Kid’s movies should be fun. They’re supposed to be something that the whole family can watch together, share popcorn, and smile about. But if you really think that’s true, then you’re probably a ‘90s child. If you were an ‘80s child, then you’d know that kids movies can sometimes turn out to be the stuff of nightmares, as ‘80s movies like The Dark Crystal and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure are probably as known for scaring children rather as they are making them smile. I mean, for real! There are some surprisingly scary moments in a bunch of these ‘80s films.
Sure, the ‘90s DID have The Witches with its infamous ballroom scene. But that movie came out in 1990, so it was more like a holdover from the ‘80s. But by the mid-‘90s, we were getting stuff like Space Jam and Flubber. Remember Flubber? It’s almost as if studio execs sat down together and decided, “You know what? Maybe we shouldn’t make movies that scare the crap out of children."
Yes, you had the occasional Jumanji, but otherwise, kids movies really weren’t all that scary in the '90s. So, I want to take you back to the movies that made you run into your parents’ bedroom or hide underneath the covers. Because these scenes were some serious nightmare fuel.
“Feel the Power of the Dark Crystal!” - The Dark Crystal, 1982
I’m going to be honest with you. I didn’t see The Dark Crystal as a child. I saw it as an adult, and I’m glad I did because it seriously would have messed me up as a kid, but good! Because like many children, I grew up with Jim Henson. The Muppets, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock. All cheery stuff. But The Dark Crystal is sinister from its very first scene. Unlike most children’s tales, it’s a story about genocide. A disgusting tribe of vulture-looking creatures called the Skeksis want to use a divine gem known as the dark crystal to give them ultimate power, while the last of a race called the Gelflings aim to stop them.
As mentioned, the whole movie just has an unsettling feeling to it. But the scene that I’m certain would have given me night terrors as a kid is the one in which the Skeksis are draining a podling of his “life essence”. I wouldn’t necessarily say this scene is “surprisingly scary” since the whole movie has a dark tone to it. But watching the podling being strapped down while a purple light steals his “essence” is horrifying, especially with the dead-eyed stare he has once it’s all over. Did Jim Henson really think that showing torture was suitable for children? I want to know.
“Come for me, Gmork!” - The NeverEnding Story, 1984
The NeverEnding Storrrryyyyy! The tale of a boy’s imagination while reading a book, The NeverEnding Story is a wondrous, fun yarn with a lot of whimsy. You have Atreyu, of course, as the hero within the story, and the lovable, rideable, Falkor. You have the rockbiter, and the gnome, Engywook. Ahh, good times. But then… well, then you have Gmork. And Gmork is not a good time.
The surprisingly scary scene in question is when Atreyu faces Gmork, who hides in a wall and almost talks in a dulcet tone that is somewhat soothing. I could imagine falling asleep to this voice. But this is juxtaposed by what he’s actually talking about, which is the Nothing. Atreyu then tells Gmork to come for him, and the beast leaps from his hole with sharp teeth in attack mode. But it's his green eyes and the way he peers out from his hole that terrified me as a child. I would see those eyes in my closet at night, waiting for me to go to sleep. Creepy! See it here.
No Head - Return to Oz, 1985
I remember I was on the schoolyard when somebody asked me if I’d seen Return to Oz. I said of course. Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, but then he stopped me and said, “No, not The Wizard of Oz. I said Return to Oz,” to which he explained that Dorothy was in a mental institution and then she was transported to Oz again, but it was all messed up. At first, I didn’t believe him, as this was an age when you couldn’t just fact check on your cell phone. So, I actually went to his house and he had a VHS tape. And then I watched it… and wanted to cry.
The Wheelers were scary enough, but it was the Princess Mombi head scene that haunted me on the car ride home from my friend’s house. In the scene, Dorothy goes into a room where heads are in glass cases. Dorothy is creeping into the room, and then Princess Mombi sits up WITH NO HEAD, and then all the heads in the glass cases start SCREAMING. I was so mad at my friend for showing me this scene since I was literally haunted for days after watching it. God. How is this a kid’s movie?! Watch it here.
Large Marge, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, 1985
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is a silly movie about a grown man who plays with toys and seeks out his missing bike. I show the opening scene of this movie all the time to my kids because it’s silly and fun. But one scene I will NEVER show my children is the infamous “Large Marge” moment, where Pee-wee is being picked up along the side of the road, and a female truck driver gives a terrifying account of what happened to her.
This scene still scares me since it comes out of nowhere. First of all, the music is really creepy the way it plays during her tale, and the story she’s telling is really scary, too. But it’s the moment when she turns to Pee-wee and then her face morphs into this bug-eyed, Claymation expression that will always haunt me. Damn you, Tim Burton! Watch it here.
Junk Lady, Labyrinth, 1986
I started with Jim Henson, and I’m going to end with Jim Henson. Now, Labyrinth is nowhere near as scary as The Dark Crystal. In fact, I used to dance around the room with my daughter when she was still a baby to the “Magic Dance” to put her to sleep. But there is one scene in particular that always unsettled me as a child, and that’s the junk lady scene.
Jennifer Connelly’s character is just coming out of a dream when this creepy junk lady arrives and starts grabbing all of her possessions and giving them to her, telling her how much she loves them. Now, besides just looking creepy, what always unnerved me was the fact that the junk lady knows so much about Jennifer Connelly’s character. She’s not just some stranger. She knows her. Deeply. Intimately. And that never sat well with me. I always pictured her in the corner of my room whenever I’d look into my mirror, and that’s messed up. Watch it here.
And that’s all I have for you. Honestly, there’s a ton of other movies that scared me as a kid (Like Howard the Duck and Big Trouble in Little China), but I’ll keep it at five. But what do you think? What was the scariest scene on this list? Let me know in the poll below! And for news on more modern fare like 2021 movies or even 2022 movies, make sure to stop by here often.
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Rich is a Jersey boy, through and through. He graduated from Rutgers University (Go, R.U.!), and thinks the Garden State is the best state in the country. That said, he’ll take Chicago Deep Dish pizza over a New York slice any day of the week. Don’t hate. When he’s not watching his two kids, he’s usually working on a novel, watching vintage movies, or reading some obscure book.
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