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Winnie the Pooh and the Grinch are ruthless killers. Peter Pan is breaking into your bedroom at night. Bambi is a monster craving revenge. The beloved comfort characters from your childhood are now in the public domain, and some people can’t wait to turn them into killers.
Nearly a century after Mickey Mouse first appeared in the 1928 short film Steamboat Willie, the iconic Disney character entered the public domain on Jan. 1. This means creators can copy, share and build upon the original Mickey Mouse featured in the American animated short film now that Disney’s copyright has expired.
It’s no surprise then that a trailer for a horror-comedy called Mickey’s Mouse Trap was released on the same day that the copyright protection for Steamboat Willie Mickey Mouse expired. It’s not the only creepy mouse movie in the works either.
Variety reported that director Steven LaMorte, known for the Grinch-inspired horror flick The Mean One, is set to direct an untitled horror-comedy based on Mickey’s cartoon debut, in which a sadistic mouse will torment a group of unsuspecting ferry passengers. The film is expected to begin production this spring.
What’s behind this trend?
Throughout history, stories for children have frequently interwoven dark elements into their wholesome veneers. Consider authors like Roald Dahl and Lewis Carroll, or tales by the Brothers Grimm like Hansel and Gretel, in which a witch plans to fatten Hansel up, shove him in an oven and eat him for dinner. In several beloved Disney films, there have been plenty of haunting moments, whether it’s Bambi’s mother being killed by a hunter or Dumbo hallucinating pink elephants.
Children’s characters have commonly been the focal point of horror films. Silent Night, Deadly Night, which was released in 1984, depicted Santa Claus as a killer. 1996 saw the release of Pinocchio’s Revenge, a psychological slasher film in which the classic puppet wielded a knife. The Mean One, which was directed by LaMorte and released in 2022, was a horror retelling of Dr. Seuss’s 1957 children’s book How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
The horror flick Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey made waves in 2023. In the film, directed by Rhys Frake-Waterfield, Pooh and Piglet go feral and stalk a group of female college students who have rented a nearby cabin. Its characters were based on A.A. Milne’s 1926 Winnie-the-Pooh novel, which entered the public domain in 2022. However, that’s about as much of the Hundred Acre Wood viewers will recognize.
Why are children’s stories ripe for horror films?
“If you think about it, some of the great children’s stories that have sort of stuck in the public consciousness for a very long time all have moments that are genuinely horrific,” Adam Lowenstein, a professor of film studies at the University of Pittsburgh, told Yahoo Entertainment. “I think the bigger picture is actually about the relationship between comfort and horror through childhood. Childhood is always some mixture of those two things: of being afraid and of conquering fear. I think this phenomenon is definitely plugging into that dynamic.”
Jennifer Jenkins, a law professor and the director of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke Law School, said that it’s the captivating nature of these children’s characters being immersed in the unlikely horror movie genre that draws the attention of the public.
“I think these kinds of remakes are buzzworthy in the short term because of the incongruity with the originals,” Jenkins told Yahoo Entertainment. “But in the long term, what really matters is the public domain reuses that stand the test of time and retain cultural resonance.”
She pointed out that some children’s characters that have been in the public domain for some time, including Alice in Wonderland, Snow White, Cinderella and Pinocchio, have been subject to several new iterations of their film that have nothing to do with being scary.
“What are the remakes that come to mind? Not horror films but the beloved movies by Disney and others,” Jenkins said.
Turning a ‘little cute bear’ into a ‘6-foot monster’
For filmmakers, the urge to twist these cozy characters comes from a variety of motivations, ranging from a wholehearted love of the horror genre to a desire to shake things up.
Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey director Frake-Waterfield told Yahoo Entertainment that the expansion of indelible characters into the public domain democratizes their usage and puts the control back into the hands of the audience members.
“You’ll notice there’s a lot of like repetition in horror, and it can get a bit stale and a bit boring. It doesn’t really excite me anymore when I see a paranormal film about the exorcism of Girl A or the exorcism of Girl B. There’s kind of a cookie-cutter approach to them,” he explained.
Frake-Waterfield, who is currently working on a sequel to Blood and Honey, as well as frightful spins on Bambi and Peter Pan, said his movies are an attempt to create a unique interpretation that turns the horror genre on its head. With characters that everyone’s familiar with, like Winnie the Pooh, a low-budget indie film can score the attention that’s needed in order to be shown to a wider audience.
“Instead of [Pooh] being this little cute bear that runs around, we make this 6-foot monster stabbing people in the eyes,” said Frake-Waterfield. “I think it injects a new element into horror. People are excited by it, and they do want to see it.”
Lowenstein said the “strong power for recognition that these characters carry” is one of the greatest tools in the pockets of creators. By tapping into the audience’s strong memories, filmmakers are demonstrating that while childhood can be a magical time, it can also be scary and overwhelming.
“To grab anyone’s attention for any period of time is a Herculean effort,” he said. “So to take [and manipulate] immediately recognizable characters from childhood, which is such a powerful force of experience and recognition, is really almost irresistible for creators.”