The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Found Horror: When Non-Scary Movies are Scary Nonetheless

Written by: Ron Bricker

Image Everyone has one: a movie that was not intended to be scary but leaves you with chills regardless.  Maybe it’s a movie that taps into some of your deepest childhood fears.  Or maybe it’s a movie whose premise is, when you think about it, really, really disturbing.  But the effect is the same regardless, and somehow the movie is all that much more scary because it wasn’t supposed to be.

Here are a few of the weirdest, the freakiest, the ones that inexplicably leave your heart pounding, the ones that make you go, “Eww, did they really just do that?”


Alice in Wonderland (1951)

The premise: A young girl follows a harried white rabbit into a strange world called Wonderland.

Why it’s scary: Even Disney couldn’t remove the creepiness factor from Lewis Carroll’s opium-inspired fantasy.  First, you’ve got the crazy, drunken Mad Hatter and March Hare, who celebrate their un-birthdays every day.  Then, you’ve got that disturbing caterpillar.  And of course, who could forget the Cheshire Cat and his perversely serene grin?  It all adds up to a movie that should never been made for children.

Mary Poppins (1964)

The premise: An enchanting nanny takes two British schoolchildren on magical adventures.

Why it’s scary: You’re a parent.  You decide to hire a nanny because you’ve got a high-level job in the financial sector, and unfortunately, you don’t have too much time to spend with your kids.  A woman shows up with absolutely no references and this oddly narcissistic attitude and practically hires herself.  And suddenly, your kids…change.  They start talking about tea parties on the ceiling, rooms that clean themselves, and ponies that magically pop off of the merry-go-round.  They’re even causing riots at your job.  It’s clearly drugs.  Or demonic possession.  Either way, this nanny is clearly not as perfect as she thinks she is.

The Sound of Music (1965)

The premise: A wayward nun leaves the convent to become the governess to the seven children of a stern widower at the dawn of World War II.

Why it’s scary: You’ve got nuns.  And singing.  And Nazis.  And more singing.  And children wearing ugly clothes made out of curtains.  And more singing.  There’s something very freaky about a family that sings even as they’re running away from Nazis.  Or maybe there’s just something about Julie Andrews; come to think of it, The Princess Diaries was kind of disturbing…

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971); Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

The premise: A poor young boy named Charlie wins the opportunity to tour the world’s most famous chocolate factory and meet its eccentric owner, Willy Wonka.

Why it’s scary: Gluttonous children get sucked up chocolate pipes.  Children who chew too much gum get turned into blueberries.  Children who watch too much TV are shrunken to 1/10th their size.  But what really sets these movies apart are their respective Willy Wonkas.  Gene Wilder turned Roald Dahl’s kooky, lovable character into a total sociopath, possibly even a serial killer.  Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka had that brand of creepy childishness that practically screams, “Pedophile!”  Either way, no sane parent would ever let their child tour that chocolate factory!

Footloose (1984)

The premise: A city teen moves to a small town where dancing is banned.

Why it’s scary: The lesson of Footloose may be more relevant today than it was in 1984.  A town in Middle America, in an attempt to protect its children, bans dancing and rock music, burns books, and ostracizes dissenters.  Yet the kids are more sadistic and violent than anyone who ever listened to Culture Club or (gasp!) Duran Duran.  And when city boy Ren finally does manage to organize a senior prom, everyone already knows how to dance.  It’s clearly the work of the devil.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

The premise: Indiana Jones attempts to find a sacred stone for Indian villagers and rescue their kidnapped children.

Why it’s scary: The first Indiana Jones movie had snake pits and swordfighting ninjas.  This one had human sacrifices, evil spirits, and people who drink blood.  One gruesome scene, where a man’s heart is pulled out of his chest, was enough to cause nightmares for weeks.  It’s enough to make even Indy himself think, “You know, maybe that snake pit wasn’t so bad.”

Back to the Future (1985)

The premise: A teenager travels back in time to when his parents were in high school and accidentally prevents them from meeting.  He must make sure they fall in love before he travels back to his own time.

Why it’s scary: It’s every teenage guy’s worst nightmare.  Not only does your mom have a thing for you, but she practically attacks you to get what she wants.  (And what she wants, apparently, is to get to third base with you.)  The look of horror on Marty McFly’s face when his mother starts making out with him pretty much says it all.

Short Circuit (1986)

The premise: A military robot prototype is struck by lightning and comes “alive.”

Why it’s scary: It’s Frankenstein, but with a robot.  And sure, Number 5 is totally benign and harmless, but these were supposed to be military robots.  The idea of technology turning on us has been explored in many films, so much that even a silly comedy can awaken that paranoia.  Plus, there’s Steve Guttenberg.  And if that doesn’t scare you, nothing will.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)

The premise: Accused of murder, Roger Rabbit turns to a stern private detective who was once known for helping toons.

Why it’s scary: Christopher Lloyd’s Judge Doom may be one of the frightening characters to ever grace a family film: a cold, calculating monster out to kill beloved toons.  The scene near the end of the film­­—when Doom gets up after being crushed by a steam roller, revealing himself to be a toon—is chilling.  And in spite of being animated, those red, googly eyes can get your skin crawling anytime.

Toy Story (1995)

The premise: When young Andy gets a new, flashy Buzz Lightyear doll for his birthday, his former favorite toy, Woody, becomes jealous.

Why it’s scary: Remember Teddy Ruxpin?  Talking Cabbage Patch Kids?  Furbies?  There’s just something inherently creepy about talking toys.  Remember—it’s not a very far leap from, “To infinity…and beyond!” to “Hi, I’m Chucky!  Wanna play?”


So the next time your friends make fun of you for shuddering every time Short Circuit pops up on cable, know that there’s a non-scary movie that scares them, too.  Maybe Yoda gives them nightmares.  Maybe 12 Angry Men awakens deep-seeded fears of non-air conditioned rooms.  Maybe Miracle on 34th Street brings back memories of peeing on that shopping mall Santa Claus.  And when you find your friends’ hidden terrors, just remember: the fear they will feel when they watch these movies will only last moments, but blackmail opportunities last forever.

Author: Ron Bricker

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