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"I Didn't Mean to Frighten You": The Disney Gothic

by Victoria Oxberry

Victoria Oxberry is a photographer and student of culture. She studied Art and Visual Culture at the University of the West of England (UK), which involved both fine art practice and a variety of written studies.

Back in 1934, the wheels were set in motion for what was going to change animation forever. At this time, Walt Disney began meetings for the creation of the world’s first feature length animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The outcome in 1937 was a film the likes of which had never been seen before.

During the years that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was being made, Hollywood was in its horror heyday and influences of such films as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (John S. Robertson, 1920) have been cited by Disney and his crew. Other films for example, Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931) and Dracula (Todd Browning, 1931) also seem to have had an impact. These American horror movies in turn were inspired by European horror, most notably German Expressionist in which the visual look of the film helped convey the emotion of it. The most notable movies of this genre are Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and F. W. Murnau’s famous Dracula film, Nosferatu (1922) and their effect can be seen in the overall design of the threatening sequences in Snow White.

In this essay, I plan to investigate the extent of the influence of these early horror movies on what is now known as a children’s classic.

The animation in Snow White is predominantly life-like. As Walt Disney had a background in illustration, getting the film to a level where it could literally be considered a moving picture was important to him.

The human characters (barring the hag, if indeed she can be called human) are rendered realistically. The woodland animals are a visual mix, realistic in terms of their physical structure but their eyes are cartoonish. The Dwarfs however are much more stylised. They are more reminiscent of something from one of Disney’s shorts, in essence they are cartoon characters. Disney wanted to elevate human movement in animation to a standard that had been previously unattained. To aid this, his animators made close study of actors performing some of the scenes, watching live-action films and even attending the ballet. This method was also used for the animals and even the Dwarfs for which Vaudeville performers were brought in to the studio.

Many of the key artists working on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs were European including German, Scandinavian and others and as such would contribute to the European aesthetic of the landscape. It has also been suggested that Segovia Castle (top right) in Spain was the inspiration for the Queen’s regal residence (bottom right) though there is much in common with the Count’s castle atop the Carpathian mountains in the many versions of the story of Dracula. It is interesting to look at how the film does or does not adhere to the conventions of this genre. In their book Horror Films, Michelle Le Blanc and Colin Odell give a breakdown of the key elements of horror, beginning with the basic narrative structure,

‘The opening act…generally sets the groundwork for a community [or individual] unaware of impending danger…The second act sees the arrival of the monster, the breakdown of social order…The final act resolves these issues…’ (LeBlanc, Odell, 2003: 8)

It is actually hard to say whether Snow White fully follows this narrative. It certainly maintains the premise of the second and third act but the first is a grey area. Although Snow White is blissfully unaware of the Queen’s hatred for her, evident in her shock and panic when the Woodsman tells her of it, the two characters must have some sort of established relationship prior to the timeframe of the movie, due to their familial connection, though they only actually meet in the film when the Queen is in the guise of Witch. During the film we see nothing of the King, the connection between Snow White and the Queen. (FOOTNOTE: It seems that even in the Grimm fairytale that there is no real mention of the King. However, in early versions of the story, it was Snow White’s biological mother who wanted to kill her, in later versions this was changed her mother died in childbirth and her father remarried.)

The ‘chaos’ begins when Snow White finds out about her stepmother’s plan and flees to the forest. Restoration of normality only occurs after the Witch is dead, when Snow White is awoken by the Prince.

Then there is the role of the monster, ‘the perpetrator of the dread and fear that elicits an emotional response to the film…the monster falls into at least one, often more, of four basic categories…Natural…Supernatural…Psychological [and] Scientific. (ibid. 8-9). Though the Queen, as mentioned earlier in this essay, does not quite come under the class of monster, as the villain of the film, she comes under in the psychological group, as her prime reason for killing Snow White is jealousy. The Witch, as a separate, obviously comes under the banner of supernatural, she is the magical metamorphosis of the Queen into monster. Odell and Le Blanc later say how ‘audiences identified with the Monster of the picture.’ (ibid. 14) More recent Disney films such as Aladdin, Mulan and Hercules feature active ‘good’ characters, trying to fight the evil. In earlier Disney films, the ‘good’ characters are victims because they are passive (and this makes it harder for the viewer to root for them). This means the villains in these earlier films are much more interesting than their victims and their evil plots make them the driving elements behind the story. This is a trait of films such as Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween, (and the reason they have had so many sequels made), as well as the literary gothic tradition,

‘The gothic fable...though it may (in more genteel examples) permit the happy ending, is committed to portraying the power of darkness.’ (Fiedler, 1967: 128)

It is perhaps easier for the audience to identify with the flawed nature of the Queen in Snow White than the perfect soul of Snow White herself. It is, however, maybe because of such naivety on Snow White’s part that the Queen’s actions are so horrific.

Snow White uses the horror technique of suspense to great effect. This narrative format ‘relies heavily on giving the audience more information than the character has, then progressing the plot while the audience wait for the revelation…’ (LeBlanc, Odell, 2003: 11). The audience knows right from the beginning that the Queen is jealous and wants Snow White dead, the revelation coming when the Woodsman attempts to kill her but instead reveals the Queen’s plan. However, in a move that makes Snow White seem even more naïve, this narrative repeats itself when the Witch is brewing up a spell to kill Snow White while she happily tends to the needs of the Dwarfs and their cottage.

The scene where Snow White first finds out from the Woodsman about the Queen’s plan to kill her and her subsequent flight into the forest at his behest makes up the film’s first horrific scene and it plays out one of the key elements of gothic horror according to Leslie Fiedler in his book Love and Death in the American Novel,

‘Through a dream landscape...a girl flees in terror and alone amid crumbling castles...and ghosts who are never really ghosts.’ (Fiedler, 1967: 127)

These ‘ghosts’ are represented by the forest seeming to come alive, her dress snagging on branches that become spindly hands grabbing onto her. The trees look like they have eyes too and the log in the pond she falls in looks like a crocodile. It is a very intense scene that has an overwhelming sense of anxiety, confusion and claustrophobia. Eventually she falls to the ground crying whilst eyes watch her from the darkness. In The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the set design is more like a stage play than a film. The buildings in the town and the trees in the forest lean, or rather, loom over the streets and paths and inspire an imposing feel. The Snow White forest scene is reminiscent of both this and according to Robert Allan in his book Walt Disney and Europe, an 1861 illustration by Gustave Doré from Dante’s Inferno (Allan, 1999: 51).

When the morning comes however, there is sweet relief for Snow White as she discovers the eyes belong to the woodland animals and they are actually scared of her, a fact she can not seem to bear and she is very apologetic of her actions.

‘I didn’t mean to frighten you, but you don’t know what I’ve been through. And all because I was afraid. I’m so ashamed of the fuss I’ve made.’

The film itself opens with a theatrical mask-like face (drama) floating in purple mist in a mirror. This mirror belongs to the Queen who has asked it to tell her who the fairest in the land is. She is mortified when her mirror tells her it is her step-daughter Snow White.

Other than the colour of their hair, the Queen and Snow White are visually at odds. Where Snow White is drawn soft focused and is warm and gentle, the Queen is drawn with precise lines and is cold and brusque. She is very elegant looking and always wearing her perfectly fitting crown. With sleek, black, fine cut clothes as opposed to Snow White’s wholesome colourful look with soft full skirts and puff sleeves, the Queen is tall and slim. She has high cheekbones and arched eyebrows, red lips and green eyes framed with purple eyeshadow. Continuing this theme of colour, the Queen’s cloak is long and black with a purple lining and a high collar, important as Leslie Fiedler claims ‘The European gothic identified blackness with the super-ego.’ (Fiedler, 1967: 160-1)

‘Walt realised that she had to be different and described her as a mixture of Lady Macbeth and the Big Bad Wolf.’ (Making of a Masterpiece, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs re-issue)

Developing the idea of the super-ego is the scene where the Queen is giving orders to the Woodsman to kill Snow White and asking him to bring her heart back in an ornamental box as proof, we see behind her that there is a throne with a large peacock motif. The peacock is a regal bird that looks as though it is wearing a crown. There is a saying ‘As proud as a peacock’, referring to the resplendence of the bird with his tail feathers on show. A peacock is beautiful and wants everyone to know it, strutting around like no other is good enough. There is a moment when the Queen is stood centrally in front of the throne and it looks as though the peacock feathers belong to her.

When the Woodsman fails in his task, the Queen realises she must kill Snow White herself. She glides down the stone spiral staircase to her cellar, her cloak billowing out behind her. The cellar is full of books with titles such as ‘Black Arts’ and ‘Black Magic’. Not only does the Queen have a magic mirror but she possesses the ability to perform magic herself, she is a witch, right down to the cauldron. She also has a raven down there.

This is the beginning of the Queen’s transformation from manipulator to perpetrator. It is a duality often seen in horror films, the evil one as a separate entity to that of the monster which is actually committing the horrifying deeds. It is a means of distancing themselves from the act and is a motif that can be seen in such tales as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, 1919) where it is physically separate, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Robertson, 1920) where it is in the same body but with physical differences as in Snow White.

‘Transformation scenes were also popular in the thirties…Reference was made by Disney specifically to [Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde] in the story conferences…’ (Allan, 1999: 53)

There are many similarities between the transformations scenes in Snow White and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. To begin with Dr. Jekyll, like the Queen, is very refined looking, he is smart in his top hat and cloak, bow tie and walking stick. While he is working in his lab mixing chemicals to create a potion to change himself into another entity capable of immoral behaviour, the Queen is in her cellar mixing less conventional ingredients (‘A scream of fright’) to create a guise for herself so she can commit murder.

When their respective potions are ready (both contained in what appear to be wine glasses) the time to drink arrives. Whereas Dr. Jekyll initially struggles with the decision as he is a good man, the Queen clasps the goblet with both hands and gulps it down. When he has swallowed, Dr. Jekyll

throwing herself back and clutching at her throat. On a background of billowing smoke we see a shot of her elegant hands, as in Dr. Jekyll, morph into something altogether more hideous. Her long, slender fingers become longer still but withered with protruding knuckles and claw-like nails.

While we see Dr. Jekyll’s alter ego immediately, the Queen‘s revelation is teasing. We see it’s shadow first before the ‘camera’ pans around to show a person covered by a cape. As this person turns around, it’s eyes peering over the cape, hiding it’s face, it is pulled back to reveal the hag in all her ugliness. From beginning to end, this scene is one of the scariest in Snow White.

Like their pre-transformation selves, their monstrous entities are not unalike either. They are both hunched over with capes covering them, unkempt hair, gnarled hands and an eager disposition.

No longer the Queen but the Witch, she continues in her dungeon to make a poison apple to induce the ‘Sleeping Death’ in Snow White. There is a hole in the Witch’s plan, one that in a bout of naivety herself, she dismisses, that Snow White can be revived by ‘her love’s first kiss’.

Whereas the Queen is cool and detached, the Witch has emotions. In this guise you can see she is starting to feel the enjoyment in what she is doing. It is no longer a necessity to kill Snow White, it is a pleasure. This could beg the question, what is scarier - someone who kills with no emotion or someone who actually enjoys it? She is no longer the tall, elegant and beautiful Queen but a hunched, haggard and grotesque old crone.

In The Disney Villains, Johnston and Thomas feel that,

‘Her large round eyes…give an eerie state that is almost hypnotic. There is magic in those eyes which fits the change that produced it. ‘ (Johnston, Thomas 1993:56)

To me, the bulging eyes seem to be bulging with anticipation and enthusiasm for what she is going to do, a nervous energy, adrenalin pumping through her at the thought of her actions.

The Witch sets out into the forest by a gondola style boat through mist. This is another scene that Robert Allan compares to Gustavé Dore’s illustrations for Dante’s Inferno (Allan, 1999: 49). She looks like she is crossing the river Styx, though in her case, she must surely be leaving hell in order to carry out her frightful act. It also bears a striking resemblance to a scene in The Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian, 1925) where the Phantom rows through the underground lakes of the city with his love in tow (though he is not hers). As the Witch creeps on foot now, there are high pitched violins in the music increasing the sense of impending danger. At the cottage, the Dwarfs are getting ready to go to work, Doc leaves Snow White with a word of warning,

‘Don’t forget my dear, the old Queen’s a sly one, full of witchcraft, so beware of strangers.’

Throughout the film there is the anticipation of death, manifested on screen by two vultures who follow the Witch through the forest to the Dwarfs’ cottage. Inside, Snow White is baking, the Witch peers in through the window and suggests she make apple pie instead of gooseberry. The animals of the forest are aware something is not right and try to attack the old woman. Feigning heart trouble (ironic considering it is as if she does not have one), she gains entrance to the little house. The animals run off to alert the Dwarfs to the Witch’s presence. Meanwhile, as a way of saying thank you to Snow White for her generosity, she offers her a bite of the apple, telling her it is a ‘magical wishing apple’. Literally backed against the wall by the Witch, Snow White takes a bite. As she does so, the ‘camera’ moves away from her, focussing on the Witch’s reaction to what is happening off screen,

‘Oh, I feel strange.’

The Witch can hardly contain her excitement, bouncing up and down, wringing her hands together and muttering words from the spell under her breath, all the while, we hear Snow White making breathless choking sounds. Still on the Witch, the ‘camera’ follows her gaze down to the floor. With a crescendo of music, we see Snow White’s forearm fall to the ground and into shot, the apple rolling from her lifeless hand. The subtlety of this moment makes it more dramatic, more hard hitting. It also proves that a gratuitous death scene is not needed in order to have an impact on an audience.

The act of not showing something, or just hinting had been used before and since for a mixture of effects. In Dracula (Todd Browning, 1931), we never see him rise from his coffin, the lid begins to move, the camera cuts away and we see a rat scurrying to hide, then back to see Dracula standing tall. Although perhaps intended to increase suspense, I feel the real reason behind this move was to preserve Dracula’s pride. There was probably no dignified way for actor Bela Lugosi to get out of the coffin, especially when wearing a long cape. More recently, Quentin Tarantino employed the method to satirical effect in Reservoir Dogs (1992), explicitly having the camera move away from the action as a captive has his ear sliced off. In Snow White, the effect is simply just powerful.

The Witch’s reaction to Snow White’s death is sheer delight,

‘Now I’ll be the fairest in the land!’

Unfortunately for her, the Dwarfs arrive and give chase, wielding sticks like unlit torches. This scene echoes that in Frankenstein (Whale, 1931). In this film, after Frankenstein’s monster has killed a young local girl, the villagers form a mob to hunt him through the Bavarian mountains, finally burning him alive in a windmill. In Snow White, the vultures are air born again, not satisfied with Snow White’s mere sleeping death. Trapped on a cliff edge the Witch is still determined to get away so tries to dislodge a boulder onto the nearing Dwarfs. Lightning strikes between her and the boulder and the ledge disintegrates beneath her. With a strangled scream she falls to her death, the boulder tumbling after. In the same way we do not see Snow White die, neither do we see the Witch. Simply, we see the vultures’ necks extend with glee as they follow her descent, they swoop down, eager for the feast.

Normality however, is not restored with the death of the Witch, the Dwarfs still believe that Snow White too is dead and they grieve hard for her keeping constant watch over her glass coffin, until one day the Prince finds his way back to her. The glass case is removed and he kisses her, ‘Her love’s first kiss’. Snow White starts to stir and he carries her to his horse, allowing her to say goodbye to each of the joyous Dwarfs. The couple ride off into the forest and ‘they lived happily ever after’. A happy ending such as this is not so common in horror, Gothic or otherwise. In these, although order may be resumed, it does not bring back any of those killed in the preceding story.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ends a dark tale of jealousy on the bright note of love, everything right in the world and no opening left for a sequel.

Whilst Disney went on to create other animated films with a fearful element (see ‘Night on Bald Mountain from Fantasia (1940) with its flying skeletons), so RKO, the distributors of Snow White, did the same. A man named Val Lewton became renowned for producing a number of horror films for the company.

Snow White follows many of the conventions of the horror genre from iconography such as the Queen’s gothic castle also seen in Dracula, to the age old battle of good versus evil as seen in all good horror movies.

This battle is what tells the story, evil triumphs over good until the end of the film when good comes through and order is restored.

Even though Snow White was not intended to be a straight horror film, it was definitely intended to thrill and excite and scare its audience with Walt Disney taking a number of cues from the horror movies that were being successful during the time of Snow White’s conception. The film adheres to many of the conventions, especially those of the gothic such as castles, highly emotional and panicked women, not to mention the notion of separated lovers from gothic’s romantic subgenre.

Leslie Fiedler claims,

‘...the gothic romance is fundamentally anti-bourgeois and can only with difficulty be adapted to the needs of the sentimental middle-class.’

Something successfully done by Walt Disney in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

ALLAN, R. Walt Disney and Europe: European Influences on the Animated Feature Films of Walt Disney, 1999, Indiana University Press

CLARKE, J. Animated Films, 2004, Virgin Books

CREED, B. The Monstrous Feminine, 1993, Routledge

ELLIOT, M. Walt Disney, Hollywood’s Dark Prince, 1993, Harper Paperbacks

GELDER, K. ed. The Horror Reader, 2000, Routledge

JOHNSTON, O. THOMAS, F. The Disney Villain, 1993, Hyperion

LE BLANC, M. ODELL, C. Horror Films (revised and updated edition) 2003, Pocket Essentials

MALTIN, L. The Disney Films (new update edition), 1984, Crown Publishers Inc.

SCHICKEL, R. The Disney Version (3 rd edition) 1997, _______

STRINATI, D, Introduction to Studying Popular Culture, 2000, Routledge

WELLS, P. Animation and America, 2002, Edinburgh University Press

 

Films

101 Dalmatians 1961 dir. Clyde Geronimi, Walt Disney Pictures

Aladdin 1992 dir. Ron Clements, Walt Disney Pictures

Bambi 1942 dir. David Hand, Walt Disney Pictures

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari 1919 dir. Robert Wiene, Decla-Bioscop AG

Dracula 1931 dir. Tod Browning, Universal Pictures

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1920 dir. John S. Robertson, Famous Player-Lasky Corporation

Frankenstein 1931 dir. James Whale, Universal Pictures

Monsters Inc. 2001 dir. Peter Docter, Pixar Animation Studios, Walt Disney Pictures

Nosferatu 1922 dir. F.W. Murnau, Jofa-Atelier Berlin-Johannisthal

The Phantom of the Opera 1925 dir. Rupert Julian, Universal Pictures

Reservoir Dogs 1992 dir. Quentin Tarantino, Miramax Films

Sleeping Beauty 1959 dir. Clyde Geronimi, Walt Disney Pictures

Snow White 1937 dir. David Hand, Walt Disney Pictures

 

Websites

www.imdb.com

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