Scaring the Kids

They'll Probably Need Therapy Anyway


Gateway Horror: Return to Oz

Coming to theaters this June (of 1985).

You’ve seen it, right? Have I profiled you correctly?

It’s gateway horror. Starter horror. Horror wrapped up in fantasy to be presented to children–not at all hard to believe if you have read any fairy tales. The Snow Queen, anyone? Goblins going around, breaking the devil’s custom mirror, resulting in glass shards flying all over town? Impaling eyeballs and hearts? This one scared me so much that I recounted most of that recap from my childhood memory of the story.

Return to Oz is kinda like that. It’s fantasy, but dark fantasy. It’s an Oz story, but so much truer to the original than that sweet little Judy Garland number.

In this one, Dorothy isn’t drop-dead gorgeous. She’s regular. She doesn’t charm her way through situations with armies of friends she’s recruited through song. She’s wily and can think on her feet. She hasn’t woken up from a dream/concussion. She’s woken up from hypothermia and shock after trying to escape a Victorian-age mental hospital and actual shock therapy. It’s grittier, folks.

It’s also way scarier.

I am not the first person to write about this (or anything, it turns out). This movie is a known first exposure to the genre of horror. The below video by In Praise of Shadows does a really fascinating deep dive into why this movie works as horror. He states that this movie preys on the fears of children, going as far as to call it a psychological attack.

It was interesting to hear what scared kids in the 80s. Turns out, childhood fears in that decade are pretty similar to the fears that my kids have now. Here’s what my kids are scared of:

Their mom leaving them behind. Does this happen in Return to Oz? Check.

Not being believed when they tell me something important. Check.

Being chased by something scary. Check.

Flooding and storms (we live in Louisiana). Check.

Unnatural things, like sofas animating out of nowhere or witches who can remove their heads, for example. Check.

Fear of falling from a great height. Check.

There are probably more, but you get the idea.

One particular scene was seared onto my memory. Turns out, this same scene had the same effect on my daughter, who watched it with me when she was 8. In this scene, Dorothy snuck the key from around Mombi’s wrist while she slept, headless, then was discovered in the hall of disembodied heads. All of the heads started screaming and screeching, shouting, “Dorothy Gaaaaaaale!”. It’s truly nightmarish, and it popped up in my head randomly for years after I saw the film.

Dorothy’s ability to be calm amid a cacophony of screaming heads is impressive.

Now we haven’t even gotten close to talking about the wheelers, the goons with the wheels for hands and feet. Not in a whimsical way, but in a terrifying accident-followed-by-botched-surgery way. (If that’s your thing, read about the real Tin Man in the Oz books. Holy balls, it’s terrifying.) Nor have we approached the constant threat of falling from the sky as the Gump’s body starts coming apart. Or the townspeople turned to stone. Or, or, or…

I love horror, and I want to share it with my kiddos. But you can’t sit kids down to watch Insidious or The Exorcist right off the bat. You have to warm up to it, or you won’t sleep without a sharp little elbow in your side for many weeks to come. So you start with something like this.

Or like Watcher in the Woods, another Disney nightmare classic. But that’s probably a whole other post.

If you haven’t watched Return to Oz in a while, revisit it. With your jaded and bitter adult worldview, you can absorb the many layers of horror that this weird 80s masterpiece has to offer.

Tell me what you watch with your weird kiddos, or just sign up to hear more of my ramblings about messing up my kiddos. Until next time!

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