There are so many streaming services nowadays that it’s hard to keep track. What movies are available and how can you make the most of the money you’re giving to these apps? It’s a bit overwhelming, especially with all of the new services, from Apple+ to the family friend Disney+. Lots of people signed up for the latter for The Mandalorian, and might be wondering if it’s worth keeping around now that the season wrapped. Especially since the service is mostly loaded with stuff for kids.
But if you’re a genre fan, there’s actually a lot of great content on Disney+ worth checking out—either for the first time or in the name of nostalgia. Yes, most of the “scary” stuff is still aimed at kids, but there are some great horror gems lurking in the crevices.
Return To Oz
If you’re of a certain age, then chance are high that you know Return to Oz well because it tortured your nightmares as a small child. The sequel to the 1939 classic family film The Wizard of Oz, this Fairuza Balk film flips the fairy tale on its head, choosing to take a dark—and frankly more accurate—approach to author L. Frank Baum’s material. This time, Dorothy escapes an insane asylum in Kansas and is transported back to Oz by a river, finding the magical land in ruins. She confronts terrifying rock monsters, a headless witch, and characters known as “Wheelies,” and all of it is absolutely frightening.
This 1940 animated classic is full of some of the most timeless imagery in Disney’s history. It’s comprised of eight segments, all set to music by Leopold Stokowski. Many are charming and whimsical, but then you get to the “Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria” portion of the film and suddenly we’re back in nightmare territory. It depicts a demon named Chernabog who sits atop a mountain overlooking a small Slavic village. He casts the city in shadows, conjuring bats and ghosts. His glowing yellow eyes and horns are burned into our brains forever.
Don’t Look Under The Bed
This Disney Channel Original Movie is one of the more terrifying outputs the network ever put to screen. It follows a young girl named Frances whose small idyllic town is targeted by a Boogeyman wreaking havoc and causing strange things to happen. She’s joined by an imaginary friend named Larry, and along with her younger brother Darwin, they are transported to a Boogey dimension that exists under Frances’s bed to vanquish the bad guy. If this all sounds a little corny, it sort of is, but it’s also creepy as hell. The Boogey dimension is exactly the sort of scary realm of childhood fantasy. At one point, Larry is morphed into a Boogey version of himself, which distorts his innocence. It’s the sort of movie that preys on childhood fears in a poignant way, and it still holds up as a DCOM classic.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
We couldn’t make a list like this and not include one of the most iconic spooky movies in the Disney catalogue. Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is an absolute classic, about a man named Jack Skellington—the hero of his home world, Halloweentown—who yearns for more. He eventually hatches up a plan to kidnap Santa Claus and take over his duties for one special Christmas holiday, but the results are ghoulish and have a terrible effect on both Jack and the children he targets. The film has a hopeful and tender message, but it’s loaded with scary stuff, too. The opening segment, “This Is Halloween,” is basically just a checklist of childhood phobias brought to wicked life.
The Black Hole
You might not be familiar with this 1979 Disney film, but you should be. It’s possibly the scariest film on this list, getting into some outright horror genre stuff. It’s set in the future and follows the crew of a spaceship called the USS Palomino. During its travels, the ship encounters another ship that’s long been missing, the USS Cygnus. It’s the same ship where Palomino scientist Kate McCrae’s father was before it disappeared. The crew learns that the ship is occupied by a man named Dr. Reindhardt and a bizarre faceless army that plans to explore a black hole. There’s some hokey stuff and the effects are dated in an expected way, but the movie is genuinely scary at times, with a lot of space imagery and designs that sear their way into the mind.
Escape To Witch Mountain
This one isn’t too scary, but it does have an odd energy to it, which feels dreamlike in a lot of ways and has some terrifying implications when you’re a kid. It’s about siblings Tony and Tia, who both have impressive psychic abilities. Because of their powers, they’re adopted by a cruel millionaire who wants to exploit them. They escape, and are aided by a grumpy man named Jason who eventually becomes their protector, and helps them get to a place called Witch Mountain. The movie has otherworldly implications, and the themes of abduction and child-hunting can be intense for young viewers. But there’s a strange magic to this movie that makes it such a classic—so much so that it spawned several sequels and remakes.
Another childhood classic we’d be remiss not to mention. Hocus Pocus is hugely famous, but it’s also genuinely scary. It follows the resurrected Sanderson Sisters, who are conjured back to life by a trio of kids—Max, his little sister Dani, and his crush Alison—who immediately regret their decision. The sisters are witches from Salem who suck the souls out of children to maintain their youth, and the second they come back to life, they hatch a new plan to feed the town dry. There’s a lot of frightening imagery in the film, from the shadow of a witch on a broomstick to a zombie named Billy to actual onscreen child death. It’s a dark film but one that has clearly stood the test of time. It’s nice to have it in such a convenient streaming location.
The Adventures Of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
This 1949 animated film consists of two segments, both based on classic stories: The Wind in the Willows and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The Mr. Toad segment is relatively benign—although we can’t say the same for the Disney parks ride baed on the same story—but the true horror awaits in the Sleepy Hollow half. It depicts the iconic story of Ichabod Crane, who travels into the woods where he encounters the Headless Horseman. The animation is thrilling, dark, and memorable. Another bit of kiddo programming that you see young and never forget.
There are two versions of this Tim Burton story available on Disney+ and we recommend them both. The first is a 1994 30-minute live-action film, about a young boy who resurrects his dog Sparky after he’s hit by a car using a machine powered by lightning. Like the classic story of Frankenstein, the dog’s revival spooks the town, and a witch hunt ensues. In 2012, Burton returned to Frankenweenie, this time using stop-animation and creating a feature-length film that expands the plot. Both are melancholy plays on a well-known story, using a child’s love for his pet as the beating heart. There are spooky things at play, but ultimately, the stories are both heartwarming and tender.
When you think of the 1940 animated Disney classic Pinocchio, you might think first of the Blue Fairy, or of Jiminy Cricket, or of many of the benign and lovely things in the film. But if you were a child haunted by some of the more intense scenes, you’ll be reminded of the bit where the titular puppet is ghoulishly transformed into a donkey, or the monstrous whale that swallows Pinocchio’s creator, Geppetto. Indeed, for many of us, Pinocchio was a straight-up horror movie, about a puppet brought to life who can’t wrap his head around the existential madness of human existence. It’s all a lot for a kid to take in. Let’s hope they just focus on the fairy.
This 1986 made-for-television film originally aired as an episode of The Disney Sunday Movie, and tells the story of a novelty store owner and his family who move into a new house. Strange things start happening, and first the family thinks it’s just silly ol’ jokester dad playing pranks. But soon they realize their house is haunted by a bunch of colonial ghosts. It’s Mr. Boogedy himself who really brings this movie into the realm of horror; his makeup design is frightening, and he’s accentuated by a grim green light. The scares are childish, sure, but like a lot of others on this list, it left a huge impression.
The Black Cauldron
The Black Cauldron has a heavy legacy. Released in 1985, it earned Disney Animation its first-ever PG rating, and was the most expensive animated film ever made at the time. It tanked at the box office and effectively marked the end of the studio’s reign; but its failure paved the way for the Disney Renaissance of the late ’80s and ’90s, when classics like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast became new staples. It’s a pity that The Black Cauldron missed the critical and box office mark, because it’s a truly splendid and wicked little movie, about a boy named Taran tasked with finding the titular black cauldron before the Evil Horned King can. The animation and tone are dark, and its themes of death twist the whole thing into an overall spooky experience.
Featured Image: Disney