Every piece of media designed with kids in mind seems to bring with it a unique set of horrors. There’s always a moment that tests young viewers' fortitude for the horrifying, like when the cave collapses in Aladdin, or when the red-eyed rhinoceros stampede from the heavens to kill James’ parents. And often enough, these nuggets of terror are introduced with childhood’s most infamous Trojan horse: A catchy song.
What’s more comforting than a little ditty to hum while cleaning your room? How about vengeance on whoever wrote them! Because these scary-as-heck songs from kids’ movies are embedded in entire generations of mental hard drives. No one sat down for movie night with the intention of being traumatized for life, but it happened just the same, and potentially more often than we ever realized. Let’s all flash back together.
“Pink Elephants on Parade” – Dumbo (1941)
The Disney classic Dumbo has so many dated, questionable elements—the word “problematic” instantly comes to mind—but the most frightening of them all is the sequence affectionately known as “Pink Elephants.” It’s completely unnecessary, but it’s also disturbing by design. Viewers are warned to “look out!” for the hollow-eyed specters and their garish hobbies, like marching in circles around children upside-down in the middle of the night.
“Come Little Children” – Hocus Pocus (1993)
In the third act of Hocus Pocus, Sarah Jessica Parker’s witchy Sarah Sanderson sings a soothing yet sinister summons meant to lure children to their doom. She and her sisters plan to steal the youth and vibrancy from the town’s children, and it almost works. It’s a surprisingly creepy movie when you revisit it as an adult, especially considering the director went on to make hits like High School Musical for Disney.
“Tunnel Of Terror” – Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971)
Why. Why? Why do this to the patrons of a factory tour, and why subject a family audience to it? From the alarming imagery (snakes, birds, villains, decay) to the frightening scream-song performed by Willy Wonka himself, everything about this is grotesque. It’s got the hallucinatory effect of “Pink Elephants,” the scare factor of “Be Prepared,” and the petrified shrieks of the “Pinocchio” jackass scene. Enjoy the candy factory movie, kids!
“Night on Bald Mountain” – Fantasia (1940)
With Fantasia, audiences were introduced to selections from classical music accompanied by original Disney animations. Some, like the mushrooms and flowers from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, were lovely. And then there’s the sequence set to “Night on Bald Mountain.” This nightmarish scene features a demon-ghoul on a mountain, one that plays with fire and skeletons and plucks souls from a nearby cemetery, seemingly for its own entertainment. Why anyone would listen to the Schubert composition and imagine this gruesome event, let alone decide it’s appropriate material for the Disney audience, is baffling. It’s also incongruous with the film’s delicate opening, which means first-time viewers will be even less prepared for it.
“Once Upon a December” – Anastasia (1997)
Out of all of these stories, the violent overthrow of the Romanoff family is the least appropriate to turn into an animated film for kids. It’s all pretty creepy from the outset, but “Once Upon a December” stands out. Anya’s trauma led her to block out her earliest memories, and the nostalgia for a childhood ripped away from her in this scene is intense. The waltz is haunting enough on its own, but when a viewer recalls the earliest parts of the film—including the persecution and loss of her entire family—it becomes almost unwatchably sad. She’s literally surrounded by sparkling ghosts, all of which were presumably murdered in the film’s opening sequence. And this scene doesn’t even have a decrepit Rasputin in it.
“Be Prepared” – The Lion King (1994)
Who doesn’t love a little Nazi imagery with their Hamlet-inspired children’s media? The Lion King rightfully earned its place in the pantheon of unsettling Disney films, and something about Scar’s ruthless command of high-stepping hyenas is especially difficult to shake. Not to mention the fact that stylistically, this scene is like 10% green fumes and 90% terrifying shadows. No wonder this generation loves to tweet about therapy.
“Far into the Forest” – Snow White (1937)
Snow White did to forests what Thomas Tryon or Stephen King did to corn. You can’t watch the scene in which Snow White escapes through the forest and think anything other than, “It’s not just poison apples or evil queens; I guess I have to be afraid of trees, now, too!” This is not a song in the traditional Disney song sense, but the suspenseful music, dark shading, and sinister way that nature conspires against Snow White when she just wants to live is terrifying enough to reportedly upset Guillermo del Toro, even in adulthood. Plus, you’re way more likely to encounter a forest in everyday life than a narcissistic queen who hates you, which means the world at large becomes rife with potential triggers.
Which children's movie musical moments were most traumatizing to you? Let us know!
Featured Image: Disney