Don't Look Under the Bed

(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)

Though not the first thing that comes to mind when you think Disney, there is a long history of horror and horror-adjacent productions in the Walt Disney Company. Many of them resulted in failed attempts at doing something new, due to parents complaining about Disney being a family-friendly company and the horror movies damaging that image.

That being said, many of these horror movies inspired millions of kids to become horror fans, due to the unique blending of the genre and Disney’s traditional family-friendly approach. While the promotional push leading to the launch of Disney+ focused heavily on the big franchises like Marvel and Star Wars, as well as their animated classics, there is a healthy offering of horror movies in the streaming service. This week, we’ll take a look at the last original horror-themed movie made by Disney: Don’t Look Under the Bed.

The Pitch

Disney initially stepped into the TV world in the ‘50s, when it entered an agreement with ABC, which would help finance Disneyland in exchange for Disney producing a TV show for the network. In time, Disney would make more shows for ABC like The Mickey Mouse Club, and later the Walt Disney Presents anthology that carried on until the early ‘60s when Disney moved its programming to NBC instead.

But by the early ‘80s, Disney began trying to create its own cable network, which resulted in The Disney Channel, which launched in 1983, where they started releasing made-for-TV films under the Disney Channel Premiere Films banner. It was under this banner, during the Disney Sunday Movie programming block that many films, including a couple already covered in this column, aired. The programming block included a variety of films, from genre movies, to comedies, to the kind of dramas that Touchstone Pictures would later be known for (actors like Bruce Greenwood, Seth Green, and Elisabeth Moss had early roles in these movies). In 1997, these films were rebranded under the Disney Channel Original Movies banner. This new banner would produce many weird and bonkers genre movies, including Don’t Look Under the Bed, which spooked parents so much they complained to Disney until they stopped airing the film. 

The Movie

If you were a kid growing up in the ‘90s, it’s very likely that Don’t Look Under the Bed embedded itself and its nightmarish visuals into your skull. The movie is set in Middleberg, a small town where a series of strange pranks has everyone on high alert. Dogs suddenly end up on the roofs of houses, alarm clocks are going off way too early, and the school’s pool gets filled with gelatin. The evidence points towards teenage Frances Bacon McCausland (Erin Chambers) being the mastermind, while Frances thinks it’s the new kid in town, Larry Houdini (Ty Hodges). She soon realizes that no one can see Larry because he’s an imaginary friend, and that the pranks are all the work of a terrifying boogeyman who really has it out for her for some reason.

Don’t Look Under the Bed is considered one of if not the scariest of the Disney Channel Original Movies, for a good reason. Kenneth Johnson, who had directed the Alien Nation TV movies and the V mini-series, helmed this movie, which became only the second Disney movie to earn a PG-rating after Halloweentown. There’s a good reason for that: the titular Boogeyman is one of the scariest villains in a Disney movie, complete with fingers that grow inhumanly long and a vampiric look that resembles a cross between Bram Stocker’s Dracula and Keith Davis’ character in Tales from the Hood.

There’s also the dark and heavy themes of the movie, which involve imaginary friends becoming boogeyman once their kids stop believing in them despite still needing them, what happens when we force ourselves to grow up, and the very real fears of disease. The fear of growing up too soon, or of supernatural horrors are not the only ones permeating the film, but the tangible and very adult fear of death is a central part of Don’t Look Under the Bed. Between the creepy atmosphere and the full-on terrifying boogeyman, you can’t be too surprised that parents were not totally rooting for this movie.

That being said, the themes are a bit surprising for a Disney film of the time. When we mature into adults and how we force ourselves to face adulthood has long been part of the Disney style, but the way the film presents it and the tone in which it presents it feels like no other Disney film.

Of course, the most physical and visually scary part of the film involves the process in which imaginary friends turn into boogeypeople. Reminiscent of An American Werewolf in London, the transformation is slow and very creepy, with fingernails growing extremely long very fast, glowing purple eyes, and sharp, pointy teeth slowly appearing where once was a kind, fun friend. Plus, the third act all takes place in an imaginary and horrifying boogey world.

Don’t Look Under the Bed also feels like a strange, almost out-of-time movie. On the one hand, it does have some outdated tropes and concepts, like the black imaginary friend that borderlines on a “magical negro” trope due to his existence being mostly to provide supernatural help to the white protagonists. But it is also a film that weirdly precedes Disney’s new trend of making all their female teenage protagonists into science-obsessed characters that only talk about investigating facts.

The Legacy

Though the film was well liked by critics and some fans, the network received complaints by parents who felt it was too dark and scary for its young target audience. It didn’t help that Disney had just gone through similar problems during the dark period that was the ‘80s, where films like The Watcher in the Woods, The Black Cauldron, Return to Oz and Something Wicked This Way Comes all became box office disappointments. The backlash caused Disney to stop airing Don’t look Under the Bed and other horror-themed movies like Tower of Terror in the Disney Channel. Indeed, neither of the movies are part of the Disney Channel Original Movie collection.

Whether coincidentally or not, after Don’t Look Under the Bed aired in 1999, Disney stopped making original horror-themed movies, with only sequels to Halloweentown, and that Haunted Mansion movie (not original) being released in the years later. That being said, things are improving, at least on the animated front, with shows like Gravity Falls and now The Owl House focusing once again on telling creepy stories with horror imagery.

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