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As a child, it seemed like any film or TV show could turn from harmless fun to traumatizing at the drop of a hat. Even the most absurd things would feel so real. It’s a time when our imaginations run wild and the images on screen take on a life of their own well after the end credits. Yet, for many of us, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to look away.
Even though we’ve grown up, and the magic is gone, a sense of nostalgia still lingers for the films that a lot of us have definitely lost some sleep over once upon a time. At least we can laugh about it now… Right?
Ah, Gremlins. This kid’s film, alongside the same year’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, ended up surprising so many audience members with its intensity that it eventually played a huge factor in the creation of the PG-13 rating in the 1980s. So many distraught parents walked out of that theater with their terrified kids in tow. Gizmo was cute and all, in a baby Yoda-type of way, but nothing could have prepared us for what would happen if you don’t follow all the rules when caring for these adorable little mogwais.
Three rules: No sunlight, no water, and absolutely DO NOT feed them after midnight. Of course, this is easier said than done and chaos ensues after some water is accidentally spilled on Gizmo. Between the countless jump scares, ever-multiplying gremlins, and the grisly kitchen scene, we just couldn’t catch a break. Though most don’t often think of Gremlins as a Christmas movie, it is infamous for being the worst one to show your kids. Part of its true terror and the disappointment of parents everywhere is that the film is also responsible for breaking countless kids’ hearts by revealing that Santa isn’t real. Whoops.
What could be more terrifying than the Goblin King (David Bowie) stealing your little brother and whisking him off to a land filled with countless fantastical creatures in an impossible labyrinth? Not only are there monsters at every turn, but each step brings on a slew of dangerous consequences. Though it might actually kind of sound a bit fun as an adult, without the threat of death and all, it’s hard to forget the visceral response that came along with that one song and dance sequence where the fiery’s heads just popped right off.
While the film has quite a few wholesome moments, some of its imagery truly lives in our heads rent-free. The scene with the helping hands alone looks like a shot straight out of hell and is incredibly evocative of some of the most terrifying scenes in horror movies. Labyrinth was terrifying in the same way that The Dark Crystal was. Though the impressive use of practical effects may be really impressive to us now, their uncanny valley effect was straight-up nightmare fuel as a kid.
Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Since this isn’t the first mention of the Indiana Jones series on this list, it is quite clear that Steven Spielberg still had quite a bit of scares up his sleeve after Jaws. Though Temple of Doom definitely has a lot more horror elements (nothing could have prepared most kids to witness a heart being ripped out), Raiders of the Lost Ark undoubtedly holds the biggest WTF moment once the much-coveted Ark of the Covenant is finally opened.
The film’s final sequence turned an already questionably violent kid’s movie into an all-out horror show filled with close-up shots of melting faces and ghouls galore. This switch-up was so sudden that there was barely any time to cover your eyes. Instead, the film leaves you wondering if you may have been better off having your face melt off too. Now, the effects come off as a fun way to watch a bunch of greedy Nazis meet their demise, however, the ending surely taught a lot of kids to actually consider keeping their hands out of the cookie jar. Never know if you’ll get a cookie or lose your face.
The Leprechaun (1993)
Nowadays, The Leprechaun has an endearing reputation as a horror film that’s so bad it’s good. But during the times when cable TV reigned supreme, it was easy for unsuspecting kids to stumble upon it while channel surfing on any given St. Patrick’s Day. More than 25 years after the first film, the series reads as one long joke with a never-ending punchline. Its 92-minute runtime is filled to the brim with cheeky one-liners and comically bad death scenes that are sure to delight any adult with a warped sense of humor.
As a kid, however, it’s hard to muster up a chuckle when a Leprechaun who looks like he could be on the cover of your cereal box is in the middle of a killing spree. Unlike a lot of the films on this list, The Leprechaun wasn’t specifically marketed toward kids. For some reason, like a lot of horror films with countless reruns on TV, it fell straight into the laps of kids who succumbed to the morbid curiosity only to have night terrors about it for days afterward.
The Mask (1994)
Before 2000’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Jim Carrey already proved he could play a terrifyingly endearing green guy in The Mask. With a similar plot to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for a comedy, it actually managed to oddly be even scarier. There was just something incredibly unsettling about the way Carrey’s demeanor completely switched up once the mask went on. In this way, it’s relatively unsurprising that the film retained some horror elements given that its source material from Dark Horse Comics was significantly darker than what we saw on screen.
The hardest scene to watch was undoubtedly the very first moment the mask was placed on his face. First, the idea of a seemingly inanimate mask forcing itself on your face is enough to make your blood run cold. But no, the movie didn’t stop there. How could it be when the same director, Chuck Russell, gave us The Blob a few years prior? Instead, we’re forced to watch as he claws his face in confused agony and screams bloody murder until he makes his full transformation into The Mask.
Ernest Scared Stupid (1991)
When most folks think of the Ernest film series, pure fear is probably the last thing to come to mind. What most parents thought was a fun Halloween family comedy turned into a generation of kids cowering in fear at the thought of an army of trolls coming to get them. The worst part is this film single-handedly validated our fears of monsters silently lurking in our bedrooms and waiting to pounce.
Who could ever forget when little Elizabeth (Shay Astar) asked her mom to check under the bed only for her to refuse? Moments later, Elizabeth musters up the courage to check for herself. We get a moment of bliss when she finds that it’s only her teddy bear, but that sense of safety is quickly yanked from beneath us when Elizabeth turns over and finds herself face to face with the very troll she was scared about in the first place.
Mars Attacks! (1996)
Tim Burton is no stranger to making sure kids go to bed in fear of the dark, but folks usually go into his movies expecting at least some morbidly spooky imagery. Mars Attacks!, however, was meant to be a comedic sci-fi romp. A fun alien movie! What could possibly go wrong? Well, in the mind of a child, the answer is absolutely everything. It wasn’t only that the aliens were attacking Earth, that was a given, but their utter enjoyment in terrorizing humans quickly made the shift from exciting to downright hair-raising as a kid.
The quick shift from everyone on screen celebrating the aliens’ arrival and their proclamation “we come in peace” to, moments later, ripping through a crowd with body-dissolving lasers is enough to make any kid do a double take while bringing on an existential crisis. The fun CGI and campy acting are endearing now, but the Chihuahua head on top of a human body created an irrational fear for many kids who couldn’t quite bring themselves to look at their family pet the same way again.
Child’s Play (1988)
To this day, it seems like every kid knows about Chucky (Brad Dourif) even if they haven’t actually seen Child’s Play or any of its sequels. There probably won’t ever be a day when killer toys aren’t a main source of anxiety in horror films. For those unlucky kids who did manage to actually watch the film, to the utter dismay of their parents, it became pretty difficult to not swear up and down that their new doll moved half an inch.
Chucky unlocked a new fear in kids all over the globe. What if your new toy came to life, hellbent on ruining it, and no one believed you until it was too late? Not only is Chucky terrifying on screen, but it doesn’t help that his likeness is still everywhere even decades later. Like a real nightmare come to life, it’s hard to escape Chucky when his popularity has spawned life-size recreations of the killer doll and other merchandise with his face front and center. While those who grew up with Chucky might find his antics charming now, the popularity of his new TV series will undoubtedly strike fear into the newest generation of unsuspecting kids.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Quite possibly the original film that struck a nerve in our collective psyche is The Wizard of Oz. Though a lot of the film is quite magical, especially the switch from black and white to technicolor, it’s hard to come across someone who doesn’t admit they recoiled at the first sight of the wicked witch’s flying monkeys. Though many will reference the flying monkeys as the film’s main source of conjuring up previously unknown fears, it was hard to not peek through your fingers as the wicked witch melted right in front of our very eyes.
As if the fear levels in the original film weren’t enough, 1985’s Return to Oz took the horror elements of the original and dialed them up by 10. It’s no wonder that Fairuza Balk, who played Dorothy, grew up to be a horror icon in her own right. The Wizard of Oz might be great fun now, but those of us who grew out of our fear of the flying monkeys might find ourselves feeling like a scared child again if we dare to revisit Oz.
Last, but certainly not least, we have Ghostbusters. Over the years, this film has stolen the hearts of countless adults and kids alike. There are oodles of jokes and antics that appeal to all ages while (thankfully) going right over the heads of the little ones. All the humor in the world and a lovable main cast couldn’t save us from the endless array of ghosts or the Stay Puft man though.
How scary could a giant marshmallow figure be? Turns out, very. As if a ginormous (yet strangely kind of cute) monster terrorizing the streets wasn’t enough to unlock a new fear, Ghostbusters made sure to provide enough ghosts to guarantee that at least one would stay with you. For some, it was Slimer. For others, the library ghost made them never want to set foot in one ever again. Either way, re-watching it as an adult might prove that not all ghosts have the worst intentions.