Last year, Randy Moore’s Escape from Tomorrow revealed the darker side of the Magic Kingdom. Produced without permission on the grounds of Walt Disney World over a period of months, the film tells the surreal story of Jim White, a man who may — or may not — be losing his mind while inside The Happiest Place on Earth.
Initially, doubts were cast on the film’s legitimacy and ability to secure a widespread release. Feeling that Disney wouldn’t allow distribution because of the “negative depiction of the parks” and the overall hallucinatory, sinister nature of the film, cynics contended that the film would be committed silently to the annals of history, a whisper of malevolence intoned beneath the monotonous rhythm of “It’s A Small World.”
In October of 2013, however, those cynic were proven wrong when Escape from Tomorrow was released in theaters and on video. Audiences around the world were allowed a glimpse of Moore’s vision of the seedy underbelly lurking just beneath the cobblestone roads leading to the House the Mouse Built.
In reality, it’s not an altogether illogical leap to see the spooky seeds from which children’s media blossoms. Our oldest fairy tales tell of girls without hands, dead princes, and cats who eat dismembered bodies… all stories intended to instill in children a value system, teach them morality, and inform them of worldly dangers.
For a time, in fact, Disney itself dabbled in horror with movies like The Watcher in the Woods and Something Wicked This Way Comes. These stories — today appreciated mostly by the adults who grew up watching them — are more or less absent from the company’s current offerings. However, many — if not all — of the darker, more ominous children’s films of yore have persisted, lingered in the back catalogs of the companies that once saw the merit of teaching children through terror.
Here, we examine eight such films, which — perhaps unintentionally — allowed their creepiness to get the better of their audience.
The Peanut Butter Solution (1985)
Summary: Plucky 11-year-old Michael Baskin loses his hair and endures a harrowing series of misadventures after he’s infected with “The Fright” by homeless ghosts.
Scariest Part: The film, aimed at the already vulnerable 11-15 year old crowd, essentially confirms their suspicions that the body’s processes are inherently malevolent and woefully outside of their ability to control.
In the defining scene, Michael — previously bald — looks at himself and finds that his “peanut butter solution” has worked, though, perhaps more effectively than he desired. Meanwhile, his cohort Connie fares even worse, having applied the potent elixir to his nether regions.
The Witches (1990)
Summary: Tragically unlucky adolescent Luke loses his parents in a car crash, is sent to live with his frail grandmother and engages in a battle of wits with the world’s most organized coven of witches.
Scariest Part: To be fair, Roald Dahl is the master of unsettling children’s tales, so it’s no surprise that he’s wriggled his way onto this list. In The Witches, however, the apex of his creepiness comes when poor Bruno — Luke’s friend — finds himself ushered into a conference room by a Stepford Wives-type donning curator’s gloves, as if she’s handling some kind of museum specimen. In the background, Anjelica Huston undulates like a coiled rattlesnake before transforming the hapless Bruno into a hellishly articulated animatronic mouse.
Cry Baby Lane (2000)
Summary: Brothers Andrew and Carl ignore every horror movie law written when they act upon a tale of twins — one good, one evil — told to them by a local undertaker.
Scariest Part: For the longest time, Cry Baby Lane was an urban legend. After airing once on Nickelodeon, it was permanently shelved after parental complaints and thought lost until users of Reddit — doing a little necromancy of their own — unearthed a copy. In one of the film’s more disturbing scenes, younger brother Andrew — amid mechanical, demonic laughter — tumbles into a shallow grave where he encounters a not-entirely-cogent ghoul who encourages him to witness and join his “collection” of earthworms.
Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory (1971)
Summary: Dangerously optimistic Charlie Bucket and his bedridden grandfather win the opportunity to tour a chocolate factory that would give OSHA nightmares.
Scariest Part: Who can forget the infamous boat ride down the chocolate river? Set to the manic, melodic tune of Wonka’s “Wondrous Boat Ride,” the scene opens with the asynchronous pulsing of psychedelic lights. Soon, the lights become… something else. Flashing a series of disquieting images — centipedes crawling across a man’s face, a chicken’s head being cut off, the film’s central bogeyman “Arthur Slugworth” — the ride crescendoes with Wonka staring into the camera, screaming directly at the viewer as the passengers ineffectually plead with him to stop the boat.
Drop Dead Fred (1991)
Summary: Mousy Lizzie Cronin rekindles an old relationship with an offbeat imaginary friend who teaches her the importance of standing up for herself.
Scariest Part: As a foreboding chime tolls, Lizzie enters the waiting room of her doctor’s office. Her imaginary friend — Drop Dead Fred — takes a seat beside her, assumes an apologetic tone and asks if she’s insane. Seeking comfort with a stranger, Lizzie is told that doctor Hyland is a leading expert in “imaginary friend syndrome.” As the camera pans out, a coterie of surreal, imaginary characters are depicted while engaging in an unnerving slapstick routine that culminates in a man’s head exploding to reveal the workings of a cuckoo clock.
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Summary: Perpetual child Pee-wee Herman meets a colorful cast of characters as he travels across the country in search of his stolen bicycle.
Scariest Part: Two words: Large Marge. Hitching a ride with a kindly stranger in a big rig, Pee-wee listens to the tale of an accident that occurred on the road ten years ago. As the story comes to a close, with Large Marge explaining that “when they pulled the driver’s body from the twisted, burning wreck. It looked like this…” her face suddenly transforms into that of a grotesque, frizzy-haired claymation monstrosity.
Mr. Boogedy (1986)
Summary: A family of practical jokesters are excited to move into a new house until they discover that it is haunted by the spirit of a Faustian sorcerer wrapped in a magical cloak.
Scariest Part: The image of the film’s namesake villain, Mr. Boogedy, is one etched into the mind of any adolescent who was unlucky enough to see this film in the mid-80s. Equal parts Skeletor and Oscar the Grouch, with just a hint of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Mr. Boogedy is a sickly-complected crone-type covered in boils, fissures and sporting rows of jagged, meth-addled teeth.
Menacingly cloaked in an animated green aura, Mr. Boogedy confidently taunts — or haunts — young viewers in the film’s finale, just as their apprehension has turned to relief over his supposed vanquishing.
The Garbage Pail Kids Movie (1987)
Summary: After a UFO shaped like a garbage can crash lands in an anonymous American city, the ship’s freakish inhabitants foment all manner of chaos and — for some reason — participate in a fashion show.
Scariest Part: Without a doubt, Nat Nerd — a Garbage Pail Kid whose defining characteristics include rampant acne and his ability to wet himself — is one of the most terrifying figures to ever appear in a children’s movie.
Dressed in a knockoff Superman costume, Nat’s — and, for the most part, all of the Kids’ — face so tightly straddles the border of the uncanny between human and inhuman that most people would rather slip into the welcoming arms of a nightmare than stare one more minute into his beady, unfeeling eyes.