11 Children's Books With Genuinely Terrifying Moments That Probably Gave You Nightmares
Being a child is a frightening ordeal. You are very small, whereas most other things are very large and very difficult to understand (hence why there are so many children's books starring mice). As a child, you are also presented with all manner of strange books and movies about children (or child-like animals) such as yourself being sent into different dimensions and forced to fight various forces of evil. I mean yes, in many ways, children are much braver than adults—they take it as read that monsters are real, and yet they go about their daily lives anyway. But all of us were freaking terrified by beloved children's media all the same. Here are a few of the most horrifying moments from children's literature, for a nostalgic trip through your favorite nightmares.
To be fair, some of these kids books were written specifically to scare children (and boy did they succeed). Some of them are still very capable of scaring adults, too. But some of these books were apparently intended to be "cute" or "educational" or otherwise non-traumatizing. Whatever the intent, these are the literary moments that stayed with us all through childhood, haunting our bookshelves and the darkest corners of our dreams:
1. When that witch removes her skin in ‘The Witches’
Pretty much everything that Roald Dahl ever touched turned out to be stomach-churning nightmare-fuel. But The Witches holds a special place of honor as the most horrifying thing that Dahl ever wrote for children. Specifically, there's that first moment when a witch removes her face to reveal her true, gruesome witch visage. As far as child-friendly body horror goes, it's fairly brutal.
2. When all those toys are taken to be burned in ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’
Yeah, I know that the rabbit survives. But? All of his other toy friends are burned alive because the little boy gets scarlet fever? The book may not explicitly describe the little toys screaming as their flesh melts away, but you'd better believe that I filled in the blanks with my imagination as a little kid. The Velveteen Rabbit is basically Toy Story 3 if all the toys were killed in the incinerator, and Woody was spared by a fairy and turned into a rabbit.
3. When we meet that creepy brain in ‘A Wrinkle in Time’
Hi yes does anyone else remember the scene in A Wrinkle in Time where a small child is tortured by a disembodied brain for failing to bounce a ball correctly? Because that is the only thing I remember from that book. Don't get me wrong, it's a lovely story about love and math and family. But that fascist brain with mind control powers was creepy as hell.
4. When Kenny finds the shoe in ‘The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963’
This moment probably belongs in a different category from the rest because it's based on an actual, historical event. The Watsons Go to Birmingham follows young Kenny and his family on a fun-filled, wacky road-trip to Birmingham, Alabama... and then a church full of children is bombed by the KKK. This bombing actually happened, killing four little girls. In the book, Kenny finds what looks like his little sister's shoe in the wreckage just after the bombing, with a smokey apparition clinging to it, and it is one of the most devastating and genuinely frightening moments in all of children's literature.
5. When Coraline’s parents go missing in ‘Coraline’
All of Coraline is scary. Let's just put that out there right now. And everything that the Other Mother does is absolutely chilling. But the scariest moment in the entire book might be when Coraline returns home from her trip to the creepy mirror dimension to find that her parents are just straight up gone. As a kid, that's a far more relatable fear than having your eyes replaced by buttons.
6. When the dummy tries to kill the dog in ‘Night of the Living Dummy’
It's impossible to pick the definitive scariest moment from the Goosebumps series. R.L. Stine is excellent at terrifying children. But the ventriloquist dummy attempting to strangle the dog during the climax of Night of the Living Dummy hits a lot of key scare points for kids: 1) it's a living puppet, 2) it's something bad happening to an animal, and 3) a ventriloquist dummy tries to choke a dog to death before being crushed by a steamroller.
7. When the girl’s head falls off in ‘In a Dark Dark Room’
Alvin Schwartz is another masterful genius of kid-friendly horror. In a Dark Dark Room is full of scary stories, but there's one tale in particular that people are still upset about, and that's "The Green Ribbon." Spoiler alert: this girl always wears a green ribbon around her neck and she's super weird about it and when she finally takes it off, her head falls off. NO THANKS.
8. When Sunny is trapped in a birdcage in ‘The Bad Beginning’
There are many tragic and frightful moment in A Series of Unfortunate Events. But The Bad Beginning kicks it off with a doozy: a baby is trapped in a birdcage and suspended out a window to blackmail her 14-year-old sister into marrying an adult man. That plot twist is still very creepy and disturbing today. As a kid, though, reading about a baby being threatened with imminent death was downright scary.
9. When those rats try to eat a kitten in ‘The Roly-Poly Pudding’
OK, so it seems like I am maybe the only person on the internet who's still freaked out by Beatrix Potter's The Roly-Poly Pudding. But you guys, these rats attempt to cook and eat a little baby kitten alive! They wrap him in dough! And it's played off like the kitten deserves it for being naughty! Beatrix! No! This is terrifying! By the end of the story, lil' Tom Kitten is so traumatized by his experience that he is incapable of ever catching a rat, even as a grown up cat, and that is the worst ending to any story ever, no thank you please.
10. That graveyard scene from 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire'
The first three Harry Potter books had their fair share of scares, especially if you read them as a young child. The basilisk was freaky. Sirius Black was pretty intimidating, before he turned nice. But that graveyard scene in Goblet of Fire was when things got real. Cedric straight up died and then lil' Harry had to watch as Voldy was resurrected in a graveyard full of wizard Nazis. It's a definitive turning point for the series, and still pretty dang freaky to read.
11. Every single freaking illustration from ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’
Alvin is at it again. I mean, if I had to pick one moment from Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, his paralyzing book of terror, it would probably be when all those spiders bust out of that weird bump on that one person's face. That was no good at all. But honestly, every single illustration in this book was a beautiful nightmare back in the day. I highly recommend revisiting the original printing all these years later, because these scary stories still live up to their name.