As a child who loved the horror genre, nothing thrilled me more than when the family films that were forced into my viewing schedule also contained genuine moments of terror. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t dislike these movies, I’d have just preferred to be watching Michael Myers stalk Laurie Strode across the street for the thousandth time- so these frightening moments made normalcy easier to swallow.
Growing up, and even now as an adult, I’ve discovered numerous scenes of terror within family films that are worthy of a tribute. So, let’s take a look at some of them, shall we? Here are five of my favorite scary moments in family movies. Be sure to tell us your personal favorites in the comments below!
Tunnel Ride (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory)
Come on. You know which scene we’re talking about.
“Not a speck of light is showing, so the danger must be growing. Are the fires of Hell a-glowing? Is the grisly reaper mowing? Yes! The danger must be growing, ’cause the rowers keep on rowing, and they’re certainly not showing any sign that they are slowing!”
Overflowing with a sense of wonderment and pure cinema magic, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is one of the greatest fantasy films ever made. For every scene that tugs on your heartstrings and slaps an eternally innocent smile on your face, however, there is an equally bizarre sequence- or in this case, one that’s downright horrifying. Gene Wilder gives the performance of his iconic career as Willy Wonka, and the very absence of sanity within his eyes as he practically screams the aforementioned lyrics during the tunnel ride (All the while terrifying imagery appears on the walls around the children and accompanying adults) would be a nightmare for horror fans- not to mention children.
The Cornfield (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial)
You know what scares children more than anything? The thought of a world without chicken nuggets, chocolate milk, or noses to pick. Slightly less spooky, but still ranked relatively high, however, are aliens.
In E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, those feelings may not last throughout the runtime, as E.T. proves to be a great friend and formidable adversary when dealing with the shadiness of government institutions. Before viewers, or even Elliot, knew that, though, there was a scene worthy of the screams of children.
The scene in question comes near the beginning of the film, when Elliot curiously searches for whatever it was that tossed his ball back to him from the tool shed. While investigating, the young boy finds strange footprints in the dirt next to a cornfield, and he turns his attention towards the crops. Director Steven Spielberg masterfully builds tension in the night-time silence of the scene, and viewers are left with the rustle of leaves as something makes its way towards Elliot from within the cornfield. When the alien and boy come face-to-face, both characters let out a frightened scream- and so do the kids watching the scene.
Board Games (Jumanji)
Jumanji: the movie so nice, you reference it thrice. Unlike its mostly funny sequel, 1995’s Jumanji exudes a bit of darkness and mystery that can be frightening for children. There are several of these moments scattered throughout the film, so I couldn’t justify settling for just one.
The first moment in the film that’s worthy of a place on our list comes when Alan Parrish and Sarah Whittle initially begin their game. The pair are startled by the eerie things that begin happening after rolling the dice, but the mysteriousness of the game soon turns into a total nightmare as Alan is sucked into the jungle and Sarah is chased out of the house by a swarm of bats. Note: If you think this moment doesn’t belong, ask the six-year-old version of me who cried in a bat cave at the zoo.
The second horrifying moment comes 26 years later when Judy and Peter Shepherd begin playing the game. Peter rolls doubles, so he takes a second turn, receiving an ominous message in the center of the board immediately after. We then see and hear a tail slide across the keys of a piano, and a menacing lion appears from the shadows of the spooky attic. Fortunately, Peter also rolled an adult Alan Parrish out of the game, who manages to lock the lion in a bedroom. For that brief moment in the attic though, the kids seemed like goners.
Zorgon Food (Zathura)
Zathura, otherwise known as Space Jumanji (There’s that third reference), is an entirely underrated work of family-friendly science fiction. At the sake of being cast out of the cool club, I’d even argue that it’s better than the last film on our list. Most people haven’t seen this flick, which disappoints me nearly every day of my life, so I’ll paint the scene.
Walter and Danny, young brothers who often fight, begin playing a space-themed board game together. Once the game starts, they discover that their house is now drifting through space and that they must keep playing in order to make it back home. Along the way, their sister, who has been sleeping upstairs and is unaware that she’s in space, wakes up, and the siblings are joined by an astronaut who has been trapped inside the Zathura world for quite some time.
Also present are a terrifying alien species known as Zorgons, who feed on humans. Just FYI.
Near the end of the film, the game is taken aboard a Zorgon ship and Danny, the youngest brother, is forced to retrieve it. Director Jon Favreau builds ample tension as Danny sneaks through the ship, and though he safely exits the spacecraft with the game intact, he soon finds himself hunted by several Zorgons. It’s a terrifying situation that horror fans would love.
Snake Hypnosis (The Jungle Book)
Confirmed: Jon Favreau is sadistic and loves to scare children.
Also confirmed: I’m still afraid of snakes.
In Favreau’s 2016 update of The Jungle Book, young Mowgli becomes separated in the jungle and is lured into conversation with Kaa, an enormous python. Kaa, who is voiced with compelling mysteriousness by Scarlett Johansson, hypnotizes Mowgli and shows him a glimpse of his past in which his father died protecting him. While Mowgli envisions the past, Kaa wraps her body around him and slowly begins to constrict his torso. She opens her mouth wide, prepared to devour the boy, but is fortunately stopped by Baloo the bear just in time. Despite knowing for a fact that Mowgli would escape the situation, this moment remains haunting, and is guaranteed to scare the hell out of your child.