Halloween is on its way, and we’ve all got so much more to be afraid of this year! From COVID-19 to murder hornets to Rudolph Giuliani’s shirt-tucking technique, 2020 has been full of terrors that would have been unthinkable even a year ago, when things were already pretty frightening. So in hopes of taking our minds off the ongoing horror, Slate staffers decided to look back at some of the things that terrified us as children, many of which weren’t even intended to be frightening. Here are the movies (and one song) that Slate staffers encountered a few years too early.
Ernest Scared Stupid
The worst part about being traumatized by Ernest Scared Stupid was that the title seemed like an insult. Yes, even at age 5, I knew that the Ernest movies were supposed to be silly. Yes, even at age 5, I knew they were for kids. All of this only made it worse when the movie turned out to be much more terrifying than it had any right to be while seeming to suggest that anyone who was frightened must be dumb.
But I will insist to my grave that I wasn’t stupid to be scared by Ernest Scared Stupid. First, there’s the premise of the movie, which begins with, as Wikipedia summarizes it, “a demonic troll who transforms children into wooden dolls to feast upon their energy.” Second, this snot-covered troll and his child-devouring troll army were designed by the Chiodo brothers, who specialized in actual, adult horror movies. At the time, they were fresh off their work on the first two Critters movies, Killer Klowns From Outer Space (from which they repurposed some of their designs), and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, for which they created Large Marge, who had traumatized the preceding generation. And third, there was the bedroom scene, which, as one blog put it, “has a reputation,” and somehow manages to be even creepier in retrospect. (It starts with the typical scene of a little girl being afraid of a monster under her bed, but the jump scare happens when she realizes he’s lying right next to her.)
Finally, I know I’m not alone here! Ernest Scared Stupid was the first Ernest movie not to turn a major profit, and thus became the last of the late Jim Varney’s beloved films to be released by Touchstone Pictures. Who’s stupid now?
—Forrest Wickman, culture editor
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
I was a real scaredy cat as a child, just as I am as an adult, so there were plenty of movies that frightened me out of theaters, like The Neverending Story and Gremlins. But my parents still remember how I spent the entire final act of E.T. hiding under my seat at the Fox Bay theater. Basically, once the government scientist in the isolation suit showed up, I was done. So I had no idea how the movie ended—I just heard a lot of shouting and the sounds of kids riding bicycles and whatnot. On the way out of the theater my brother pointed at the poster of Elliott and E.T. cycling against the full moon and was like, “You missed that.”
—Dan Kois, editor
I grew up in a house without a TV set, in a time before handheld devices, and so my few encounters with television and movies (at the theater, at my grandparents’ house) left deep impressions. The one that scared me, and shouldn’t have, was E.T. I thought the creature himself was deeply disturbing. Why was he so blobby? Why was he hiding in that girl’s stuffed animals? Why was his finger glowing? I’m not sure whether it was my lack of familiarity with the whole world of filmed entertainment, or my age (about 5), but I had to be removed from the movie theater. For a while I worried that E.T. was going to come up out of the toilet when I sat on it, and poke me in the butt with that finger—a kid fear that made my high school friends hysterical with laughter when I described it to them but was extremely real to me at the time. —Rebecca Onion, staff writer
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
The werewolf in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban terrorized me as a child. I had nightmares about the creature’s pale, menacing form for years, and I don’t think I’ve ever watched those scenes again for fear of reawakening that visceral horror that petrified me in a movie theater so many years ago. These days, I find the werewolf’s nonfictional creator’s stance on transgender issues more disturbing than the werewolf himself, so he’s had a bit of a reprieve, but you still won’t find me revisiting those scenes any time soon.
—Megan Kallstrom, legal coordinator
When I was 5 years old, I went to see the original Jumanji movie, starring Robin Williams. At that age, my ability to distinguish fantasy from reality was shaky at best, so a movie where a spooky board game comes to life and wreaks havoc on two children, Old Testament–style, was way too much for me to handle. Specifically, there was a part when a character from the game, a guy who appeared to be a British ivory hunter or something, started hunting the main characters. Then, one of the kids transformed slowly into a monkey, and that’s when I threw a fit and had to be escorted out of the theater by my mom. Luckily, Toy Story was playing in a different theater, so I caught the end of that. To this day, I’m still not the biggest fan of board games or British ivory hunters. Monkeys seem fine.
—Cameron Drews, podcast producer
One Hundred and One Dalmatians
One Hundred and One Dalmatians is primarily a movie about adorable dogs with spots, but it contains one truly terrifying scene. At the film’s climax, canine protagonists Pongo and Perdita are shepherding a horde of rescued puppies into a truck when Cruella De Vil finds them, and a chase scene ensues. In the midst of the pursuit, Cruella drives into a tree, stripping her car down to a skeletal fire-spewing machine that she continues to drive. At this point her eyes turn red, and the frenzied music makes clear that her puppy fixation has turned into rabid mania. Our final shot of Cruella before she goes over the cliff shows her face in extreme close-up, her mouth contorted in horror, spirals filling her eyes. Though she doesn’t die, it’s the most epic demise of a Disney villain that I can remember.
—Cleo Levin, commerce production associate
“Puff, the Magic Dragon”
I don’t remember the way Puff the Magic Dragon came into my young life—a record, my mom singing, maybe there was a book or cartoon? But what I do remember is that I absolutely could not handle the last few verses. (No, this has nothing to do with the drug stuff.) “A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys,” “Without his lifelong friend, Puff could not be brave, so Puff that mighty dragon sadly slipped into his cave.” No thank you! Looking at the lyrics now, I see I invented the idea that Puff is so sad and lonely that he ceases to exist, but even just the abandonment was so sad to me that it shaded into a kind of scary. I felt spooked by this song the way I did by dark rooms or, I don’t know, actually scary things. If my mom tried to sing it, I’d yell at her to stop, because I was a fraidy cat and a little jerk.
—Jaime Green, Future Tense associate editor
It’s hard to remember, but in the early 1980s, the threat of Russian interference was no joke. The Cold War had heated up again as President Ronald Reagan and the USSR essentially played a game of chicken with nuclear warheads. That anxiety was reflected in movies like War Games and The Day After (1983). The latter’s simulated nuclear holocaust happened to take place in my corner of Kansas where I grew up surrounded by Minuteman missile silos. So by the time Red Dawn invaded theaters in the fall of 1984, I was absolutely petrified by the idea of a Soviet attack.
Most people remember Red Dawn’s hunky actors Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen playing gun-toting patriots defending the heartland. But I still think of the Russian paratroopers dropping to the ground and shooting up a rural high school. I used to lie in bed at night behind pillows piled up like sandbags in a foxhole, waiting for those same soldiers to crash through my window. I knew exactly where my dad’s old military rifle was in the closet but hoped I’d never have to use it. Eventually my Cold War fears stoked by Red Dawn were overtaken by relieved laughter at 1985’s goofball flick Spies Like Us, but it would be a while before I dismantled my bedroom bunker and slept easy again.
—Derek John, senior producer, podcasts
Return to Oz
In 1954, the Walt Disney Co. bought the rights to 11 of L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels, in hopes of making a live-action Oz film. That movie, Rainbow Road to Oz, was abandoned midproduction—although they did shoot enough for Walt and the Mouseketeers to preview a few songs on television—but it meant Disney was eager to make an Oz picture in the early 1980s, before they lost the rights. That was the same period the studio’s live-action division was experimenting with darker themes in an attempt to recapture their core audience, an effort that yielded the Disney’s first two PG-rated features, The Black Hole and Midnight Madness. At the exact same time, legendary film editor and sound designer Walter Murch was attempting to branch out into directing. That’s how an ancient rights deal, broad societal changes in the audience for children’s movies, and the career ambitions of the guy who mixed the helicopter sounds in Apocalypse Now joined forces to terrorize me, personally.
It is impossible to list all the ways Return to Oz is deeply unsuitable for children, but let’s start with the premise. At the end of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy returns home and tells her family all about her adventures. In Return to Oz, lovable old Auntie Em and Uncle Henry, having carefully listened to Dorothy’s tales of talking lions and flying monkeys, decide she’s out of her mind and send her to an asylum, where she’s strapped to a table and given electroshock therapy. And that’s just the stuff in Kansas! Upon arriving in Oz, Dorothy promptly discovers that her friends have all been turned to stone, and she’s being hunted by Wheelers, utterly horrific creatures with wheels at the ends of their long, spindly arms and legs. Later, she meets the even more terrifying Mombi, a witch who plans to steal Dorothy’s head and keep it in a display case next to all the other severed heads she’s stolen. So if any Mombis are reading this, if you could swap my current head out for the head of someone who didn’t see Return to Oz at an inappropriate age, I’d really appreciate it.
—Matthew Dessem, nights and weekends culture editor
The Secret Garden
I distinctly remember seeing the 1993 adaption of the classic children’s novel The Secret Garden in the theater with my family. Mind you, this is a G-rated movie known mostly for its mysterious English manor and the delightful Maggie Smith. But the very first scene of the film reveals how the orphaned girl at the center of our story becomes, well, orphaned when an earthquake in India kills her parents. Young Mary happens to be hiding under a bed as the world around her shakes suddenly and violently and a lamp shatters onto the floor, starting a raging fire. The scene cuts relatively quickly to Mary’s arrival at her uncle’s British manse, but those 30 seconds remained cemented in my mind for years, most notably the fire that I imagined burning her loved ones alive—my memory mostly glossed over the earthquake, which felt less relevant to my life in the Midwestern United States. Throughout most of my childhood, I maintained an exaggerated fear of house fires. I cannot tell you for sure whether this pyrophobia originated with The Secret Garden or the film merely fed into my existing fears, but it was a touchstone nonetheless.
—Abby McIntyre, assistant managing editor
Three Men and a Baby
I’m a total scaredy cat, and as such, I spent a lot of my childhood and teen years avoiding scary movies at all cost. I would feign boredom and leave the room when friends picked something even slightly scary. There was one memorable sleepover that unavoidably thrust a terrifying movie on me that I didn’t see coming, and I’m still traumatized by the memories of sleepless nights and the inability to this very day to look out a dark window without fear. That movie was Three Men and a Baby, the hit comedy starring Tom Selleck, Steve Guttenberg, and Ted Danson.
I was about 9 when it came out on video and recall my sleepover posse being excited to watch it after the parents went to bed. Apparently this counted for prime children’s entertainment in the late ’80s. As I settled in to watch a lighthearted comedy, one of my friends warned us menacingly to watch out for the dead boy that could be seen in the background of the film. The rumor was that a young boy died in an accident on the set or killed himself in the house they used for filming. The rumor was never clear, but the terrifying sight was. I replayed that three-second appearance of the “ghost boy” in my head over and over for weeks.
In that clip, you can see the “ghost boy” clearly lingering in the window. I know now that it was a Ted Danson cardboard cutout. But back in the late ’80s, without high-def TV, the internet, or Snopes.com, I was alone with the grainy image, a swirl of rumors, and my hyper imagination.
—Faith Smith, executive producer, Slate Live
Who Framed Roger Rabbit
I remember being terrified of one specific scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit: when Christopher Lloyd’s Judge Doom is run over by a steamroller and flattened into a pancake. But in the haze of memory from 20 plus years ago, I didn’t remember why it terrified me so much. In my mind it was strange and surprising, but I couldn’t remember exactly what was so scary about it. Watching it again today, it all came flooding back. The scene is grisly: Doom panics as he is squashed, howling as the steamroller overtakes him. But then, he springs back up, still flattened, stumbling around until he reinflates himself using a tank of compressed air. He lurches toward the camera, followed by a series of terrifying gags: his eyes inflate, and then become knives, his appendages transforming into anvils and saw blades to cut down our hero Eddie Valiant, aka Bob Hoskins. All of this is to reveal that Doom is not a man but an evil toon. I realize now it wasn’t the surprise or the strangeness I had been terrified of: It was the body horror. Seeing this character’s humanity stripped away, body destroyed, literally reanimated as something neither completely human nor cartoon, is pretty messed up! Who Framed Roger Rabbit is an artifact from another era of filmmaking for many reasons, not the least as an introduction to body horror juxtaposed against slapstick scenes of Daffy and Donald Duck dueling at the piano.
—Benjamin Frisch, podcast producer