Yeah, That’s Kind of a Horror Movie: Kids’ Edition

'The Dark Crystal' and 'The Secret of NIMH'

Yeah, That’s Kind of a Horror Movie is a recurring article that examines films from other genres that venture into horror territory, while pointing out the underlying influence horror has on the entirety of cinema. This series is the brainchild of Evan A. Baker, but this chapter was written by fellow Blood-Shed staff writer, Josh Millican.

In 1992, horror novelists John Skipp and Craig Spector wrote an article called “Death’s Rich Pageantry, or Skipp and Spector’s Handy-Dandy Splatterpunk Guide to the Horrors of Non-horror Film,” published in the book, Cut! Horror Writers on Horror Film. In it, they put forth the hypothesis that “Horror is the engine that powers every movie you ever loved.” Essentially, their point is about the oddity of horror even being classified as a genre in and of itself (horror being an emotion, and not a set of particular trappings or narrative devices); they argue that, while only those narratives which put their worst-case-scenarios front-and-center are widely classified as “horror,” all drama is about conflict, and relies on the possibility of some dark, horrifying outcome. Their primary example is Amadeus, but they list hundreds of other movies from a variety of genres that are, at heart, driven by horrific suggestions and inclinations.

In this series of articles, we rely on Skipp and Spector’s premise, and look at the ways that a number of films from other genres can be viewed in terms of horror.

Previous in this series:

Fight Club

Blood Simple

The Dark Knight


scared-kidsYou only need a speck of common sense to agree that R-rated horror movies are not for kids; horror, like depictions of realistic violence and pornography, is for grown-ups. And while most horror fans first develop a love of the genre as teenagers, there’s no denying that these films can be disturbing and upsetting to children below a certain age.

Pre-tweens these days can get their first taste of horror in films that are made specifically for kids. I’m talking about recent movies like Frankenweenie, ParaNorman, and Coraline; these film take elements from horror movies and sanitize all the terror out of them. Kids in the 80’s first wrapped their fragile minds around ghosts and monsters by watching their Scooby-Doo cartoons. This kind of entertainment employees frightening concepts without emoting any real measurable dread or anxiety; these films also introduce concepts like death and the afterlife in ways that are easy for kids to swallow. But no matter how horrible certain characters or themes may be, kids movies are exactly that: Movies for Kids.

So we agree that movies for kids and horror movies are completely separate entities, and never the two shall meet, right? Like everything in life, there’s always an exception to the rule. Whether by misidentification or subversive design, there are indeed examples of films marketed to kids that could easily be included in any horror movie collection—and they come can come from the most unlikely of places.


The Dark Crystal (1982)

Directors: Jim Henson, Frank Oz

Writers: David Odell (screenplay), Jim Henson (story)

Stars: Jim Henson, Kathryn Mullen, Frank Oz |






The name Jim Henson is synonymous with Muppets; Kermit, Miss Piggy, and crew epitomize wholesome yet intelligent entertainment for kids. For decades, Henson and fellow producer Frank Oz created exiting adventures with scripts that were always witty and genuinely funny, and their legacy continues to this day. It’s no wonder that the Muppets have always appealed to children and their parents alike.

But just because a film is helmed by Henson and Oz, populated with strikingly diverse puppets and marketed to children, does not automatically make it a kids’ movie. Case in point, the beautiful and melancholy anomaly: The Dark Crystal. While there’s no denying that this movie was (and is) loved by children, you only need to scratch the surface to reveal a terrifying nightmare world teeming with horrors.

While common in horror, genocide and subjugation aren’t topics normally tackled in kids’ movies—and yet these concepts are at the core of The Dark Crystal. The film describes the near complete slaughter of an entire species: The peaceful Gelfling. Another group of peaceful creatures, the Podlings, are routinely kidnapped in groups, forced into lives of abject servitude. They undergo a process of indoctrination that literally drains their life force, leaving them warped and stupefied; Podling slaves resemble, in no small way, the zombies of George Romero.

The Skeksis are the evil overlords of The Dark Crystal and, while puppets, are truly twisted and terrifying creations: A fascinating yet disturbing blend of avian and reptilian features, they are clawed and hunch-backed, sporting permanent scowls. They’re the architects of the Gelfling genocide and masters of the enslaved Podlings; a violent and hedonistic race obsessed with power and eternal life.







Their counter-parts, the gentle Mystics, are nowhere near as hideous, yet somehow still unsettling in their own right. The narrator describes them as “numb”, practicing rituals they no longer remember the significance of. They move and speak slowly and, even though they live in close quarters, hardly seem to notice one another. When a member of the tribe dies, the community hardly bats an eyelash: Apathy personified. To me, this sounds like a society of drug addicts.

Kira, the female protagonist of The Dark Crystal is murdered. Murdered! And while death has been tackled in kids’ films since before Bambi, this is a particularly cruel and up-close murder; she’s literally stabbed in the back by one of the Skeksis. I dare you to name another movie marketed to kids where a main protagonist is stabbed to death.

To be clear, I do not believe that there was any sinister plot behind the production and distribution of The Dark Crystal; no one set out to deceive kids and parents in order to subject them to inappropriate or disturbing concepts. And while calling it a kid’s movie may not be quite accurate, it is still a film that kids can absorb without risk of permanent damage. Ultimately, The Dark Crystal is a cautionary tale, one that introduces kids to some lofty philosophical concepts and bleak realities without sending them into therapy. And, who knows, The Dark Crystal may have been an unintentional horror-primer, one that inspired a new generation of horror fans.



The Secret of NIMH (1982)

Director: Don Bluth

Writers: Robert C. O’Brien (novel), Don Bluth (story), 3 more credits »

Stars: Elizabeth Hartman, Derek Jacobi, Dom DeLuise |






The Secret of NIMH was released at a time when Disney ruled animated cinema, which may have lead audiences to believe that this cartoon about rats would be a typical Mickey Mouse experience. Far from it. It’s a highly nuanced story about medical experimentation, race relations, and Machiavellian power struggles. NIMH stands for the “National Institute for Mental Health”, and their covert experimentations hint at an agenda involving mass manipulation through mind control.

Nicodemus, the leader of the rats, is one of the scariest looking “good-guys” you’re likely to meet in a movie. His glowing eyes, claws, and Rasputin-esque beard seem more fitting to some cruel host of the Underworld. And while his visage may be disturbing to sensitive younger viewers, he does more than merely inspire unease, he teaches a valuable lesson. Like Olgra, the female wizard in The Dark Crystal, Nicodemus proves that ugliness is not synonymous with evil.







The flashback scenes involving the rodents’ imprisonment in the laboratories of NIMH are truly horrifying. They cry in agony when their bellies are pierced with huge syringes. The transformation that follows is depicted as torturously painful. And while their eventual escape is triumphant, the majority of the mice are sucked into the facility’s ventilation system, screaming as they fly into oblivion.

A subplot in The Secret of NIHM involves a power struggle and a murder plot. The climax of the film puts Mrs. Brisby’s children in mortal danger as they nearly drowned in mud. The one-eyed cat that stalks the fields, Dragon, is a formidable and violent wild-card. The wise and carnivorous Owl is as frightening as Nicodemus. These situations, characters, themes, and concepts are standard in horror movies, but almost never featured in movies marketed to children.



While it may merely be coincidental that both The Dark Crystal and The Secret of NIHM were released in 1982, I find it telling nonetheless. Filmmakers of the early 1980’s all came of age during the height of the Cold War, a time when kids were being introduced to terrifying concepts like nuclear annihilation. Suddenly, simply being young and innocent couldn’t guarantee longevity or even happiness. Our entire culture experienced a psychological shift that made what were considered purely “Adult” themes everybody’s business. While childhood is rarely, if ever, a Norman Rockwell experience, The Dark Crystal and The Secret of NIHM reflected the darker realities of the 1980’s. And while these films may have introduced important (if unsettling) concepts, they may have also inadvertently created legions of horror fans, drawing us in at an extremely early age.

What other kids’ movies do you believe are actually horror movies in disguise? Sound off in the comments!

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2 Comments on this post.

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  • Evan A. Baker
    5 December 2014 at 6:46 pm - Reply

    Nice work, Josh! I totally agree with you about both movies, and your interpretation of the Mystics is something that had never occurred to me! And, as someone who saw both of these movies as a kid (and still loves them to this day), I’m sure they had an impact on the way my tastes developed.

    Your point at the end about the cultural moment that produced this dark take on children’s entertainment is very interesting. Bluth and Henson were both part of the Silent Generation (born just under a year a part – thanks, Wikipedia!), which is an interesting group, in some ways less culturally homogeneous than either the Greatest Generation of the Baby Boomers, and more objective about the political and cultural war being fought between the people a little older than them and the people a little younger than them. Henson had an amazing talent for taking taking counterculture ideas and packaging them in ways that mainstream, even conservative audiences could accept.

  • Josh Millican
    5 December 2014 at 7:14 pm - Reply

    You’re right about Henson, his ability to take cutting edge, even counter-cultural ideas, and make them seem innocuous behind Muppet faces. What a genius! I miss him.