When I rented The Wizard of Oz for my son Jake (who was five at the time), I prepped him with a synopsis to ensure the content wasn’t too scary. My husband even played the song “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” to give him an idea of the jubilant freedom the people of Munchkinland felt once East’s wicked sister was rubbed out by Dorothy’s falling house. Needless to say, he loved the concept.
I sat with Jake as my father did with me. I had been terrified of the movie and had recurring nightmares that the Wicked Witch was living in my basement. Yet my son’s reaction to one of the reigning female villains of all time (she ranks just below Nurse Ratched) was decidedly positive.
When I asked him what his favorite part of the movie was, he surprisingly said, “The witch.” “Why?” I asked. “I liked her green face. And her broom. It was cool.”
“Did any part of the movie scare you?” I asked, dumbfounded by my son’s response.
His face turned serious. “Can our house fly away like Dorothy’s?” The witch, I realized, was not something he needed to be afraid of, because, duh Mom, witches aren’t real. Tornadoes, on the other hand, are more likely to kill us. “Not in New Jersey, honey,” I answered.
This was not the first time I saw Jake’s interest in villainous characters. He’s been watching all six episodes of Star Wars for years. His favorite character? Darth Vader, rated by The American Film Institute as the third-greatest villain of all time. Even my son’s pre-k girlfriend, Franny, knew about his love for Vader. “Franny wants to come over and see my Darth Vader costume,” Jake said when he came home from school one day. (Oh, so that’s how it works in preschool.)
For Halloween, there was no pondering over the costume. Big, black, powerful and robotic, my son wanted the dark side to storm troop over the streets of our small town.
“What about Han Solo?” I asked, pushing my favorite character. Who could resist the ornery, handsome and rebellious Harrison Ford? He’s Indiana Jones for chrissakes! Not that Jake objected to Han Solo or Luke Skywalker – he said he liked the good guys too – but commandeering a red light saber and swinging it with threats of cutting someone’s arm off (for pretend) was far more exciting.
I asked some of the other parents what their children’s preferences were, but most of their kids wanted to be good guys, like Spiderman, a knight in shining armor or a fireman. One father actually expressed envy of Jake’s fascination with the dark side. “I can’t show my son anything like Star Wars,” he said. “He’s too scared. He just refuses.”
Beth Block, a child therapist, reassured me this was perfectly normal. In therapy speak, she explained that all kids are in touch with archetypal conflicts and are constantly playing them out. “Most kids are seeking to find their own sense of power and control, so they identify with the extreme versions of those superheroes or bad guys,” she said. “Then they find strong characters like Darth Vader, who perfectly represent them.”
A study conducted at California State University on the psychological appeal of movie monsters found that most men and boys were attracted to the monsters’ superhuman strength, their intelligence and their embodiment of pure evil, not their ability to kill people. Their interest had more to do with the villain’s defiance and showing the dark side of human nature than it did with aggression.
This echoed what my friend Beth already said: Kids are drawn to the power the bad guy holds. In fact, two out of three of those qualities – strength and intelligence – are inherently good qualities. I liked this concept. Instead of being afraid of this kind of evil power, as I was as a child, Jake was awestruck by it.
Another study published in the Journal of Consumer Research showed that people who like watching scary movies are happy to be scared. The researchers rejected the long-standing theory that people are unable to experience negative and positive emotions simultaneously, concluding that “people experience positive feelings while still experiencing fearfulness. The most pleasant moments of a particular event may also be the most fearful.”
Thinking over both Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz, I realized there was one important thread I had overlooked. In both scenarios, the bad guy doesn’t win. The Wicked Witch melts, and Darth Vader finally resists the dark side by refusing to kill his son, Luke. Would Jake be as interested if evil had prevailed? My sense is no.
He loves re-watching the end of the Star Wars trilogy with Darth Vader’s redemption and his after-life reunion with two “good guys” – Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi. And though he found the Wicked Witch the most interesting character in The Wizard of Oz, he was glad she was gone.
In the end, despite my son’s seeming predilection toward evil, he really just wanted what all of his other friends wanted: for the good guy to come out on top.
Photo: Alejandro Slocker