What is horror? I could sit here and read the definition out of the dictionary, but what would that really mean? I could conjure images of monsters, specters, and behemoths with chainsaws, but what one may fear, another may laugh in the face of. So, what is horror? To me, horror is anything that makes me uncomfortable. Not the uncomfortable from sitting in a theater seat, but the uncomfortable that makes my stomach squirm. That gives me that sinking feeling in my chest. That form images in my head so disturbing, I fear for my own sanity. And yet, these mental monsters are not limited to the horror genre. So where else does horror bare its lethal fangs?
Here is something you may not hear from too many horror fans. I love Disney. That’s right. Mr. They-Haven’t-Made-A-Scary-Horror-Film-In-Years still hangs out with the Mouse. Don’t judge me. He and I have held back the wrath of the Ancient Ones more times than I care to recall. And my wife and I have quite the collection in the homestead. Not just blu-ray, but we even have a decent collection of original Disney VHS tapes. The other night, my wife decided to pop in a film I had not seen in twenty years. She re-exposed my psyche to Alice in Wonderland.
The amount of material I could recall of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland animated feature would have been just enough to fill a boring Vine video. I may be able to recall the greatest one-liners in movie history, but twenty years is a long time. Surely I had simply forgotten everything, right?
Turns out, I had suppressed it.
Now, before we go on, let me clarify. This acid trip of an animated feature is by no means scary. It isn’t even good. At all. More often than not, it’s asinine and the story is essentially non-existent. Alice has no character arc, no real motivation for the actions she takes, or any reasons why we should care about anything she’s doing. To me, this film only serves one purpose in our modern society, and that is as a cheap rebound for filmmakers with no imagination fifty-nine years later.
So what was it about this film that inspired (compelled?) me to create this feature? It was an early scene involving a nasty nautical nightmare.
There is a scene about one third of the way into the film where Alice is told a story by Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dumb. The story centers around two characters: a strange, red-haired carpenter and a stuffy, snorting walrus with delusions of grandeur. This odd pair is roaming a desolate beach, exchanging jabs of physical violence when the carpenter (we’ll call him Red) discovers a group of oysters sheltered comfortably at the bottom of a small cove. But, of course, this is Disney. So, the oysters aren’t slimy, formless beings. Rather, they are personified to resemble girls. Young girls, complete with bonnets and long skirts, implying an overwhelming sense of innocence so blatant, it almost bashes you over the head like a hammer.
Our two antagonists immediately begin licking their chops, salivating at the thought of the slaughter. Red can hardly contain himself, so Walrus takes center stage. We see Walrus is quite the charmer, and the girls are swooning in no time. The eldest of the oysters tries in vain to convince the young ones to stay where it is safe.
“The sea is nice. Take my advice. And stay right here.”
But like all that is alluring in life, the Walrus shuts up this maternal figure with quick and flashy theatrics.
“Yes, yes, of course. But, ha ha! The time has come, my little friends, to talk of other things!” He then leads his victims Pied Piper style out of their home and into his lair, newly constructed by Red.
Our charismatic pinniped is next found entertaining his delighted, smiling guests. He slyly suggests to Red that they could use some food. Visible signs of apprehension wash over the oysters. A visage of gluttonous lust begins to spread over Walrus’s fat face. He asks Red to bring out some bread for his hungry guests. Red is clearly not the brains of this operation, and leaves his partner alone with the oysters. Walrus collects his prey in a wide, suffocating embrace. Clear indications of panic are now vibrant in these oysters; in the animated eyes of these young girls. They now realize they should have listened to their maternal figure. Seeing so many personified creatures coming to terms with their own mortality, and the horrible, painful way in which their innocent lives are about to end is at once horrifying, disturbing, and sickening.
At this point in time, we the audience are waiting for that old cliché of dues ex machina to come swooping down with a flaming sword and slash open the fat folds in this monster’s neck, freeing these girls from their fate. Instead, we cut to Red, busily preparing the accoutrements to their fiendish feast. Upon his return, he enthusiastically grabs utensils, eager to join in on the torture of cutting young girls into pieces while they are still alive, making them watch as he consumes their flesh.
“Oysters! Little oysters!” he calls out in an eerie, almost childlike taunt.
But he discovers, with much disdain, Walrus has already eaten them all. Perhaps their quick deaths were a vulgar blessing. How does Red react? With psychotic, violent rage, grabbing a hammer and chasing after the fleeing Walrus. We can only assume the obese Walrus eventually collapses due to his lack of cardiovascular conditioning before being brutally beaten to death with Red’s hammer.
Let us take some time to ponder this scene. It has very little purpose in the overall story of the film, as Alice never learns her lesson even in the end (assuming you can even call that and ending!). She only shows any true regret for her idiotic actions when her own safety is in jeopardy. In addition, Alice reacts with little more than a slight chuckle, proclaiming it only has a moral “if you happen to be an oyster.” Furthermore, Disney took the time to personify these oysters, and to personify them in the form of young, innocent girls. I cannot say I have ever read Alice in Wonderland, so I do not know if this scene is in the book. Regardless, I have to wonder if it ever crossed the Disney writers and animators just how twisted this scene really is. Essentially, they constructed a scene in which two murderers lure young girls away from safety, viciously kill them, and consume their bodies. And then they decided to market this film to children.
Beyond that, Walrus and Red remind me of the real life monsters I have encountered through my day research in the criminal justice field. The first one to immediately come to mind is none other than infamous serial killer Ted Bundy. After all, he was well known for his modus operandi of using his charm to lure young girls to their grisly demise. However, you may have heard of two other men by the names of Henry Lucas and Ottis Toole. The two killers were vicious in their own right, but also paired up briefly, engaging in actions ranging from kidnapping, to rape, to murder, to cannibalism. They were suspected in over one hundred murders, and Lucas at one time claimed to have over three hundred victims. While these numbers may be inaccurate or exaggerated, there is no denying their impact. If you feel the need to conduct a little research of your own, be forewarned, their stories are not for the faint of heart. (Source: The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers by Michael Newton, published by Checkmark Books)
Is this scene from the Disney film Alice in Wonderland scary? Not exactly. Am I going to have nightmares as a result of subjecting my psyche to it? Doubtful. But what we observe with our external senses is only a small part of horror. The human imagination is the most terrifying construct on this world or any other. Nothing will be more unnerving than what your own mind can conjure. Some, those with minds untouched by the abominations of life, may find this scene funny in a slapstick sort of way. A gritty take on the lessons of “stranger danger”. At the most, one may simply find it odd. Those are the lucky ones. My mind tends to wander down the darker path. More often than not, it wanders along the path showing me the inherent goodness of humankind. Perhaps if the god machine had saved these poor girls, this scene would have left me in my usual optimistic state. But not all fairy tales have a happy ending. Sometimes, the monsters have their small victories. It is left to us to confront this darkness, and slay the beasts within. If not for the protection of others, than for the brief salvation our own fragile existence.