Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Things That Scare Me: Case Study #11: The Wicked Witch Breaks the 4thWall

In spite of (or, perhaps, because of) my adult infatuation with all things horrifying and horrific, I was scared of absolutely everything when I was a kid. A television commercial for a horror movie was enough to send me racing from the den in a sweaty palm panic. As an ongoing series here on Psychobabble, I've been reviewing some of the things that most traumatized me as a child and evaluating whether or not I was rightfully frightened or just a wiener.

Case Study #11: The Wicked Witch of the West Breaks the Fourth Wall

Statistics may not actually exist to support this statement, but I still say with complete confidence that no children’s movie traumatized more kids than The Wizard of Oz. Certainly others have had their brain-scarring impacts. The surreal riverboat sequence from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in which Gene Wilder recites a poem of befuddled despair in an increasingly demented wail and a chicken gets its head lopped off in graphic detail surely did a number on many youngsters. The diabolical Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang loomed large in his share of nightmares for obvious reasons. Even Disney, a studio often chided for over sanitizing the grimmest fairy tales, dealt out some pretty potent shocks in cartoons, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, and live-action flicks, such as Something Wicked This Way Comes and Dragonslayer. But the terrors of The Wizard of Oz trump the rest, possibly because it is watched more often than these other movies. Or maybe it’s because The Wizard of Oz is the first movie a lot of children see, or at least, the first movie with horror elements they see. I’d guess a lot of parents screen the movie for their kids because of its delightful songs and cute characters and status as a children’s classic without fully taking into account the terrifying witch and her cadre of hideous flying monkeys and the ugly, incongruously named Winkie Guards and the floating, booming head of Oz the Great and Powerful (or “Oz the Great and Terrible”, as he was more aptly titled in L. Frank Baum’s book). The Wizard of Oz certainly isn’t the ultimate scary kiddie flick because its depiction of an innocent being pursued by a relentless boogey man/woman is unique. Most of the movies mentioned above have this in common.

Honestly, as much of a lily-livered wienie as I was as a kid, I watched The Wizard of Oz year after year when it aired on CBS around Easter time. I was aware of the movie’s rep as a child-traumatizer, but it didn’t really have that effect on me. Then one year, the horror suddenly clicked. The moment was brief. All of the flying monkeys and Winkies and disembodied heads still failed to push my panic button. Even the majority of the Witch’s appearances wooshed by as usual. But then I noticed something I’d apparently never noticed before. At the tail end of the scene in which Dorothy speaks to Auntie Em through a crystal ball while trapped in the Witch’s tower, and Em transforms into the mocking Witch, she gazes directly into the camera.

I believe I’ve written before of my terror of fourth-wall breaking, but I’ll reiterate it. I am terrified of fourth wall breaking. This is when a character in a film looks directly into the camera, seemingly interacting directly with the viewer. Sometimes this technique can enhance the humor of a comedy, like when Eddie Murphy gives the viewer a “Do you believe this patronizing asshole?” look after Randy Duke explains that bacon might be found in a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich in Trading Places.

Or it can heighten the poignancy of an emotional scene, like when Giulietta Masina gives the viewer a quick, teary smile in the last frames of Nights of Cabiria.

This heightening goes for scary scenes, as well. Being seven, or however old I was at the time, and having the Wicked Witch of the West make eye contact with me from my TV screen was paralyzing. On top of this was a strange feeling of betrayal. Remember, at this point in my life, The Wizard of Oz was an old friend that visited my home every year. And now— now after all these years and all these viewings—now it was going to be scary? Now I was going to start having nightmares in which I was being pursued—or worse, looked at—by Margaret Hamilton in her green makeup? What the fuck, Wizard of Oz? I thought we had an agreement? Where do you get off doing this shit:

(sorry, the embedding option for this video is disabled, but you can see the scene by following this link… the wall-breaking occurs 5:11 into the video)

The Verdict: Normally I set up these “I was justified in my terror” verdicts with a slew of excuses, but I believe none are necessary this time. The fact that I’d watched The Wizard of Oz so many times as a kid without being terrified is a veritable point of pride. And when it finally did scare me, I was still pretty young. So I can say without a trace of hesitation that I was justified in my fear.
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