Movies and TV shows aimed at children are always a delicate mix of cutesy innocence and potentially weighty subject matter—kids might get bored of endless sunshine without any conflict, but go too dark and you risk mauling delicate sensibilities, Return to Oz-style. And kid-friendly SFF can be tricky to navigate for even the most well-meaning guardian, after all what harm could be lurking in a puppet-filled fantasy adventure? Of course, there are also the traumatic moments we inflicted upon ourselves, staying up late only to peep at the screen through our fingers. Even if you had a storybook childhood, the odds are low that you escaped without being emotionally sideswiped by an intense moment or two…
We’ve polled our extended Tor.com family, and gathered up the moments that shaped us into the warped creatures we are today.
The destruction of the Fourth Wall — The Neverending Story
Sure, you can probably blame Krull for why I’m drawn to giant spiders and obviously I wear all black because of the Skywalkers; yeah, the ear-eels from Wrath of Khan are objectively terrifying and the Wheelers are the very epitome of fear itself… but nothing tops The NeverEnding Story in terms of blunt psychic force. Most people immediately jump to the horse in the swamp, or the flickering of a wolf’s head, and I get that, but I find myself haunted by the Rock Biter’s strong hands and crumbling blue sphinxes. And underneath it all, the existential trauma of the Childlike Empress’ pleading eyes, begging to be named and saved while tearing through the Fourth Wall again and again.
—Mordicai Knode, Marketing Manager at Tordotcom Publishing
There is a moment in The Neverending Story (which I think I’ve written about before? But I’ll always be writing about this moment, so, whatever) when the Childlike Empress tells Atreyu that a boy named Bastian has been watching his adventures. I remember the thrill that shot through me in that moment, as I understood that the Childlike Empress knew about Bastian, and that she was going to bring these two worlds together. Bastian and Atreyu were going to meet! Bastian was going to escape his crappy, grief-struck life and go to Fantasia! But then the Empress continued. “As he was watching your adventures, others were watching his. They were with him in the bookstore. They were with him when he took the book.” And then a moment after that she looked straight into the camera. And my mind hopped a bit, and I realized that she was talking about ME. Me. I was watching Bastian. And if I was watching Bastian was someone watching me? Was I, in fact, a real little “girl” sitting on the floor in my house and watching this movie? Or was I just a story someone else was reading? What if they close the book????
What happens if they close the book.
—Leah Schnelbach, Senior Staff Writer at Tor.com
MONSTRO — Pinocchio
Whoever first decided Pinocchio would make a great children’s movie is someone I’d like to fight. This mother****** gave me my first nightmares at the tender age of three years old. LOOK AT IT. If that monster of the deep isn’t prime nightmare fuel, I don’t know what is.
—Emily Goldman, Short Fiction Coordinator at Tordotcom Publishing
The Ring WILL find you — Scary Movie 3
My whole generation of 12-year-olds was traumatized by The Ring, the biggest PG-13 movie to hit theaters just as we entered the gray area where our parents could be persuaded. I was not among them—a friend of mine had told me the concept, and just the idea of a mimetic death sentence kept my pre-teen weenie self far away from any screening. What got me was Scary Movie 3. I watched Scary Movie 3 for someone else’s birthday party, surrounded by peers I wished were friends. Scary Movie 3 isn’t a classic of cinema, but we were 12 and ready to laugh. I wasn’t ready for the section of the movie that parodied The Ring, and the horrific imagery from Samara’s video was no less devastating to me for being mashed together with gross-out humor and slapstick. For the rest of the movie I was a wreck.
—Carl Engle-Laird, Editor at Tordotcom Publishing
Sesame Street is here to make you think about death and get sad and stuff
There’s a Sesame Street special from the ’80s where Big Bird and pals spend a night largely unsupervised at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was definitely a cool thing I wanted to do as a kid. But in between cute songs about how delicious the paintings look and how the broken statues have a special beauty is an absolute existential nightmare: Big Bird and Snuffy come across a little boy who explains that he’s the spirit of an ancient Egyptian prince, cursed to be confined to his tomb (and now the museum where it’s located) until he can answer the riddle that will summon Osiris and let him pass into the afterlife to rejoin his family. This is awful! You are ruining my fun museum adventure with Bid Sad Thoughts about death and curses and personal responsibility! Big Bird naturally helps out, and together they manage to solve the riddle—but then Prince Sahu must pass the real test, where Osiris weighs his heart against the weight of a feather. And let me just cut to the chase here: THE KID FAILS. His heart sinks and Osiris is ready to peace out and leave the prince on earth forever until Big Bird intervenes and argues on Sahu’s behalf, reasoning that of course his heart is heavy after 4000 years alone, with no one to love him. YEAH, OSIRIS. The thing is, Osiris isn’t actually swayed—it is instead Big Bird’s act of love and friendship that lightens Sahu’s heart and allows him to pass the test. Which is great and all, but it left small-me with the distinct impression that ours is a cold and indifferent sort of universe. Thanks, Sesame Street!
—Sarah Tolf, Production Manager of Tor.com
Long live the droid revolution! — Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
When I was 6, I watched Star Wars. We’d recorded it during a two-week free sample of the sci-fi channel onto a VHS tape. It included an obscene amount of battery commercials and intros/outros with Billy Dee Williams. It was glorious. I was, naturally, transported.
A little too transported. I instantly identified with R2D2 and had a small freakout during the movie. From watery eyes, I interrogated: Why was R2 enslaved? If they wiped his memory as Uncle Owen (who small Renata thought deserved what he got) wanted, would that be the same as death? Weren’t restraining bolts just high-tech cages? How could he be bought and sold when he had feelings and goals and sentience? Why didn’t the droids rebel since they were smarter than humans and some had built in weaponry? If Luke was so great why hadn’t he freed C3PO who clearly did not want to be involved in all this mess?
My siblings glared, my sister pressed play, and I was left hiccupping in concern hoping that at least by movie 3 the heroes would have started a droid revolution.
—Renata Sweeney, Senior Marketing Manager at Tor Books
Long live the Lorge Ape revolution! — Mighty Joe Young
The beginning of this PG movie about a 15-foot, 2,000 pound gorilla consists of a double murder—of gorilla mom and primatologist mom—by poachers, in front of their respective children. If that wasn’t traumatizing enough for small Renata, Joe (the lorge gorilla boi) then chomps off the lead poacher’s thumb and pointer fingers, which sets him on a lifelong quest to avenge his inability to make finger guns.
(Then the rest of the movie is about whether or not the humans should euthanize Joe for being large and existing.)
Just say yes! — The Secret of NIHM 2: Timmy to the Rescue
My childhood movie trauma is The Secret of NIHM 2: Timmy to the Rescue, hands down, no question. Specifically, this clip gave me many incredibly vivid nightmares for a longgggg time. I was completely horrified by any scenario where someone’s will or choice was taken away from them when I was a kid, and the forced experimentation on Martin and his spiral into insanity REALLY traumatized me, to the point where watching this clip now still sends me into a bit of a tailspin. I don’t think this movie was very popular (or well received), so hopefully not many other people have experienced this particular movie trauma…but if someone else has, COMMISERATE WITH ME, PLEASE.
—Rachel Taylor, Marketing Manager at Tor Books
Ursula’s death — The Little Mermaid
I actually don’t fully remember the last couple of minutes of The Little Mermaid, despite having seen it a million times. This was the movie I asked my mother to replay over and over and over again, and I have fond memories of wrapping myself in a blanket to recreate a mermaid tail while I sang “Part of Your World” in the living room. But I was so terrified of giant Ursula that I used to hide in another room until it was over. Once Prince Eric sets out on the boat, bowsprit sharp and pointed at the sea witch’s belly, I was up off the couch with my hands over my eyes until my mother came to tell me it was over. The original fairy tale is quite different, with the sea witch less of a bad guy and more of a conduit for Ariel’s shitty decision (look, she knew what she was getting in to, she signed a contract), which works a bit better for me. As an adult, I’m thinking a lot about Ursula’s role as “the other woman” and the stories we tell about women fighting over a man, especially as she is almost definitely a Black woman and probably also a drag queen, and the way we set Ursula up as the nemesis to Ariel’s waifishness and naivete, and…. all right, I could go on forever about the implications of her being popped like a magic balloon by Mr. Hero. But that’s not the point. The point is that it’s a horrific visual and Ursula deserved better.
—Christina Orlando, Books Editor at Tor.com
The existential horror of the sea — Jaws
When I was…maybe 7?…my family and I took a vacation to Ocean City, Maryland. My dad was flipping through the channels on the hotel TV when he realized Jaws was on. An hour later, when he suggested going to the beach, there were a lot of terrified screams/refusals to swim from my brother and I.
—Amanda Melfi, Social Media at Tordotcom Publishing/Tor.com
Robert Picardo tries to eat Tom Cruise — Legend
I’ve documented my weird love of traumatic movie moments in a previous article (Artax! Ewoks! Watership Down, nooooo!), so I’ll try to keep this limited to just a couple of examples—both sudden, violent character deaths that had an intense impact on tiny, impressionable me back in the day.
First, there’s A LOT I could say about 1985’s Legend. There’s so much to love, but almost all of it is deeply weird, starting with Tim Curry as Darkness, the Magnificent Lobster-Bull(?) of Evil! Also violence against unicorns, which I did not enjoy as a tiny child, and a glittery goth makeover/interpretive dance sequence, which I absolutely did.
But let’s talk about the fate of Meg Mucklebones, who suddenly rears up out a particularly foul stretch of swamp to attack our heroes. Rejecting the “foul-tasting” fairies, she spies a tastier nugget in Jack (Tom Cruise), but he distracts her with lines like “Heavenly angels must envy your beauty”—which, ugh. (Her response, “What a fine meal you’ll make, be the rest of you as sweet as your tongue…” is some truly Hannibal-worthy repartee.) Playing on her vanity, Jack is able to dispatch Meg with his sword as she unleashes a hideous shriek and turns into a swampy nightmare-smoothie. The whole scene is nasty, brutish, and short at only about two and a half minutes long, but it’s a testament to the performance of Robert Picardo that it’s really stuck with me over the years. In just a few minutes we get a villain who is ravenous, ruthless, and vain but also sassy and surprisingly flirty, and then boom—nothing left but a slime-geyser: R.I.P. Meg Mucklebones may be a terrifying flesh-hungry, filth-covered, smack-talking predator, but she’s got personality, and part of me wouldn’t mind her taking a bite out of smirky golden boy Jack on her way out.
—Bridget McGovern, Managing Editor of Tor.com
Mommy Fortuna embraces her death — The Last Unicorn
I have loved The Last Unicorn (both book and movie) for as long as I can remember, but I’d be lying if I said that Mommy Fortuna and her violent end didn’t haunt my dreams for years. Voiced by Angela Lansbury, Mommy Fortuna is a threadbare witch dragging her “Midnight Carnival,” a collection of fabulous and mythical beasts from town to town. In reality, these attractions are simply sad, caged animals under an enchantment, with two exceptions: the Unicorn, and the Harpy, who are both very real, immortal, and desperate for freedom. With the help of Schmendrick the magician, the Unicorn escapes and frees all of her fellow creatures, including the Harpy, who immediately seeks to destroy the woman who has kept her caged for so long. Rather than running, Mommy Fortuna cackles madly, opening her arms to the Harpy’s attack from above, content in the knowledge that she’ll live on in the memory of an immortal being as the one who captured her. It’s chilling—the shrieking, and the mad laughter and then silence, as the Unicorn notes, “She chose her death long ago. It was the fate she wanted.” SO DARK. I want to give six-year-old me a hug now.
THE HAND — The Grudge
I saw The Grudge (2004, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar [a queen]) when I was 7 and I refused to shower without a parent present afterwards because of this scene, and I still think of it as one of the scariest movies even though I haven’t seen it since I was 7.
—Giselle Gonzalez, Publicity Assistant at Tor/Forge/Tor Teen/Starscape
THE HAND — Titanic
Growing up, Friday nights were sacred to me. Like most children, I resented the healthful nature of the lovingly prepared home cooked meals my mother made for us every other night—but on Fridays, my mother needed a break, and a way to occupy her two rambunctious daughters and her equally rambunctious husband—so it was dirty, delicious New York street pizza for dinner, and a selection of action movies curated by my father. Nicholas Cage and Harrison Ford were my idols, and there was no higher power in my home than James Bond. I was about 8 years old at the time Titanic came out, and my father desperately wanted to see it, so he bought a 2-VHS bootleg from a vendor outside our subway station, and brought it home for Friday movie night. Naturally, I thought this was going to be a movie about a giant boat getting into a fight with an iceberg. It was sure to be an absolutely epic buffet of kicks, punches, and high stakes world-saving. I shoved everyone’s discarded pizza crusts into my small mouth while dad fiddled with the VHS player and my mom yelled at him in French: “you’re going to scare the little one! So many people die! You can’t make her watch this!” Around a mouthful of greasy carbohydrates, hopped up on underage bravado, I said “You can’t stop me!”
My dad was inordinately pleased with me, and my mother threw her hands up in surrender and left. We started the movie. It seemed like a bit of a long set up, but that boat was ENORMOUS—I was willing to believe there would be some kind of epic showdown. Soon though, my interest in the romance between Jack and Rose started to wane—but the petty stubbornness was strong in me even at that age. I couldn’t prove my mom right. So I sat and watched. The living room was in the center of our house, and my mom would periodically walk by. Clearly, the benevolent gaze of James Bond was not upon me on this night; mom walked by just as I had my eyes covered, and was peeking at the screen through my interlaced fingers. “I TOLD YOU SHE WAS TOO YOUNG! THE POOR GIRL IS TRAUMATIZED!”
My household was not prudish about the human body, which is important to note. Dad rolled his eyes and gestured expansively at the TV screen. “She’s being ridiculous.” Mom looked at the screen and saw that Rose and Jack were locked in a sweaty, carnal embrace, in the backseat of a car. They were naked. I knew they were having sex—I just didn’t fully understand what that entailed. This was in fact the closest I’d ever come to understanding what sex was—and it terrified me, because all I could think about was…The Hand. Jack or Rose, in the throes of titanic passion, slaps a hand against the inside of the backseat car window—now fully fogged up—and drags it down the pane of glass, leaving a smeared handprint. Like in a zombie movie. In that moment, I truly thought that the “little death” was actually no different from…actual death. Of course, I absolutely never think about that anymore, and you’ll be happy to know that I grew into a normal and well-adjusted person.
—Caroline Perny, Publicity Manager at Tor Books
AAAAAHHHHHHH LEECHES!!! — Rambo: First Blood Part II
The first place I ever lived in the US was a cramped grad student apartment. My parents were new immigrants, still wide-eyed and figuring out the edges of a new country, working long hours and decompressing by watching American movies late at night. The place wasn’t big enough for me to have my own room, so I’d pretend to turn around on the couch and fall asleep while sneakily watching entirely inappropriate media. (This clearly turned out fine, and I am very normal and well-adjusted.) The first movie I ever remember seeing was Rambo, at age five. My parents dutifully worked through the sequels too, and I still have frozen in my brain a scene where Rambo is strung up in a muddy pond about to be interrogated by villains who looked very much like us (no time to unpack that one here). My mother, normally quiet and reserved, always on my case about being less of a chaotic little gremlin, just deadpanned, “the leeches will get him.” I didn’t really know what a leech was, in Chinese or English, but this focused my tiny brain into a pinpoint of dread. Get him? What was going to get him? I was also supposed to be asleep, and couldn’t ask any follow-up questions without snitching on myself, so I just laid there, curled up like a shrimp, dreaming of leeches. You see, my mother came of age during the Cultural Revolution, and she did her government-ordained time working rice paddies in the countryside, a city girl figuring what lurked in country waters. The idea—not the reality—of leeches terrified me for years growing up (even after I figured what they were), but now, sometimes I’ll look at an action hero in a summer movie—all muscles and a very specific brand of masculinity—shrug, and think, whatever, the leeches will get him.
—Ruoxi Chen, Associate Editor at Tordotcom Publishing
Child’s Play (The Whole Damn Thing)
I have been scarred by plenty of viewing experiences, some more lasting than others. An early childhood showing of Arachnaphobia? Not a great idea. The opening scene of The Nightmare Before Christmas? Terrifying in the moment, but something I was over very quickly. (There’s a story there, about how my parents assumed it was safe because I’d adored Jurassic Park, and obviously that was more scary because it was more real. Reader, I posit to you that my child brain understood full well that dinosaurs were extinct and thus nowhere in my room at night, but all the terrors that sang “This is Halloween” definitely were, so how did my parents miss that crucial difference?)
But the truly warping experience of my life came at the hands of the wrong babysitter. When I was roughly four years old, my parents would sometimes ask our next-door neighbor to look after me at night. (They were musicians, and often worked in the same band, so nighttime babysitters were essential.) This neighbor was a divorced mother with an eight-year-old daughter, who found me quite irritating for being smaller, I think. One night, the neighbor got called off to work last-minute and her ex-husband stepped in to take care of us. I’d never met the guy before, but he came with movies from Blockbuster. Before he put the tape into the VCR, I recall with perfect clarity asking him “Is it scary?” And he looked me, a four-year-old child, in the face and said “No.”
However hilarious the movie might be to a full grown adult, Child’s Play is confined to the horror section of video store because it is a horror movie—but by the time I realized that I had been lied to, it was far too late. I asked if we could stop the film, but his daughter was enjoying it, so their solution was to tell me I should go to sleep on my own. Which is not what you tell a four-year-old you’ve just traumatized. So I watched the entirety of Child’s Play at age four, and it messed me up for years. I had to sleep with closets open, I would lie awake each night convinced I was about to be murdered by an angry doll. A few years ago at NYCC, a couple dressed their toddler up as Chucky for the film’s anniversary panel, and I am entirely serious when I say that these people are lucky that I didn’t dropkick their child on reflex. Moral of the story is DO NOT DO EVER DO THIS.
—Emmet Asher-Perrin, News & Entertainment Editor at Tor.com
THAT GODDAMN CLIFF SCENE — Mac & Me
This is dumb, but the famous clip from Mac & Me was actually a traumatizing moment when I first saw the movie. (In…daycare? I want to say? They also showed us the first Batman movie. And some of the kids stole my Mickey Mouse underwear and the whole class had to apologize to me and oh god I’m r e m E M b E R I n G)
Anyway, I had a very similar high-cliffed pond in my neighborhood and watching, uh, Me, get inexorably pulled into it from a great height repeatedly plucked at that shaky twang you get in your stomach when you’re on a precipice and anything can happen.
Everything goes wrong so fast. His speed is too much. His wheel-lock breaks. He’s falling from too high. He’s drowning. No one knows where he went. A slimy puppet is stalking him. I miss my parents.
Of course, now the moment is hilarious, but it was traumatizing at the time. I never actually finished the movie until Mystery Science Theater 3000 riffed on it in its latest Netflix season and apparently I saved myself further trauma because wow is it not afraid to continually torture its characters. But time heals. And Paul Rudd helps.
The nuclear dream from Terminator 2 is still too much, though.
—Chris Lough, Director of Tor.com
We’ve shared our most traumatic moments, but how about you, gentle readers? Gather around and tell us about the movies and television moments that haunt your dreams!
Originally published in September 2020.