The 10 Scariest Animated Children's Movies

On the 35th anniversary of The Black Cauldron, we look back at 10 other animated films aimed at kids that terrified and traumatized young viewers.

by | July 24, 2020 | Comments

The Black Cauldron
(Photo by (c)Buena Vista Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

Far too often, animated movies are written off as overly kid-friendly, unsophisticated fluff, when the truth is the medium is capable of telling stories as mature as the most prestigious live-action dramas. Sometimes, however, an animated movie ostensibly made for children can also be spooky enough to terrify the most hardened youngsters, and even a few adults.

One of Disney’s most infamous animated movies, The Black Cauldron, opened 35 years ago and traumatized kids of all stripes, and to celebrate its anniversary, we’re taking a look back at its peers. Whether they were intentionally spooky or simply featured a couple of freaky moments that made every kid hit fast-forward, we’ve put together a list of the scariest animated movies that terrified the young audiences they were meant to entertain.

Coraline (2009) 90%

(Photo by Focus Features)

On the surface, this stop-motion adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel is a silly story of a spunky, bored little girl who finds a hidden door to a secret world where everything is perfect, yet slightly off. But just like its hidden parallel dimension, Coraline is freaky and frequently plain horrifying. As soon as Coraline finds the secret door, the story begins to unfold like a horror film, ramping up its creepy atmosphere and frightening creatures. But the real terror comes the moment Coraline is given her own set of button eyes, to be sewn on by her creepy Other Mother… before she transforms into a giant spider and all hell breaks loose. Moira MacDonald summarized it for the Seattle Times: “Children who like being scared will get a kick out of this wildly creative movie; adults needn’t have a child in tow to enjoy it, too.”

The Great Mouse Detective (1986) 80%

The Great Mouse Detective
(Photo by Walt Disney Productions)

A noir mystery starring mice may not necessarily seem like a film that would give you nightmares for days on end, but you would be wrong. Based on the children’s novel Basil of Baker Street — which itself was inspired by the tales of Sherlock Holmes — The Great Mouse Detective starts with a little mouse girl named Olivia celebrating her birthday with her father at home, when suddenly a one-legged bat breaks into the house and kidnaps the father. The film’s eerie atmosphere persists throughout its runtime, and even when there are moments of levity or sweetness, they’re usually followed by moments of utter terror. For many children, the bat represents their first experiences with jumpscares, as he is responsible for the two most frightening ones in the film: first, when he bursts into Olivia’s home at the beginning of the movie, and later when he leaps out of a baby carriage to abduct her. Nina Darnton wrote for The New York Times that “Small children may be afraid of some of the bad characters — the Disney Studio’s gift for creating really nasty bad guys means that they are scary — but they will love the cute, brave mice and cheer their triumphs. Adults will enjoy the wit and style.”

The Last Unicorn (1982) 73%

The Last Unicorn
(Photo by Jensen Farley Pictures)

Horror and fantasy are two genres that don’t cross nearly enough, but when they do, they offer unique experiences. The Last Unicorn skews more towards fantasy, but it still packs enough spooky elements to make it a scary film for kids. Rankin/Bass may be better known for their holiday classics like the stop-motion animated Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but this fantasy epic — about a unicorn who discovers she is the last of her kind and embarks on a quest to discover what has happened to her kin — is full of horrific dangers. Without a doubt, the most frightening for kids was the fiery Red Bull, evil incarnate, with its deep, blood-red color and almost hollow eyes that no doubt inspired countless nightmares. Writing about the film for Time Out, Geoff Andrew explained that The Last Unicorn has “Some horrific moments (the mark of the best fairytales) and some sublimely witty lines.”

Monster House (2006) 75%

Monster House
(Photo by Sony Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

Monster House is ultimately charming and fun for most, but this is, after all, the only “proper” horror film on this list, and while it’s largely kid-friendly, it’s also suitably frightening in spots, as any haunted house movie worth its salt should be. The film follows three kids who decide to explore the creepy old house in their neighborhood with a terrifying reputation. It feels like a 1980s Amblin movie, full of adventure and comedy and more than a little danger, thanks to a few intense scenes courtesy of the imaginatively rendered titular house. As L.A. Weekly’s Scott Foundas said of the film, “Monster House becomes one of those wonderfully weird adventure stories beloved of children who don’t mind getting a good old-fashioned case of the heebie-jeebies. It’s kind of a blast for adults too.”

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) 95%

The Nightmare Before Christmas
(Photo by Buena Vista Pictures)

Ask any horror fan and they’ll tell you that Christmas and horror make for a fantastic combination, but this is one of the rare times that the two cross over in animated form, and it’s mostly a delightful treat. From the mind of Tim Burton and Henry Selick comes the story of the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, Jack Skellington, who gets tired of the same annual festivities and decides to kidnap Santa Claus and take over Christmas. As sweet and funny as it is terrifyingly gruesome, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a visual treat, even if those visuals are frequently bizarre, off-kilter, and a little macabre for the toddler set. The best example is the burlap-sack villain Ooogie Boogie, who literally refers to himself as “the boogieman” and who meets his demise when he comes apart at the seams and reveals he’s full of creepy-crawlies. As Alan Jones wrote for the Radio Times, “Only the deliciously demented imagination of Edward Scissorhands director Tim Burton could have come up with such a dark vision of the holiday season.”

Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island (1998) 86%

Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island
(Photo by Warner Bros. Pictures)

For decades, Scooby-Doo and the Mystery Inc. gang have served as an introduction to horror for kids, offering mildly creepy stories that always ended with an “Aw, shucks!” and a smile. Well, not Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island, which marked the first time the gang faced a real supernatural threat as they set out to find ghosts and monsters in Louisiana. What starts as another typical Scooby-Doo adventure quickly devolves into a tale of voodoo, ghost pirates, vengeful cat demons, and of course, zombies, all tied together by a tragic backstory much darker than fans of the show would have been accustomed to. There aren’t any greedy tycoons in rubber suits here, and actual death — of werecats and humans alike — is a major element of the plot. There really isn’t anything else quite like this in the Scooby-Doo canon, and any kid going into it expecting the usual antics was in for a shock.

The Secret of NIMH (1982) 93%

The Secret of NIMH
(Photo by United Artists)

If you thought animated movies featuring talking animals were all sunshine and rainbows, think again. This film based on the children’s novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH follows a field mouse as she tries to save her ill son both from his pneumonia and from the farmer whose land they live on before he plows through it. Don Bluth’s adaptation is full of truly terrifying moments involving the survivors of scientific experiments, including a rat-eating cat named Dragon. But the scene that really traumatized kids was the visit to the Great Owl, whose introduction includes a lair littered with the bones of his devoured prey, a gruesome encounter with an ill-fated spider, and a pair of creepy, glowing eyes that stared into your very soul. Bluth’s films always skewed a little darker than typical Disney fare, and this was a prime example of his aesthetic. As critic Christopher Null wrote for, “Never mind the G rating, this is scary stuff which sent my little one fleeing to another room inside of 10 minutes.”

Spirited Away (2002) 97%

Spirited Away
(Photo by Walt Disney Pictures)

Japanese animation maestro Hayao Miyazaki’s films have been described as beautifully made artistic wonders and visual masterpieces, but “frightening” isn’t a sensation you normally associate with his work. That being said, Spirited Away is his most haunting film, and it has more than its fair share of creepy moments that sneak up on you and make a lasting impression. The story of a girl lost in a world ruled by spirits is as whimsical as a Disney film, but it doesn’t shy away from disturbing imagery, like when young protagonist Chihiro sees her parents transformed into monstrous and endlessly hungry pigs, or when the spirit No Face begins to devour all the employees of the bathhouse in a wild frenzy. Children who toughed it out through the more frightening moments were rewarded with an enchanting, magical experience, but for some kids, that would have been a tall order.

Watership Down (1978) 82%

Watership Down
(Photo by Avco Embassy courtesy Everett Collection)

It doesn’t take long for Watership Down to shed its “cute bunny film” facade and reveal a deeper allegory that flows red with blood. This adaptation of Richard Adams’ novel follows a group of rabbits on a perilous journey to find refuge after one of them has an apocalyptic vision about their home. For generations, Watership Down has traumatized children with haunting imagery of red-eyed rabbits ripping each other’s throats out or suffocating as they’re buried alive, and peril lies around every turn in the story. Walter Chaw of Film Freak Central summed it up succinctly: “Unsentimental and terrifying.”

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) 97%

Christopher Lloyd in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
(Photo by Buena Vista Pictures)

“Wait a second. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a live-action movie,” you might say, and you’d be (mostly) right, but Robert Zemeckis’ loony live-action/animated hybrid deserves a spot on this list because it features one of Disney’s scariest villains, Christopher Llloyd’s Judge Doom, who — spoiler alert — is actually a cartoon himself. When we first meet Doom, he mercilessly murders an innocent toon without flinching, dumping it into a vat of corrosive “dip.” Then comes the pivotal moment when we discover Doom’s true identity; as played by Lloyd, he already resembled a half-desiccated corpse, a cross between the evil preacher from the Poltergeist movies and the Gestapo officer from Raiders of the Lost Ark who gets his face melted off. But once he’s run over by the streamroller and pops back up, Doom is another beast altogether and the stuff of childhood nightmares.

The Black Cauldron was released on July 24, 1985.

Did we leave out one of your favorites? Don’t agree with our choices? Let us know in the comments!

Tag Cloud

theme song Animation war DC Comics all-time Comedy Central Musicals travel book ratings Winter TV OWN Interview blockbuster comic docudrama a nightmare on elm street AMC YouTube Premium Teen TCA Winter 2020 Rom-Com Esquire directors Pirates Ovation CNN Comedy remakes ESPN zero dark thirty SXSW Classic Film Bravo singing competition Universal Endgame Toys comiccon Super Bowl USA football screenings ABC comic books nature comedies Pixar President revenge Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Song of Ice and Fire cartoon nbcuniversal movies jamie lee curtis Box Office concert Biopics documentary CMT Winners reviews Marvel Studios obituary ABC Family Funimation 2016 Country hispanic movie USA Network Sundance stoner Starz Spectrum Originals politics Premiere Dates BBC GoT tv talk Black History Month worst Fox Searchlight SundanceTV Mary Poppins Returns Warner Bros. Rock joker adventure Trophy Talk worst movies Extras rotten Superheroe GLAAD See It Skip It laika Britbox FX Marvel Television Pop festivals batman boxoffice Martial Arts Reality Competition Trailer FOX spinoff black Podcast sitcom DGA CBS renewed TV shows Superheroes Chernobyl psycho halloween Television Critics Association strong female leads PaleyFest festival Ghostbusters based on movie BBC One criterion technology Star Wars die hard historical drama documentaries social media Amazon Prime Year in Review WarnerMedia Opinion universal monsters transformers canceled mission: impossible Schedule TruTV talk show Certified Fresh Hear Us Out Avengers emmy awards HBO The Arrangement sports Sci-Fi Hulu harry potter Syfy Netflix Christmas movies TV WGN 007 Amazon Prime Video Musical satire RT History National Geographic CW Seed cars Horror thriller Amazon Studios Countdown rotten movies we love LGBT Marathons YouTube dramedy christmas movies adaptation crime thriller sequels RT21 robots crime drama The Purge TCA A&E romance Apple TV+ Disney streaming service spy thriller DC streaming service Turner Classic Movies Fantasy aliens dragons hist BET Creative Arts Emmys GIFs Kids & Family parents Fall TV latino TCM Disney+ Disney Plus 72 Emmy Awards 24 frames BBC America Star Trek Logo The CW Mindy Kaling halloween tv SDCC Comics on TV slashers Crunchyroll cancelled casting History scary movies indie japanese Lifetime Christmas movies crime psychological thriller MCU Sundance Now romantic comedy Tomatazos Western The Academy Set visit Calendar video on demand Mudbound Video Games vampires Disney Plus green book breaking bad PBS Anna Paquin Holiday Drama Academy Awards X-Men supernatural james bond Film Festival Election franchise Disney unscripted richard e. Grant Cosplay composers Nominations elevated horror YA toy story Family Infographic true crime Ellie Kemper Turner Crackle anime best TCA 2017 films Captain marvel cults DC Universe cops Apple TV Plus Vudu Trivia Mary Tyler Moore blaxploitation Tumblr nfl 71st Emmy Awards zombie mockumentary 2017 dc doctor who The Witch Acorn TV period drama MSNBC Emmys Writers Guild of America Binge Guide news spanish discovery Rocketman foreign Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Character Guide Sony Pictures First Reviews miniseries deadpool Freeform 2015 binge witnail NBC Rocky Adult Swim game of thrones south america cooking Shondaland MTV screen actors guild El Rey hollywood zombies Masterpiece Thanksgiving TV Land E3 Hallmark Christmas movies IFC Films BAFTA Netflix chucky TV renewals Oscars Mystery stop motion Action Cartoon Network serial killer Paramount Network 45 Best and Worst Spring TV Peacock Dark Horse Comics sag awards 21st Century Fox dogs DirecTV french Hallmark werewolf OneApp First Look BET Awards A24 cats VOD ghosts Sneak Peek Columbia Pictures cancelled TV series TNT Shudder Television Academy dceu Arrowverse classics superhero biography CBS All Access Baby Yoda sequel spanish language Cannes award winner Film IFC Women's History Month crossover Watching Series science fiction Walt Disney Pictures independent Paramount Valentine's Day cancelled television Lifetime The Walking Dead American Society of Cinematographers anthology Tubi free movies 2019 streaming Christmas APB ITV Nat Geo rt archives 2018 Black Mirror critics New York Comic Con TIFF Disney Channel fast and furious spain television TLC spider-man Lionsgate 20th Century Fox Food Network Spike VH1 Pop TV finale quibi stand-up comedy game show 4/20 Brie Larson Apple reboot Holidays scorecard Red Carpet Polls and Games Comic Book 2020 disaster Awards Tour comics Travel Channel Quiz italian Summer cinemax FX on Hulu child's play Fox News VICE LGBTQ Music Mary poppins twilight Photos natural history video ID Discovery Channel toronto canceled TV shows indiana jones justice league mutant australia golden globes E! children's TV San Diego Comic-Con TBS Heroines Showtime PlayStation Grammys teaser Reality archives medical drama cancelled TV shows Nickelodeon Elton John kids HBO Go Pride Month series diversity NYCC political drama Epix space Awards venice Pet Sematary name the review TCA Awards facebook asian-american Amazon Emmy Nominations what to watch Sundance TV dark HBO Max Stephen King Marvel YouTube Red police drama FXX Lucasfilm versus Tarantino animated