Walt Disney isn’t generally the studio one thinks of when considering good, creepy entertainment. Let’s face it, the mention of Disney generally brings to mind animated princesses, heroes, and happy endings.
It’s no wonder, really. The studio has been the benchmark for family entertainment since it first opened its doors in 1923.
Oh sure, they’ve had their traumatic moments.
Will anyone ever forget poor Bambi losing his mother–what is it with that studio and missing mothers anyway–or Simba trying to wake Mufasa after the wildebeest stampede?
They’ve even brought in Tim Burton to bring some of his particularly fun creations to life.
Despite those serious stories and despite its more recent mergers and acquisitions, however, the name Disney is still synonymous with wholesome family entertainment.
Yet, there have been times when the studio has fully embraced its creepy side in the nearly 96 years since it first opened its doors, and when they’ve done it well, they’ve produced nothing short of nightmare fuel.
Here are nine of my favorite creepy Disney flicks in no particular order. What are some of yours?
Authors Note: The discussion of these films includes some spoilers. If you’re not familiar with a title, we recommend you skip it, see the film, and then return for the discussion!
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Based on Washington Irving’s classic tale, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was first released in 1949 and is well-known for its mash-up of slapstick comedy and dark imagery.
When schoolmaster Ichabod Crane arrives in the Dutch village called Sleepy Hollow, he soon finds himself locked in a romantic rivalry for the attentions of Katrina Van Tassel with local tough, Brom Bones. Bones always seems to find himself on the losing end until he discovers and decides to exploit Crane’s superstitious beliefs on Halloween night.
As everyone gathers around, Bones tells the story of the evil Headless Horseman who rides the lonely hillside searching for his head. The tale is terrifying, and the song that Bones sings about the vindictive spirit was considered so dark at the time that it was nearly cut from the short film all together.
Events go from chilling to terrifying as Crane leaves the holiday gathering only to discover he’s being followed.
Bing Crosby narrates and provides the voices of Bones and Crane in the otherwise silent film, and the image of the Headless Horseman on horseback holding a flaming jack o’lantern may be one of the most striking Disney ever produced.
Darby O’Gill and the Little People
Setting aside the stereotype of the drunken Irish storyteller, Darby O’Gill and the Little People introduced an entire generation of American kids to Irish legends of leprechauns and gave them nightmares about the mysterious, wailing banshee.
Old Darby O’Gill (Albert Sharpe) has been a friendly adversary of King Brian of the Leprechauns (Jimmy O’Dea) for most of his life. However, when Darby loses his position as caretaker of Lord Fitzpatrick’s property to the handsome Michael (pre-007 Sean Connery), he finds he’s in need of the old King’s help.
As the film twists and turns, Darby soon finds himself fighting to save the life of his daughter Katie (Janet Munro) as the Banshees close in and the dark hearse arrives to take her soul away.
Its themes of death and vengeful spirits make it a particular standout in the Disney vault. The wraith-like, hooded banshee will chill you to the bone, and you’ll find yourself completely enthralled by the film from start to finish.
Return to Oz
I will never, ever forget the first time I saw Return to Oz. It took me months to recover from it.
Much more loyal to L. Frank Baum’s original stories, the film finds Dorothy (a young and wide-eyed Fairuza Balk) trapped in an asylum for treatment of her “delusions” of a land called Oz. The poor girl is obviously being prepared for electro-convulsive therapy when she finds herself once again whisked away to the mysterious land to find it even darker than her last visit.
Characters like the Nome King and the sadistic Wheelers were terrifying. The idea of a desert whose sands would turn you to dust was harrowing.
It was the vain and powerful Mombi (Jean Marsh) that supplied a lot of the film’s nightmare fuel, however. One look at her chamber of heads which she switched out to fit her whims and moods was enough to have us covering our eyes and looking away.
It was, to date, one of the darkest things the studio had ever produced, and its status as a cult classic was almost guaranteed by a legion of horror fans who got their first taste of scary in its clutches.
The Black Cauldron
Speaking of terrifying villains…
When a young boy named Taran finds himself caring for a scrying pig named Hen Wen his world is turned upside down. Hen Wen, you see, can show the location of the ancient and powerful Black Cauldron, and no one covets the Cauldron’s power more than the evil Horned King.
Taran and a band of misfits soon find themselves caught up in a race to the mysterious relic in a fight to save all mankind from the Horned King’s lust for power. The image of the Horned King seared itself into the imagination of moviegoers at the time, and there was an outcry from “concerned parents” over the film’s seriously dark tone.
The Black Cauldron was so unexpected that critics, audiences, and the studios didn’t know quite what to do with it. Many hold it responsible for nearly sinking Disney in the 80s as it was the first of their animated films to receive a PG rating.
The studio’s animation is some of the most frightening its ever produced thanks in part to new technology that was developing at the time.
After its initial box office flop, Disney locked the film away in the vault for a very long time, but the legend of The Black Cauldron endured and it was eventually given an anniversary edition DVD release and is still available on multiple streaming services.
The Watcher in the Woods
Call it whatever you like, but Disney’s The Watcher in the Woods bears all the markings of a legit, classic supernatural horror film.
When an American family moves into a sprawling manor in the English countryside, they find themselves in the middle of a supernatural mystery. It seems that teenaged daughter, Jan (Lynn-Holly Johnson) bears a striking resemblance to the daughter of the manor’s owner, Mrs. Aytwood, played by none other than Bette Davis. Karen had disappeared years before and the woman has never recovered from the loss.
Soon Jan and her sister Ellie (Halloween‘s Kyle Richards) are haunted by an unknown presence, the Watcher, and strike out to find out exactly what happened to Karen all those years before.
Between the seances, the suggestion of inter-dimensional travel, and a setting that would make the most ardent fan of ghost stories proud, The Watcher in the Woods has been hailed as one of the scariest films the studio ever produced.
The film was eventually remade starring Anjelica Huston in 2017, but the remake never quite captured the spark of the original.
There are actually quite a few things creepy about Disney’s classic 1940 masterpiece Fantasia.
Watching the rise and fall of entire species in a section of animation set to the music of Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring comes almost immediately to mind, and call me crazy but there is something unsettling about all those mops coming to life and creating havoc in The Sorceror’s Apprentice.
But it was in one of the film’s closing sections featuring Moussorgksy’s Night on Bald Mountain where they decided to throw caution to the wind and terrify their audience. As the music begins, the dark Slavic God Chernobog rises on top of the mountain and spreads his bat-like wings before reaching down, unleashing horrors to toy with the damned spirits of the living.
It was an impressively dark and terrifying piece of animation that stamps itself onto your brain even as the music gives way to an ethereal setting of Schubert’s Ave Maria.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
Sadly this film has almost been lost to obscurity save for the die hard fans who have held onto it over the decades.
Based on the novel by Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes tells the story of a small town confronted with a dangerous evil when Mr. Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival rolls into town one stormy night.
Before long it becomes apparent that Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce) is making deals with and stealing the souls of the town’s citizens and its up to two boys to stop the carnival owner and his henchman from completing his dark objective.
The film boasted an impressive cast alongside Pryce including screen legends Jason Robards (All the President’s Men) and Diane Ladd (Kingdom Hospital). Still, it was trouble almost from conception.
Bradbury had originally written a script for the film in the early 1950s but when it failed to reach the screen, he turned the story in to a novel. Later, when Disney picked up the project, Bradbury wrote a new script but executives at Disney were unsure of the script’s potential.
When it was finally finished, it fared poorly at test screenings and Disney pushed back the release in order to re-edit, re-shoot, and re-score the film. Its finished product upset both Bradbury and the film’s director Jack Clayton.
Still, the film retained much of its dark imagery, and the scene in which Pryce reveals the tattoos on his body of the souls he’s collected is particularly harrowing.
After a short theatrical run, the film found its way into the Disney vault, though it has been released since then on DVD.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Based on Victor Hugo’s novel, it was almost impossible to believe that Disney would attempt to bring a version of the story to animated life. Nothing, and I mean nothing, in that original tale was written for children.
Adapt it they did, however, and in doing so brought one of their most most divisive animated films to the big screen in the summer of 1996.
The film boasted one of the studio’s richest scores to date featuring music by Alan Menken and songs by Stephen Schwartz that drew heavily upon the Catholic requiem mass.
It also went full bore into the territory of sexual obsession in a story line involving Judge Claude Frollo (Tony Jay) and his lust for the gypsy Esmerelda (Demi Moore). Despite their best efforts, including a trio of wise-cracking gargoyles, nothing could erase the image of Frollo singing a song titled “Hellfire” before a blazing fireplace as seductive images of Esmerelda danced in the flames and a horde of fiendish cloaked figures watched on in judgement.
It was more than a little creepy, and made Frollo one of their most repulsive villains to date.
The Black Hole
In 1979, Disney, like almost every other studio known to man, was reeling from the success of Star Wars and had decided to release its own space epic.
Their first problem came in marketing when they played it off as a fun space epic.
In reality, The Black Hole earned the studio’s first PG rating on one of their live action films with the story of crew on a space ship who find what appears to be an abandoned craft in deep space. Upon closer inspect, they find that everyone on the ship has vanished save for Dr. Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell) and his small army of robots and androids.
It seems that Reinhardt is intent upon flying directly into a black hole no matter the cost.
I’m not sure what you’d call the darkest aspect of this particular tale. The scientist’s madness? The discovery that his androids are actually the lobotomized members of his former crew? The glimpse of something hellish beyond the Black Hole?
No matter the answer, it remains one of Disney’s darkest films to date.