To this day, the only movie that has directly given me nightmares is Watership Down. I saw it when I was 7 or 8, and I'm sure that my parents had only the best of intentions. Yes, it was based on a serious book about societal conflict, but it was also an animated movie about rabbits ... some of whom happened to be absolutely terrifying, with their ragged appearance, red eyes, and evil intentions.
You can argue that Watership Down isn't really a little kids' movie -- and I would be the first to agree. But what about movies that are meant for kids and families and seem innocent enough at first glance? Some have scary scenes that seem to come out of nowhere -- or just happen to push the wrong buttons for certain kids. An informal survey of our readers, editors, and friends turned up these prime examples (warning: possible spoilers!) of blindsides they didn't necessarily see coming:
- The Wizard of Oz: Most people find the Wicked Witch's flying monkeys extremely creepy, and the scene in which Miss Gulch turns into the witch in the tornado often frightens kids (as do the times she appears/disappears in a plume of red smoke).
- Toy Story 3: The junkyard/incinerator scene is a truly harrowing sequence in which the toys seem headed for certain destruction. (And even the first movie had some pretty scary toys in Sid's room!)
- Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: In a movie that's pretty trippy overall, the infamously psychedelic boat-ride-through-the-tunnel scene stands out as a "yikes" moment.
- Bambi: Like the monkeys in The Wizard of Oz, the scene in which Bambi's mother is killed remains one of the most well-known examples of potentially upsetting scenes for kids.
- Dumbo: When Dumbo and his mother are separated after her outburst, many kids can't help crying right along with them.
- Beauty and the Beast: From the angry mob storming Beast's castle to the rooftop battle in the rain, there's plenty here to keep kids on edge.
- The Great Mouse Detective: When the father mouse gets kidnapped by a bat, your kid may run for cover.
- E.T.: Plenty of kids who love the little alien are still afraid that he might be living with their stuffed animals in the closet...
- Curious George: George getting caged up and sent to the jungle might be too distressing for the youngest viewers.
Much as we might like to, it's impossible to protect our kids from every potentially scary scene in every movie they'll ever see. And as they get older and learn to distinguish fantasy and reality, they'll be better equipped to handle the things that go bump on the screen. (Some of them will, anyway; I can still count on one hand the number of real horror movies I've seen.) In the meantime, these tips will help prepare you for this parental rite of passage:
- Before you push play, check out detailed movie reviews (like ours!) to look for potentially upsetting scenes.
- For kids 7 and under, scenes that deal with loss, separation, scary suspense, kids and parents in peril, and even coercion can be particularly unsettling, so save them for when your kids are ready.
- For kids between the ages of 8 and 12, watch out for scary scenes that are particularly realistic (kidnapping, torture, etc.) -- at this point, kids can distinguish between fantasy and reality much more clearly, so the more believable the scary stuff is, the more likely it is to genuinely frighten them.
- Watch with your child, and be ready to offer a comforting hug or pause the movie to talk about why a scene was scary.
- Don't be afraid to say "no" to a movie your kid isn't ready for (they may not thank you later, but at least they won't be having nightmares about killer rabbits).