wizard of Oz with Judy Garland certainly has its scary parts, but it’s got nothing on Return to Oz. The film begins with our hero Dorothy (Fairuza Balk), who has been feeling a bit sad since her return from Oz. Dorothy’s parents send her to a psychiatric hospital with a nasty-tempered nurse (Jean Marsh), who wants to perform electroshock therapy on her. Fortunately for Dorothy, a thunderstorm hits the hospital and the power goes out. She’s able to escape by the nearby river, where she almost drowns. When she wakes up, however, she finds herself back in the magical land of Oz, which has gone to ruin since her last time there.
Return to Oz has been praised for being a rather faithful adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s later Wizard of Oz books. Unfortunately, for any small child watching the film, Return to Oz also has a wicked witch (also Jean Marsh) who exchanges her heads like pieces of jewelry. If your child doesn’t have a sleepless night thinking about the hallway of heads in Return to Oz, then surely the wheelers (human-like creatures that have wheels instead of hands and feet) will do the trick. But at least Return to Oz has a happy ending.
If you have ever had a nightmare about David Bowie as a child, you most likely saw Labyrinth a bit too early. The protagonist of the film is Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), a regular teenage girl on Earth who wishes her younger brother Toby (Toby Froud) would be taken away. To Sarah’s horror, her wish is granted by Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie), who steals Toby and hides him away in his castle, located in a fantasy land full of weird and wonderful creatures. Sarah spends much of the rest of the film desperately trying to make her way through the labyrinth that Jareth has set up to keep her out.
Having one’s younger brother stolen by a goblin is a rather terrifying premise, but it’ll certainly help a young teenage girl learn a lesson about selfishness. The world of Labyrinth is creepy, and filled with disturbing images such as a scene in which Sarah falls into a hole, where hundreds of hands reach out to grab her. Since Labyrinth was directed by Jim Henson, there are of course creature puppets in the film, some more disturbing than others. Hensons also brought his darkly gothic sensibilities to Dark Crystal, another film which could have easily made this list.
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Tim Burton’s freaky drama Sleepy Hollow was inspired by the short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” In this classic tale, schoolmaster Ichabod Crane and Abraham Von Brunt are both competing for the hand of Katrina Van Tessel, the daughter of a wealthy landowner. But after his heart is broken, Crane has a terrifying encounter with a headless horseman. The next morning, he has disappeared and no one can figure out where.
In Burton’s version of the tale, Crane (Johnny Depp) is a constable sent to Sleepy Hollow to investigate the decapitations of three local residents. The citizens of Sleepy Hollow are convinced a headless horseman is responsible for these horrific crimes. There is also, of course, a love triangle between Crane, Brom (Casper Van Dien) and Katrina (Christina Ricci) which involves Brom pranking the jittery Crane – a similar storyline to the original tale.
The Hessian Horseman (Christopher Walken) is truly terrifying in the flashback scenes that reveal the origin of the headless horseman terrorizing Sleepy Hollow. With razor sharp teeth and hair standing on end, Walken looks part vampire and part zombie. Like all of Burton’s films, Sleepy Hollow is both funny and quirky as it spins its tale. But as this tale involves numerous decapitations and trees that ooze blood, it’s best to keep it away from the kids.
The Company of Wolves (1984)
Neil Jordan’s 1984 film The Company of Wolves is not suitable for children, unless you think the image of a man pulling the skin from his face is acceptable kid-viewing material. The Company of Wolves is a dark, gothic fantasy film that loosely follows the story of Little Red Riding Hood. The Company of Wolves also weaves in a variety of tales about werewolves throughout the film for some added horror.
But The Company of Wolves is not strictly a horror film, it also looks at the dangerous sexual desires which can sometimes pepper themselves throughout fairy tales. By structuring the film as several mini-tales within the larger framework of the Red Riding Hood story, the film mimics a dreamlike state for audiences who aren’t sure what is real and what is fantasy. The scene where the Huntsman (Micha Bergese) tries to seduce the young girl Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) after eating her grandmother (Angela Lansbury) might be enough to traumatize a child, or at least give them a bad example of what courtship looks like.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Roger Ebert probably said it best when he described Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth as a “fairy tale for grownups.” Fairy tales, like any good stories, are largely an escape from reality. Pan’s Labyrinth stars a child, but it is decidedly not a children’s movie. The film includes scenes of brutality from the human characters, and creatures that could easily frighten or disturb young viewers.
In Pan’s Labyrinth, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) travels with her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) to meet her new stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi López). Vidal is a cruel man who hunts down Communist rebels in civil war Spain, torturing and killing those who cross his path. Vidal is exactly the kind of adult a child would seek refuge from, and in Pan’s Labyrinth, Ofelia discovers a hidden labyrinth that introduces her to many mysterious and magical creatures. Pan’s Labyrinth is a wondrously original and beautiful film, but also one so dark in its subject matter that it should be enjoyed by adults only.
Little Red Riding Hood has inspired several films over the years, from the musical Into the Woods to the disturbing drama Hard Candy, but the 1996 film Freeway is one of the most entertaining and twisted versions of this classic fairy tale. In the original fairy tale, a young girl is stalked by a wolf on her way to bring food to her grandmother’s house. Depending on which version you were exposed to as a child, grandma and Red Riding Hood both end up in the wolf’s stomach, or a helpful woodcutter saves them by cutting them out.
In Freeway, our Red Hiding Hood is young teenager Vanessa Lutz (Reese Witherspoon), whose mother is sent to jail at the beginning of the film. Vanessa ends up on her way to her grandmother’s house, not to bring her some food, but to escape her social worker. The wolf in Freeway is a Bob Wolverton (get it? “Wolverton”? Anyway, he’s played by Kiefer Sutherland) who stalks and kills girls on freeways rather than forest trails. It’s a violent, contemporary twist on the original fairy tale, but that only makes it scarier and more disturbing.
Black Swan (2010)
The 2010 ballet drama/thriller Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky, is a little bit of Swan Lake mixed with an awful lot of psychological horror. Ballet is a beautiful and captivating art form. But there’s a dark side to the perfection needed by a ballet dancer that makes it a prime candidate for a darker tale (Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes also explores this dark side of ballet). In Black Swan, talented ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) struggles to prove to her director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) that she is capable of playing both the innocent white swan and the seductive, evil black swan in her company’s upcoming production of Swan Lake.
In the original Swan Lake, a young girl under a magical spell is a swan by day and a maiden at night. The maiden has an evil doppelganger, who tricks a prince into professing his love to her, which destroys the young girl. The pressure on Nina to perfectly embody both the light and dark sides of herself leads to a series of disturbing hallucinations and escalating anxiety for both Portman’s character and the audience. And similar to the ending of Swan Lake, Black Swan’s heroine has a dramatic and tragic ending.
Ballet stories and fairy tales seem to easily go hand in hand. What better heroine could you find than a beautiful and talented young dancer? In Suspiria, young dancer Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) joins a new ballet company which is revealed to be a front for a sinister witch coven. It is a fairy tale that is also truly a horror film.
While Suspiria is not directly related to a fairy tale, there are elements of the story that parallel Snow White. At one point in the movie Suzy is drugged by the witches, just as Snow White is poisoned by an apple. The twisted storylines in both films involve an older queen who plans to destroy the younger innocent she perceives as a threat.
The very deep connection between Suspiria and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is found in the look of the film. Director Dario Argento asked his cinematographer Luciano Tovoli to mimic the vivid colors in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The vibrance of the technicolor-like hues add to the eerie nightmare Suzy enters in Suspiria, which includes maggots falling from the ceiling, service dogs attacking their owners, and girls trapped in barbed wire.
Rumpelstiltskin is a creepy character. There’s no question about it. He is a freaky goblin/troll like character who makes Faustian deals with unsuspecting humans, and often takes their babies in the process. In short, Rumpelstiltskin is a nightmare to both the young and old who cross his path. In the 1995 German horror film Rumpelstiltskin, the little goblin (Max Grodénchik) is at it again, attempting to steal Shelly Stewart’s (Kim Johnston Ulrich) baby. In the process, Rumpelstiltskin freaks everyone out with his disgusting appearance, cackling laughter, and the ability to remove his head to bite people.
Rumpelstiltskin’s tagline was “When the fairy tale ends, the nightmare begins,” but the film was more successful inducing groans and cringes than cries and screams from audiences. Rumpelstiltskin tries to be scary, and it tries to be funny, but it pretty much fails at both. For adults, Rumpelstiltskin is a comically bad villain that incites eye rolls and yawns, he is certainly a scary enough character to cause some sleepless nights in children.
The Red Shoes (2005)
The Red Shoes is a famous Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about a vain and selfish girl. The girl is given a pair of red shoes that start to dance on their own. At first, the magical shoes seem delightful, until the girl realizes that they’ll never come off. The girl is bruised and battered by her non-stop dancing feet, and she asks for her feet to be cut off to stop the torturous dance. Even after her feet are amputated, the red shoes continue to torment the girl until she begs God himself for assistance.
The Red Shoes has been adapted several times as both ballet productions and films, like the 1948 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger classic The Red Shoes. In 2005 South Korean director Yong-gyun Kim took the Red Shoes story and added a horrific twist to it. In this version, a woman Sun-jae (Hye-su Kim) takes home a pair of red heels she found on the subway. Soon, she and her friends are both obsessed and terrified by the power the shoes have over anyone who possesses them. Disturbing hallucinations and macabre deaths make The Red Shoes a disturbing tale warning against desiring what others possess.
Which of these scary fairy tale movies gave you nightmares as a child or adult? Which ones did we miss? Let us know in the comments section!