For those growing up in the 90s and early 00s, Disney Channel Original Movies will likely be a nostalgia source. What’s interesting, though, is the sheer amount of horror or genre films that made up the initial run of DCOM. Six out of the first ten Disney Channel Original Movies were horror or genre films with more to come after. The result of so many scary movies targeted towards children? A new generation of horror fans.
While there were movies produced for Disney Channel before Disney Channel Original Movies, the run from 1983 to 1997 was referred to as Disney Channel Premiere Films. Although they did include some spooky films like Mr. Boogedy (1986), the tone is entirely different from that of the following movies. Horror films have long been a gateway for filmmakers and production companies, and perhaps that’s why in 1997, Disney Channel Original Movies officially launched with Under Wraps (1997).
“Six out of the first ten Disney Channel Original Movies were horror or genre films […creating] A new generation of horror fans.”
Under Wraps (1997) is, fittingly, a horror movie about a horror fanatic who, along with his friends, discovers a mummy in a creepy old neighbor’s abandoned house. The group of friends must then help the mummy reunite with his sarcophagus before dawn on the day after Halloween. Needless to say, the premise is right up the alley of horror fans, and the film itself is perfect Halloween fare. When Under Wraps debuted, however, I was only four years old, and while my memory that far back is foggy, I can safely say that this is likely one of the first horror movies I have ever seen. What I do remember is camping out with my brother in the living room or on special occasions in the guest room and falling asleep to this movie.
Jumping forward a year to the Disney Channel Original Movie classic Halloweentown, we start to get more of a message with these genre films. Where Under Wraps made a statement about love leading to the protagonist’s realization that his mother would eventually have to remarry, the message is secondary to the plot. However, in Halloweentown (1998), a family of witches must come together to defeat the evil warlock who is plotting a takeover of Halloweentown. Similarly, the more sci-fi DCOM Can of Worms (1999) is about alienation (pun intended), and an outsider who puts a call out to space for aliens to take him away is suddenly faced with the consequences of his actions. He must realize that his place is on earth with his friends and even defend those who ostracized him. Even the Thirteenth Year (1999), which I personally consider body-horror, is an excellent coming of age story. However, it’s not until October of 1999 when we start to see more traditional horror elements come into play.
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The thing about Disney Channel Original Movies is that they were made specifically for kids, so the scares were never too much to handle. 1999’s Don’t Look Under the Bed, though, still managed to be pretty frightening. Aside from the brilliantly creepy tone of the film and memorable score, Don’t Look Under the Bed has perhaps the scariest villain in any of these films: The Boogeyman. The film centers around Frances Bacon McCausland, who is blamed for a rash of “pranks” around the small town of Middleburg. In reality, it is the Boogeyman who is responsible for the mischief. With the help of an imaginary friend named Larry Houdini, Frances must take down the Boogeyman before he destroys her life.
Most of the fear instead comes from the fact that the Boogeyman is mostly hidden until the finale. All the viewer gets is some glimpses of grotesque claws leaving viewers to imagine the worst, and as an audience of kids, those imaginations can be pretty vivid. Indeed once the Boogeyman is revealed, the creature is just as terrifying as anything imagined. The creature design perfectly personifies the nightmare that is a monster under your bed. If it wasn’t obvious, this is my favorite Disney Channel Original Movie, and if you haven’t seen it, I highly encourage you to check it out on Disney+.
“Aside from the brilliantly creepy tone of the film and memorable score, Don’t Look Under the Bed has perhaps the scariest villain in any of these films…”
While Disney Channel Original Movies waned in their affinity for genre films after 2000, there were still some gems such as Mom’s Got a Date With a Vampire (2000) and Phantom of the Megaplex (2000), a fantastic love letter to cinema and it features Mickey Rooney! We were also treated to several Halloweentown sequels though the quality dropped dramatically with each subsequent film. It was not until 2005 that we received another genre film through DCOM, Twitches (2005), featuring Tia and Tamera Mowry as, well, twin witches. For the 90s and 00s kids, the era of DCOM horror was over.
A simple explanation would be that the Disney Channel Original Movie program’s successful roll-out brought in enough money that low budget genre films were no longer necessary. Musicals and comedies took over for the next few years. Viewership, at least, was not too blame as it was still high (Twitches itself having 7 million viewers on premiere), so the cause may remain a mystery. Regardless, it was the end of an era.
However, with that end came a new beginning, and by 2005, the kids who grew up with Under Wraps and Can of Worms would likely be in their teens and would have graduated to “proper” horror. I still remember sleepovers with stacks of blockbuster boxes and pizza. Disney Channel would have been the furthest thing from my mind at the time. These films were, for many, a safe introduction into horror when they might not have otherwise had access. Disney Channel was available on basic cable packages, and even some of the strictest parents would have allowed some viewership. Having accessible, safe horror at such an early age certainly allowed me to join the ranks of horror fandom.
The period between 2006 and 2011 saw nary a genre film in the Disney Channel Original Movie lineup. However, in October of 2012, Girl vs. Monster (2012) premiered, bringing a glimpse of new horror to the channel. The resurgence was short-lived, though, as another horror drought would follow until 2018’s Zombies. But there may be a glimmer of hope. With a renewed interest in horror in general, we may see a new wave of DCOM genre film. Perhaps 2020’s Zombies 2 will be the start, and with it, a new generation of Disney Channel Original Movie horror fans!
“Having accessible, safe horror at such an early age certainly allowed me to join the ranks of horror fandom. “
What’s your favorite Disney Channel Original Horror Movie? Do you have any good memories of watching them? Let us know your thoughts over on Twitter, Reddit, and in the horror movie fiend club on Facebook! For more horror straight to your inbox, be sure to join the Neighbourhood Watch!