Why Are Witches Green?

girl witch green pot

We all know witches ride brooms and keep black cats for sidekick pets, but why the green witch? That tradition started more recently than you might think.

The history of witches is terrifying and sad and is basically the story of marginalised people. Worse, people around the contemporary world are still abused because of supernatural beliefs about their so-called witchcraft.

In children’s literature, however, witches are a useful trope.

We’re all familiar with the idea that witches ride brooms.

But when did witches become green?

The Green Witch In The Wizard Of Oz

Before the film adaptation, the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz looked like this:

Wicked Witch of the West by original illustrator William Wallace Denslow
Anton Loeb illustration of the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz

Then the film was made. If successful, a film changes a work permanently. Just as Disney has forever placed in our minds the names of the seven dwarfs (who were never named before that), the film starring Judy Garland forever left us with the image of the green Wicked Witch Of The West.

Margaret Hamilton in the 1939 film

The green-skinned crone is actually a relatively new incarnation of the evil witch – in fact, while the evil witch as a cultural narrative dates back millennia, the green skin dates precisely back to 1939 and the MGM film, The Wizard of Oz. Margaret Hamilton’s cackling and emerald-tinted portrayal of the Wicked Witch of the West, rendered in vivid Technicolor, is the only reason that anyone associates green skin with witches. As Professor Marion Gibson, associate professor of Renaissance and magical literatures at the University of Exeter and an expert in popular depictions of witches, explained, via email, “There are a few images of witches for instance, on Halloween postcards with odd coloured faces (usually red/orange, surprisingly) but MGM’s green-faced witch is the first to make a key feature of a completely non-human skin colour.”

Why Are Witches Green? from Boing Boing

There is a sad story of actor abuse behind Margaret Hamilton’s greenness.

On 23 December 1938, while filming the Wicked Witch’s exit from Munchkinland in a blaze of fire, Hamilton suffered first-degree burns on the right side of her face and second-degree burns on her right hand; the flames rose too soon, before she had descended below the stage. Hamilton’s green makeup was copper-based and potentially toxic, and had to be removed from her burned flesh with alcohol — an intensely painful process. She was not able to return to the movie until 10 February. When she did return, she wore green gloves, since her hand was not yet fully healed.

OzWikia

Soon, witches in picture books turned green under the influence of the Wizard of Oz.

Below is an illustration for the Charles Perrault’s 1961 depiction of Sleeping Beauty. The wicked fairy is depicted as an ugly green witch, to match her ugly personality.

La belle au bois dormant : The Sleeping Beauty and Other Stories, retold by Shirley Goulden; illustrated by Benvenuti, 1961

In the 1977 illustration below the skin is grey and sallow but the greenness is still there, in her gown. To make use of some very basic symbolism — the fairy is experiencing feelings of envy because she has not been invited to the party.

Sleeping Beauty grey green witch
Illustration by Sheilah Beckett, 1977

Gregory Maguire’s Wicked

There have been many, many retellings of The Wizard of Oz but the most culturally significant of those must be Wicked, in which Elphaba’s greenness is central.

[A] witch whose image was recently remade is Elphaba, from Wicked, who is also the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz’. In Wicked, the witch retains her original appearance, “with her green skin, black clothes, and flying broom Elphaba matches our physical conception of a witch” (Boyd 99). Her personality, on the other hand, is completely different. She remains a bit rough around the edges, but this is more defensiveness and a lack of social skills than an actual evil. She is given a sympathetic back-story, and the best intentions. Overall, Elphaba is a good person, and remains that way throughout both the novel and the play, thus becoming a relatable protagonist, rather than a villain.

Socademia

Macbeth’s witches were not green in Shakespeare’s day. So we know this cartoon is post Wizard of Oz movie.

Why green, though?

Green skin makes a character unambiguously non-human, so there’s one reason for the green skin. But there are real-world illnesses which can give skin a greenish hue.

Physical damage of various sorts can cause greenish skin. These causes include infections, fungal attack, chemical damage, bruising, and gangrene, among others.

Holidappy

Witches tend to be green and sick looking when they are not sexualised. (Not sure if you can be sexualised AND green — I’m sure it can be done):

Witches in popular literature and media […] became sexual entities, conniving and disgraceful. […] “witches are accused of crimes similar to those which made the femme fatale of 19th-century novels and dramas such a menacing literary persona” […] Through their magic and their sensual nature, they would tempt people, and trick them into doing inherently evil things, or make them vulnerable. Thus, the witch was seen as a villain, and sexual women were seen as menacing as well. Through this process of othering, this characterisation of sexually deviant women as witches, “the witch became the incarnation of the sins of the flesh, of female sexual function”.

However, witches are not always represented as being overly feminine and sexual in nature. Sometimes, they sit on the other end of the spectrum, as masculine, hideous creatures; still outliers from society’s usual expectations for women. These witches, with green skin and crooked noses, match our typical descriptions of the Halloween monsters, cursing maidens and keeping black cats or crows as company.

Socademia
The Wizard Of Oz- 1944, illustration by Evelyn Copelman
The Wizard Of Oz- 1944, illustration by Evelyn Copelman

GREEN WITCHES AND… LITTLE GREEN MEN?

If I say ‘little green men’, you know I mean aliens, right?

Since when were aliens meant to be green? 1947 is when. The UFO sighting craze kicked off in America in 1941 with the Cape Girardeau flying saucer crash (which definitely happened), but get this, the guy who saw the alien thought it was grey. It was a reporter who made aliens green, in a seemingly off-the-cuff phrase.

Dunno about you, but I think that reporter had seen The Wizard of Oz on film. And I bet In 1946, Harold M. Sherman, who wrote a pulp science fiction book called The Green Man: A Visitor From Space had seen The Wizard of Oz, too. 

The Green Man

Either that or green as Other was in the air. No surprise that Day of the Triffids was published in 1951.

For more on that whole green alien history, listen to Alien Invasion: How Little Green Men Took Over from the Every Little Thing podcast.

SEE ALSO

Header photo by Paige Cody

Middle Grade Novel Study: Coraline

Coraline with cat

Coraline is a 2002 novel by Neil Gaiman. Strangely, it is called a novella, despite being the typical length of a middle grade novel (30,640 words). This is one of those ‘children’s books’ for a universal audience, drawing on fears we all had as children. Neil Gaiman has said that adults find Coraline more terrifying than children do.

In 2009 Coraline was adapted for film, rendering the character Coraline slightly more passive with the addition of a male sidekick.

Coraline is an example of the battle-free myth form, and in order to adapt to a feature length film it was necessary for the director to add quite a bit of material. This is in line with my theory that the big struggle-free myth form is naturally shorter than the traditional, masculine mythic form. (I think Inside Out would have been better a bit shorter, too.)

INFLUENCES ON CORALINE

Coraline is a changeling story, but instead of the child being swapped, it’s the mother. There is a long history of changeling stories, which feeds upon a fear that our loved-ones are not who we think they are, or perhaps we are not who we think we are.

Coraline is a great example of an uncanny story. It is also a great example of contemporary gothic children’s literature. Gothic literature is often all about surfaces — tropes and trappings rather than psychic depths. For more on that specific thing, see Eve Sedgwick. You can read that paper for free if you register with JStor. See also the work of Catherine Spooner.

The influence of Fairy Tale: Hansel and Gretel as ur-Story

In general, male villains are WYSIWG. Even when they’re tricksters, we know they’re tricksters. But the villainous trickster who infiltrates the family home, pretending to be nurturer when she is no such thing, is a gendered archetype. In fairytales we see this woman played out as the step-mother, which is something the Grimm brothers changed (from plain old evil mother) to make the tales more palatable for a child audience. (Evil mums are more scary than evil step-mums.)

In Coraline, The Other Mother is sneaky, cunning, clever, intimidating, and seeks power. Just like many of the maternal figures in Disney movies or in fables (including Hansel and Gretel), the Other Mother is ugly (underneath) and craves power. These are two traits which are apparently bad for any women to have, and so she must be destroyed.

Alice’s adventures In Wonderland and Other Classic Tales

When an author wants to write their first fantasy novel for children, they’ll sometimes fall back on the books they themselves loved as kids. If they were Alice in Wonderland fans they might go the route of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. If they were partial to The Wizard of Oz they could do as Salman Rushdie did when he wrote Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

Betsy Bird

In a discussion about another book entirely, Betsy Bird  happens to point out that Coraline has been influenced by Alice In Wonderland, which has a mythic structure underneath but weird things happen which seem random and disconnected. A girl goes ‘down a rabbit hole’ (or through a small door) into a parallel universe, not so far from home at all. The story is populated by eccentrics who follow their own logic. For critics, it is very difficult to analyse Coraline as a real child. Coraline eludes the adult critic – like Freud’s “Dora” and Carroll’s Alice. She’s often quite opaque.

Thomas Byrne offers a much wider list of influences on Neil Gaiman’s work, noting that Gaiman is one of the contemporary authors who creates more nuanced characters than usual:

If we were to take a brief look at a collection of popular children’s books from the past featuring similar themes to Gaiman’s work – supernatural creatures, magic, witches, or other unexplainable phenomenon, we might be drawn to such classics as L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass, Lloyd Alexander’s The Black Cauldron, or C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. All of these books are widely considered to be classic tales from previous generations, and all have elements of the supernatural, from explicit witches and wizardry to the unseen resurrection of characters. All of these books have villains or evil characters, and Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West is one of the most prototypical of the entire genre. Yet, despite the proliferation of such ‘bad guys’ in these books, they do not seem to have the depth and realism of fright of contemporary works. These classic stories have clear designations to show that what is happening is make believe, which diminishes the realism and impact on their readers. Children who read these books can more easily convince themselves that what is happening is fictional, as the parallels to the main characters as they are going through such adventures are difficult to draw. In essence, most of these books are examples of mild escapist fiction, where the author provides a magical world for children to live in, but from which they can easily escape. This view is supported by fairy tale expert Jack Zipes in his essay “Are fairy tales still useful to Children?”: “…the very act of reading a fairy tale is an uncanny experience in that it separates the reader from the restrictions of reality from the onset…”.

Thomas Byrne
The Specific Influence Of Mrs Clifford

Neil Gaiman has said that he was influenced directly by a tale written by Mrs. (Lucy) Clifford in a collection called Anyhow Stories (1882). This creepy tale is called “The New Mother”. The protagonists are called by Mrs. Clifford’s own children’s nicknames, Turkey and Blue-Eyes.

Alison Lurie writes of “The New Mother”:

In “The New Mother” … the frightening thing is that inanimate matter has become real. This tale draws on the primitive fear of objects that survives just below the surface in most of us — the suspicion that our new tennis racket or our old Toyota is secretly hostile, that the politician speaking on television is really a plastic replica. It is also, of course, a classic tale of separation anxiety, made more terrifying because it does not take place “in a faraway land, but [in] England with typical village, post office, house-hold furnishings etc.”

The “strange wild-looking girl” whom the children in “The New Mother” find sitting by the wayside claims that she lives in their villages, but they have never seen her there before. She is sitting on a musical instrument called a peardrum, which, she tells them, she will play only for naughty children. This peardrum, in the accompanying illustration, is shaped very like a womb; so it is not surprising to hear the girl claim that when she plays it a little man and woman come out and dance together. “The little woman has heard a secret — she tells it while she dances.”

Naturally the children long to see this dance and learn this secret, so they go home and try hard to be naughty. Their mother, distressed, tells them that if they do not stop she will have to go away and leave them “and send home a new mother, with glass eyes and a wooden tail.” But the children keep on trying to be naughty, encouraged by the girl with the peardrum, who remarks to them that “the pleasure of goodness centres in itself; the pleasures of naughtiness are many and varied.”

Day after day the children become naughtier — but never quite naughty enough for a strange girl. They break furniture and crockery, throw the clock on the floor, and put out the fire. Finally they behave so badly that their mother leaves them — but even then they do not get their wish. The strange girl dances past their cottage, accompanied by an old man playing in a peculiar way on a flute and two dogs waltzing on their hind legs. “Oh, stop!” the children cry, “and show us the little man and woman now.”

But the strange girl passes on, calling back to them: “Your new mother is coming. She is already on her way; but she only walks slowly, for her tail is rather long… but she is coming, she is coming — coming — coming.” The procession disappears down the road, becoming “a dark misty object”.

The children return to their disordered and deserted cottage to wait for night, and for the arrival of the new mother: “Suddenly, while they were sitting by the fire, they heard a sound as of something heavy being dragged along the ground outside, and then there was a loud and terrible knocking.” Turkey and Blue-Eyes bolt the door, but the new mother breaks it open with her tail. The children escape into the cold, dark forest, where they wander about like the famous Babes in the Wood, lonely and miserable. At the end of the story they are still living there, longing to go home and see their real mother once again.

The figure of the new mother and the elemental terror aroused by her coming seem to belong to a more primitive world than that of the usual English folktale. They suggest the carved wooden images and superstitions of the voodoo cult, which Mrs. Clifford may have seen or heard of during her childhood in Barbados and recalled, perhaps not even consciously, many years later.

Readers of Henry James may feel a particular shiver of recognition as they read this story. Like “The Turn Of The Screw”, written sixteen years later, it is the tale of two innocent children in late Victorian England who encounter a strange, attractive young woman who may be either a devil or a damned soul.She tempts them to disobedience, promising to reveal ambiguously sexual secrets, gradually leads them further and further into evil, and then disappears abruptly. It would be interesting to know whether James, when he wrote his famous ghost story, remembered his friend Lucy Clifford’s strange and haunting tale for children.

Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The power of subversive children’s literature

TV Tropes lists the story building-blocks which Gaiman makes use of in Coraline.

SETTING OF CORALINE

House

This is a moving house story and begins the way many ghost stories begin — a child moves into a new house where everything is scary. This is the archetypal scary mansion, broken into parts where eccentric characters share the building. You get the sense this is a labyrinthine setting, with the house several storeys high, and the well leading far, far into the ground. This makes full use of the symbolism of altitude. Coraline finds the well before she finds the little door. The well therefore functions like Chekhov’s gun. If there’s one secret place in this arena, we expect others.

See also: Symbolism Of The Dream House

Weather

This seems to be a mild English summer, with a torrential downpour more reminiscent of the tropics than of England. The rain outside, followed by the fog, gives the sense that this is a world separate from the real world, with the weather functioning as a kind of veil. We could probably say all sorts of Freudian things about that veil, too — something like ‘the rain and fog is the membrane between Freud’s conscious and unconscious states. Whatever happens inside the house is connected to the unconscious, where all sorts of weird and wacky things are allowed to come to the fore. This reading is probably a bridge too far, but this is an example of what gives Coraline its Gothic feel.

STORY STRUCTURE OF CORALINE

PARATEXT

Coraline book cover

The day after they moved in, Coraline went exploring….

In Coraline’s family’s new flat are twenty-one windows and fourteen doors. Thirteen of the doors open and close.

The fourteenth is locked, and on the other side is only a brick wall, until the day Coraline unlocks the door to find a passage to another flat in another house just like her own.

Only it’s different.

At first, things seem marvelous in the other flat. The food is better. The toy box is filled with wind-up angels that flutter around the bedroom, books whose pictures writhe and crawl and shimmer, little dinosaur skulls that chatter their teeth. But there’s another mother, and another father, and they want Coraline to stay with them and be their little girl. They want to change her and never let her go.

Other children are trapped there as well, lost souls behind the mirrors. Coraline is their only hope of rescue. She will have to fight with all her wits and all the tools she can find if she is to save the lost children, her ordinary life, and herself.

Coraline marketing copy

SHORTCOMING

This story is an example of how an adult response might be different from a child’s response.

I see Coraline’s biggest shortcoming as her inability to amuse herself while her parents are busy working. Sure, kids do need attention and quite a lot of it, but kids also need to learn how to read a damn book if their work-from-home parents are on deadline. I doubt the child reader sees both sides. I expect the typical child reader will empathise fully with Coraline’s loneliness and judge her parents harshly for dismissing her like that. We are not shown all the times when Coraline’s parents do spend time with her. I assume there are many — a child reader is only shown the time when the parents are busy.

Coraline’s biggest problem is boredom, but this is the state of mind that makes her start noticing things she wouldn’t have, had she found some way to occupy her mind. The film adaptation emphasises Coraline’s boredom, whereas the book emphasises her natural curiosity, making her less of a passive character.

DESIRE

At a surface level, Coraline wants fun. She wants to eat dinners that are not too fancy and not too bland. She thinks other kids have better families. These hypothetical other families are all in her head, later symbolised by The Other Parents through the portal.

Under the surface, Coraline wants company, specifically her parents’ attention. It is the end of the summer holidays and she has just moved to a new house, so she is naturally starved of company.

OPPONENT

Coraline’s parents are her opponent. Coraline wants to spend time with them, they want (need) to spend time on their work.

The Other Parents are an example of false-ally opponents. At this point I feel this category of character should be broken into two groups:

  1. The audience knows right away that these false-ally opponents are false
  2. This fact is revealed later — a surprise to the audience as much as to the main character

In this case, the reader knows right away that the Other Parents are not on her side. They are too good to be true. The film adaptation has the benefit of visuals to underscore this point, but how does Gaiman do it in the book? Coraline’s Other Bedroom is painted in Coraline’s favourite colours, but the colours look garish somehow.

The cat is a creepy character partly because he is ambiguous in his alliances. In fact, he’s out for himself. He sometimes helps Coraline, sometimes thwarts her plans, such as by killing the rat who is helping her. Yet he does lead her to the mirror and shows her what happened to her parents.

PLAN

Motivated by curiosity, and by the singing mice, Coraline keeps looking behind the tiny door. Eventually it opens up into a corridor and she goes through the portal.

When she realises her parents have left her, possibly to never come back, she goes to Miss Spink and Miss Forcilble, because isn’t that what sensible children always do, unless there’s some good reason not to tell adults? The problem with telling adults is, the adults often have the power to either fix the big problem or to provide emotional comfort, but these old theatre ladies are completely self-absorbed. They do not even hear Coraline, wrapped up entirely in their own obsessions. Gaiman made sure to establish this earlier. These characters talk past each other, as if they are living in their own world — which is interesting, because Coraline, too, is living in her own world. Glamorising the past at the expense of living in the moment is another way to avoid reality.

Coraline takes a while to work out what’s going on. She goes along with her imprisonment in The Other House, but when she has her revelation, that getting what she wants won’t lead to happiness, then she realises she needs to chase the rat, who will help release the ghost children from the mirror, along with her real parents.

BIG STRUGGLE

Typically for a story starring a girl, the big struggle of this book takes place (literally) inside Coraline’s own mind, beginning with the sequence where the cat murders the rat. Coraline defeats the Other Mother by throwing the black cat at her. Coraline is an example of a big struggle-free myth form, using wits instead of brute strength to win.

ANAGNORISIS

When Coraline is given everything she ostensibly wants, she knows that this doesn’t mean much:

I don’t want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted? Just like that, and it didn’t mean anything. What then?

But these things aren’t what she really wanted at all. Coraline’s under-the-conscious desire still hasn’t been met.

NEW SITUATION

Chapter thirteen (the final chapter) explains that the parents never realised they had been trapped inside the snow globe. But like many horrors, this creature opponent is robotic — defeat it though you try, it only comes back. (The trope of the disembodied hand is also used The Iron Giant.) The indestructible villain is common to adult thrillers and horrors as well. Australian classic horror Dead Calm springs to mind.

The Film Adaptation Of Coraline

Coraline movie poster

As much as I love the style and spookiness of the film, it is absolutely depressing to see what the screenwriters did in order to make it acceptable for the wider, ‘more universal’ audience required of high budget film productions.

Wybie is such an annoying, useless character you could equally make the case that the existence of Wybie does nothing for boys. He does nothing for girls, either:

  • One major difference between the novel and the movie is Selick’s addition of Wybie Lovat to the screenplay.
  • With the introduction of Wybie, all of a sudden Coraline has a rescuer. She doesn’t need to be the brave, solitary heroine. She is no longer the independently motivated, fearless adventurer Gaiman depicted her as, because she has a companion.
  • The novel’s Coraline is independently motivated and curious. She does a lot of solitary exploring and doesn’t have any recognizable fears. However, in the film she is portrayed differently. It seems she simply wanders from her house out of boredom, not out of genuine curiosity. Outside she is alarmed by noises and runs down the hill, terrified, and is nearly run over by a boy on a bike. The boy looms over her. Immediately in that situation she is made to be the lesser, submissive character. The boy on the bike is Wybie. This first encounter presents Coraline as easily frightened and places Wybie in a more dominant position.
  • The trend of Wybie as a figure of masculine authority continues. For example, in the movie there is an old well that part of the plot. Coraline does not discover it on her own as she does in the book, Wybie is the one to tell her about it.

cheers to Violet Rebelo for listing them

In other ways, Neil Gaiman’s feminism is retained in the movie adaptation, which leads most people to conclude that the film is ultimately a feminist work:

  • The main character is a girl.
  • Initially, Coraline tries to enforce gender roles in her family. She wants a “perfect” family. She doesn’t like that her father is the one to do the cooking, and asks her mother why she doesn’t ever cook. (Is it really because her father’s ‘recipes’ are horrible? Either way, the man as hopeless cook is an overdone trope in its own right.) But she learns that ‘perfect’ family does not mean a mother who cooks wonderful food a la 1950s White suburban America/England. (Is the father really a hopeless cook, or is he a fantastic cook, while Coraline is simply a fussy eater? That’s up for interpretation.)

I’ll leave it to you to decide. In any case, it is great that Coraline exists in the world.

What a little girl does with her copy of Coraline, and Neil Gaiman’s response.

Monster House Film Study

monster house

Monster House is a 2006 animated feature length film for a middle grade audience. The script was written by  Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab. Harmon and Schrab had collaborated on Laser Fart previously, a film which I have not seen and will not be adding to my watch list. Monster House is already 12 years old, but the animation still looks pretty good. It was animated at a time when actors were just starting to be used as models, which is why this looks better than The Polar Express. The one thing significantly improved by modern processing power is hair. Inability to depict hair and skin is why Pixar decided to make their first animated film about toys. The hair on the characters of Monster House looks plastic, like you get on a 1980s Ken Doll, compared to what you see in, say, Braveof 2012, in which hair is almost a character in its own right. (Animators have since gotten over their hair obsession, I think. Now hair is just hair!)

Screenwriter Harmon has been working in television since Monster House, notably on Rick and Morty. He also lists The Simpsons in his credits. Schrab has also been working in TV, most notably on The Sarah Silverman Program. Basically, these are youngish American comedy writers with a male sensibility.

MONSTER HOUSE STORY STRUCTURE



Genre Blend of Monster House

Monster House is a genre blend of Adventure and Comedy. Monster House is also a haunted house story, though it’s not DJ’s own house that is haunted, but the creepy old mansion across the road. Though not listed as a horror, this story borrows horror tropes. Horror and comedy are a surefire hit, if done correctly. Jump scares have to be genuine jump scares, and the writers have to know which scenes are to be taken seriously and which are a deliberate lampoon. Monster House achieves this balance, with genuine scares for the younger audience, followed by funny scenes which bring the audience back into safety… for a while. 

Unfortunately, the popular horror genre has some highly problematic tropes, and the writers of Monster House borrowed those, too.

Monster theory states that the characters viewed as villains or monsters reflect cultural unease or prejudices. Often, this leads to the vilification of those who defy gender roles, and perpetuates this vilification in the media. […Many] stories place a heavy emphasis on female sexuality as a particularly awful form of deviance.

Socademia

As for ‘adventure’, what does that mean for writers? It’s more of a director’s term than a scriptwriter’s term. Adventure means several things:

  • The characters will leave the safety of home, in which case we’re often talking about mythic structure. In this case, ‘leaving home’ means ‘walking across the street’, but it’s still really scary.
  • Lots of scenes written with spectacle in mind.

SHORTCOMING

At the beginning of the story DJ has been monitoring the creepy house across the road. He has noticed that when toys land on Nebbercracker’s front lawn they disappear. Something spooky is going on there. The problem is, he doesn’t know what’s going on and because he lives across the road, it’s in his best interest to find out. Things get personal when his best friend Chowder loses his expensive basketball. Then DJ thinks he accidentally killed Nebbercracker. This makes him invested.

DESIRE

Under the surface, DJ wants to prove himself a man. (This is of course related to his major Shortcoming, that he is a powerless boy.) At the beginning we hear his voice crack. He considers himself too old for Trick or Treating. He says he’s too old for a babysitter — he’d be just fine alone with his parents off on holiday. This allows for some good, ironic comedy in which it is revealed that DJ is mostly still a child. He sleeps with his bunny rabbit, he is freaked out by small things (though justifiably freaked out by big things).

In some ways, DJ’s wish to be manly is shown by his desire to be childlike. Unfortunately, as almost always happens in stories about boys written and funded by men, DJ’s wish to be manly is also shown by his desire to be non-feminine. (Hence an actual girl has to come along. More on that below.)

Note to all writers everywhere: The opposite of ‘man’ is not ‘girl’. The opposite of ‘man’ is ‘boy’. Girls do not exist to affirm your heterosexual manliness.

OPPONENT

Chowder and DJ are similar to Jeff Kinney’s Greg and Rowley. Greg is the pessimistic skinny one while Rowley is the chubby, childlike one. (More childlike than DJ.)Chowder is DJ’s Opponent in his mission to be considered more adult. Chowder is full of enthusiasm for trick or treating, and likes to play computer games and eat junk food. By hanging around with Chowder, DJ won’t be considered a man. Before they leave for their weekend away, the parents (especially the mother) are also opponents in this regard. DJ’s mother babies him in the most embarrassing fashion, making inappropriate remarks about his changing adolescent body.

Note that Jeff Kinney probably got this successful trio ensemble from J.K. Rowling, who probably got it from someone else again. The romantic opponent is Jenny — a Hermione character who is smart and organised and who drives the plan. Both DJ and Chowder compete for Jenny, at first objectifying her. We are encouraged to laugh at them as they try to impress her and fail. This, too, is the Wimpy Kid formula, in which girl characters are not quite human, considered a separate species (by the boys, and by extension, by the audience). Girls are also depicted as inherently ‘smarter’: more bookish, more scathing, more wily and underhanded. Jenny is an example of The Female Maturity Principle.

DJ’s babysitter, Zee, initially appears to be The Babysitter From Hell. She is depicted as a duplicitous goody-two-shoes who is actually into heavy metal and stoner boyfriends. The male scriptwriters have given her some pathetic, pseudo-feminist lines to make us despise her even more. Zee is actually on the same side as DJ though, because they have the same goal: To do their own thing in the house while they each leave the other alone. The babysitter’s stoner boyfriend represents the other side of the babysitter — together they form a slightly dangerous team. The audience knows this pair won’t be there to help the boys out should they need it. Parents and parental influences are safely out of the way in this story.

I have just listed the ‘inner circle’ of opposition, but the Big, Bad Opposition at first appears to be Nebbercracker, and is then revealed to be his house. This pairing is an example of a character who IS his house. At least, that’s how it’s set up:

When trespassed upon, the place reacts in a variety of antisocial ways: The lawn can suck things underground, and the facade takes on an unnaturally human visage, with two upper windows as eyes, a peak above the porch roof as a nose and the front door as a mouth, out of which rolls a lengthy tongue-like carpet with frog-like snatching ability.

Variety Review of Monster House

This house is haunted by a wife who Nebbercracker ‘rescued’ from the Freak Show (presumably so he could own her, though he seems wholly redeemed by the plot line). This woman was in the freak show because she was ‘the size of a house’ (very fat). I’m uncomfortable with this. In essence, the big reveal is that Nebbercracker is himself a victim, to a fat woman with PTSD from a lifetime of being held in a cage. Everything I could say on this has already been said, back in 2006:

As the house, Constance is therefore enormous, insatiable, crazed – just as she was in life. Mr. Nebbercracker, in contrast, is small and skinny, the one who placates her great rage. This portrayal of a fat woman as out of control with huge appetites (whether for food or for sex) – as, literally, a maneater – is unfortunately all too common. In fact, the very difference in size between a large wife and a smaller husband, whether in literature, film, or real life, communicates the message that she is the dominant partner. These stereotypes of fat women are particular to fat women – the reverse wouldn’t work. There are no cultural figures of fat men whose appetites must be controlled by their skinny wives.

Further, the house is only silenced when it is destroyed, at which point we see Constance’s ghost dancing with Nebbercracker before swirling off into the sky. Nebbercracker then breaks down in relief that he and Constance have finally been set free. Thus, it is only through Constance’s destruction that her appetite is forever controlled.

What’s wrong with this picture? Monster House doesn’t merely reinforce negative stereotypes – it depends upon them. There would be no plot if not for the purposefully grotesque figure of Constance.

Blogging While Feminist

Circus performers

Another film — not a children’s film — which uses the ‘big as a house woman’ as opponent is What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, from 1993.

Both films present images of the extremely fat woman as a hybridized “woman-house,” whose identity and body are merged with the physical structure of the house to which she is confined. Drawing upon the work of foundational psychoanalytic theorists, we illustrate that the fat woman as “woman-house” threatens those around her with psychic or physical annihilation and therefore must be destroyed.

As Big as a House: Representations of the Extremely Fat Woman and the Home by Caroline Narby  & Katherine Phelps

Stories in which non-conforming women must die at the end extend beyond this narrow ‘women as houses’ trope. It is seen in a wide variety of films, including one of my favourites, Thelma and Louise.

Art didn’t invent oppressive gender roles, racial stereotyping or rape culture, but it reflects, polishes and sells them back to us every moment of our waking lives. We make art, and it simultaneously makes us. Shouldn’t it follow, then, that we can change ourselves by changing the art we make?

Lindy West

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE HOUSE IN GHOST STORIES

The book cover below is strongly suggestive of ghosts. What is it, exactly? The house. The gables. The vintage texture overlay, the aura in the sky, and also the fact that we can only see a part of the house. Dormer windows, and preferably attics, are almost a requirement, as are chimneys — hopefully one of those wide old chimneys — the kind you could send a kid down.

Hoping to rejuvenate their flagging writing careers, Clare and Jess Martin inadvertently move into a haunted house. Not everyone will survive.

The haunted house is a character in its own right, ready to gobble up its inhabitants. One of the most famous haunted house stories was written by Shirley Jackson.

It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

RELATED

Top 10 Terrible Houses In Fiction from The Guardian

PLAN

In a middle grade story where a group of kids must defeat something supernatural, they often visit some kind of sage. This is straight from mythic structure, a la Joseph Campbell. The screenwriters achieve a twist on this sage guy by making him the local video arcade loser.

BIG STRUGGLE

Every time I’ve watched this film I’ve gotten bored for the Battle sequence. I feel this is the film’s structural shortcoming (trumped only by its ideological ones). This is a story would would have benefited from a shorter screening time, but unfortunately the industry is set up so that feature films must be of traditional feature length. The big struggle sequence involves a house which literally comes to life and turns into an animated monster. Spectacle can only last so long before the audience zones out. I have always responded like this to elongated big struggle sequences, though I suspect fans of action movies appreciate them. Reviewers described the big struggle sequence like this:

But the overriding impression is assaultive to a progressively off-putting degree. Kenan keeps hammering away with stun-gun cuts, visual ammo suddenly flying in from out of frame and ear-splitting sound effects and music cues, to the point where at least part of the audience will want to tune out. In this respect, it is a theme-park ride, with shocks and jolts provided with reliable regularity. Across 90 minutes, however, the experience is desensitizing and dispiriting and far too insistent.

Variety Review Of Monster House

Though Jenny was useful for formulating the plans, it’s up to the boys to save the day with brute force:

While Chowder is driving a steamshovel, simultaneously battling the now-mobile house and leading it to a strategic point under a crane, DJ and Jenny are scaling the crane, DJ with explosives in hand that he will drop into the house’s chimney, blowing it apart. Jenny has a minor role in this – I can’t remember the exact sequence of events, but it’s something like, DJ stumbles and drops the dynamite, she grabs it, throws it to DJ, and he drops it in. It was all so predictable – and so unnecessary. Why couldn’t Jenny have dropped it in? Why are girls almost always accessories and rarely the heroes? Allowing Jenny to be the one to finally drop the dynamite would have made it a group effort, rather than a boys’ effort with a girl tagging along.

Blogging While Feminist

That Jenny doesn’t get to use the weaponry is the least of my issues. My issue is that Jenny doesn’t get a character arc.

The mainstream (adult) film equivalent of this is giving the female character the gun while the male characters use brute force with blunt objects and so on. Guns, in movies, at least, are seen as the easy way to win a fight. I am familiar with the ‘feminist equality’ argument for private and unmoderated gun ownership: “Guns level the playing field. A woman with a gun can fight a big man.” American homicide statistics don’t back this argument up, but I digress.

ANAGNORISIS

Ironically, the anagnorisis that DJ has is that after all that adult responsibility of saving the neighbourhood from the massive house woman,  he would like to be a child for a little while longer. We realise this when he agrees to go trick or treating with Chowder.

Apart from this his friendship with Chowder has been reaffirmed. Previously, their child development was out of sync, but now these two buddies have overcome that.

NEW SITUATION

The house is destroyed. One lingering question: Where is Nebbercracker going to live? This is never answered, though Chowder speculates. Last thing we see is Bones climbing out of the rubble of the house. He has been trapped inside. He’ll probably assume he was on a drugged out bender.

In any case, the suburban neighborhood is now safe.

As for the romantic subplot, it’s kind of a rule that DJ ‘deserves’ to win Jenny. DJ is the more conventionally attractive boy and star of our story. Even J.K. Rowling herself has said that Harry should have ended up with Hermione. The problem with romantic subplots is that if the plot really is a distant second to the main action, we end up with a story in which the girl is given as a prize, with no real reason shown for why this girl would be interested in the boy she ends up with. For instance, a believable romance between equals features an ‘I understand you moment’, which is a phrase I’m borrowing from Matt Bird. I’ll just quote Matt:

The reason so many love stories fail, and so many lame love interests drag stories down, is that the writers have failed to add “I understand you” scenes.

“I understand you” moments don’t have anything to do with wanting to change the other person and everything to do with accepting: We don’t root for Beauty and the Beast to get together until the beast gives Belle his library.

Matt Bird, Secrets of Story

Matt does offer a bit of a disclaimer: Sometimes the writer can establish that two characters belong together before they even meet.

But why, exactly, are DJ and Jenny together? I can tell you why. It’s because DJ saw her across the road and it was love at first sight. In turn, Jenny is impressed by DJ’s saving the day while Jenny stood by and watched. I don’t know about you, but I think a smart, knowing character like Jenny would see right through that kind of bullshit. Don’t you? It’s how she was set up!

By the way, it was always clear that Chowder wasn’t going to ‘win the girl’. As explained by Michael Hauge, there are some rules of romantic triangles. (And by ‘triangle’ I mean the variety in which two boys are interested in one girl.)

1. Make the character who will be left behind a jerk who deserves to be jilted. This is the trick used here.Chowder is kind of lazy. The physical shortcut is that he’s also chubby, even though BMI and laziness do not correlate in real life. He says he worked really hard for his basketball, but he only asked his mom for a dollar 28 times. Not marriage material, in other words.

2. Let the rival be the one to realize the hero isn’t her destiny. 

3. Give “Ms. Wrong” someone better to be with, who makes her happier than the hero can.

4. (Rare) Leave your protagonist alone at the end, but better off moving on.

The writers of Monster House have written a film that mostly works, structurally. They’ve relied on established, unhelpful tropes to that end.