*note: I’m only covering the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment, not the “Ave Maria” that follows
When I originally conceived of the Disturbing Disney series, I always planned on including Night on Bald Mountain from the finale of Fantasia (1940). It is well known that this segment is considered to be one of the darkest pieces of animation that Disney ever produced. But, and this might surprise you, it is also one of the few “disturbing” pieces that didn’t scare me as a child.
Night on Bald Mountain (1940)
Let me explain: if you haven’t seen the original Fantasia film, Night on Bald Mountain is based on the symphonic poem of the same name (and earlier referred to as St. John’s Eve on Bald Mountain) by Modest Mussorgsky, with an arrangement created by his friend Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. The segment takes place one night in an unnamed country village surrounded by mountains. The highest peak is revealed to actually be the massive body of Chernabog, a terrifyingly huge black winged demon, who uses his evil powers to summon all the dead spirits, witches and other lesser demons to attend him and perform for his pleasure. After wreaking havoc all night long, Chernabog goes toward the village itself, only to be stopped by the distant church bells chiming for Matins, signalling the arrival of dawn, and the end of Chernabog’s power for the night.
As I mentioned earlier, Night on Bald Mountain did not scare me as a child. I thought long and hard about it, trying to remember how I felt watching Chernabog reveal himself, but I cannot find a single memory where I quivered in terror. If anything, I was almost in awe of what I was seeing. I mean just look at the creature below:
Chernabog is rightly considered a masterpiece of Disney animation. He’s a perfect example of the intensive labor that went into Golden Age Disney animation. In the opening minute, when Chernabog shrugs his wings open, you can feel the weight behind the motion, even though he’s nothing more than a drawing on the screen.
Now, on to the disturbing elements of this piece (and they are many). First of all, as I said before, this is considered to be one of the darkest (if not THE darkest) animations that Disney ever produced, because never before has such raw evil been depicted. In fact, in the earliest stages, Chernabog was intended to be Satan himself (and referred to as such) but such a blatant religious statement was deemed….unwise (that’s my assumption anyway). Even though he’s named differently, it’s not hard to view Chernabog as the Devil (he’s got horns, wings, big glowing eyes, if he were red instead of black he’d be a perfect likeness to traditional images of Satan).
Aside from being pure evil, what also makes Chernabog himself disturbing is his sheer size: he’s so large that his wings are viewed as a literal mountain top! Full size humans (I would assume) could stand on his palm with plenty of room to spare. Not that you would WANT to of course, at one point, the demon creates fire dancers that dance on his palms before being cruelly twisted into barnyard animals and finally morphed into blue demons that frantically dance to please their master.
Other disturbing elements include the various ghouls and skeletons that fly through the air when summoned. There are skeletons riding skeletal horses (a reference to the Danse Macabre), ghouls with glowing eyes, witches on brooms and other strange figures. By the final chaotic minutes of the piece, the disturbing factor is ramped up: there are harpies flying straight up to the screen (revealing they were topless in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment), skulls and weird masks, all moving in a frantic blur.
Funnily enough, even though Fantasia was released almost 80 years ago, Disney still receives complaints from parents of children traumatized by this particular segment. If you have young children, I would definitely be wary of letting them see this segment too soon, but don’t hide it forever either.
And that’s just a glimpse of my thoughts on Chernabog and Night on Bald Mountain, I hope you enjoy watching the segment in the above link. Let me know YOUR thoughts in the comments below.
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