Trauma Scene:: Willy Wonka’s Boat Ride

The 1971 PG-rated musical fantasy WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY is based on the book CHARLIE AND THE FACTORY by frequent kindertrauma inducer Roald Dahl (THE WITCHES, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, etc.). Having initially spawned from the mind of Dahl, exactly zero people will be surprised to learn that freaky, bizarre, and unsettling things abound in the film. Diminutive, scornful orange-skinned, green-haired men bounce about, a shady creep known as Slugworth stalks amongst the shadows and it’s clear any musical outburst revealing a lack of character may result in premature death. Still, no scene of presumed child torture and eradication that takes place within the movie can compare with the notorious transitional scene involving wacky Wonka (Gene Wilder) transporting his guests via Loompa-powered paddle boat through what appears to be the bowels of Hell.

“What is this, a freak out?” rightfully yelps Violet Beauregarde, as the surreal nightmare journey begins. As the boat enters the swirling tunnel, flashing psychedelic hues twirl and ooze across the screen and then give way to shocking images of gnawing insects and slithering snakes. Passengers become nauseated as the speed intensifies and a giant eyeball appears and is then eclipsed by a horrendous FACES OF DEATH-worthy close-up of a live chicken with its head being chopped off by a cleaver; even the movie’s antagonist Mr. Slugworth materializes with a judgmental glare before vaporizing. Just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, Wonka begins to sing a deathly dirge with the cadence of a mournful phantom…

There’s no earthly way of knowing

Which direction we are going

There’s no knowing where we’re rowing

Or which way the river’s flowing

Is it raining? Is it snowing?

Is a hurricane a blowing?

Wonka’s voice becomes more desperate, intense, and frenzied as the boat and lava lamp colors accelerate…

Not a speck of light is showing

So the danger must be growing.

Are the fires of hell a glowing?

Is the grisly reaper mowing?

Yes! The danger must be growing

For the rowers keep on rowing.

And they’re certainly not showing

Any signs that they are slowing!

Even the most hardened and cynical of Wonka’s morally challenged guests are beyond terror and fear that their fates are sealed. Just as the pulsating nightmare reaches a fever pitch, spoiled Veruca Salt demands that her father make it stop. Mr. Salt yells at Wonka that they’ve gone far enough, Wonka agrees, and then WHAM: they’ve reached their brightly lit destination and all is (relatively) normal again. Somehow the group’s trust in Wonka appears to be instantly restored but I (and many other young viewers, I’m sure) never looked at the guy the same way again.

Trauma Scene:: Large Marge in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

You wouldn’t guess that a PG-rated movie that is essentially a love story between a special boy and his special bike would be such a notorious traumatizer but here we are. Of course, knowing that the film is also the directorial feature debut of Tim Burton makes it all that much more understandable.

Poor Pee-Wee (Paul Reubens) is on a cross-country adventure to reclaim his bicycle which he believes resides in the basement of the Alamo in Texas thanks to some shady information from a dubious psychic. At one point in his journey, he is picked up from the side of the road by a gruff, older female truck driver (character actress Alice Nunn) with wild hair and a crazed, unblinking look on her face. She tells Pee-Wee of a horrible accident she witnessed as he stares at her in shock and awe. At one point, as she describes the gruesome appearance of the accident victim, her entire face transforms (with the aid of stop-motion, Claymation trickery) into a bug-eyed howling freak with frazzled hair. As she shrieks so does Pee-Wee and rightfully so.

Later, as she drops a bewildered and still stunned Pee-Wee off at a roadside dinner she says, “Tell them Large Marge sent you.” Dutifully our hero repeats the trucker’s words to the diner patrons who gasp in amazement and point to a nearby shrine/memorial; it turns out Large Marge has been dead for ten years and tonight is the anniversary of her demise!

Large Marge is as humorous as she is freaky and her monstrous appearance is as cartoonish and over the top as the rest of this classic eighties comedy. Still, it’s not surprising that younger viewers might be taken completely off guard with this lightning strike of surreal imagery, especially with the hushed ghost story build-up that is delivered beforehand. Large Marge is the perfect dosage of horror and hilarity and nobody who has seen the film would ever disagree.

Special Bonus Trauma: Pee–Wee’s Nightmares. Pee-Wee experiences very relatable anxiety when he is separated from the love of his life, his cherished bicycle. His emotional turmoil is expressed with Hitchcock-level paranoia and chronic bad dreams. His first nightmare involving a dinosaur chomping on his bike is basically adorable but his second, which centers on a group of hideous clowns preparing his beloved for surgery, is anything but. For a moment there seems to be one doctor who may be reliable and competent but then he takes off his surgical mask to reveal he’s a terrifying clown with a twisted traumatizing grimace as well. All eventually ends happily with Pee-Wee becoming a celebrated hero with a movie made from his many tribulations but you’d never guess it from this horrifying clown-strewn nightmare.