Top 10 Scary Children’s Movies That Terrify Adults Too

Is there room behind the sofa? I ask because you might need the refuge as we check out the top 10 scary children’s movies that terrify adults too…

The Witches

Nothing to fear here apart from a little child torture in The Witches.

The Exorcist. Jaws. Paranormal Activity. The Shining. All great scary movies – right? Well, these triumphs of horror may have left an indelible mark on the genre – and your nightmares – but sometimes cinema’s scariest examples come from a seemingly unlikely source – the children’s movie.

As we refresh your memory – oh yes, we’re talking about the child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the wise man with the Deadpan Snarker bird hat from Labyrinth amongst others – it becomes apparent that some of these so-called family films are more terrifying than those for adults only.

Check there’s room behind the sofa as we check out the top 10 scary children’s movies that terrify adults too…

10. The Peanut Butter Solution (Michael Rubbo, 1985)

The Peanut Butter Solution

This bizarre film sees an 11-year-old boy exploring a burned-down house only to be frightened to such an extent he loses all his hair. To help him get over his hair loss, a couple of ghosts – two people who died in the house – visit him at night to give him the eponymous “peanut butter solution”. His hair suddenly grows at a dramatic rate prompting his teacher to kidnap him in a bid to create a paintbrush empire from his fast-sprouting hair. What’s worse, the teacher starts kidnapping other children for a secretive underground workforce. It’s macabre stuff that gets more unsettling as you get older.

9. Labyrinth (Jim Henson, 1986)

Talking Hands, Labyrinth, film, children fantasy horror, musical, david bowie,

The assortment of weird and wonderful characters in Jim Henson’s film range from the sweet and cuddly (Ambrosius, the English sheepdog) to the downright ghastly (the Goblin corps, the junk lady, the fire gang, and the wise man with the Deadpan Snarker bird hat) but the real nightmares for adults often come as a result of experiencing the mean-spirited Helping Hands and Sarah’s ominous decision to go “down”.

8. The Secret Of Nimh (Don Bluth, 1982)

The Secret of Nimh
If you grew up in the eighties, it’s likely The Secret of Nimh is one you’ll remember for instigating a nightmare or twenty. The feature film directorial debut of Don Bluth, the former Disney animator who went rogue with his bleaker interpretation of animated adventure, is cloaked in an atmosphere of both figurative and literal darkness. His critics called him out for depicting death and violence, immorality and vice, demonic creatures and the fires of hell for an audience of impressionable young minds.

But whereas Disney might moralise, Bluth treats kids with intelligence. The fact he doesn’t patronise is a virtue of his work. There are a number of scary moments but the one that stands out for most – especially adults – is Mrs. Brisby’s trip to visit the Great Owl and her run-in with a giant spider that ominously precursors the owl’s imposing introduction.

7. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Ken Hughes, 1968)

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, child catcher, horror children

When parents tell their children not to accept sweets from strangers they have a very good reason. Thanks to watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang when they were kids they know that the promise of lollipops and ice cream can only lead to doom. The crazed Child Catcher in the film, one of the scariest villains in children’s movies, as dreamed-up inside the brilliant mind of Roald Dahl (who wrote the screenplay), is the epitome of scary characters for children chiefly due to his appetite for young prey. And let’s face it, he gives adults chills too.

6. The NeverEnding Story (Wolfgang Petersen, 1984)

The NeverEnding Story

Creepy for kids but terrifying for adults, The NeverEnding Story, based on the novel of the same name by Michael Ende, tells us the world is threatened by extinction into the Nothing. With its cast of weird-looking creatures and ominous atmosphere, this 1984 kids’ classic is hardly the sort of thing you want to watch when you’re feeling a little fragile. Indeed, Vincent Canby in his 1984 New York Times review said some of the film “sounded like ‘The Pre-Teenager’s Guide to Existentialism'”.

5. The Watcher In The Woods (John Hough, 1980)

The Watcher In The Woods

A horror movie for children boasts a sinister atmosphere that’ll trouble young minds and disturb parents roped into watching this spooky tale from director John Hough. The film was conceived by Disney as a way for it to move away from easy-on-the-eye popcorn fodder into darker material but The Watcher In The Woods suffers from an overcooked script that loses its way. The striking image of an elderly woman drowning a young girl will likely cause kids to cover their eyes while parents get uneasy about thoughts of the occult, seances, aliens and scary woods.

4. Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory (Mel Stuart, 1971)

Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

It’s no surprise films adapted from the works of Roald Dahl are included in this list of the scary children’s movies that terrify adults too. Trying to explain to a kid why giants are snatching children from their beds at night because they love the taste of “childers” is impossible and yet The BFG is one of the most loved stories for kids.

Mel Stuart’s version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory might have been disowned by Dahl after the studio ordered a number of script rewrites and the addition of musical numbers but it still captures the imagination of the source as well as Dahl’s tongue-in-cheek penchant for abusing children in a myriad of devilish ways. The psychedelic tone might pass children by but it’ll likely add to the craziness of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory that’s boosted by Gene Wilder’s energised genius in the eponymous role.

3. Something Wicked This Way Comes (Jack Clayton, 1983)

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Something Wicked This Way Comes, based on the novel by Ray Bradbury, had a troubled production with fall-outs and firings, the sort of thing that accompanies any good adult horror movie eager to create a legacy for itself. But this is a Disney movie for big kids featuring an otherworldly plot involving a mysterious travelling carnival and its equally enigmatic leader, Mr. Dark. It traumatised kids in the 1980s and still unnerves adults decades later.

2. The Witches (Nicolas Roeg, 1990)

The Witches, family, children's horror, roald dahl, Nicolas Roeg

Well, what do you expect when you have the director of films such as Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell To Earth adapting a Roald Dahl book for the screen?

The unpredictable, offbeat, monotone reality of Nicolas Roeg’s world is an ideal if unsettlingly dark stage from which to tell Dahl’s story that, at its heart, could easily be re-wired for adults only.

The Witches

Roeg’s film strikes a good balance but most children will have trouble dealing with Angelica Huston’s witch, the marvellous make-up effects transforming the actress into a haggard creature eager to infect your nightmares, whether you’re six or sixty.

1. Return To Oz (Walter Murch, 1985)

Return To Oz

An unapologetically darker follow-up to the classic family film The Wizard of Oz, Return To Oz offers no respite between its so-called good guys and the malevolent forces targeting poor Dorothy (a very young Fairuza Balk). Both parties are as weird, crazed and disturbingly eerie-looking that it makes it difficult to discern the helpers from the hinderers.

Return To Oz

The film was criticised for being too scary for children but adults are likely to have as much trouble with it: after all, it begins with our pint-sized hero being committed to an asylum as a result of her recollections of Oz. Dorothy’s hospital stay makes One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest seem like a Butlins holiday camp.

Return To Oz

It’s here she also meets Nurse Wilson (Jean Marsh) who becomes the terrifying, head-collecting Princess Mombi in Oz, the character responsible for the film’s most disturbing scene involving a curious fashion trait that allows her, on a whim, to whip off one head for another from her trophy cabinet.

Return To Oz

And we mustn’t forget the profound disquiet afforded by the bearded Nome King wearing high-heeled ruby slippers or the group known as Wheelers who wouldn’t look out of place as a rape gang in Kubrick’s dystopian A Clockwork Orange.

Over to you: do you have a scary children’s movie that terrified you?

Written and Compiled by Dan Stephens

Dan Stephens
About the Author
Dan Stephens is the founder and editor of Top 10 Films. He's usually pondering his next list, often inspired by his adoration for 1980s Hollywood, a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Callum Reply

    I’ve been saying Chitty Chitty Bang Bang freaks me out for years. Great list.

  2. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    Fascinating list. I haven’t seen half of these. Return to OZ is a great choice. However, I’d even put the original Wizard of Oz on the list. There are some scenes that freaked out my parents as well.

  3. Avatar
    Neal Damiano Reply

    Great list Dan
    Glad to see Willy Wonka included. It’s a very weird kind of scare. The realization that you’re not going to be a kid forever. Nothing more evident when you watch Willy Wonka. Wilder is so good in it!

  4. Avatar
    Dave Reply

    Brilliant top 10… Return to Oz is so freaky. If I had kids I wouldn’t let them watch it.

  5. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    This might be a bit of a stretch but The Lion King is another that has its moments. Scar is very intimidating and the fact that he wants to kill his own nephew is pretty scary.

  6. Avatar
    Rory Fish Reply

    Anything inspired by Roald Dahl or Grimm fairy tales is enough to give anyone nightmares!

  7. Avatar
    Chris Reply

    Nice idea for a top 10! Those witches were really scary in your #2 choice.
    I’d also suggest as an honorable mention Legend (1985) which has a devilish villain that I still find difficult to look at!

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