At the risk of sounding like a stereotypical old person, kids these days have it easy at the movies. Sure, children’s films today sometimes have dark or mature content — even the death of a loved one like in Pixar’s Finding Nemo — but they simply can’t compare to films in previous decades that blindsided young onlookers with adult themes hidden or not so hidden in films targeted at them.
Sometimes that meant films felt overwhelmingly dark in retrospect or included a scene of utter terror that comes out of nowhere. Here are eight movies that traumatized us as kids and probably led to the death of our childhood.
1. The Land Before Time (1988)
Long before Finding Nemo or even The Lion King were making children cry within minutes of a film’s opening, it was the animated classic The Land Before Time. The film’s story begins when a young Apatosaurus named Littlefoot finds himself attacked by a Tyrannosaurus Rex and is saved by his mother who sustains fatal injuries. Littlefoot later finds his mother on the verge death and we’re presented with a heart-wrenching scene in which she tells him, “I’ll be with you, even if you can’t see me.”
The waterworks don’t end there — in a later scene, Littlefoot sees his own shadow from far away and mistaking it for his mother, chases it until he comes to the realization that it’s his own shadow. At least the film has a happy ending, but still.
2. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial might be a heart-warming tale of a lonely boy who befriends a stranded, benevolent alien, but it also contains some of the scariest moments of any film precisely because you’re not expecting it. What child wasn’t absolutely terrified by E.T. slowly creeping out of a shadowy shed or his reveal via flashlight in the cornfield? To make matters worse, once E.T. is firmly established as a cute alien not out to do any harm, the film brings in shadowy and faceless government agents who stick E.T. in a capsule as he lays dying.
3. Poltergeist (1982)
Coming from the director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist really shouldn’t have been the kind of film for young kids to watch, but anyone who grew up in the ’80s can probably attest to being traumatized by it. Revolving around malevolent, supernatural forces that terrorize a family in their home, the film’s scariest moments include an already-scary clown doll coming to life and a dip in a muddy pool with skeletons. Poltergeist is consistently named one of the scariest films of all-time and was actually one of the films central to the addition of the PG-13 rating (it was rated PG, which is probably why so many young children saw it).
4. The NeverEnding Story (1984)
There are a ton of reasons why the fantasy cult-classic The NeverEnding Story is disturbing, particularly to young children. While the images in the film are consistently dark and oppressive, the core story of the film revolves around a boy with a dead mother and all the people in his life that are bullying him. But let’s be honest — the real reason this film screwed up so many people’s childhoods is one scene in particular. It’s when a horse named Artax dies in a swamp. This heartrending scene, which goes on for what seems like forever, involves Artax giving into his sadness and allowing himself to die in a swamp while our hero tells him “you’re my friend, I love you.” Brutal.
5. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
While Poltergeist and several other films were partially responsible for the creation of the PG-13 rating (before the mid-1980s it was G, PG, R, NC-17), it was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom that was directly responsible. By far the most violent and disturbing of the Indiana Jones films, what makes the film confusing is a goofier, younger tone than Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade despite the film having darker content than either. This is probably why so many kids can trace childhood trauma to the film. But if we had to pinpoint one scarring moment, it has to be the scene in which a high priest pulls out a man’s heart with his bare-hands as it continues to beat.
6. Bambi (1942)
When it comes to the death of a parent in a children’s film, Bambi is king. As Bambi and his mother search for food, shots begin to ring out as a faceless hunter shoots and sends them running. After Bambi has made his way to the safety of a cave, he turns around to discover that his mother is not behind him and, turning back into the storm, he searches in vain for her body. Interestingly enough, a version of the scene existed at one point where Bambi discovers his mother’s body, but it was deemed too dark. The truth is, the almost ghostly loss of his mother is far more disturbing than the closure Bambi and the audience would feel by seeing even a glimpse of something.
7. Gremlins (1984)
Another one of the ’80s films that gave rise to the PG-13 rating, Gremlins tells the story of a teenager who comes into possession of Gizmo — a cute creature called a Mogwai who later spawns a host of malevolent monsters hellbent on causing mayhem. All in all, the film isn’t terribly scary, even when the scaly green monsters come into play, but one scene in particular led to nightmares galore for kids: when water is accidentally spilled on Gizmo. Soon after, Gizmo writhes in pain as his back bubbles and expels several furry egg-like creatures that later become the evil monsters of the film.
8. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The Wizard of Oz may be a visual and creative feast for young minds, but it also has the power to haunt. We can start with the Wicked Witch of the West who, besides being rendered utterly creepy by actress Margaret Hamilton and makeup, is accompanied by an equally creepy theme — and let’s not forget her iconic scene in which she melts. But the scariest part of the entire film might be the Wicked Witch’s army of flying monkeys who descend upon Dorothy and her friends amongst a darkened sky. The movie might be a lighthearted classic fantasy film, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who wasn’t at least slightly scarred by those flying monkeys.
Check out Entertainment Cheat Sheet on Facebook!