Disney movies are known for being a magical and safe escape for kids of all ages. The legacy that Walt built and first started in the 1930s, has morphed and grown to the mega popular and powerful Disney brand that we know today. Anywhere you go in this world you’ll find people that know and love the characters and stories found in movies from the House of Mouse. That appeal to our imagination is the reason why the Disney brand is trusted and approved by parents.
Even with an amazing PG and family friendly standard, every so often there are sinister anomalies that make their way through the Disney machine. Some of these popular “kid movies” come with darker elements stirring just below the surface. You may find death, darkness and evil lurking in characters or moments in some of your childhood favorites. Scenes that disturbed you as a kid or gave you nightmares, may have also taught you about the perils of life and growing up.
While the Disney movie brand today is fairly sterile, we rummaged through their vast cinematic history of animated and live-action films, to discover their scarier fare. Focusing on Disney and Pixar features, here are the 15 Most Terrifying Disney Movies of All Time.
15 THE ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD
While The Wind in the Willows, and its out of control manic Mr. Toad, might be terrifying to some, we’re focusing on the other segment. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the second portion of the 1949 The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, is based on Washington Irving’s classic short story. When people think of this American Gothic legend or the Headless Horseman, Disney’s animated version is the first that comes to mind, more popular than Tim Burton’s 1999 film or the Sleepy Hollow TV series.
Now considered a Halloween favorite, the films plays like a PSA for the Headless Horseman, warning Ichabod and viewers to stay away from the woods on Halloween night in fear of encountering the cloaked rider. From the beautiful animation, to the haunting music and wonderful character designs, the film is perfect as a campfire scary story. The build-up to the Horseman’s appearance is masterfully done, creating tension and fear in young viewers.
When the dark headless figure finally arrives on his horse, holding a flaming Jack-o-lantern, that iconic image is one of the reasons why this film is the closest thing we’ll ever get to an animated horror film from Disney.
Parents were a little taken aback when they saw how much graphic violence and how many intense scenes were found in this 2012 Pixar film. The medieval story about a young princess named Merida who uses a spell to transform her mother into a bear, was a commercial and box-office hit. Positioned as a Disney princess story, the filmmakers played around with the storytelling, incorporating adult themes of betrayal, selfishness and redemption. They also added a good amount of the supernatural and darker elements, primarily found in the Scottish Highlands.
The main source of fright for kids 5 and under, comes in the form of the massive scary bear with a taste for human flesh. Mor’du is the “villain” of the film, as he was once a prince who let his dark desire of power overtake him, leaving him as the monstrous bear.
Taking a page out of past Disney films like Sleepy Hollow, the animators used a dark color palette, utilizing dark heavy shadows each time Merida left the safe world of the castle and stepped into the mystical woods. In a majority of Disney animated films, the woods are a setting where good and dark magic resides, which is true with Brave as well.
13 ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN
This summer’s pop culture smash hit Stranger Things featured Eleven, the weird kid with abnormal powers that was being hunted down by bad men. Way before social media was gushing over her, back in the 1970s Tony and Tia Malone were the unusual kids with paranormal abilities being hunted down by a sinister group.
The brother and sister tandem are the stars of the 1975 fantasy-adventure film, Escape to Witch Mountain. The movie marked Disney’s first real foray into adult science fiction. Up to that point, the studio had made silly, bland fantasy films like Flubber or The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Here, Disney created a dark thriller that was scary at times but not at the level of a horror film. That being said, the addition of Donald Pleasence (Halloween’s Dr. Loomis) as an evil henchman, gave the film real menace in terms of the threat to the kid protagonists.
Based on Alexander Key’s novel of the same name, this film provided elements that would become commonplace in the genre like secret evil organizations, kids with amazing abilities, and alien origins. As for the witch in the film’s title, there were none to be found but there was a funky '70s spaceship.
12 THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS
What started out as a cult film has now become a money-making machine for Disney, constantly churning out merchandise and even taking over The Haunted Mansion seasonally at the Disney theme parks. Tim Burton’s 1993 animated classic, The Nightmare Before Christmas, is a beautiful blend of goth, the macabre and holiday magic. The combination of Burton’s visual style, director Henry Selick’s stunning stop-motion animation, and Danny Elfman’s musical numbers, instantly made this a Halloween and Christmas must-see for all.
As fun and entertaining as Jack Skellington’s Halloween world is, some kids might find the monsters and creatures that inhabit it, a bit too dark and scary. For starters, having Santa Claus kidnapped and tortured, might unsettle some of the younger kiddies. There’s also the creepy baddie of Oogie Boogie, the burlap sack-wearing boogeyman that’s made out of bugs and maggots. Yikes! Oogie’s spooky black-light musical number recalls the psychedelic nightmare that is Dumbo’s ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’. If kids aren’t fazed by that, there’s a good amount eerie imagery of skeletons, shrunken heads, ghouls and goblins to keep them up at night.
11 TOY STORY 3
On the surface you might be asking yourself what’s scary about an animated movie about toys? Toy Story is the foundation on which Pixar was built, with a rich history of memorable characters, hilarious scenes and emotional moments. As wholesome and endearing as the franchise is, the films also have disturbing characters and “cover your eyes” scenes that certainly give young children nightmares.
Even though Toy Story 3 takes this spot, the original Toy Story got some serious consideration due to the sadistic, evil character of Sid and his terrifying toy abominations. That sociopath kid set the table for bleak elements to popup in the series.
2010’s Toy Story 3 finds Woody, Buzz and the rest of our favorite toys fighting to stay together. The infamous incinerator scene at the end of the film, shocked viewers in just how horrifying and brutal it was. Kids and adults got teary-eyed seeing these classic characters that we’ve all come to love, almost meet a fiery end. If that wasn’t traumatic enough, the new toys at the prison-like Sunnyside Daycare, headed by the twisted Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear, are straight out of a horror film. Big Baby and the cymbals monkey are just plain freaky.
10 THE BLACK HOLE
After the success of Star Wars in 1977, most Hollywood studios jumped to capitalize on that wave of interest in science fiction adventure films. Disney was no different, and their attempt to capture some of that box-office success came in the form of the 1979 film, The Black Hole. What was marketed to be a fun space adventure, ended up being one of Disney’s darkest cinematic offerings. The story follows a group of space explorers that come upon the USS Cygnus, a ghost-like spaceship, abandoned except for the mad Dr. Reinhardt and his crew of menacing androids and robots, including the demonic looking machine, Maximilian. The unhinged Reinhardt has plans to fly the Cygnus into a black hole, no matter what the price.
Starring Ernest Borgnine and Anthony Perkins (Psycho’s Norman Bates), the uneven film terrified more than it delighted young viewers. In addition to the dark premise, the film had murder, mild swearing, heavy adult themes and a climax depicting Hell straight out of Dante’s Inferno. It’s no surprise the film was the first PG-rated Disney film. The movie’s most shocking reveal however is when Reinhardt’s android army turns out to be his lobotomized former human crew.
Arguably the most talked about and traumatizing moment in Disney’s cinematic history is the death of Bambi’s mother. For more than 70 years, Bambi, and that particular scene, still packs a powerful, heart-wrenching punch on audiences as Bambi’s beloved mother/protector dies at the hands of a deer hunter. Even though the actual shooting happens off-screen, many generations cite that moment as scarring for their childhood.
Released in 1942, one can only imagine the effect it had on children of that era. Based on the Austrian book, Bambi, A Life in the Woods, this would be the first time Disney would present the idea of death and losing one’s parent in a chilling yet tangible way that kids could understand. Years later that dark reality would be revisited in The Lion King, with Simba and the loss of Mufasa.
While Bambi certainly has lighter moments and cute furry creatures like Thumper, the film has a somber tone throughout. The idea of man as a real threat to nature is also touched upon, as we see the forest on fire and hunting dogs going after Bambi and his family.
8 SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS
The movie that started it all for Walt Disney and his empire, also has a healthy dose of scares. From the wicked queen to her creepy magic mirror, and the various attempts of murder on poor Snow White, how could this classic not be on our list?! Urban Legend has it that when the 1937 Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs premiered, some kids were so terrified by what they saw on-screen that they would pee, forcing theaters to replace the seats. Whether or not this is true, kids were certainly scared of the various incarnations of the devious Evil Queen.
While highly regarded as innovating and a game changer in animation, what fans love about the film is that it was able to keep some of the scary elements found in the much darker Brothers Grimm story it’s based on. Wanting to be the “fairest one of all”, the Queen is driven to jealously when Snow White’s beauty threatens hers. After a failed murder attempt on Snow, the Evil Queen goes to extreme measures to do the task herself, transforming into an ugly witch and thus creating one of the most chilling scenes in Disney history.
7 THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS
During the early 1980’s Disney’s film division was at a low-point with both their live-action and animated films. The audience that loved their movies as kids, were now older and looking for more mature, blockbuster fare. Branching out from the traditional clean family films, Disney started to chase the young adult market. The Watcher in the Woods was the first major offering of this new era and Disney’s first true horror film. Now, being a Disney horror film you won’t find slashers, gore, demons or blood in it. This was an elevated project, a supernatural ghost story about a family that moves into an old English manor where the teen daughter discovers a ghostly secret.
Watching the trailer, there’s nothing Disney about it as it’s pushed as a straight horror film. With that typical ominous music, a creepy narrator warns that something is in the woods, reminding the viewer that this is “no fairy tale.” Disney went so far as to put a disclaimer that the film is not for small children. Bette Davis’ creepy and wonderful performance, along with the atmosphere and eerie scene setups, is why fans remember this as one of the scariest Disney films ever.
One of the most unique films in the Disney library is the 1940 fantasy classic Fantasia, a Walt Disney experiment merging classical music and beautiful animation. The project originally started as a way to reinvigorate the Mickey Mouse character by placing him in the cartoon version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The eight segments that would comprise the film would be a color symphony for the eyes and ears. While most of Fantasia’s segments are fun and light-hearted pieces -with dancing flowers, hippos and alligators - children didn’t expect that Disney had some frightening sequences in-between.
“Night on Bald Mountain” with music composed by Modest Mussorgsky, is the epitome of scary animation. Disney has basically the Devil himself summoning the undead and ghoulish forces of the night, to terrorize the living. The iconic dark devil, with massive bat wings that rises from the top of the mountain, is often associated with Satan but is actually another dark deity that goes by the name of Chernobog. The segment is a mashup of Hell and Halloween as the world is covered in darkness, much to the delight of the ghosts and demons that are unleashed. It should come to no surprise that this memorable segment is now being turned into a live-action film by Disney.
5 THE BLACK CAULDRON
Drastically different from any animated Disney feature film before or since is 1985’s The Black Cauldron. Outside of Disney aficionados, the film is largely forgotten as Disney has done its best to put away the film in its vault. You certainly won’t find rides or merchandise for this “black sheep.” Produced during Disney’s “dark years” in the early 1980s, the film was a massive flop that almost brought down the animated film division.
Set during the dark ages, the film centers on a young boy Taran who along with a group of brave friends, tries to stop the evil Horned King from obtaining a powerful cauldron that will give him world domination. This swords and sorcery story was more Dungeons and Dragons with a touch of Lord of the Rings, utilizing spookier creatures/villains and cartoon violence. Lacking that Disney charm and going for a darker tone, the film was the first Disney animated feature to receive a PG rating.
In addition to the story not being a traditional fairytale, visually the animation style didn’t look like a Disney film. Cauldron used darker color shading and the new technology at the time of computers for the transfer process and effects, helping give the movie an eerie look.
4 DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE
Before taking on the 007 mantle, Sean Connery starred (and sang) in this 1959 cult favorite about leprechauns. Even though the film is a go-to option on St. Patrick’s Day, it could very easily be watched on Halloween, thanks in large part to some ghastly supernatural scenes. This live-action family adventure steeped in fantasy and Irish lore, has the trademark Disney song and cheer, but also has various forms of death present.
From banshees to headless specters, many a child (and some adults) couldn’t go to sleep right after watching this shamrock treat. While the title character Darby O’Gill (played by Albert Sharpe) spends his days drinking and telling stories of leprechauns, he also warns of the darker spirits that lurk in the town and nearby ancient ruins. Just bring up the word banshee to someone who’s seen the film and watch how quickly they cringe in fear. With the use of special effects and lighting, the wailing hooded Banshee is a hideous evil spirit that makes Ghostface look like a chump. The film’s frightening climax has the appearance of the glowing death coach that comes to collect the soul of Darby’s sick daughter. Being a Disney film, there’s a happy ending but not before the heralds of death spook the kiddies.
Sounding like something out of a Rob Zombie or Hostel film, Pleasure Island is an amusement park beyond belief where “naughty” boys are free to do what they want without any repercussions or adult supervision. From drinking, to smoking and getting into fights, the boys get seduced by this fantastical place that ends up revealing its true evil nature by turning them into donkeys. Yeah, they go from being human boys to actual donkeys that are sent to work in salt mines. Parents and children in 1940 didn’t go to Disney’s Pinocchio expecting to see a movie about child trafficking, indecency and moral corruption but that’s what they got, just told through beautiful animation.
As crazy as Pinocchio’s time in Pleasure Island is, the film is stocked with really evil and mean villains that he meets along the way. From Honest John the Fox and Gideon, to Stromboli and the Coachman, the poor boy puppet has to endure these manipulative and nightmarish characters. Children were meant to be frightened by these villains, as a warning from the terrors lurking in our world. If run-ins with these characters isn’t enough, Pinocchio literally gets eaten by evil in the form of the giant whale, Monstro.
2 RETURN TO OZ
In terms of tone and visual style, the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz is Glinda the Good Witch, while 1985’s Return to Oz is The Wicked Witch of the East. Families expecting to return to the colorful fantasy world of the Judy Garland masterpiece, were greatly disappointed when they saw Return to Oz. While staying more faithful to L. Frank Baum’s books, this 1985 visit to the land of Oz was more bleak and terrifying. From Dorothy receiving electroshock therapy, to Oz being a wasteland controlled by a sinister Nome King and a headless princess, kids barely sat through the movie.
Another entry of Disney’s “dark ages” in the '80s, the film was poorly received at the box-office as audiences didn’t embrace the sinister edge. It’s understandable for parents to question if the movie is suitable for children, when the story starts off with Dorothy Gale (played by Fairuza Balk) in a mental hospital. From there things only get bizarre as we meet the traumatizing Wheelers – looking like Clive Barker creations – and the headless Princess Mombi. Mombi alone deserves her own horror film, with her collecting living women’s heads in glass cabinets, for crying out loud!
1 SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES
It’s easy to snicker when someone suggests that a family fantasy movie can be just as unsettling and scary as a regular horror film. But when said family film is based on Ray Bradbury’s 1962 dark fantasy novel of the same name, Something Wicked This Way Comes is clinic in true horror. Jonathan Pryce plays the mysterious Mr. Dark, who brings his travelling carnival to the small town of Greentown, Illinois. Catching the imaginations of two boys, Will and Jim, the pair uncover the carnivals true intent which is collecting souls.
The 1983 film may not be as dark and layered as Bradbury’s novel, but with Bradbury writing the script, it’s still able to incorporate many creepy and disturbing elements with the Mr. Dark character and his evil Pandemonium Carnival. With the Autumn backdrop and small town setting, the film very much has an American Gothic vibe, creating a perfect Halloween story. Structured as a coming-of-age film, what makes Something Wicked really work is Pryce’s subdued but intimidating portrayal of Mr. Dark. The scene where he reveals his tattoos of the souls he’s captured is goosebumps-inducing. That example amongst the many other sinister moments is why Mr. Dark will undoubtingly go down as a true horror villain.