illustration by Brianna Ashby
“The past is never where you think you left it.”
—Katherine Anne Porter
It’s a sunny day in the leafy backyard of my parents’ friends’ house. I am four-years-old, and I am playing with a little dog resembling Toto from The Wizard of Oz. I have been obsessed with this film my entire young life so far, and I will be obsessed with it forever. It becomes instantly clear, however, that this tiny dog is not what it seems. For inexplicable reasons, he now has my father’s face.
Meanwhile, the dog still has his dog body. My Dad has somehow been transformed, but still has his Dad-like head and all his own facial features. His tongue is wagging out of his human mouth, and he is prancing around obliviously, while I look on in horror.
This is the earliest nightmare I remember having as a kid.
Imagine, as a child, how terrifying this is. Imagine, as a child, that there is nothing you can do to reverse it, or to ask why this has happened, or to get your father back to being just a normal human father again. You are powerless, and the one familiar piece of this dream—the person you thought was there to protect you and be stronger than you—is now none of these things. And even worse, still a child, you don’t know how to get back to safety, to home, wherever that is. (I imagine comfort-infused-with-the-unfamiliar is pretty common in childhood nightmares—after all, that’s what’s most at risk when we are still so small.)
The Wizard of Oz is a cultural phenomenon, a film that has entertained and haunted the American subconscious ever since its release in 1939. Disney’sReturn to Oz (1985), though, was never intended to be a sequel, and that displacement looms large throughout the entire, deeply unsettling movie. To this day, I still don’t know why I was ever allowed to watch it as a child. It seems cosmically correct that, while I can recall the exact moment when our Betamax recorded the original Wizard of Oz from TV (a Thanksgiving showing in the mid-1980’s, complete with a Michael Jackson Pepsi commercial), I have no idea howReturn to Ozever slipped into our watchful, Catholic living room. It is decidedlynot a movie for children, but it’s not really a movie for adults, either. It’s a movie about memory—as much the characters’ as our own projected memories of the Oz story—but it often feels like it forgot where it was going.
Return to Oz is not what you think you remember about the film that preceded it; this version of the story does not exist in the same dimension where Judy Garland once sang on a haystack. Instead, Return to Ozis far more similar in spirit to the original L. Frank Baum Oz books from the early 1900’s, stories which featured decapitations, eye-removal, and plenty of other violent acts. Directed by long-time film editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather) and supposedly influenced strongly by the Wisconsin Death Trip photos, it might just be the weirdest thing Disney has ever made. Return to Oz does not give a shit about song or dance numbers. Return to Oz is not Technicolor, and is lit instead like a Victorian funeral.Return to Oz has no Good Witch of The North, or of any direction, whatsoever. Return to Ozdoes not believe “there is no place like home.” Return to Oz never makes clear if Kansas is home, or if Oz is home. Indeed, it might be inferring that home simply doesn’t exist to begin with.
After just a few minutes, Return to Oz quickly begins to feel like a fever dream. And, when I look back on my own childhood, the sounds and colors of bothOz films feel so intertwined with my own young life—how they influenced my beliefs about leaving home and finding adventure elsewhere—that the memories begin to feel a bit like a fever dream, too.
I am not quite sure how to emphasize just how deeply the Oz stories run in my own blood, as a kid with limited entertainments growing up in a conservative Ohio household. How much I wanted to be the tough little girl from the Midwest conquering witches and befriending weird creatures. In times of high stress, I still have nightmares that I am searching for shelter from oncoming tornadoes. The original Tin Man was my model for all the men I would ever fall in love with: soft voices, occasional criers, always searching for heart. I dressed up as at least three different Oz characters for three different Halloweens. I used to sing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” to myself whenever I was sad. I played the narrator in a middle school production of the musical, and secretly hoped my best friend would get sick so I could be Glinda, The Good Witch of the North. On a shelf in my childhood bedroom stands a small clay sculpture of two Return to Oz characters, made by a friend, and though I now live in another state, I still refuse to throw it out.
As memories often can’t be trusted—they become less accurate the more you go back to them— I can’t entirely identify why The Wizard of Oz spoke to me all those years ago. But Ican identify why Return to Oz doesn’t speak, how instead it whispers terrifying riddles into your ear, just as you think you’re finally tucked safely into an otherwise familiar bed.
Baum’s wildly successful Oz series was first published in 1900. The initial book follows a little girl named Dorothy Gale, transported by tornado from Kansas to the magical Land of Oz. There she must defeat The Wicked Witch of the West to placate The Wizard of Oz, who claims he will only send her back home if she murders the witch. (Baum clearly lifted this from many European fairy tales: child hero, evil witch, murdering to get back home.) She does it, and reveals the Wizard as a lost Kansas man himself who never had any real power to begin with. Luckily, she clicks the heels of her magical Silver Shoes, and makes it back home. But she loses those silver slippers along the way. She loses her own evidence.
Earlier today I told a coworker: If you do not already know all of the original Oz background, you have absolutely no reason to ever watch Return to Oz. It would be like going to someone else’s now-abandoned childhood house. It can never possibly be as surreal or strange or meaningful to you as it is for the person who once lived there, who once called it home.
Return to Oz opens on a bleak, late-autumn field, supposedly somewhere in Kansas in the early 1900’s. It’s six months after the tornado that originally destroyed the farm, where Dorothy (played by a young Fairuza Balk!) lived with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry.
Cozy enough opening, you think to yourself.
OMG, isn’t little Fairuza Balk so cute?
Some of these landscape shots are so lovely!
But you are so wrong. You do not know how wrong you are. Nostalgia has already trapped you in its straitjacket.
We soon learn that Dorothy has not slept through a single night since the tornado. That she talks constantly about a kingdom she visited, the place over the rainbow where animals talk, where she killed an evil witch. Cut to hushed conversations between Aunt Em and Uncle Henry in the kitchen, conversations about taking Dorothy to a “doctor.” It’s obvious that Dorothy is being sent to psychiatric clinic against her knowledge, and the movie is all too happy to rush us off on a tour of turn-of-the-century pseudo-scientific mental health asylums. As adults, we gather this will involve some version of electro-shock therapy. (And yet I was not allowed to watch Beetlejuice.)
As the film’s darkness quickens, Dorothy’s iconic little dog Toto is left behind on the farm, along with any sunny expectations. In Toto’s place, there is a chicken named Billina. We hear Dorothy threaten the chicken with slaughter if she doesn’t get to laying a few eggs. (Every chance it gets, Return to Oz reminds you that it is not here to warm any hearts.)
Upon arriving at the gothic hospital, Aunt Em is convinced to leave Dorothy there overnight. Soon enough, Dorothy is abandoned and tied to a squealing gurney. She hears screams down the halls, and asks if she just heard screaming. She is told by a devious-looking nurse (who also plays the evil Princess Mombi later) that no, Dorothy has heard no one screaming.
There is also a kind, young blonde girl on the hospital staff. She brings Dorothy a pumpkin to comfort her. It is apparently almost Halloween. Of course it is almost Halloween—you get the sense that it is always “almost Halloween” in the world of Return to Oz.
Then, during a power outage, which miraculously occurs right as Dorothy is about to be forced into electro-shock treatment, the blonde girl helps her escape into the night. They jump into a rushing river. With the looming nurse and doctor chasing after them, both girls scream in the overpowering water, in the dark. The girl from the hospital appears to have drowned.
Dorothy wakes up back in Oz, inexplicably with her chicken, who now talks.
Though the brightly-illustrated 1985 poster shows the classic Scarecrow, Lion, and Tin Man characters skipping down the yellow brick road with Fairuza Balk, in the actual film, they are all either quickly turned to stone or kidnapped. Indeed, the main plot centers around their rescue. Dorothy’s new companions, in their place, are a much stranger, steam-punky, post-Victorian crew: a spindly pumpkin-headed creature (Jack Pumpkinhead), a taxidermed animal head called “Gump” (who is initially attached to a sofa and some palm leaves in order to fly everyone out of captivity), and a short, stout, metal wind-up soldier named Tik-Tok.
When Dorothy arrives in the once-great Emerald City, she finds every living thing turned to stone. A demonic rock-spirit called The Nome King has gotten a hold of Dorothy’s powerful slippers, and is holding her old friend the Scarecrow captive. We learn this because we are immediately bombarded by “Wheelers”, genuinely scary creatures in 1980’s rusted-glam outfits, arms and legs, all four, attached to squeaking wheels.
The Wheelers are henchmen of Princess Mombi, who owns a hallway of glass cabinets, neatly stacked with rows of beautiful heads from the city’s decapitated young women. She alternates heads depending on her mood. I remember vividly the close-up of the ruby-red key Mombi uses to open and lock her glass cabinets. I was mortified by Princess Mombi, by all those heads in the cases, and I knew I wasn’t supposed to want that key. But every time it appeared onscreen, I wanted that key.
These are the kind of dark feelings Return to Oz stirs. The movie is filled with beautiful things, objects made purely from, or for, someone else’s pain. Even as a child, I understood that these things—Mombi’s gleaming red key for decapitated heads, or, later, a cavernous room of antiques created from Dorothy’s friends’ painful transformations—were wrong to covet because they came from others’ suffering. But that didn’t stop me.
I was deeply disturbed to learn recently that L. Frank Baum actually wrote a few anti-Native American, pro-genocide pieces in the late 19th century. And yet after watching Return to Oz, it makes a kind of sickening sense: a reverence towards owning beauty, the themes of home and place as concepts in perpetual need of being re-located, found, reclaimed again.
There is no man behind the curtain at the end of Return to Oz. No sweet old magician revealed behind the smoke and mirrors of a false wizard, jovially giving away awards and diplomas to our heroes. The Nome King goes up in fucking flames. He is screaming, melting, eyes sinking into himself in full-on 1980’s stop-action glory. The scene is just as terrifying now as it ever was.
No Oz movie following the 1939 version has ever been as successful, yet Hollywood still insists on making them. Kids keep performing musical versions in school. Parks still play The Wizard of Oz during their free film series every summer. Oz is simply and deeply ingrained in the American psyche. Which is perhaps why Return to Oz, even if it is a more faithful adaption of Baum’s books, was such a box office failure. You think you are going to spend an afternoon in a corn field—the memory of which is somewhere deep inside your dreaming brain—but instead you get taken to a cave. You have been misled by a memory you didn’t even know you had.
Even if you’ve never seen any version of Oz, if you were born and raised in the U.S., you’ve likely consumed it in ways you weren’t even aware of. Something in our subconscious keeps going back to the yellow brick road. It seeps in, all that ruby, all that emerald. Stories like this are a virus and, once we absorb them into our identities, we often can’t seem to remember ourselves without them.
Three years ago this month, my friends and I lost a person close to us. He also talked about things he had seen and heard, things nobody else would believe existed.
Our friend escaped from a very modern, very real asylum in his own way. When I think of him—and I do all the time—I hope with all my heart that, when he jumped into his own rushing river, he made it back to the place he really wanted to be, too.
You can probably remember the exact moment you’ve entered the home of someone who has recently passed away. Or returning to your own home soon after losing a pet, or the apartment of an old flame after they have moved out. You have gone back to a campus, or an office, or a bar, somewhere that helped form your idea of the world and your own place in it—you have gone back, and you have barely known it. You are no longer the person whose ghost haunts it; since the last time you’ve been there, you’ve become the future. The things you used to love, along with that old version of you, are nowhere to be found.
When Dorothy is first taken to the asylum, the blonde girl—who we later learn is Princess Ozma, rightful ruler of Oz—asks Dorothy why she was brought there.
“Because I can’t sleep,” Dorothy says. “And I talk about a place that I’ve been to, but nobody believes that it exists.”
And perhaps that is what’s most frightening about Return to Oz: that it may be the story of growing up. The threat of not learning how to keep our fears and hopes and sadness all to ourselves. The story of all of us trying to get back to a place we once left, a place we are convinced we belong. And buried somewhere deep within us is a worry that, should we ever manage to find that place again, we might not even recognize it once we arrive.
A.J. Bradley is a Midwesterner living in New York City. Her work has been featured by Rattle, the Poetry Foundation, Monkeybicycle, and other places. She is finally writing again after a long hiatus.