The most memorable and impactful stop-motion moments from our childhood were all the really freaky ones. Perhaps it’s because the medium lends itself so readily to creepiness; there’s a lot of charm to Aardman’s Claymation figurines or Lego-mation YouTube clips, but the ways stop-motion can make characters contort and bend, the way every pose and movement is meticulously provoked by human hands, and the way faces are pulled into strange expressions results in an oddly tangible sense of unease. Even imagining the animator locked away in a dark room manipulating their little puppets, building a domain of their own design, can be a little unsettling. More than other animation styles, stop-motion constantly reminds us of the unseen puppeteer controlling everything we see.
With Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion rendition of Pinocchio hitting Netflix, a whole wave of children are about to learn the hard lesson we all received as kids: Animation can be scary. Del Toro and Mark Gustafson’s film feels like an amalgamation of Hollywood stop-motion storytelling, and all the weird, adult horror shorts animators have experimented with for decades.
Here’s a breakdown of the 10 scariest moments in stop-motion:
10. Mad Hatter Scene, Jan Švankmajer’s Alice (1988)
I don’t know if any of you knew this, but it turns out Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland can be interpreted in twisted, surreal ways. Once you’ve recovered from that cultural bombshell, take a look at legendary Czech animator Jan Švankmajer’s masterful adaptation, where young Alice explores Wonderland from the confines of a labyrinthine array of cramped rooms, led ever onwards by an intense white rabbit. The sock with human teeth masquerading as The Caterpillar is some potent nightmare fuel, but it’s the delirium of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party that takes the cake as the creepiest segment. Here, overbearing sound effects and intense close-ups highlight how strange our party guests look and move. The repeated sewing of the March Hare’s eye and the buzzing jerkiness of the characters’ movements in particular are utter delights.
9. The Sandman Ascends, The Sandman (1991)
This Oscar-nominated short is based on the European version of the fairytale (meaning it’s a lot more messed-up), and is a brilliant exercise in character design and movement. A young boy’s fears of a monster he thinks he caught a glimpse of are brought to life by a crooked, spindly but strangely graceful rendition of the Sandman, who creeps delicately up stairs and slinks in darkness, hellbent on taking the boy’s eyes. With a haunting score and expressionist visuals, animator Paul Berry captures a profoundly childlike sense of dread, with not even the boy’s mother able to stop what he fears most.
8. The Assassin Descends, Mad God
Some of the scariest moments in Mad God, the Odyssean voyage into abject horror created over decades by SFX pioneer Phil Tippett, are not captured in stop-motion. A nurse reluctantly handing a baby over to a looming plague doctor, a studio laugh-track playing over silent-era footage of grisly experiments; a vast range of filmmaking techniques bringing Tippett’s mutated and malformed world to life. But often, Tippett takes advantage of the uncanny, jerky qualities of stop-motion to unsettle his audience, illustrated early in the film by the gas-masked Assassin’s descent into subterranean chaos. We get snapshot glances of things left unobserved and disregarded: A wailing hairy monkey reaching for help on an operating table; a high council of electric chairs delivering or extracting shocks to or from faceless beings; a small, hollow metal child in a filthy corner. Even mundane sightings, like a reptile swimming in a tank, feel creepy.
7. “Going Down,” Aardman’s Stage Fright
Before Wallace and Gromit and Creature Comforts, British animation giant Aardman tried their hand at off-the-wall horror shorts, combining broad British comedy with darker impulses. But this Gothic short set in a vaudeville theater at the dawn of silent film made a lasting impression despite its obscurity—not least because it was included on the Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit DVD for unsuspecting children (like me) to be traumatized by. In it, a timid performer of dog tricks named Tiny is bullied by a brutish silent film star, but when the actor throws Tiny in the theater’s orchestra pit and turns to attack his co-stars (an actress and trained dogs), the theater curtain falls, killing him. At this point, a ghostly organ player arises, pulling Tiny to safety and summoning the ghost of the actor to his organ. The snarled, ghostly face of the organ player raises his hands and utters two words in the most booming, menacing voice—and children across Britain watched in horror as the actor descended forever into the black void.
6. Taffy Monster, Coraline
Traumatizing ‘90s kids wasn’t enough for stop-motion champion Henry Selick—next, he came for Gen Z. Coraline—LAIKA’s debut feature and easily the best Neil Gaiman adaptation—delicately sets up all of the strange but inoffensive oddities of its child protagonist’s world before we delve into the dark, inverted Other World, where everyone has button eyes and evil intentions. Of all the warped versions Coraline meets, the Other Spink and Forcible are the scariest—two performers who burst out of a cocoon, entirely pink and green in color, wrapped around each other like some human-candy hybrid. Their shrieking voices and stretched arms, on top of the monstrous way they drag themselves across the floor, make for a hellish sight.
5. Corpses Melting, The Evil Dead
The Evil Dead can be called a lot of things, but realistic is not one of them. That’s why, after a cavalcade of explosive demonic happenings (all resembling charming and ludicrous practical effects), Sam Raimi and Tom Sullivan decided to push suspension of disbelief further in the climax by using stop-motion. When Ash throws the Necronomicon into an open fire, the haunted, bloody corpses of his friends freeze still—before their prosthetic faces and limbs peel off, fall inwards, and rot away at ~22 FPS. Even in defeat, Evil Dead hags will remain stubbornly gruesome and genuinely unsettling, and although it’s used in a minor way here, Evil Dead proves that the distinctive look of stop-motion is perfectly suited to a variety of live-action horror.
4. “T is for Toilet,” The ABCs of Death
Someone needs to sit Lee Hardcastle down and have a good, long chat with him. The English horror animator went big with his Pingu and Frozen Claymation covers of The Thing, but his most unsettling short was discovered in a competition to feature in the horror anthology The ABCs of Death. Vile monsters prey on childhood bathroom phobias, all explored in thick regional English voices. It’s viscerally unpleasant, pulling horror from fantastical and realistic roots, and the aesthetics of the finger-marked, Play-Doh looking clay makes the gushing blood, burning flesh and guttural screams hit even harder. Hardcastle, you’ve done it* again!
*Made something that makes your audience worry about you.
3. The Mysterious Stranger, The Adventures of Mark Twain
You can thank the internet for this scene’s notoriety: It’s the first video that comes up when you type “scary stop motion” into YouTube. (I promise my research was a lot more extensive than that). This ‘80s Claymation film pairs fictional Twain characters (Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, Becky Thatcher) with the writer himself in an airship adventure to meet Halley’s Comet. Along the way, he introduces them to Satan, which sounds on-point for how Twain would deal with the company of bratty kids. Satan (also introduced as an angel and the Mysterious Stranger) is a floating suit of armor holding up a theater mask that shifts with his speech and mood. Director Will Vinton and his small animating team did an incredible job on Satan’s features; it morphs with such incredible, creepy detail that fully takes advantage of the malleability of its clay material. Combined with the melting tones of voice actors Wilbur Vincent and Michele Mariana (their voices were combined), being stuck on Satan’s floating island in a blank void is bound to unsettle any reasonable person—animated child or otherwise.
2. Baby Tailors, Street of Crocodiles
The work of the Brothers Quay often features on critics and filmmakers’ “best films you’ve never seen” lists, and watching just one of their macabre and bewitching shorts is enough to convince you they’re right. Their most iconic work, Street of Crocodiles, shares Mad God’s “we should not have come here” energy, as a puppet freed from his strings delves deep into a meticulous and decaying machinery, his curiosity eventually rewarded with unease and disillusionment. There’s a lot of achingly creepy stuff in here—rusted screws unscrewing themselves, a string pulling back and forth from an imposing blackness—but nothing matches the tailor sequence, where a puppet with a baby doll head stalks and charges at our voyager, revealing its concave skulls, and completely reshaping his appearance. A slab of meat is stitched onto a map of Poland, eyes and mouth are stuffed—the gentle, curious way the Quay Brothers construct this horrific sequence imbues it with a subtle beauty.
1. The Entirety of The Man in the Lower Left-Hand Corner of the Photograph
If Lee Hardcastle graduated from the school of “Is This Artist Okay?” then Robert Morgan was his teacher. This lengthily-titled horror short shows the putrid life of a frail, lonely and decaying old man (and his pet maggot) who voyeuristically spies on the woman next door. What happens next… It’s bleak. It’s horrific. It’s sort of incredible. More than other entries on this list, Morgan’s short feels like we’ve uncovered something we really shouldn’t have, so vulnerable and intimate are the bleeding hearts and human pains on display. It feels like the short was made in the same environment the titular man lives in, the figurines delicately poked and prodded against their will until they’ve faced all the new horrors they must now live with. It sucks you in, it repulses you—Morgan’s short is a mastery of stop-motion horror.
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.