I Don't Watch Horror Movies
I don't watch horror movies.
I don't like jump scares, or loud noises and I’m hit or miss on gore. The sheer anticipation of waiting for something I clearly know is going to happen to happen can be panic inducing. I went to a haunted house attraction once. My friends have finally forgiven me for the bruises I inadvertently caused—at least I hope they have.
So given my limited capacity as a viewer, it may seem strange that I’m guest writing for a horror website. But here's the thing, I may not be an avid watcher, but I am a huge fan of horror movies. As a storyteller I really appreciate the power that good horror has to draw the viewer in, drop them some place nasty, and show them a little something about themselves.
So, have a seat because I want to tell you about what I've learned from the scariest movie I know—The Wizard of Oz.
Shit. Wait. Don’t leave. I’m serious.
The Wizard of Oz terrified me as a child. I had recurring nightmares for months after watching it.
And the nightmare always went like this:
I'm Dorothy. I’m in Oz. I’ve just set off to find the wizard and in that moment realize that I’m alone, powerless, and may never find my way home.
And I'd wake up hysterical.
No scary witch, no flying monkeys—just a child’s existential terror of being lost, alone, and powerless in the universe.
I refused to watch the film for the rest of my childhood and even into adulthood there were still moments of sweaty palms and quickly changing the channel as I came across it on TV. The story isn't particularly scary. At its heart The Wizard of Oz is a nearly perfect example of The Hero's Journey, a theory of narrative construction outlined by Joseph Campbell in the 40s and taught to every film, literature, and creative writing major in the last 50 years. A seemingly normal girl is placed in a fantastical setting (Oz), receives a call to action (see the wizard), and goes on a journey with the help of companions she meets along the way (Scarecrow, Tinman and the Lion). I realize, now, that the nightmare was more about my own anxieties and an unstable home life than it was The Wizard of Oz, but, wow there were parts of Dorothy that I subconsciously empathized with—a girl who loved her dog but was in danger of losing, terrible adults, adults who were suppose to be helpful and weren’t. I’m looking at you Glenda the Good Witch. There was literally no harm in you telling Dorothy she had the ability to go home immediate instead of playing trippy mind games with her and leaving her to be preyed upon by the Wicked Witch.
The purpose of Gayly Dreadful’s series of guest writers this month is to feature queer articles during Pride. So, I couldn’t write about The Wizard of Oz and not consider its place in queer culture. I freely admit that I don’t know enough queer history, but I did know that Judy Garland’s Dorothy is a queer icon, and I didn’t think it was simply because she had fabulous shoes. I hit Google and a few scholarly databases and what I pieced together was a really interesting take on both the L. Frank Baum original series and the movie.
“A friend of Dorothy” is slang for a gay man. It goes back to at least World War II. The origin of the term is unknown. A few believe that it is derived from a sequel to the The Wizard of Oz, The Road to Oz. Dorothy meets Polychrome (Polly,) the youngest daughter of the Rainbow. Upon being introduced to Dorothy’s friends Polly remarks,
“You have some queer friends, Dorothy.”
And Dorothy replies, “The queerness doesn’t matter so long as they’re friends.”
The Oz books in general were ahead of their time, particularly The Marvelous Land of Oz which features a character Tip a boy, who becomes Ozma, a girl. Some scholars cite this as being one of the first identifiable transgender narratives in kid lit.** If you’re looking to read it to yourself I recommend Eric Shanower, Scottie Young, and Jean-Francois Beaulieu’s Eisner winning adaptation of it published by Marvel in 2010.
Getting back to the origin of the term “A friend of Dorothy,” others believe that it comes directly from the movie. It can be argued that one of the major themes in The Wizard of Oz is that of found family—A group of outcasts coming together to create a chosen family—and this is a narrative that resonates particularly well in queer culture, because many of us have had to find our own families. ***
When I finally figured out what I wanted to write about The Wizard of Oz, other than offering up my terror for a mild chuckle, my initial plan was to loop it back into the narrative of found family. The problem with that is, this isn’t my found family narrative—it isn’t the one that makes me a squishy happy fangirl.
I haven’t suddenly reconsidered and learned to love The Wizard of Oz.
Yes, it no longer fills me with abject terror, but I’m also not going to sit down and watch the movie. Even though I absolutely know I’m not alone—that there are people in the universe who I can trust to love me for no other reason than I’m me—a tiny piece of the little girl who was terrified to be lost, alone, and powerless in the universe still exists and The Wizard of Oz reminds me of her.
*By mostly I mean I will happily watch things like Shaun of the Dead, Anna and the Apocalypse, and What We Do in The Shadows. Hannibal. Is Hannibal even horror? I consider it snotty 80s art house film meets Bryan Fuller's brain, but that's a blog for another time isn't it?
** Narrative is maybe a generous term, because Tip is Tip and then Tip is Ozma and there is no discussion of her change or any internal struggles. It’s less of a coming out story and more of a plot device?
** I wouldn’t be doing complete due diligence without saying that there’s a third theory that “Friends of Dorothy” has absolutely nothing to do with The Wizard of Oz at all and instead comes from American writer and theatre critic Dorothy Parker. However, you’re much more likely to see a person in braids, a blue gingham dress, and ruby slippers at a pride parade than someone dressed as a theatre critic from the turn of the 19th century. So I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
Brie Alsbury is a queer cartoonist, writer, educator, and unicorn enthusiast. She writes and draws Food Pirates, a comic about food, tech, the future, and illegal vegetable gardening.