Scar(r)ed for Life

Image from Labyrinth from the site:

There are few modern horror movies that I find truly frightening—sure, a few have made me jump now and then, but most don’t stick with me once I’ve left the theater. Rather than rehash a list of spooky movies for the Halloween season, I’ve decided instead to focus on that most sinister of genres: the children’s movie. If you grew up in the 1980s as I did, then you may also have endured some of the bizarre and frightening children’s movies that were made in that era, often involving creepy puppets. Come with me now, on a journey through time and space…

The Neverending Story

Bastian Bux finds a storybook about a magical world called Fantasia, and soon realizes he’s the only one who can save its inhabitants from a cruel fate. What could be scarier than a flying dragon, a killer wolf-beast, and a swamp of sadness? Why, nothing of course! Even creepier than the actual creatures in this world is the realization that their biggest threat is something called The Nothingness, proving there’s nothing more frightening that existential dread.


A young Jennifer Connelly (Sarah) must rescue her baby brother after he is kidnapped by the Goblin King (aka David Bowie!) Sarah is led through a horrifying labyrinth full of sinister goblins, the Bog of Eternal Stench, and a gang of creatures who try to remove her head. Plus, David Bowie wears tights, and it’s kind of inappropriate.

Return to Oz

Did anyone else accidentally watch this movie as a kid? Although I can’t completely remember the plot, I do recall: little Dorothy is in a mental institution where she’s scheduled for electroshock therapy, creatures named “Wheelers” have roller skate wheels for feet, there’s a man with a pumpkin for a head, and an evil witch keeps people’s heads in cases so that she can switch her own noggin out anytime she wants. Who thought this was a good idea for a children’s movie?

The Dark Crystal

From the mind of Jim Henson, this is the story of a race of grotesque birdlike lizards called the Skeksis. A prophecy tells of a Gelfling (a small elfin thing) who will destroy their evil empire, so in their reign of terror they commit genocide and have the entire Gelfling race exterminated. The orphaned Jen embarks on a quest to find the missing shard of the Dark Crystal (which gives the Skeksis their power) and restore the balance of the universe. Some characters die. Kind of heavy stuff for a little kid.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

Although not technically released in the 1980s, Willy Wonka was on TV a lot when I was a kid, and I thought it was pretty great. As the story goes, our hero Charlie wins a magic ticket to tour the candy factory of the great (and somewhat sinister) Mr. Wonka. The film is based on a Roald Dahl book, and so it is a bit of a morality tale: good kids are rewarded, and bad kids are severely punished (or turned into giant blueberries). As Charlie tours the factory with a gang of other lucky winners, the kids are picked off one-by-one until Charlie is the last kid standing and inherits the Wonka fortune. Along the way there are trippy boat rides and oompa loompas. The remake is also creepy, but doesn’t hold a candle to the insane original.

Of course, traumatic children’s movies are not exclusive to the 1980s, as I’ve neglected to mention the ultimate trifecta of depressing animal films: Old Yeller The Yearling, and of course, Bambi

Lest you fear that strange children’s movies are an American thing, here’s proof that Australians also like to traumatize their children with creepy movies:

What about you? What movies do you remember from your childhood?


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9 responses to “Scar(r)ed for Life

  1. Yep, I grew up with these movies as well. Except I never saw Return to Oz. At the time I didn’t think anything of these movies. Sure they were creepy and I’m actually surprised my mom, a very religious person, let me and my sister watch these lol But it was all in good fun and I laughed out loud when I read your comment about David Bowie and his inappropriate tights :)

    • Don

      As to Return to Oz … I saw it as an adult and I was scarred! The really frightening thing is how much of it is much truer to the spirit of the Baum books than the original Wizard of Oz. Creepazoid.

  2. I’m not into scary movies at all, unless it’s about ghosts. It’s not a child’s movie (although the ghost IS a child) but I remember seeing George C. Scott in The Changeling. Truly frightening.

  3. lizzy

    I am stil in love with the original Willy Wonka movie. Nobody could hold a candle to Gene Wilder for his clever portrayal….It’s the 40th anniversary and in NYC they were doing a release of the DVD and interviews with many of the original cast.
    Check it out:

  4. Tara

    Sarah, I actually really enjoyed these movies as a kid too…I think I only realized how creepy they were as an adult. I think lots of kids enjoy dark, weird stuff (Roald Dahl was my favorite as a kid!) As an adult I can’t watch sad animal movies anymore…I may have to check out Return to Oz again though. And Maria – you’re the third person to mention that movie to me in the last week, meaning I gotta check it out :)

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