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8 Seemingly Innocent Animated Films that Turned Us into Horror Fans

The surprising gateways to horror fandom. 

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  • Photo Credit: Disney

It’s inevitable. 

At some point or another, people ask die-hard horror fans THE question. Sun-lit pool parties, smoky bars, classrooms washed in ghastly florescence—no venue keeps us safe from the interrogative judgment laced within the query. And it’s never asked with open curiosity—the words are always slanted by a curled lip or a squinted eye: “Horror?” they sneer. “How could anyone like horror?”

While some might arrive at horror fandom through trauma or rebellion or just plain curiosity, many of us were primed to become horror fans by the seemingly innocent animated films of our childhoods. Modern mouse-house movies are largely bright, uplifting, and tackle social and personal issues with shiny characters whose strengths far outshine their flaws. This was not always the case, however. For one or two magical decades, films seemingly made for children created appetites for what lurks in the dark and the havoc shadows can wreak.

Here are eight at-first-glance innocuous animated films that created a generation of ravenous horror fans.

Related: 13 Spine-Chilling Animated Horror Movies

The Black Cauldron - PG

The Black Cauldron
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  • Photo Credit: Disney

Demons coming to life and trying to defeat the world with a zombie army? Yep, sounds like there’s some horror here. 

At the core of this dark tale is The Black Cauldron, a magical vessel imbued with the demonic spirit of an ancient and malicious king—and the power to raise and control an army of the dead. The tone and atmosphere of the entire film pay homage to gothic predecessors like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Curse of the Werewolf, and that alone would be enough to pave the way to horror fandom. Moreover, neutralizing cursed objects and defeating demons and undead armies at the expense of great personal sacrifice leads children straight through the entire Harry Potter franchise to films like The Conjuring and Evil Dead 2: Army of Darkness.

Related: 15 Zombie Books to Satisfy Your Hunger for Horror

Watership Down - PG

Watership Down
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  • Photo Credit: Nepenthe Productions

Apocalyptic visions of fields flooding with blood? Check. Gushing wounds and frothing mouths in near-rabid battles with evil incarnate? Check. Piles of bodies blocking escape routes in poison gas attacks? Check. Corpses with gaping wounds and splattering blood being flung across the screen? Check. Animated film about migrating rabbits with a family-friendly PG rating? Wait, what? 

Watership Down might seem idyllic at times, but its graphic violence and life-and-death stakes—“All the world will be your enemy. If they catch you, they will kill you”—prepare viewers for a future of slashers and gore-fests. Our rabbits escape a gruesome fate foreseen in a vision but spend the rest of the film dodging various other ways to die, including snares, vicious dogs and cats, and the power-mad leader of a malicious cult of rabbits. Those of us lucky enough to have seen Watership Down as kids were well-prepared for the Final Destination franchise and its numerous and creative kills, as well as films like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and its hallway flood of blood.

Related: 8 Scary Animated Movies That Freak Us Out as Adults

The Secret of NIMH - G

The Secret of NIMH
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  • Photo Credit: United Artists

When her youngest son takes ill and needs more than she can offer, Mrs. Brisby knows where to go: The rats in the rosebush. Their supernatural secrets and stolen technology arose from scientific experiments on their brains from which they escaped, and they’ve created a highly-organized society in and under the thorny brambles of the bush. While this film does have a happy ending, its dark scenes feature mice killed in escape attempts, rats dueling to the death with swords and throwing knives, and a near-drowning prevented only by the magic of an amulet that severely burns its wielder. Experiments manipulating subjects and altering brain and body function, and the horror that ensues, paved the way for films like Cube, Ex Machina, The Fly, and the entire Saw franchise.

Little Nemo’s Adventures in Slumberland - G

Little Nemo's Adventures in Slumberland
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  • Photo Credit: Toho Co., Ltd

Once the events and characters Nemo first meets in his dreams start showing up in his waking life, Adventures in Slumberland takes a surreal and dark turn into horror territory. 

Nemo's adversary, the Nightmare, is a massive and malicious creature of smoke and shadow bent on stealing the magical Royal Scepter and presumably taking over the world. Definitely nightmare fuel, and the kind of thing that could scare kids away from sleeping entirely. Or, if those kids are us, the kind of thing that launches us into more horrific fun in dreamland. Nightmare on Elm Street, anyone? Little Nemo also prepared us for films like Cell, Jacob’s Ladder, and of course, Donnie Darko.

Brave Little Toaster - G

Brave Little Toaster
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  • Photo Credit: Disney

Brave Little Toaster is at first glance a harmless movie about a set of household appliances that miss their kid, a la Toy Story, and set out from their remote cabin to find him. Of course, as we might predict as adults, the kid is now grown and offers a solid nod to Romeo and Juliet when he arrives at the cabin and finds the appliances have gone. 

A grand adventure ensues—and becomes far less vanilla when the appliances stumble into a junkyard full of singing cars lamenting their current total lack of value despite once upon a time having been useful and cared about by someone. And as each car finishes expressing their existential dread and planting seeds of codependency in young viewers, a junkyard crusher pulverizes them into tiny cubes. They go from singing, sympathetic characters to crushed and dead faster than their lyrics can end in rudimentary rhymes. The total helplessness and unavoidable grisly ends of the cars acclimate young viewers to future encounters with films like Drag Me to Hell and The Human Centipede, but more broadly to the depiction of overwhelming odds and horrific consequences so central to good horror.

Plague Dogs – PG-13

Plague Dogs
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  • Photo Credit: United Artists

An animated film about dogs escaping from captivity and forging a new life might not raise alarm bells, but Plague Dogs carries a PG-13 rating and might deserve a step above even that. The film opens with a scene depicting Rowf, one of the protagonists, treading water until he’s simply out of strength and sinks lifeless to the bottom of a pool—while human scientists take note of how long he was able to last. They do save him, but our next image is of a dead dog being removed from a kennel. And, during their initial escape, our two heroes trap themselves in the kennel’s incinerator with the corpse of that dead dog. Any children still watching at that point are probably already horror fans, and the film’s sharp violin audio cues only drive that fandom deeper. 

Life and death gambles and escalating pressure prepare fans for Truth or Dare and Ready or Not, which would be enough to call this film a horrific inspiration. The monumentally bleak ending, though, is a quick gateway to Sinister and Hereditary.

The Last Unicorn - G

The Last Unicorn
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  • Photo Credit: Rankin/Bass Productions

While undeniably beautifully animated and richly scored with music rivaled only by Legend for its cliché-creating sentimentality, The Last Unicorn’s central conflict is a specific kind of existential horror: the unicorn is alone, the last of her kind. Her brethren have all been herded away by the evil Red Bull and the villainous King Haggard, who intend to destroy them all. 

The film is rife with odd creatures and nightmare-inducing monsters and pairing those monsters with the constant pressure of being unrelentingly hunted brings films like Pan’s Labyrinth, A Quiet Place, and It Follows to mind. However, the film’s undercurrent of threatened autonomy and identity lead directly to those same ideas as portrayed in Fresh and Get Out. The Last Unicorn is scary and smart and cuts a path for kids directly to the best of psychological and social horror.

Spirited Away - PG

Spirited Away
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  • Photo Credit: Studio Ghibli

Had I seen Spirited Away when I was a child, I may never have gone to a theme park ever again. Gorgeous and imaginative, the film has earned a well-deserved reputation for emotional complexity and even introduces children to important themes like environmentalism and toxic consumerism. But, at its core, it’s the most effective horror primer on this list. There’s a transgression, a warning, a portal to violence and monsters, great personal sacrifice, and plenty of visceral gore

Chihiro’s discovery of her parents’ fates is particularly chilling, because not only are her parents in danger of becoming arguably the most delicious food there is but they’re surrounded by other pigs who presumably began their lives as humans. So, so many pigs. That kind of existential dread is enough to turn any bright-eyed kid into a lover of what lurks in the dark and any movie that dares wander those shadows.

Featured image from "The Black Cauldron" via Disney.