The Dark Side of Disney.
Some of the first films we are introduced to in our lives come from the wonderful world of Walt Disney. Whereas many associate Disney with princesses and happy endings, Disney is also noted for its darker elements and has brought us some of the most unsettling moments in cinema history. Who still doesn’t shudder at the transformation sequence in Snow White or the Donkey scene in Pinocchio?
Since Disney films are adaptations of well-known classic fairy-tales its no surprise that the popular company still capitalized on the more sinister side of things and its fair to say Disney has presented issues we must all deal with such as death and neglect and given us an early understanding. As adults, we have also been able to search deeper into these childhood films and interpret them in various ways, from strange subliminal messages to rumors of Walt Disney himself being a racist. All these ideas and whether they are reflected in the films makes for some interesting stuff. Seeing these eerie images at such a young age has shaped me into the genre fan I am today. So, let’s look back at some scary animated moments that are more than worthy to have a place within Horror. Guaranteed Nightmare Fuel!
**I would just like to add that the films and scenes discussed in this review are my own views and don’t reflect any other analysis of a similar vein.**
**In No Particular Order**
Fantasia (1940): Night on Bald Mountain.
As a child I gained so much enjoyment out of watching Fantasia. It’s such a magical film that flawlessly combines animated images to classical scores. Mickey Mouse in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice is so much fun as well as the dancing mushrooms and ballerina hippos. For Disney it came as an experimental film but its closing segment makes that all the more interesting. After viewing Night on Bald Mountain for the first time I recall being so unsettled that I would skip the sequence completely on future viewings of Fantasia on my VHS copy. Night on Bald Mountain features a terrifying Chernabog, an incarnation of Satan himself who raises the dead and subsequently invades the village near Bald Mountain, including spirits of demon-like creatures and animals. Its pure unnerving stuff, however while watching it as an adult its difficult not to be stunned by how detailed and outstanding the animation really is. The imagery used evokes notions of death, hell and fear.
The Chernabog itself, displays very frightening qualities with menacing glowing eyes, sharp claws and huge bat wings, admittedly, this has to be one of the most nightmarish creations I have ever seen in a film aimed at children. Oh and that grin he displays is enough to make you shudder as he transforms fiery succubus type creatures into vile demons then throws them into a fiery pit and continues to do this; showing that he’s in control! What’s with those demonic faces and skulls flying at the screen, and boobs, there are boobs in a Disney movie, complete with nipples!! It’s grand and incredibly Gothic, accompanied by a haunting score composed by Modest Mussorsky that really heightens the tension throughout the segment. Disney certainly did a fantastic job with this one! Night on Bald Mountain, I welcome you as an integral part of the Horror genre without a doubt!
Dumbo (1941): Song of the Roustabouts
For some reason Dumbo has always been a difficult film to watch. The scene where Dumbo is separated from his mother is traumatizing enough as well as the trippy alcohol induced, infamous “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence which was originally intended for Fantasia which explains certain visual similarities with the previously discussed Night on Bald Mountain. While Pink Elephants is considered one of the most disturbing scenes to grace children’s films, there’s another aspect to Dumbo that particularly unnerves me and that’s how by today’s standards it is racially insensitive. Now, I’m not going into whether Walt Disney was a Nazi or a racist and whether it is still reflected within the company today in terms of how white supremacy is portrayed as that’s another discussion for another time. However there’s a scene from Dumbo that I overlooked as a child and not until a recent viewing did this scene in question provide me with some discomfort.
“The Song of the Roustabouts” falls into the trope of “Unfortunate Implications” (Source: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/YMMV/Dumbo). The scene depicts faceless, African-Americans putting up a circus tent, singing about being unskilled, unable to read or write but happy regardless. The setting of the scene itself makes it extra dark as the workers are seen putting up the tent in terrible weather conditions, its raining and stormy and the elephants are seen struggling and appear overworked. It’s hardly child friendly, depicting the harshness and exploitation of laborers and animals in the 1940’s.
Pinocchio (1940): Pleasure Island and Donkey Transformation.
Pinocchio remains one of Disney’s great moral tales, teaching children that if they misbehave terrible things will happen to them. What kid can’t say that they never got told “don’t tell lies or your nose will grow”, I know its one that stuck with me. One of the film’s most distressing scenes in particular comes in the shape of the infamous donkey transformation. The lead up to what is considered one of Disney’s most terrifying moments has some disturbing implications by today’s standards, an evil coachman enlists the help of a fox and a cat known as Honest John and Gideon to lure wayward young boys to a theme park named Pleasure Island. His plan is to turn the boys into donkey’s in order to sell them and is also physically and verbally abusive towards them. Its difficult not to allude to the idea of trafficking with this dark sub-plot in the film as it transports the audience into a sense of unease.
Pleasure Island entices the boys into complete anarchy as they experiment with smoking, drinking and gambling unaware of the severe consequences about to come their way. This suggests that there are no redeeming features for misbehaved children and they will suffer the ultimate punishment, an extremely negative message. The shadowy-like monsters that the coachman enlists to close the gates of the theme park trapping the boys inside is also shudder-worthy. Jiminy Cricket discovers the island’s terrible curse after walking away from Pinocchio in objection to his new found friendship with a young delinquent named Lampwick. In the horrifying scene Lampwick is drinking beer and before he knows it he is turning into a four-legged creature! The unnerving part of the scene is how it focuses on the boys hands transforming into hooves and his shadow on the wall as he cries for his mother in a haunting manner. All sorts of dark implications can be drawn from this sequence and its one that really makes me wonder if Disney went too far? Especially since the Coachman’s horrid behavior is toned down in this version in comparison to the original book.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937): The Wicked Queen’s Transformation.
Disney’s first feature length animated film has traumatized children for generations. The film balances its dark and light elements exceptionally well and leaves viewers with a handful of frightening scenes to choose from. Snow White’s encounter in the forest is up there as one of the most trauma-worthy however The Evil Queen easily steals the show as she plots to murder Snow White in order to become the Fairest of them All! The Wicked monarch is prepared to trade her youthful looks for an old disguise which is a very bold move. She creates a potion with a concoction of ingredients in order to achieve her goal. When she places the ingredient to whiten her hair a nerve-shredding shriek is heard with a distorted face on a white cloud emerging. The camera pans around creating a sense of disorientation as the Wicked Queen clutches her throat as she bids farewell to her youth.
Again, like Pinocchio there is a focus on the hands which turn withered as the Queen attempts to grasp what is happening to her. Once she reveals her transformation she cackles in delight, her eyes bulge and her nose is crooked. Even the crow is afraid of her and hides in a skull! Intense is the perfect way to describe this iconic scene, it pulls the audience into a nightmarish sequence demonstrating what lengths she will go to. The Queen is set out to murder a young, innocent girl, certainly not the things dreams are made of! Disney knew they had a creeptastic villainess on their hands and capitalized on it further with the Disneyland ride “Snow White’s Scary Adventures”. Not for the fainthearted, I had no idea what I let myself in for as an impressionable seven year old visiting the theme park for the first time. It’s definitely the Evil Queen’s adventure as she pops out when you least expect it. It goes to show that the villain characters have far more interesting aspects to them.
Sleeping Beauty (1959): Aurora’s Trance
Sleeping Beauty is one of Disney’s most darkly beautiful films. It carries a sinister tone throughout and that’s down to the strong screen presence of its iconic villainess Maleficent. Arguably one of the best Disney Villains ever created, Maleficent is powerful and downright evil. Many would say the sequence where she transforms into a fire breathing dragon is Sleeping Beauty’s most darkest scene, however the moment that gave me the creep factor and still does to this day is where she hypnotizes Aurora into pricking her finger on the spinning wheel.
There is something incredibly atmospheric about the scene from the music to the imagery. The scene opens with Maleficent’s glowing eyes staring directly at the viewers, it brings about a sense of intimidation. Aurora along with the audience is in a trance like state as she follows a glowing light up the staircase with no control over her own movement. The fairies do their best to rescue her from her doomed fate as they follow her, calling her name out in echoes, the glowing green light transforms into the spinning wheel and their too late, Maleficent reveals Aurora’s body sprawled out on the floor. Disney certainly accomplished one of its most creepiest moments with this scene, its effective, suspenseful and will be sure to bring about nightmares to children for years to come! There is also a similar moment in Cinderella (1950) where we are subjected to Lady Tremaine’s evil glare before we see her face. Coincidentally, Eleanor Audley was the voice actress for both Maleficent and Lady Tremaine and certainly had the villainess character down perfectly.
Thanks for reading. Please comment what you consider to be your scariest Disney moments. Look out in the New Year for part two!
Hayley Alice Roberts.