Walt Disney was an incredible animation mastermind and the inventor of “the happiest place on Earth.” I might be among his biggest fans, but over the years, I have questioned his, and his company’s, judgment.
As children, we couldn’t wait for the next animated film to come to theaters. Sure, we know that there would probably be some scary parts to movies like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio, but we also knew that they would be balanced with lots of good humor. However, when it came to various Disney short films, that wasn’t always the case. Oftentimes, what was created on screen was meant for comedic effect but had the opposite effect on children. We trusted Disney, but sometimes his films were more a bait-and-switch, promising a fun time but scaring us half to death instead.
In 1929, Disney produced many “Silly Symphonies” with a few focusing on macabre themes. The most well-known is The Skeleton Dance, which came directly after the release of Mickey Mouse’s Steamboat Willie. According to Gary Laderman, a professor at Emory University, even theater owners were not thrilled with the abrupt change.
He told USA Today that many of them said to Walt’s brother Roy, “What’s he trying to do, ruin us? You go back and tell Walt. More mice, tell him. More mice!”
But the film was a hit, and so others were brought to the screen, including a Mickey Mouse short called The Haunted House and the wacky Hell’s Bells. As with the Skeleton Dance, all were mean to be funny.
“This entire cartoon is about feral demons with giant ears eating each other in a boiling fever landscape. How badly did the Disney brainstorming session go if ‘a bunch of Hell monsters cannibalize each other’ got put in any column higher than ‘MAYBE’?” asks a writer for Cracked.
Cyriaque Lamar of io9 also said this about the film.
“In this short, Cerberus [the big demon] looks like Goofy and a bunch of demons milk a dragon. Weird! I don’t know about you, but I find this way freakier than A Night On Bald Mountain [from Fantasia].”
???? monsterman: Hell’s Bells (1929) Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies – Pre code cartoon https://t.co/Jfl9Gsrxyu
— tomservoindrag (@eadaoin777) September 4, 2016
In 1933, Disney created The Mad Doctor, a nightmare-inducing short film. The story begins with a hooded creature kidnapping Pluto and taking him to a secret lair. Mickey follows in hopes of rescuing the pup and is horrified to learn that the mad doctor wants to cut off Pluto’s head and put it on a chicken’s body in the name of science.
“In one of the more surreal sequences of horror in the history of cartoons, the Mad Doctor hangs Pluto on a hook and cuts his shadow in half with a pair of scissors. Pluto is forced to watch as his shadow’s corpse hangs limply from the ends of a fork, as if half of his soul is now dead. It’s equal parts body horror and existential crisis,” explains Cracked.
— Some Hallows (@SomeHallows) March 4, 2016
As a child, I would watch the Halloween-themed specials on the TV show The Wonderful World of Disney, which would often show shorts like these and would almost always include Lonesome Ghosts with Mickey, Donald, and Goofy as early “ghostbusters,” the Donald Duck short Trick or Treat, Pluto’s Judgment Day (where the poor pooch goes to hell), and, of course, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I actually enjoyed Lonesome Ghosts, as it was just silly over-the-top humor, but I found the others very disturbing.
While many love Trick or Treat, I didn’t enjoy this mean-spirited cartoon. The short features Huey, Dewey, and Louie trick-or-treating and having a great time, but their fun is quickly spoiled by their Uncle Donald, who ruins their fun for his own pleasure. He dumps water on the boys and laughs at them. This activity is witnessed by a witch who helps the boys to get back at their uncle. She turns Donald’s feet blue, and they begin to have a mind of their own, making Donald do things that will hurt him that causes the boys fall back with laughter. Essentially, now the little guys are doing exactly what their uncle did to them. Revenge may be sweet, but it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. As a kid, I remember feeling bad for all of them.
???? vintagegal: Disney’s Trick or Treat (1952) https://t.co/RKR0c8WPgQ
— Sam Pumpking (@PumpkinCult) October 9, 2016
Pluto’s Judgment (1935) was horrifying to watch, especially hearing Pluto’s wails. Maybe it was because I had a pet dog; I don’t know. The premise of this film was that Pluto dreams that he is chasing a kitten that leads him to the pit of hell, where he is judged by a courtroom full of cats. The concept is humorous, but it goes too far, threatening the poor pooch to be thrown into the flames of hell for his misdeeds. Disney revisited this concept many years later at the end of Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983), where Scrooge McDuck gets thrown into an open grave by Pegleg Pete, and the flames of hell are all around him. In both films, the main characters wake up, and hell turned out to be just a bad dream.
— Wendy Loves History (@ridethepastlane) October 3, 2016
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1949) may be the ultimate bait-and-switch of any Disney cartoon. Narrated by all around nice guy Bing Crosby, the film starts out with a happy tune, and Ichabod Craine is very silly. The main villain appears to be Brom Bones, who tries to scare Craine with the story of the Headless Horseman. As it turns out, the Headless Horseman is the real villain. Now, as a kid, you were expecting to see some scary stuff, but this was pretty darn frightening, with Ichabod nowhere to be found at the ending of the story, which is probably the only time (other than Old Yeller) that Disney finished a story without a happy ending. Yes, the film was based on the Washington Irving short story, which ends the same way. However, Disney had no problem re-writing other stories to make them fit in the “Disney” mold.
Another classic bait-and-switch appears in 1968’s Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day. This was one of my favorite and least favorite Pooh cartoons at the time. On the plus side, it introduced Tigger, one of the best Disney characters of all time. On the downside, we see Pooh’s nightmare of Heffalumps and Woozles wanting to steal his honey.
Apparently wanting to scare another generation of children, Disney brought Mickey Mouse back to the big screen for the cartoon short Runaway Brain in 1995. The cartoon begins with familiar tropes of Mickey forgetting the anniversary of his and Minnie’s first date and inadvertently promises to take her on a trip to Hawaii. Strapped for cash, Mickey applies for a research job for Dr. Frankenollie (named after classic Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston), where the good doctor wants to transplant Mickey’s brain inside a huge version of Pegleg Pete and vice versa. The experiment goes well, and children everywhere are scared of Mickey for the first time as he becomes a ravenous creature bent on finding Minnie and keeping her as his own. Although the film has its fans and it was nominated for an Oscar, many were turned off by the macabre nature of the story.
Happy Belated 21st Anniversary to the 1995 Mickey Mouse Short “Runaway Brain”! pic.twitter.com/APvSAo824M
— Caleb Ahlersmeyer (@CalebAhlersmeye) August 14, 2016
So what do you think? Which Disney cartoon freaked you out as a kid?
[Featured Image by AP Images]