Welcome back to the latest Ghostface Girls article. As promised in our podcast both myself and Caitlyn discuss our most feared childhood horror characters. If these wicked women hadn't haunted our innocent minds we may not have become the horror obsessives we are today!
So enjoy our tales of trauma in two very personal pieces. Please vote for which of our characters frightened you the most or tell us which childhood monsters kept you awake at night in the comments below.
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Hayley: Princess Mombi, Return to Oz (1985)
Return to Oz is one of the most controversial children’s films of the 1980’s and 1990’s and certainly is still one of the most talked about. It’s very rare to find a top 10 list of creepy children’s films without the inclusion of this one. A sort of sequel to the 1939 iconic musical The Wizard of Oz, Return to Oz incorporates a far darker tone as it continues Dorothy’s story as she adjusts to life back in Kansas.
The Oz depicted in this film is a dystopian land that features a number of intense and threatening moments and sinister characters that undoubtedly were the cause of some unsettling childhood nightmares. I was about five years old when I first watched Return to Oz when it aired on the Disney Channel, potentially it did begin my interest in horror as despite scaring the hell out of me I recall being fascinated by its darkness.
In a film aimed at children with several terrifying elements selecting only one segment is a tough choice. Return to Oz introduced the unforgettable wheelers, uncanny humanoid creatures as well as a scene of electric shock therapy performed on a young Dorothy (played by a then 10 year old Fairuza Balk); however the character who got most under my skin was Princess Mombi.
Bear in mind Return to Oz is a Disney movie and a very bold move for the studio at the time. During the mid-80’s Disney seemed to take on a more dark and experimental direction which culminated in a few financial flops that didn’t recover until 1989’s blockbuster hit The Little Mermaid, returning to its traditional fairytale roots. Discussing a scene that includes severed heads seems slightly strange when talking about Disney but Return to Oz was brave enough to push the boundaries.
In her search for the Scarecrow, Dorothy seeks help from a beautiful princess. However this wicked woman has other things in mind as she takes a liking to Dorothy’s head and plans to add it to her grand collection once Dorothy has come of age. The hall of heads is completely frightening as Mombi keeps the heads she was given from the Evil Nome King in glass cases and changes them based on her mood! Seeing the princess remove one head for another is particularly disturbing, especially watching her headless body continuing to speak to Dorothy as if it’s the most normal thing ever.
When Dorothy stands up to the evil sorceress she threatens to lock her in the tower. Eventually she makes her escape but requires the powder of life in order to transport herself out of there. The powder of life is contained in a secret cabinet next to Mombi’s original head. In an unnerving twist, the head resembles Nurse Wilson who works at the mental hospital Dorothy is sent to at the film’s beginning. Depending on your theory as to whether Oz is a real place or not, Mombi is quite the literal monster interpreted from Dorothy’s fear of the nurse in her ‘real world’. When Dorothy retrieves the powder she accidentally wakes Mombi up, causing her severed head to say her name in a creepy, distorted tone. The rest of the heads wake up and follow suit while her headless body chases Dorothy.
We eventually learn that Mombi turns out to be a coward and is fearful of the Nome King who she was bidding for in exchange for the beautiful heads, magical powers and the former Emerald City. Dorothy outsmarts her in the end bringing in a comforting resolution however the sequence discussed comes as one of the most frightening things ever in a children’s film.
Forget the Wicked Witch of the West; it’ll take more than a bucket of water to get rid of this power-hungry princess!
Do you have nightmarish memories of Return to Oz? Comment below if Princess Mombi gave you some sleepless nights!
Caitlyn: Ursula, The Little Mermaid (1989)
As a child, Disney films were an essential, but there’s only one I really remember watching over and over again – The Little Mermaid. The reason for my constant rewatching was not the singing sea creatures and story of love crossing boundaries (however problematic that love now seems), but rather the grotesque figure of Ursula who would go on to inspire many nightmares, but also a mild obsession that concerned the feeling of being scared. As you’ve probably been able to tell, the intrigue surrounding what scares me has never left and is inspiring me to this day. On one hand I owe Ursula a large amount, but on the other, she caused me many sleepless childhood nights and in turn, also my parents.
The attraction and unease of watching Ursula is she is probably one of the only Disney villains I can remember having a truly otherworldly appearance thanks to the tentacles – a dark version of Ariel’s own tail that she exchanges for legs. In some small part I really loved Ursula because she didn’t look like the others in Disney stories and despite similar dark transformations from characters like Maleficent, Ursula’s always seemed to arrive with more force and dread. Ursula also has eels as minions, which I’m now pretty sure has contributed in at least a small way to a fear of snakes I’ve had for many years…even if she does somewhat affectionately name them her ‘poopsies’.
I will always remember a particular shot of Ursula, bathed in green and purple and seemingly stirring up a tempest with her newly-acquired trident – the larger than life character from earlier now literally a giant on screen with a distorted voice that I would be afraid more than anything until hearing Mercedes McCambridge’s efforts in The Exorcist many years later. This shot occurs during the scene where, consumed by rage at having her wedding plans scuppered, she rises from the sea in full close-up, all eyelashes and teeth and begins to wreak havoc. Something about her power was frightening, yet oddly awe-inspiring – a perfect mix for a character I now hold among my favourites.
What is perhaps most unsettling about Ursula is her sense of humour and her manipulative nature which she uses to disarm and then trap mermaids. Ultimately though, she is an outsider, sent away from the royal palace and forced to fend for herself under meagre means. This positioning of her as an outsider is furthered by her Divine-inspired image - perhaps one of the more ‘adult’ styled Disney villains, complete with flapping breasts in some scenes. However, it is these elements of humanity, especially her grief at the loss of Flotsam and Jetsam that make her graphic (by Disney standards) death all the more disturbing. The counter-acting complexities and cruelties of Ursula is what makes her not only my most feared childhood characters, but also my most captivating.
Did Ursula rock your boat? Let us know in the comments.