Saturday, October 12, 2013

A Life of Fear: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

I could probably just say that Mel Stuart's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory scared the crap out of me as a kid and leave it at that, because I know I'm not alone.

Class parties in elementary school were supposed to be a cause for rejoicing - days few and far between when we wouldn't be burdened with worksheets or sitting quietly at our desks. The teacher would retreat back to her corner of the room and mull over stacks of papers while we were left to revel in cupcakes that were more frosting than cake and Dixie cups brimming with lurid punch. To help us cope with the inevitable sugar crash, the day would end with the class sitting in the dark and watching a movie. I'm not sure what occasion inspired our second grade teacher to choose Willy Wonka, but it occurs to me now that she (lacking the ability to turn us all into apples) might have picked this film out deliberately to try and inflict some emotional scars on the class.

There are three scares in this film that stand out vividly in my memory to this day:

1. Augustus Gloop falling into the chocolate river. Near-drowning aside, the thing that's most horrifying about this scene is the boy's reappearance in the transparent tube that sucks chocolate off to be processed elsewhere in the factory. The claustrophobia of the situation was awful, made even worse by the fact that the boy was so close to his distressed parents but unable to be helped by them in any way. The fact that he's sucked away to the incinerator only makes it worse, as does Wonka's nonchalance in the face of ostensible child death. This was the first scene in the movie when I realized I might be watching a madman.

2. The tunnel scene. You know the one. If watching one kid get whisked to his doom wasn't enough, there's this warped bit of psychedelia to follow it up. A lot of people get hung up on the rear-projected images of bugs crawling across faces and what appears to be an actual chicken being decapitated. To be honest, I don't have strong memories of those. What I do remember is Wonka's blank-faced stare at his passengers' fright, and his atonal song that builds slowly into a scream, then a shriek. "Are the fires of hell a'growing? Is the grisly reaper mowing?" My adult self loves that the screenwriters thought all of this was suitable for a childrens' film, but I don't think I need to elaborate too much on what it did to me the first time around.

3. Violet Beauregard's inflation. In retrospect, this scare wasn't that frightening on its own, but it was just enough to put me over the edge. Even scarier than the fact that Wonka freely admits the girl would retain her azure skin tone after undergoing some horribly vague "deflation" process was the fact that a pattern seemed to be emerging. Two children had been dispatched, and three still remained.

I saw the direction this was going and I didn't like it. At this point in the movie I was done. I tried desperately to concoct a scheme where I'd be sent home, allowed to switch classrooms, or even wait out the rest of the movie elsewhere. The best I could come up with was to ask my teacher if she had any papers to grade or sort, which was really just a plea for something to occupy my time. To her credit, she came up with a task on the spot and let me work on it across the hall in the library. (Maybe she wasn't so mean after all.)

Eventually the principal wandered past, and seeing me sitting there alone at a table with tears streaked across my face, asked what I'd done to earn this punishment. How could I make her understand that I wasn't the one who had misbehaved? In the movie that I had just watched, the adults were the insane ones. Worse, they could be actively malicious, and to ruinous consequence when placed in positions of power. Before me stood the most powerful figure in the school, and she thought I was in the wrong. Did I want her on my bad side? What had I done?

"Nothing," I said, and went back to my work.


  1. Nice job Eric! I enjoyed reading your funny and terrifying little memoir. Wilder should have won an Oscar for his manic, deranged performance.

    1. Thanks, Barry! Oscar or not, it's a performance that's stuck with me, and I suspect many others... He really is outstanding though.