I tell this story a lot, but when my aunt was very small, her mother took her to see Bambi. On the big screen. Not its initial release, I suspect, because she would have been two at the time, but the very first release after that, probably, when she was seven. And we reach That Scene, and my aunt wailed, “I don’t want Bambi’s mother to die!” The guy in the row in front of her sniffled and said, “Damn kid!”
My aunt was scared. And sad, of course, and her parents were divorced by then (though she never really considered my grandfather her dad, from what she’s since told me), and seven-year-olds are just a big ball of emotion anyway. But have you ever considered just how odd it is that so many children’s movies seem designed to scare the crap out of kids? And I don’t just mean that a lot of us saw movies when we were probably too young for them; I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark in its initial release, when I was five and my older sister was seven, because we were at a drive-in, and my parents had expected us to fall asleep. (My younger sister, the babe in arms, probably did.) We were too young, expectations aside. But I’m more talking the fact that I’m pretty sure I have friends who still have nightmares about the Wheelers.
I’ve just triggered someone, I’m sure. Because if your trigger isn’t the Wheelers from Return to Oz, I’ve perhaps made you think of Mombi and her cabinet of heads. (I’d already read Ozma of Oz by then, I think, and encountered Princess Langwidere.) Or even just the historically terrifying treatment of a mentally ill child in that time and place. (I tend to refer to The Emerald City of Oz, book six, as “the one where Dorothy slips into irrevocable psychosis,” since it’s the one where she and her family move to Oz permanently.) I mean, that is a seriously scary movie.
Return to Oz doesn’t do it for you? How about Watership Down? Three of my friends, on being polled, responded with Labyrinth, two of them specifically referencing the Fire Gang and their detachable heads. (Which seems to be a persistent thing in kids’ movies, for some reason.) The Dark Crystal. And two people, born decades apart, referred to the flying monkeys of The Wizard of Oz. What I really discovered was that there are certain children’s movies where lingering fears from them are universal, or nearly so. I don’t think the scenes are accidentally scary, either. There is nothing accidentally scary about The Black Cauldron.
On the other hand, I also tend to encounter certain very personal terrors when I talk to people about movies we saw together. For some reason, whatever-it-was triggered something in that one person, regardless of whether anyone else is scared by it or not. Another friend’s son had what she calls “scream-out-loud nightmares” from The Land Before Time. The discussion also included reference to Large Marge in Peewee’s Big Adventure and someone who thought that ET was supposed to be a horror movie because all he’d seen was that backyard sequence.
This is in part, I think, because the world is a large and scary place for kids. For one thing, as a child, you basically don’t control anything. Your entire life relies on someone else. It’s all too easy to imagine what would happen if they weren’t there anymore. And I think a lot of those more iconic moments involve some kind of loss of control. Remember, Mombi doesn’t just have all those heads—she wants to take Dorothy’s as well. The Skeksis drain the life out of small people and drink it. And so forth. A lot of those moments involve big people wanting to hurt little people, and when you’re small and fragile, that’s a serious fear.
Why, then, do so many kids’ movies contain those moments in the first place? An interesting question. I think there are two factors. First, I don’t think a lot of adults take kids’ fears all that seriously. It’s true that kids can be scared of the weirdest things. However, that doesn’t make those fears any less real to the kid who holds them.
Which brings up the second, and probably much larger, issue—catharsis. Or, as the saying goes, the important aspect of fairy tales is that they teach us that the monsters can be defeated. I think a lot of the things that stick with kids are monsters that don’t really get a defeat. The Wheelers are still there, after all. The Fire Gang is still there. Heck, even Mombi basically gets forgiven, though I don’t think we ever find out what happens to the heads. And, let’s face it, Bambi’s mother is still dead.
Which is the one thing I always end up pointing out in this kind of discussion, because someone starts referring to current children’s movies as “Disneyfied.” But you know what? Some of the scariest movies for kids are from Disney. I point you to such iconic moments as the death of Mufasa in The Lion King. The half-donkey boys of Pinocchio. The forest attacking Snow White. Dr. Facilier’s Friends on the Other Side of The Princess and the Frog, if you want something a bit more recent. Heck, even the snippy Sugar Rush kids of Wreck-It Ralph are a bit triggering, depending on your childhood.