Cinema has an ineffable power to transform viewers from a darkened theater to fantastical worlds of space battles, superheroes and other escapist phenomena where literally anything is possible. However, film can also greatly impact viewers in a number of other ways. While some films will inspire or thrill us, others manage to expand our understanding of the world around us through the powerful stories depicted onscreen. The movies we see as children are especially positioned to haunt our memories for years to come, thanks to the adult subject matter or shocking (to younger viewers, at least) imagery.
For this list, we’re zeroing in on some standout moments from classic films that have made the greatest impression on children over the years. To qualify for inclusion, a film has to have hit theaters prior to 2000 and must have been made specifically with children viewers in minds. After all, it’s not exactly fair to include R-rated material among family films, as they would undoubtedly have a distinct advantage over other releases.
Here are the 17 Classic Movie Scenes That Ruined Our Childhoods.
17. KITCHEN ATTACK, GREMLINS (1984)
This horror/comedy from director Joe Dante was unleashed on the world the very same day as Ghostbusters, and while that Ivan Reitman comedy edged it out at the box office, Gremlins has remained a favorite for the unforgettable creature effects and distinctive balance between dark comedy and pure terror. Take, for instance, that memorable sequence in which Billy’s mom (Frances Lee McCain) is confronted by a few of the vicious titular characters in her very own kitchen. Perhaps more than any other scene in the film, Lynn Peltzer’s violent showdown with the gremlins — in which she resorts to creative kills using his mixer and the family microwave — leaves green goo all over the room and audiences alternating between grossed-out grimaces, shocked laughter. Suffice to say, children who saw the film, which is generally considered one of contributing factors behind the creation of the PG-13 rating, probably never saw their family kitchen in quite the same way again.
16. THE FLYING MONKEYS, THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)
Hollywood musicals don’t get much more ubiquitous and iconic than this film adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz from director Victor Fleming. Because the film chronicles young Dorothy Gale’s (Judy Garland) journey to a mysterious and magical land, it accordingly features a lot of material that may alarm young viewers. While the Wicked Witch of the West’s (Margaret Hamilton) death scene and the apple-throwing sentient trees likely inspired their fair share of nightmares, the bizarre-looking horde of flying monkeys that served as the Wicked Witch of the West’s minions earn a place on our list. Whether it’s the circus outfits, the cold, dead stares of their faces or simply the fact that there are so many of them, we understand why anyone who grew up with The Wizard of Oz (and, really, who didn’t?) still shudders at the thought of them soaring through the Oz skyline.
15. THE DONKEY SCENE, PINOCCHIO (1940)
In some ways, the story of Pinocchio — best known for this animated Disney musical — is a dream come true for children growing up on the film. A marionette granted life thanks to the Blue Fairy, Pinocchio sets off on a grand adventure, but this living puppet encounters a series of increasingly dark events on his road to becoming a “real boy.” Chief among them are his brief participation in Stromboli’s puppet show and a visit inside the belly of Monstro the whale. Yet, Pinocchio’s trip to Pleasure Island ultimately winds up being the most striking sequence in the film, as he and other boys are meant to be transformed into donkeys and sold into slavery. As if that notion in itself is not horrifying enough, Jiminy witnesses the abuse these donkeys endure, and then Pinocchio actually witnesses his new friend, a delinquent named Lampwick, slowly turn into a donkey before his very eyes, punctuated with his complete loss of human speech. It’s like An American Werewolf in London for kids. Yup, Disney went there.
14. LARGE MARGE, PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (1985)
At this point in his journey to locate his beloved bicycle, a hitchhiking Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens) is picked up by a creepy truck driver (Alice Nunn) who recounts the worst car accident she’s ever witnessed. A bit of stop-motion animation adds a genuine jump scare to the Tim Burton classic (if you saw this at a young age, chances are it sent shivers down your spine), but the real kicker is when Pee-wee drops the name of his brief travelling companion at a nearby bar, discovering that she has actually been dead for years. Few of Burton’s films are as gleefully anarchic as his directorial debut, and perhaps that’s why a ghost story fits so well with the other tonally disparate sequences, making for an eccentric viewing experience every time. An honorable mention also goes to Pee-wee’s nightmare about a team of evil clowns operating on his missing bike. Terrifying.
13. JEKYLL AND HYDE, THE PAGEMASTER (1994)
This live-action/animated hybrid — which centers on a risk-averse young boy (Macaulay Culkin) who overcomes his fear through a transformative journey through a mysterious library — was a box office flop when it first hit theaters, but in the years since, it has developed a cult following among those who grew up with it on home video. Though the film features a fun mix of literary genres, one of the most startling moments takes place in the horror section when Richard (Culkin) and friends Fantasy, Adventure and Horror (voiced by Whoopi Goldberg, Patrick Stewart and Frank Welker, respectively) encounter the kindly Dr. Jekyll, who of course wastes little time changing into his nefarious alter-ego Mr. Hyde. With the legendary Leonard Nimoy performing the role, the transformation delivers a genuinely frightening moment in what is mostly a fairly light-hearted film about the power of books to foster the imagination and personal growth of readers.
12. SICK E.T., E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982)
Steven Spielberg’s seminal adventure story about the unlikely friendship between a young boy (Henry Thomas) and a creature from another world has tugged at the heartstrings of generations of moviegoers since it became the highest-grossing film in history at the time of its release. Though the level of violence (Spielberg famously tinkered with the police’s use of guns in their pursuit of the film’s central youngsters in the 20th anniversary edition) may be more intense than most family films nowadays, the most upsetting moment for children is the one in which the adorable E.T. becomes sick and appears to die right before the very eyes of Elliott (Thomas). The cuddly alien soon recovers, but the image of his pale lifeless body is etched forever into our collective memories. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is filled with moments of wonder and pure cinematic magic, but in this instance, the film freaked out kids everywhere with good reason.
11. THE REAL JUDGE DOOM, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT (1988)
For reasons too innumerable to go into here, Robert Zemeckis’s film is a landmark of cinematic achievement. The pioneering technology used to seamlessly integrate live action and animation earned the film many accolades and even the Best Visual Effects Oscar that year. Yet, the third-act twist that the villainous Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) is in fact a combination of live-action man and animated character himself takes the blending together of the two worlds to a whole other level. With Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) trapped, Doom reveals that not only is he the “toon” behind the entire conspiracy Eddie has been investigating but he’s also the one that murdered Eddie’s beloved brother years earlier. Armed with a high-pitched screechy voice and literal daggers for eyes, the real Judge Doom cements the character’s status as one of the scariest and most memorable villains to ever take center stage in a family film.
10. LITTLEFOOT’S MOTHER DIES, THE LAND BEFORE TIME (1988)
When you’re a child, there’s nothing more terrifying than the loss of your parents, so naturally Hollywood has been known to traumatize young moviegoers time and again with dramatizations of heroes who witness the violent deaths of their loved ones. Case in point, Littlefoot — the hero of this Don Bluth-directed classic — loses his mother after she valiantly protects him in a battle against a fierce tyrannosaurus rex, er, “Sharptooth,” leaving him to fend for himself as he searches for the mythical Great Valley. While the confrontation between the two dinosaurs is accompanied by appropriately dramatic music, it is the quieter extended sequence in which Littlefoot’s mother whispers out her last words of advice. In that instant, Littlefoot’s innocence dies, and as James Horner’s gentle score underscores the weight of this moment, audiences may understandably shed a tear or two along with Littlefoot himself. The Land Before Time may have spawned many subpar direct-to-video sequels, but the original still stands tall among them all.
9. LIKE SUPERMAN, THE IRON GIANT (1999)
Long before he was Groot, Vin Diesel provided the voice of the titular character in director Brad Bird’s warm-hearted sci-fi drama. Much like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the film centers on a young boy and his connection with an otherworldly being. In this case, young Hogarth befriends a giant robot (Diesel) and attempts to protect it from the government agents on its trail. Set in the late 1950s, The Iron Giant wrings its period setting for dramatic juice and ultimately sends a salient message through the lovable metalhead that lends the film its title. Another box office flop, The Iron Giant earned critical acclaim and a cult following, due largely in part to its powerful message regarding the power of choice. While the film as a whole is a standout, the climactic decision the giant himself makes still has us whimpering like it’s the first time we’ve seen the film.
8. THE FINAL FIGHT, WATERSHIP DOWN (1978)
For the most part, films intended for family audiences — especially those of the animated variety — tend to play it relatively safe when it comes to violence. Even those with harsh subject matter or based on pre-existing source material usually re-envision a lighter, friendly version that is suitable for children. Not so with this adaptation of the Richard Adams novel. Rather than shy away from the graphic, bloody violence of Adams’ book, director Martin Rosen embraced it. Never is that clearer than during the climactic battle between Bigwig and General Woundwort. Leaving little carnage to the imagination, the fight is extremely vicious and concludes in an even grislier and more shocking way than viewers may have expected. In the process, children who grew up with this one might still harbor a fear of rabbits. We completely understand.
7. WONKA’S WILD RIDE, WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971)
This year may have taken the iconic Gene Wilder from us, but we’ll always have his many classic film roles. However, this is certainly the one he’s most remembered for, as the film adaptation of this Roald Dahl novel has remained a favorite for decades. The entire premise of the film — which follows a group of children on a tour of Wonka’s chocolate factory — is a bit wacky and only gets moreso the more the children (and audiences) learn about the eccentric Wonka (Wilder) and the race of Oompa Loompas he employs. In particular, an out-of-control boat ride is a highlight, featuring Wilder at his most crazed and taking a sharp, sudden turn into absolute madness. There may be no way of knowing which direction the vessel is going, but for young viewers watching this film, there is little indication of what may happen next. For that uncertainty and unpredictability alone, this definitely warrants inclusion on our list.
6. BABY MINE, DUMBO (1941)
We could easily make a full list of just traumatic scenes featuring parents of classic animated Disney characters (remember when Bambi’s mom gets killed?). This is one of the few examples that actually doesn’t end up in a parent’s death, but it’s arguably all the more heartbreaking as a result. After protecting her child from ridicule, Mrs. Jumbo briefly loses her temper and is branded a “mad elephant.” Caged and forever separate from her child, she does get one final poignant reunion with Dumbo. As the child approaches the cage, we see Mrs. Jumbo’s trunk emerge from between the bars to caress and cradle Dumbo. Merely the realization that Dumbo so unjustly had his mother torn out of his life — coupled with the mournful “Baby Mine” — would elicit tears, but Dumbo has the audacity to flash to all the other animals resting peacefully with their young. That’s cold, even for Disney.
5. MOMBI’S HEADS, RETURN TO OZ (1985)
We’ve already made a trip to Oz earlier on this list, but nothing in that 1939 film can compare with the nightmarish vision in this cult classic. Starring Fairuza Balk as Dorothy Gale, it serves as a pseudo-sequel to the original story, seeing her revisit the wonderful world of Oz to find it in under the control of the dreaded Nome King (Nicol Williamson). Sequences involving electroshock therapy, a disturbing race of minions known as Wheelers and the entire supporting cast turning to stone are enough to leave any child with a sleepless night. But the pièce de résistance is undoubtedly Dorothy’s visit to Princess Mombi (Jean Marsh) in pursuit of the Powder of Life. Little does Dorothy know that Mombi is in possession of an entire hallway of terrifying interchangeable heads to suit her various moods. In the middle of a so-called children’s film, the sequence is genuinely scary.
4. THE GRAND HIGH WITCH REVEALED, THE WITCHES (1990)
Roald Dahl definitely had a way of traumatizing children. We’ve already Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory as one example of how the acclaimed writer’s work has been memorably brought to screen. Although we might have included moments from Matilda or James and the Giant Peach, we’re opting for this dark fantasy featuring a boy and his grandmother who are confronted with a deadly coven of witches. While the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston) remains in disguise initially, she ultimately reveals her true face, along with the rest of the witches at their annual meeting. In that instance, the fright factor goes through the roof (buoyed by the stellar make-up and creature effects), transforming the scene from a bit creepy to downright disturbing. The Witches has a few more moments that could easily contend for this spot — Bruno’s transfiguration into a mouse, for one — but this is the one that the entire film hinges on.
3. JESSIE’S STORY, TOY STORY 2 (1999)
The conceit of the heart of the Toy Story franchise is admittedly a fun one. What child or child at heart wouldn’t have a blast imagining that their playthings are alive when they’re not around? Yet, this sequel to the groundbreaking original film takes a dark turn when it follows through on the unsettling fate of these toys as their owners grow up. Set to Sarah McLachlan’s Oscar-nominated “When She Loved Me,” viewers are clued in on Jessie’s (voiced by Joan Cusack) tragic past, as her connection with Emily inevitably withered and died. Mirroring Woody’s relationship to Andy (and that of millions of viewers to their own childhoods), the sequence captures all the heart and insight that has made Pixar the trusted brand name it remains to this day. Sure, we could have gone with the incinerator scene in Toy Story 3, as it’s arguably the most upsetting in the series. Yet, considering that film is only a few years old, the true extent of its effects on the younger generation have yet to truly be revealed.
2. THE SWAMP OF SADNESS, THE NEVERENDING STORY (1984)
Like The Pagemaster, this classic adventure — directed by Wolfgang Petersen (The Perfect Storm) — uses the power of books to take its lead hero on a journey through a mystical land. The film’s imaginative characters (Falkor the luckdragon chief among them) and timeless story, which spawned two sequels, became a central part of an entire generation’s childhood experience. For those who grew up with it, no moment is more agonizing than the one in which warrior Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) loses his beloved horse Artax to the Swamps of Sadness. Overcome with sorrow, Artax is powerless to save himself, even as Atreyu pleads with him to hold on. Mirroring the loss of a loved one as well as serving as a tangible metaphor for depression, the scene plays off of the very real fears that afflict not only younger viewers but moviegoers at large. No wonder The Neverending Story continues to hold a cherished place in the hearts of many.
1. MUFASA’S DEATH, THE LION KING (1994)
We’ve said before how often Disney turns to the death of a parent to propel a story forward and emotionally impact viewers. Few examples of that have had struck quite the blow as this moment from one of the studio’s most iconic films. The bond between Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones) and Simba (voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas) is palpable from the film’s opening moments. So when Simba’s evil uncle Scar (voiced by Jeremy Irons) puts a plan in motion to kill both the king of Pride Rock as well as its young prince and claim the throne, the emotional foundation for the film is swept away in one stunning stampede. So many indelible moments to touch on here — the moment in which Scar coldly murders his own brother and Scar’s effort to convince Simba that he is to blame for his own father’s death come to mind — but we still hold that Simba’s futile attempt to wake up his dead father is the most unforgettable one. With that, children everywhere are reminded of their own parents’ mortality and the very real feeling of loss that will inevitably await them later in life.
We know that our list of childhood-ruining movie moments is not all-inclusive. Scenes from films like Willow, All Dogs Go to Heaven, Labyrinth, Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and many others could have easily made it onto our list. In fact, many of those that did even feature multiple sequences worthy of consideration. Yet, we’re confident that the 17 we’ve referenced above represent a fair cross-section of indelible moments that have had a direct impact on young viewers. In addition, many other releases like Coraline, Inside Out and Where the Wild Things Are might have slipped in if they weren’t quite so recent. As it stands, we know that there are countless films we missed that may have caused you some childhood trauma of your own. We’re anxious to know which movie moments ruined your childhoods. So let us know in the comments below and start the recovery process.