I am an unabashed fan of Walt Disney animated films. Of the 58 animated films they have released, the only ones I have not seen are Brother Bear and Home on the Range. Disney animated films have the perception of being fun for the whole family, but there are some truly dark and disturbing images and sequences that stick with you throughout your life. As I got to thinking about what Disney scenes scared me the most as a child, I could not help but smile when re-watching how great the animation and storytelling are in these scenes. I hope this journey to the past will make you smile and want to re-watch them as well.
The best Disney films usually contain a memorable villain. In 101 Dalmations, Cruella De Vil is so determined in her quest to make a coat out of Dalmatians; she goes into such a rage near the end of the film that the image of her bloodshot eyes are firmly ingrained in my mind. Just click on the video below and go to the 1:56 mark to see what I mean:
I don’t care who you are, that is a frightening image. Speaking of which, although it is by no means one of their best animated films, The Black Cauldron is a film that I admire because of the risk Disney took in even making it. The studio went out to make something that they were not known for, a dark fantasy- adventure, that was not a musical, and is unlike anything else in the Disney animated film catalogue. The Horned King is a great piece of animation for how evil he looks on screen. Don’t believe me, watch this scene below:
Credit also goes to always magnificent John Hurt for his great voice work on the character.
Even Disney’s first animated film Snow White had a fantastic villain in the Queen, who looked like someone you did not want to mess with in her natural form. Think about how dark this film is when the Queen asks the Huntsman to kill the young Snow White because by doing so, she will return to being the “fairest in the land”. We all know that does not go well and the Queen transforms herself into a witch with a new plot to kill her step-daughter. Although this scene did not make my top 5 scariest scenes, it is still one of my favourite moments in film:
Now, without further ado, here are my five scariest Disney animated film scenes:
#5 – Maleficent transforms into a dragon in Sleeping Beauty
As magnificent and terrifying as Maleficent’s entrance in Sleeping Beauty is, the climatic scene when she flies to the castle, appears from green flames and says, “Now you shall deal with me o’ prince and all the powers of hell“ before turning into an enormous dragon is absolutely chilling, haunting and breathtaking all in one perfect moment. I love this scene, because of little touches such as the music syncing up perfectly with the animation when the lightning bolts strike. Even though the scene happens at night, the different shades to make it even darker are wonderfully animated. Whoever thought Maleficent should have purple flourishes and green flames is a true visionary because that look was and still is an absolute original to me.
#4 – The Pleasure Island sequence in Pinocchio
As a child, this sequence from Pinocchio freaked me out; as an adult I now realize that there is no way this part of the film would be made nowadays. Think about it – children going to a place where they can drink booze, smoke cigars, and indulge in their vices? It is the antithesis of what the Disney brand is all about. In a brilliant bit of storytelling, the scene makes children scared to try these things by letting them know that if they do, they will turn into a donkey (and I’m sure many parents played that part up to their kids as well.) It’s the screaming and animal sounds during the transformation that stick with me and make this one of the scariest Disney scenes in their history.
#3 – The Headless Horseman Appears in The Adventure of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
As I remember it, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow sequence is a fun story that features Bing Crosby narrating and singing an upbeat song about a supernatural character named the Headless Horseman. It is performed at a party by a character named Brom to get under the skin of Ichabod Crane. Everyone at the party thinks the song is a lot of fun and harmless, but Ichabod thinks otherwise. He believes in superstitions and becomes paranoid on his walk home from the party with good reason. The carefree and fun swagger that the story has up until that point disappears. Ichabod hears a sinister laugh, looks at a graveyard, and sees the absolutely terrifying image of the Headless Horseman, a sword in one hand and a jack o’ lantern in the other, leaning back on his horse ready to attack Ichabod. The juxtaposition of such a menacing character with the very weak and timid Ichabod makes it more terrifying because we all believe that there is no way Ichabod can defeat this villain. A chase takes place with Ichabod trying to get to the bridge that the Headless Horseman cannot cross. Our hero makes it, but the horseman stops, and throws his jack o’ lantern head at Ichabod (by throwing it directly at the camera so as child you think you will be hit by it). In a very interesting story decision, the viewer is left to wonder if Ichabod lived or died as he is not seen again. This was my first lesson that good does not always triumph over evil, as most Disney films I had watched to that point had made me believe otherwise. That is why it sticks with me and why the scene is not easily forgotten; because of the beautiful animation and the unknown ending.
#2 The entrance of The Wolf from “Peter and the Wolf” in Make Mine Music
There have been many great villainous wolves in Disney animated history – The Big Bad Wolf from “The Three Little Pigs”, the wolves in “Beauty and the Beast” and “Frozen”, but none of them hold a torch to the entrance made by The Wolf in “Peter and the Wolf”. This sequence once again is perfectly animated to go along with the music of Sergei Prokofiev (as well as the splendid narration of Sterling Holloway) as we have a slow tracking shot of the snow with haunting music in the background until low and behold, the wolf appears on the screen. In a brilliant piece of animation, the wolf turns to the camera, stares at the viewer, and then roars and bares his teeth. As an added effect, the image on the screen shakes to make it even more frightening for the viewer. That short sequence had a lasting impression on me as a child as I would always want to cover my eyes when it was being shown. That short scene is less than a minute, but the image of the wolf looking at the camera is one that I appreciate it as an adult and I can fully admit, I still get a shiver when I watch it.
Here’s a fun fact – Make Mine Music is the only one of Disney’s 58 animated films that is not on Disney+.
#1 “Night at Bald Mountain” from Fantasia
Throughout my top five list, there have been some noticeable trends. There is haunting music that accompanies a scene, the animation is in perfect harmony with the music, and in all but one of my picks there is a truly terrifying villain. I will always believe that the character of Chernabog is the scariest of all the Disney villains. Although I never liked watching this part of Fantasia as a child, re-watching it as an adult makes me appreciate the animation and the chilling images that are on full display throughout this sequence. First and foremost, the music sounds absolutely evil. Modest Mussorgsky’s composition of what a Witches Sabbath on St. John’s Eve may sound like immediately conjures images in your imagination of a dark storm brewing. The animation wastes no time to reveal Chernabog appearing at the top of the mountain and casting his spell over the land by summoning spirits and ghouls from all around to join him in a celebration of evil. I give the sequence a lot of credit because Chernabog does not speak one line of dialogue, yet his pure presence is so commanding that he does not need any words to get our attention and show us how truly evil he is. Ultimately, the sun rises and the spirits and ghouls return to where they came from and Chernabog goes back to his form of being the summit of a mountain. I know as I child, I never looked at the top of the mountain the same way again. The look of Chernabog is so imposing that you feel powerless in his presence. To me, “Night on Bald Mountain” is one of Disney’s best pieces of animation and I hope you enjoy it when you watch it again.
I hope you enjoyed my list and I would love to hear from you on what Disney scenes scared you.
Happy Halloween everyone!