Fantasia, world’s scariest children’s movie
When people discuss scary movies, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory keeps coming up. It’s even on Bravo’s list of 100 Scariest Movie Moments Even though the famous boat ride scene isn’t very scary for adults, it seems to have been terribly scary for a lot of people when they were kids, and they’re very ready to talk about it as adults. My problem may partly be that I didn’t see the movie at a young enough age, but furthermore I think that the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence from Fantasia, which I did see when I was very young, is a far scarier sequence, and I don’t think it’s just my childhood self that feels that way. But even though the sequence is so potent, people don’t talk about it the way they do the sequence in Willy Wonka. I don’t know why this is, but it’s time to set the record straight and give Fantasia the attention it deserves.
My child self still feels that Fantasia is Mr. Walt Disney’s cruelest practical joke. He lures you into a false sense of security with a fun sequences involving fairies, dinosaurs, Mickey Mouse, and crocodiles dancing with hippos. Then he plunges children into the scariest 8 minutes of their young lives, and all of the comedy that came before is gone. What a terrible thing to do to the unsuspecting children!
“Night on Bald Mountain,” written by Modest Mussorgsky (who didn’t like to brag) and arranged by Leopold Stokowski via Rimsky-Korsakov, is already a frightening piece of music. To this, Disney animated a dark and terrifying devil god, it’s most horrific villain ever (whether he is the pagan god Chernobog or the Christian Satan matters little, and the film itself never specifies anyhow.) And what a conceit! When night falls, the devil awakes. His fingers transform into dark shadows that seep like liquid into the town below. He raises the souls of all the dead buried in the cemeteries below. He draws them up to his mountain top and throws them into a pit of fire. Just imagine; even in death, a man cannot escape the devil’s torture. The film gives no explanation; it never says this is only one night of the year. It could well be that every single night, the devil awakens, draws up the souls of the dead, and tortures them, and they shall be made to suffer for eternity. And when the sequence is so horrific, can the children watching really believe that they the living are safe from the devil’s grasp?
The effect of this film is profound; weeks of not being able to sleep alone, years of not being able to sleep facing a window at night for fear that that demonic face might appear in the darkness. And during the initial viewing, the child in his room is helpless to do anything. Go up to the VCR and turn it off? Impossible! That would take you closer to the devil! Who’s to say he couldn’t reach through the TV set and rip your soul from your body? Of course you don’t believe it’s possible, but the imagination is a powerful thing that can inspire real fear. I don’t remember how young I was when I got the film on VHS. But even when my class revisited the film years later, in 5th grade, when I would have been 10 or 11, the film was still potent and the fear started again.
My child self still resents being terrified so profoundly by Walt Disney, and I still have a need to talk about it, and hear other people come out and say, “Yeah, that scared me, too.” I recently posted about this on Facebook, and I got quite a bit of feedback from people who were also terrified as children. Even though I don’t experience the same abject terror as an adult, the sequence still holds up. A few moments here and there look a little dopey, but others are magnificently powerful, and the devil’s evil glare is still as cold and unforgiving as it always was. And I will forever argue that when we discuss scary moments in movies, if we are to give the acknowledgment to our inner children and list Willy Wonka, it is unforgivable to ignore Fantasia.
Side note: when I originally saw the film, I didn’t make the connection between “fantasy” and “fantasia.” I though the film was named for the devil, who was the “Phantom of Asia.”