DISTURBED: THE DARK SIDE OF CHILDREN’S STORIES AND MOVIES

I was flipping through the thousands of channels on cable and streaming services this past weekend and came across an old favorite from my childhood, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The song from that movie is still catchy today. But there was a darkness to the story, as well, and that memory scaled the wall of time in my mind and suddenly I was a boy again remembering the creepiness of that movie. I being to think to myself how dark some of the Disney stories were in my childhood (1960’s) and then began recalling some of the fables and stories, as well.

My father had purchased the set of Encyclopedias from Colliers and with that purchase came a set of children’s books that had poems, fables, and stories included in the 12 volume set. There were some very disturbing stories in those pages and I often wonder if those creepy stories and movies had any influence over my eventual interest in writing horror.

I decided to talk to some friends and put together a list of the creepiest children’s stories and movies from my childhood – things that were geared towards us as kids yet scared the hell out of us at times.

  1. The Juniper Tree (Brothers Grimm) – This fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm may be the darkest of all the ones on this list. A tale that has child abuse, murder, cannibalism and even a character – stepmother – who resembles the devil in her attitude and treatment of her stepson. Basically, the stepson is abused and eventually murdered by the stepmother. She deceives the family, making her own daughter believe that it was she who killed her stepbrother. She then lies to the husband about the death of her son, and she dismembers the boy and “cooks” him as stew for the dinner that night. After the family consumes it, she buries the boy’s bones beneath the Juniper Tree, where his real mother is buried. The boy returns as a bird and flies into town singing of his death. He then drops a milestone on the stepmother’s head, killing her. He then rises from beneath the Juniper Tree and rejoins the family.
  2. Hansel and Gretel (Brothers Grimm) This may be tops on many lists.  This story is about abandonment, luring, kidnapping and murder, and, again, cannibalism. The story of two children (brother and sister) who are taken to the woods by their father at the request of the stepmother to be abandoned. They find their way back by leaving a trail of bread crumbs but on one trip, the crumbs are eaten and they are lost in the forest. They come upon a house of gingerbread and candy and are taken in by what turns out to be a witch. The next morning, the witch locks Hansel in an iron cage in the garden and forces Gretel into becoming a slave. The witch feeds Hansel regularly to fatten him up but serves Gretel nothing but crab shells. The witch then tries to touch Hansel’s finger to see how fat he has become, but Hansel cleverly offers a thin bone he found in the cage. As the witch’s eyes are too weak to notice the deception, she is fooled into thinking Hansel is still too thin to eat. After weeks of this, the witch grows impatient and decides to eat Hansel, “be he fat or lean”.  She prepares the oven for Hansel, but decides she is hungry enough to eat Gretel, too. She coaxes Gretel to the open oven and asks her to lean over in front of it to see if the fire is hot enough. Gretel, sensing the witch’s intent, pretends she does not understand what the witch means. Infuriated, the witch demonstrates, and Gretel instantly shoves her into the hot oven, slams and bolts the door shut, and leaves “the ungodly witch to be burned in ashes”. Gretel frees Hansel from the cage and the pair discover a vase full of treasure, including precious stones. Putting the jewels into their clothing, the children set off for home. A swan ferries them across an expanse of water, and at home they find only their father; his wife died from some unknown cause. Their father had spent all his days lamenting the loss of his children and is delighted to see them safe and sound. With the witch’s wealth, they all live happily ever after.
  3. Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang (Ian Fleming) – Basically a story about a magical car and for the most part a fun movie. But there is a character in the movie called the “child catcher” who went around kidnapping kids for the Bareness who ruled “Vulgaria” as children were illegal. n 2005, the Child Catcher was voted “the scariest villain in children’s books”. In 2008, Entertainment Weekly called Helpmann’s depiction of the Child Catcher one of the “50 Most Vile Movie Villains. The interesting thing is the character was not in the original novel by Fleming, but was added by screenwriter and director Ken Hughes.
  4. Wizard of Oz – The Wizard of Oz is a 1939 Warner Bros. American musical fantasy film produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. An adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s fantasy novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The consensus on this one is that they flying monkeys belonging to the Wicked Witch of the West, were creepy and scared the hell out of most kids under ten that saw this movie. Some others say they were scared of the Wicked Witch, as well, but it was always the flying monkeys for me.
  5. The Black Cauldron (Disney movie) he Black Cauldron was based on a very good series of books written by Lloyd Alexander called The Chronicles of Prydain. The Disney version was very loosely based on the first two books in the series but didn’t follow them strictly outside of names and places. The zombie-like creatures from the movie helped push the film to Disney’s first PG rating (spooky). The books were incredible, but the movie was a handful of minor parts pulled from all five books and mashed together to make a darker Disney movie. The result ended up losing them a lot of money. And almost put Disney animators out of work. Still, what could have been a great series of movies is one of the darker movies in the Disney world.
  6. Bambi (Disney) Based on a 1923 Book “Bambi: Life in the Woods written by Felix Salten, this is an easy on the list of dark. Imagine you’re a four- or five-year-old kid going to a Disney “family” movie. Yor love animals at that age. You’re watching the little deer on the screen and then BAM!!! The mamma deer is blown away. Seriously. That scene emotionally scarred every child, vilified every hunter and broke every heart in America. There was no need to show it, either. Bambi could have been separated from his mother for no apparent reason, or, at least, the shooting could have been implied without the harrowing scene. But no, thanks for the memories, Disney.
  7. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Washington Irving) – “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” written by Washington Irving and published in 1820, is a suspenseful short story that borders on horror. It is widely considered America’s first ghost story. The tone of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is chilling and spellbinding. Irving’s detailed descriptions of Ichabod’s unsightly appearance, selfish motivations and brooding disposition create an eerie and sinister tone. Irving shows the peculiar, dark side of Ichabod. The foreboding, spooky forest and folklore add to the suspense. And the reason it makes this list is the headless horseman. He did not only terrorize the community of Sleepy Hollow, but kids everywhere who read or heard this story.
  8. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Disney movie) – This is a deeper darkness that Disney rarely waded into. Themes, gargoyles, and hunchback aside, this movie was dark because it had one of the most emotionally psychopathic characters in Disney history: Frollo.  Claude Frollo hates gypsies and wants their entire race wiped out, yet he is also in love with Esmerelda, a gypsy woman. He loves her to the point of obsession, and how he acts through this is darker than any Disney movie should ever get.
  9. Something Wicked This Way Comes (Disney) Written by Ray Bradbury, it is terrifying but not wholly devoid of that classic Disney magic. Set during Halloween at some unspecified time, it focuses on what happens to a pair of small-town young boys who discover that the carnival that has come to town is being led by a devilish, otherworldly ghoul named Mr. Dark, who has come for the souls of the townspeople. It’s heady stuff, with Pryce’s velvety Lucifer conning and seducing each of the damaged citizens. Equal parts “Monkey’s Paw” and Needful Things, it has a super scary vibe, especially as the kids start to uncover what happens to the townsfolk who give into Mr. Dark’s temptations.
  10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Disney) An Evil Queen, a Witch, poison in an apple to kill Snow White…etcetera with darkness. The Evil Queen commands the Huntsman to kill Snow White and if that wasn’t enough also wants him to rip out her heart and place it in a chest as proof of her death. Snow White is taken by seven dwarfs whom I still don’t know who they worked for and forced to be a maid for them. Then the Evil Queen is killed and her body is devoured by vultures. Yeh, nothing too dark here, Disney.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s