One of the great things about growing up in the ’90s was the widespread adoption of VHS. No matter who you were, your family likely had a video cassette player, and you’d spend hours parked in front of the TV watching and re-watching your favorite flicks (probably while sipping on a Surge, eating some Shark Bites and counting the hours until SNICK).
But some of those kid-friendly movies had moments that were…well, horrifying. Maybe the filmmakers didn’t know what they were doing, but we’re pretty sure they were purposely trying to traumatize us. After all, what’s a kids’ film if not a vehicle for distributing deep-seated existential terror?
The next time someone tells you that the millennial generation had it easy, remind them that we had to repair our collective psyche after viewing some of these incredibly disturbing movie moments.
Disclaimer: Just so you know, if you order an item through one of our posts, we may get a small share of the sale.
1. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was a fun-filled romp, but we only remember one key scene.
Okay, that’s not entirely true; we definitely quoted the “I know you are, but what am I?” scene several thousand times.
For the most part, this Tim Burton classic was silly fun. It followed the adventures of Pee-wee (Paul Reubens, of course) as he goes to ridiculous lengths to retrieve his treasured bicycle. At one point, he dances to save himself from a gang of bikers, and a few scenes later, he rescues animals from a burning pet shop. It’s the kind of zany, madcap comedy that kids love, starring a man at the top of his (admittedly limited) game.
That’s all well and good, but early in the film, Pee-wee decides to hitchhike, and that’s the scene that really sticks with us.
The scene: The “Large Marge” scene takes a classic trucker ghost story and puts Pee-wee squarely in the middle of it.
Our hero decides to hitch rides across the desert, and a trucker picks him up. She starts a long monologue about a dead trucker, at which point Burton said to himself, “Hey, I haven’t done any soul-shattering clay animation sequences in a while. Let’s throw in a jump scare. By the way, I hate children.”
The moment in question occurs around 1:20 of this clip. Don’t watch it with a full bladder.
Why it bothered us: At the end of the scene, we find out that the ghost is apparently real, at which point she basically leaves the movie without affecting the plot in any meaningful way. In fact, Pee-wee immediately straightens his bowtie and shakes off the encounter—which means that Pee-wee lives in a world filled with ghosts and he’s completely used to this sort of thing.
No wonder he spent most of his time inside the Playhouse.
2. Who Framed Roger Rabbit had a bunch of moments that weren’t exactly kid-friendly.
Our parents let us watch it anyway—after all, it had cartoons in it, so it must be for children, right?
In the film, private detective Eddie Valiant begrudgingly accepts a case from Roger Rabbit, who’s being framed for the death of R.K. Maroon, head of Maroon Studios. Valiant—who hates cartoon characters—pins the crime on Judge Doom, an apparently human judge.
The scene: We said “apparently human” for a reason. In a key moment, Doom reveals that he’s responsible for the death of Eddie’s brother. He also reveals that he’s a toon, and to emphasize the point, his voice goes up several octaves while his eyes pop out of his head.
No, it’s not a kid-friendly moment, but in the film’s defense, most parents had dragged their crying kids out of the theater by this point. When we watched it on VHS, we didn’t have that luxury.
Why it bothered us: Well, the scene freaked us out because it’s a cheap jump scare, but as a whole, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was disturbing for another reason.
There’s a ton of over-the-top violence, intended to satirize the violence in children’s cartoons; while adult viewers probably didn’t mind, we had trouble envisioning a world where lovable cartoon characters could be the victims of grisly crimes. After all, famous characters like Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, and Dumbo appear throughout the movie.
That means that they’re subject to the same rules as the other characters. Could someone drop them in a toxic vat of paint remover? Would Porky say “Th-th-th-that’s all, folks!” shortly before dissolving into green goo?
3. The Witches was also pretty intense all the way through.
Unlike Who Framed Roger Rabbit, this 1990 dark fantasy film was intended for children. It’s based on a book by Roald Dahl, who hated the movie since it changed his ending (more on that in a moment).
If you’re not familiar, The Witches told the story of Luke, a bright-eyed young kid who stumbles onto a worldwide witch conspiracy while staying at a hotel (he must have missed all of the “WITCH CONVENTION 1990 / TIP YOUR WAITRESSES” signs). The witches are planning on turning children into mice by poisoning candy.
Before he can tell anyone of their plans, Luke gets turned into a mouse. He makes the best of his situation by using his new mouse powers to poison the witches, turning them into mice, at which point the witches are stomped to death by a bunch of oblivious hotel guests. Man, the ’90s were kind of brutal.
Luke resigns himself to living out his life as a mouse, but one of the witches’ assistants—who had a change of heart, presumably since she didn’t want to get stomped in the head by a vacationer—turns him back into a human. Everyone lives happily ever after, and nobody eats candy ever again.
The scene: Did we forget to mention the actual part where Luke gets turned into a mouse?
They hold him down on a table, force evil medicine down his throat, and yell “Bye, bye!” while he shrinks in a mist of green gas. There’s a shot of Luke’s clothes crumpled up on the floor, and for some reason, that was the most disturbing part.
Why it bothered us: It seems hopelessly bleak for a kids’ movie.
At this point in the film, we don’t believe that any sort of antidote exists, and the transformation scene is terrifying. It doesn’t help that Luke explains towards the end of the film that he’s locked into his rodential body—which means that he’ll die within the next year or two.
At least the film didn’t follow the plot of the novel. In the book, the good-hearted witch never shows up; Luke simply doesn’t mind his drastically shortened lifespan since it will allow him to die with his grandmother. Now that’s disturbing.
4. The Brave Little Toaster was a non-stop horror show.
Sure, it’s an animated film starring an adorable toaster, but it’s also savagely depressing. In the world of The Brave Little Toaster, appliances are sentient creatures with complex emotions, and at the end of their operating life, they’re “retired” to a garbage dump, where they’re inevitably destroyed.
That’s not just our observation; existential dread is the main theme of the movie. The protagonist (creatively named Toaster) and his friends are constantly dodging death while trying to return to their owners’ home—owners who don’t really want them since they’re old, outdated, and useless.
And we haven’t even gotten to the traumatizing part yet.
The scene: At one point, Toaster has a nightmare in which he’s tortured by a clown. No, we’re not making this up.
Quick warning: If you’re afraid of clowns, this clip probably isn’t going to give you a sudden change of heart.
Why it bothered us: It’s an evil clown with giant crooked teeth, and it’s whispering “run” at the protagonist. In this case, we don’t have to dig too deep to see why we were horrified.
In fairness to the clown, he was giving Toaster some pretty decent advice, and he followed it up by spraying water, which is what a firefighter’s supposed to do when, uh, fighting a fire. Granted, he also magically suspends Toaster over a bathtub, which has some pretty dark implications, but we’ll let that one slide.
5. We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story wasn’t exactly a classic, but it was pretty decent.
Released a few months after Jurassic Park, it was produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblimation studio, so some parents assumed that Spielberg was directly involved. He didn’t have much to do with it, and it wasn’t great—it currently holds a 38 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
We’re Back! was based on a Hudson Talbott children’s book, and the plot followed a group of dinosaurs who were abducted by aliens and fed an intelligence-boosting substance, at which point they’re kidnapped and forced to perform in a circus run by the evil Professor Screweye.
Oh, by the way, Professor Screweye has a screw for an eye. We’re not sure whether he changed his name after putting the screw in his eye, or if he already had the name Screweye, and the screw’s just coincidental. Either way, this movie was stupid.
The scene: Eventually, every villain gets his comeuppance, regardless of whether or not he has some sort of metal fastener in his eye. Throughout the film, Screweye controls crows with—wait for it—his screwy eye. At the end, the crows turn on him, cover him from head to toe, and eat him.
Why it bothered us: The rest of the movie is pretty silly, so this was a drastic tonal shift. The lights suddenly drop, Professor Screweye talks about how scared he is, and the crows’ wings flap ominously in the floodlight. When they cover his body, there’s absolute silence. It’s remarkably well done.
Come to think of it, that might be why it’s so frightening—it’s the only really good part of the movie, so it hits viewers like a ton of bricks.
If you’re really into the idea of talking dinosaurs, we’d recommend skipping the movie entirely and picking up the original children’s book instead. It’s a lot less disturbing for kids, and it’s just humorous enough to entertain parents.
6. Toy Story was the movie that made Pixar a household name.
It’s undoubtedly one of the most important animated films of all time, and it led to two stellar sequels, with a third, Toy Story 4, coming in 2019. It showed that computer animation could look really, really good, but for most audiences, it resonated thanks to the beautifully written story (not to mention the excellent Randy Newman score).
The plot of the film was pretty simple: Toys can talk and move, but only when nobody’s watching them. Also, one of them is unaware that he’s a toy—presumably, he’s just going limp when people walk into the room because that’s what everyone else is doing.
In the bright world of Toy Story, playtime lasts forever. Except, of course, when it turns into a nightmarish world of torture and sadism.
The scene: The two protagonist toys, Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz (Tim Allen) end up at the house of their owner’s bully, Sid. There, they’re confronted by some of Sid’s creations: toys that have been cut up, glued together, and formed into unspeakable monstrosities.
The worst, of course, is Babyface, better known to the ’90s kids of the world as “that baby-head spider monster thing” or “the reason I had to sleep with Mom and Dad for two weeks.”
Why it bothered us: While it eventually turns out to be a kind-hearted, helpful toy, Babyface makes its first appearance by rising up out of the darkness like something from a John Carpenter film. That’s scary stuff.
Also, Woody and Buzz escape from Sid’s house by suddenly speaking and moving, which makes us wonder—why didn’t the other toys think of that while they were being dissected? Maybe they were sort of…into it?
7. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is a family-friendly classic.
It’s hard to overstate E.T.‘s success. When it was released, it quickly surpassed Star Wars as the highest-grossing film of all time, and for over a decade, E.T. toys were everywhere. It’s also the source of one of the most famous stories of product placement; an early scene shows E.T. following a trail of Reese’s Pieces, and audiences (literally) ate it up. Sales of the peanut-butter-filled candies skyrocketed.
But some kids found the titular alien terrifying. In 2013, MTV writer Kate Erbland went so far as to call E.T. the scariest movie ever made, and while we can’t give it that honor—after all, Ernest Scared Stupid still exists, and its antagonist’s weird, lumpy head is certainly disturbing—one of the key scenes in E.T. left us wishing that we could hop onto a flying bicycle, ride it into the sky, and hurl our E.T. VHS as far away as possible.
The scene: As the film nears its conclusion, E.T. is failing to adapt to the Earth’s atmosphere, and he gradually becomes sicker and sicker. His skin forms some weird white powdery substance, and because he doesn’t have access to his super-secret Alien Lotion, he collapses near a river.
Evil government scientists—who, by the way, are being completely reasonable by trying to contain an alien threat—capture E.T. and prepare to experiment on him. Elliott, the film’s protagonist, tracks down his friend to help him.
For some reason, director Steven Spielberg decided to put E.T. in a body bag, and it’s an image that will haunt us forever.
Why it bothered us: Kids don’t like thinking about death, and when you take a lovable character and have him start decomposing in front of their eyes, it’s a tad disturbing. Besides, E.T.’s character design is already pretty creepy. When you cover him in flour and stick him in a body bag, he’s downright horrifying.
8. Labyrinth had muppets and David Bowie, making it pretty much perfect.
The 1986 classic is basically a metaphor for growing up. Sarah, the protagonist, has to learn how to care for others more than herself, and she uses her own inner resources to defeat the strangely alluring Goblin King.
Speaking of the Goblin King…David Bowie’s outfit in Labyrinth awakened a whole generation to the whole concept of hotness. But because this is a movie about growing up, and growing up is actually pretty scary, there are plenty of moments that stretched Jim Henson’s creatures from cute to downright terrifying.
One moment in particular lives on in our nightmares.
The scene: Sarah has hit a particularly low point by the time she meets the Fire Gang. She’s just lost the kindly beast Ludo, and she’s starting to doubt she’ll ever get to the Goblin King’s castle in time to save her little brother.
That’s when the Fireys leap out of the woods and start singing. The song is mostly nonsense, but only in the way that any number of Jimmy Buffett songs are nonsense. It’s all about being chill—”chillying down,” to be precise—a kind of fantasy “Cheeseburgers in Paradise.”
But then the Fire Gang starts removing body parts. They play catch with their heads. As the horror builds, the Fireys decide it’d be fun to take off Sarah’s head. That’s when things get really chilling.
“Hey, her head don’t come off!” calls a Firey.
“Of course it doesn’t!” says Sarah. The Fireys don’t seem to care that human heads aren’t built for detachment. They decide to try harder.
“Hey, man! I know what we can do!” one says. “Take off her head!”
It’s all kind of a nightmare, and our necks hurt just thinking about that scene.
Why it bothered us: Sarah is alone and surrounded by these amoral creatures. It’s a situation that’s played out in lots of our bad dreams. The Fireys don’t necessarily want to hurt Sarah, not at first, but they are completely unconcerned with her well-being.
They’re like a pandemic or a pack of wild animals. They introduce children to the horror of nature’s indifference to our individual lives. Now, that’s scary.
9. The Princess Bride was a lot of fun…with one notable exception.
The most quotable movie of the late ’80s, The Princess Bride pits Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, and André the Giant against a villainous crew led by Chris Sarandon’s Prince Humperdinck.
The writing appealed to parents and kids alike, making this perhaps the greatest family film of all time. If you’ve ever heard someone say, “Life is pain…anyone who says differently is selling something,” or “Inconceivable!” or “Have fun storming the castle,” you’re familiar with this film’s unique magic.
For the most part, this film is all high fantasy and clever dialogue. Then there’s the moment Westley and Buttercup travel through the Fire Swamp.
The scene: Buttercup has just discovered that the evil-seeming Man in Black is actually Westley, her long-lost farm boy and one true love. They flee Humperdinck’s men into the dreaded Fire Swamp, where the dialogue holds firm for one last moment.
“We’ll never survive,” Buttercup says.
“Nonsense,” says Westley. “You’re only saying that because no one ever has.”
Needless to say, they do survive—but not without the film’s most horrifying moment, courtesy of a hilariously named monster: The Rodent of Unusual Size, or R.O.U.S. The name is funny. The special effects are not. Look at this thing:
It’s just gross enough to be frightening, like one of those fishes with the huge dagger teeth.
Why it bothered us: So a fantasy movie has a monster. What’s the big deal? Well, there’s something about the juxtaposition of the film’s light-hearted banter and this hideous creature that’s super unsettling. It suggests to young viewers that they’re never really safe.
Wesley and Buttercup had just been reunited. This thing shatters the moment with a monstrous intrusion. On another level, of course, it’s simply the R.O.U.S.’ appearance that hit us so viscerally as kids. The fur is matted. There’s a skeletal aspect to the hands. The teeth are long and yellow and crooked.
It looks like a perversion, an unwell animal. Somehow, the grossness adds to the horror. We know Wesley and Buttercup make it in the end, but we could still go another lifetime without watching this scene again.