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) 88%

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 (2001) 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

zombies Prime Video tv talk popular Marvel Television science fiction Classic Film dreamworks Martial Arts SundanceTV 93rd Oscars diversity Exclusive Video prank MCU MGM unscripted Elton John Spring TV basketball kong The CW DC Universe japan Schedule Star Trek PBS hist Valentine's Day critics versus news romance Comedy Central classics Horror docuseries Kids & Family movie Image Comics YouTube Premium medical drama WGN Country TIFF Drama comiccon sitcom LGBT game show Mary Poppins Returns Ovation dexter children's TV TBS game of thrones italian Television Critics Association halloween tv Pet Sematary Neflix Opinion adenture rom-coms revenge Starz NBA legend mob james bond 90s video on demand toronto ABC 4/20 spider-verse politics TCA Awards Binge Guide cats VICE vs. BET Awards anime Nat Geo CBS halloween summer preview wonder woman indie feel good Rock technology CBS All Access rt labs rotten movies we love football SXSW Sundance DGA Election Epix worst movies a nightmare on elm street GoT series Mystery Music 2017 TruTV Best Actor werewolf Black History Month Travel Channel OWN Women's History Month serial killer Disney+ Disney Plus space First Look A24 cancelled TV shows cinemax Paramount boxoffice Sci-Fi hispanic heritage month DC Comics festivals FX Disney Plus kaiju Shondaland black posters USA fast and furious RT21 blaxploitation comic book movies First Reviews saw book adaptation japanese Calendar Super Bowl reboot scary movies south america stand-up comedy obi wan CMT free movies MSNBC Superheroes Dark Horse Comics TV One Syfy Lionsgate Legendary Polls and Games comic books olympics chucky Instagram Live GIFs Thanksgiving Cosplay Comics on TV marvel comics ghosts Reality screenings Tokyo Olympics anthology 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards mutant ABC Signature ABC Family foreign scene in color X-Men streaming concert The Witch slasher 71st Emmy Awards Crackle Endgame green book ratings video Fantasy emmy awards Tumblr name the review broadcast dragons Broadway king kong jamie lee curtis finale crime thriller worst superhero History historical drama Emmy Nominations Netflix Christmas movies best Marvel Studios trophy comedies superman binge Best and Worst teaser RT History cancelled period drama Spectrum Originals quibi comic New York Comic Con monster movies Universal 79th Golden Globes Awards rotten Premiere Dates President boxing E! ESPN Family IFC heist movie reviews The Academy based on movie SDCC strong female leads renewed TV shows comics LGBTQ richard e. Grant cartoon stoner 99% Wes Anderson Acorn TV DirecTV streamig christmas movies travel Disney streaming service latino true crime live action satire singing competition sequels Oscar PlayStation SXSW 2022 discovery TNT Quiz new zealand South by Southwest Film Festival Nickelodeon BBC America dramedy 1990s Pixar Amazon Prime Showtime Musical TCA 2017 casting Creative Arts Emmys Pride Month docudrama IMDb TV biography trailers remakes See It Skip It rt archives deadpool Cartoon Network fresh blockbusters TCM 21st Century Fox independent directors Sony Pictures HFPA Hulu The Walking Dead natural history YouTube VH1 Character Guide Arrowverse 2020 Sony thriller Oscars what to watch Lifetime mcc royal family Hear Us Out slashers marvel cinematic universe NYCC miniseries new york APB Stephen King spanish Paramount Network Fox News nfl Year in Review action-comedy PaleyFest interviews FXX ITV Walt Disney Pictures spain suspense Video Games Adult Swim NBC Academy Awards Film doctor who target Britbox Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Action Amazon Prime Video indiana jones Pacific Islander Vudu Hallmark Christmas movies dogs Masterpiece theme song Funimation San Diego Comic-Con Trailer Holidays Photos Reality Competition hollywood asian-american mission: impossible 2019 Superheroe Interview telelvision Chernobyl nature justice league parents gangster OneApp Emmys cops Hallmark Apple TV+ Bravo 20th Century Fox political drama A&E Certified Fresh Television Academy Western Spike razzies cooking Logo spy thriller Disney Channel stop motion black comedy Summer Trophy Talk HBO Max Turner Comic Book Fall TV television YouTube Red Rocketman WarnerMedia The Arrangement Mary Tyler Moore Ellie Kemper aapi toy story adaptation Turner Classic Movies 2016 cults Baby Yoda festival 007 women Comic-Con@Home 2021 new star wars movies social media Holiday war elevated horror animated VOD international BBC One Alien Trivia Film Festival Ghostbusters Peacock sequel criterion Teen Freeform transformers book Mary poppins Disney FOX canceled YA zombie TV renewals films aliens GLAAD all-time Winners talk show dceu MTV police drama Avengers Sundance TV Apple Lifetime Christmas movies disaster Warner Bros. Red Carpet cars Best Picture Lucasfilm Heroines Awards Pirates 94th Oscars AMC Plus Sneak Peek Chilling Adventures of Sabrina American Society of Cinematographers mockumentary Best Actress El Rey Amazon genre facebook TV movies crossover E3 ID Focus Features sopranos jurassic park 24 frames supernatural golden globe awards Sundance Now Marvel kids Fargo romantic comedy laika BAFTA TCA Winter 2020 Tomatazos 2018 summer TV preview Pop Marathons live event 45 vampires TV IFC Films Musicals Animation young adult Awards Tour sag awards Cannes The Walt Disney Company screen actors guild zero dark thirty Best Director HBO Go Rocky Mudbound 2015 dark die hard award winner high school know your critic AMC Biopics debate spinoff scorecard The Purge australia 2021 Toys Rom-Com comic book movie Box Office joker crime spider-man documentaries Amazon Studios harry potter leaderboard breaking bad Infographic Fox Searchlight Paramount Pictures ViacomCBS Esquire Netflix child's play obituary Writers Guild of America pirates of the caribbean Tubi universal monsters Black Mirror documentary Paramount Plus National Geographic adventure CNN 72 Emmy Awards dc king arthur Extras Comedy summer TV psycho witnail sports hispanic streaming movies Set visit Universal Pictures CW Seed Nominations Anna Paquin DC streaming service crime drama hidden camera cancelled TV series HBO 73rd Emmy Awards Countdown Mindy Kaling BBC godzilla robots blockbuster Captain marvel Columbia Pictures biopic art house lord of the rings Pop TV golden globes batman movies venice Shudder Apple TV Plus critic resources canceled TV shows Hollywood Foreign Press Association Christmas Grammys Winter TV franchise TCA TLC USA Network french Tarantino composers scary Crunchyroll twilight Brie Larson FX on Hulu nbcuniversal Song of Ice and Fire cancelled television spanish language rt labs critics edition Discovery Channel BET archives Tags: Comedy Star Wars Food Network TV Land Podcast psychological thriller Watching Series