A few days ago I made the mistake of watching Disney’s Pinocchio (1940) to ease the feeling of school-induced stress and childhood nostalgia I was suddenly having. I thought that the opiate of song, dance and whimsical animation by good ol’ Disney might comfort and cheer me up. I was wrong. Dead wrong.
Now, I know I first watched Pinocchio when I was four, though I have no memory of the actual film itself. But after re-watching it nineteen years later, I know precisely why: I’ve repressed all memory of seeing it because it is an uncanny and rather frightening film. It’s got garishly-animated, blank-eyed and blank-faced puppets, naughty boys that get turned into donkeys and shipped off to salt mines (a prospect that, I’m sure, would make any child viewer pee in their pants out of sheer fear), and, of course, the behemoth of a whale that swallows Geppetto and Pinocchio whole near the end of the film. These were all childhood horrors that I had apparently banished from memory and into my subconscious. I’m pretty sure I owe my pervasive fear of swimming in the ocean to that damn whale.
Halloween is at our doorstep, a fact that Hollywood likes to remind us with the releases of Silent Hill 3D: Revelation, Sinister, V/H/S and Paranormal Activity 4. In short, you can expect a lot of hellish creatures, ear-piercing screams and blood and guts to assail the silver screen. But why go out of your way to spend Halloween at the movies being scared shitless by obvious CGI monsters (and potentially terrible acting) when you can re-live equally terrifying and traumatizing moments hidden throughout the so-called “kiddie” films you watched during your formative years?
What terrifying moments, you ask? Well, I’ll throw you a bone: Bambi (1942). Specifically, Bambi’s mother’s death, possibly the most traumatizing cinematic experience that any five-year-old would ever have. I’ll throw you another: the “Heffalumps and Woozles” sequence from Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1968), which delves deep into Pooh’s subconscious and magnifies his fear of his honey getting stolen by those darn elephants and weasels. Freud would have a field day with this uncanny sequence if he were alive today to watch this.
Not to be undone, Dumbo (1941) has its own surreal musical sequence where its titular character accidentally gets drunk and—no, I am not making this up—begins to hallucinate about pink elephants on parade. It’s amusing. It’s ghoulish. It’s ridiculous. It’s downright terrifying. YouTube it, if you dare.
In the ‘90s, television was an extra parent, the global village that it took to raise a child. TV, that tantalizing and forbidden fruit of knowledge, quickly introduced us children to the Hobbesian nature of adult reality through good old entertainment.
Watching cute, fuzzy bunnies meet horrific ends in Watership Down (1978) was my first concrete introduction to the concept of death (thanks, real parents), and probably caused me to become a vegetarian years later. The excruciating scenes of social awkwardness in Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor’s Jungle 2 Jungle (1997) were equally traumatic. I should probably bill Taylor for the cost of all the cognitive behavioural therapy sessions I needed to overcome my crippling shyness. Watching children’s movies made me into a sad, anxious vegetarian. Don’t let it happen to your kids.
A compendium of chief offenders:
The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986)
Muppet man Jim Henson and fantasy artist Brian Froud teamed up during the 1980s to maim the psyches of children everywhere with puppet picture The Dark Crystal and musical Labyrinth. I saw The Dark Crystal on a science camp lunch-break in 2000 and have been obsessed ever since. The sick, Machiavellian Skeksis are startling characters for a children’s picture, as are the vegetable-like Podlings who they treat with total disregard.
Labyrinth is basically Jennifer Connelly running around open mouthed in a weird maze, a series of awkward close-ups of David Bowie’s spandex crotch, and bat-shit crazy musical numbers. Just what is Bowie planning to do with Connelly’s baby brother, anyway? Both of these movies are horrifying, but they are also playful and moving. Henson knew that children actually love to be scared, and he always knew how to give people what they wanted.
Peter transforming into a monkey. Enough said.
Return to Oz (1985)
Oh, thanks Disney. Just shatter the positive childhood memories we have of Judy Garland’s Wizard of Oz. No problem. Dorothy’s trip to Oz is interpreted by her family as a psychotic break? Sure, that’s totally okay. They send her to a psychiatric ward and she receives electroshock therapy? The entire land of Oz is destroyed? This clearly has the makings of a wonderful kid’s film. It was certainly an unforgettable piece of my childhood.