Originally billed as a children’s film,
Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
would eventually be included in Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments list
Nightmare Fuel, 2022). The crowd-sourced wiki site TV Tropes
devotes an entire page to the film’s abundance of
nightmare fuel (
Fuel, 2022), and academic Barbara Richter, speaking of the novel that
inspired the movie, observes,
murdered in a place that ostensibly ought to be a dream come true (2015,
Enduring . . . and terrifying
Given all the peculiarities of the film, its odd blend of childhood fancy and bad dream, it seems fitting to ask, Why does Wonka stick with us? Why is it both so popular and so darned scary?
After multiple — not entirely pleasant — viewings, I have come to suspect that the film endures because it reflects two related intrapsychic phenomena that often take place during childhood and frequently haunt the dark corners of psyche for our entire lives. These processes are the splitting off of threatening material into the shadow region of ourselves, and the sublimation of personal complexes into dissociative darkness.
An alternate reading of events …
In light of its
nightmarish qualities, some viewers have speculated that Wonka is actually
a horror flick (Deshawn, 2022). This makes a certain amount of sense, considering
that its plot involves a rising body count, a tunnel of nightmares, and an
overseer who periodically descends into madman’s cant. To my mind, however, the
film more truly belongs in the genre of dark fantasy, which
focuses on the psychology of its characters, their reactions to events,
and the perceptions that influence those reactions, typically blurring
the boundary between the delusional and the real (Dziemianoqicz,
1999, p. 212). It is this ‘dark fantasy’ fluidity that encourages me to take a
few interpretive liberties.
To make sense of my approach, let’s consider the Wonka story as it is conventionally understood: Willy Wonka has announced that, somewhere in the world, he has hidden five golden tickets in Wonka chocolate bars. Charlie Bucket, our protagonist, is desperate to find one. Four tickets are eventually found, but millions are on the hunt for the remaining ticket. An adult claims to have found the final prize, but this turns out to be a hoax. The worldwide search for tickets resumes, and it is at this point that Charlie discovers the fifth golden ticket, admitting him to the wondrous world of Wonka’s chocolate factory.
I offer a different
interpretation of events, however, beginning when the fifth ticket is found by a
man in Brazil, which I suggest is not a swindle. With this news, Charlie’s
chance to transcend his hardscrabble life is apparently lost, and his emotional
wounds swell up within him. His psyche attempts a quick repair to alleviate a
possible breakdown, weaving a fantasy that the discovery of the fifth ticket
was a hoax. Almost immediately Charlie discovers the fifth ticket. From this
point forward, the events of the story take place entirely in Charlie’s mind. It
is appropriate, then, that Wonka will soon sing a song suggesting that he and
Charlie find themselves,
in a world of pure imagination (Stuart,
If the story’s events take place in Charlie’s mind, each of the characters must be parts of him, as well. From Wonka to Grandpa Joe, the other ticket holders and the Oompa Loompas, all are aspects — essentially complexes — of Charlie’s psyche. On this basis, it seems especially fitting that Charlie’s last name is ‘Bucket.’ He will be, after all, the ‘container’ for all of the events that take place in the film.
In order to understand
my lens on the Wonka, it will also be important to recall that Charlie’s
father is dead (Stuart, 1971). The film mentions this in passing; no specifics
are given. It seems reasonable, however, to consider that Charlie, like many
children, may feel that he was somehow responsible for his father’s death. Depth
psychologist Jonathan Young suggests that many of us have similar
if was ever hurt, I should have been able
to prevent it (2022). On this basis, I imagine that the events at the
chocolate factory reflect Charlie’s attempt to be ‘good enough’ to avoid future
catastrophes like his father’s death, perhaps even earning him a replacement in
an idealized father figure: Wonka. At the same time, this good behavior might
also win Charlie a solution to his hunger and poverty.
In the best tradition of wish fulfillment, then, it makes sense that the film concludes with Wonka taking Charlie under his wing and giving him the factory, which includes a comfortable place to live and an unlimited supply of food (chocolate), as well as an income that assures the Bucket family will never want again.
The other kids as complexes
Contained in Charlie’s
‘bucket,’ the other children in the film represent Charlie’s shadow material,
aspects of himself that have been enfolded around archetypes, taking the form
of complexes. Such
splinter psyches (Jung, 1948/1969, p. 98) are
generally understood to be created by trauma (Stein, 1998, p. 47), and Charlie
is certainly sufficiently wounded to generate powerful complexes. The loss of
his father is central, but so is his poverty. Consider the power of hunger on a
growing child — the body continually screaming for more than it is getting, a
literal insufficiency of resources and the pains that result from it. And, in
addition to the general sense of insufficiency with poverty, we can easily
envision exposure to the elements — perhaps extreme cold in winter, brutal heat
On that basis, the
archetypes of starvation, privation, and need are undoubtedly present, ready to
form the core of Charlie’s complexes. Around such archetypal cores, complexes
wrap a personal shell (Whitmont, 1969, pp. 65-66). In this case, these ‘shell’ forms
include the children who tour the chocolate factory with Charlie, each with
thoroughly personal character (Jung, 1948/1969, p. 98).
The spoiled and wealthy
Veruca Salt, for instance, contains Charlie’s avarice, expressing all the
longing for stuff (clothing, a warm bed) that Charlie cannot. Not only
does his Veruca complex want everything, she wants it now — in contrast to
Charlie, who, according to his mother’s song,
Cheer up Charlie
(Stuart, 1971) can only wait for imagined better times. It is also worth noting
that Veruca has a living, doting father, something Charlie lacks.
Augustus Gloop is the complex who holds Charlie’s desperate hunger, so powerful that it takes the form of an absurd gluttony. This kid will eat anything — even the foam head off a microphone (Stuart, 1971). It is easy to imagine that Charlie — the shadow Charlie, anyway — if given a chance, would gorge himself similarly. How glorious it would feel to eat until he was full, and then eat some more! But, of course, to display this hunger in a home full of other hungry people is unacceptable. It would add to Mrs. Bucket’s guilt, and might even goad his family members into giving Charlie more than his share — which would endanger the health of the beloved, fragile adults in his life who have not yet died . . . but surely could.
On the surface, it seems like Violet Beauregard’s ‘badness’ revolves around gum chewing, but careful attention reveals that her real power lies in her assertiveness. She pushes inconvenient people out of her way and demands to be heard. Here, then, is the complex that counterbalances Charlie’s tendency toward meekness. He accepts his ‘back seat’ in life with little demur. What is the alternative, after all? Acting out would only bring more negative attention; he is already faced with a certain stigma around his poverty during his school day.
Finally, Mike Teevee, through his television-based escapism, carries Charlie’s wish to escape the confines of his life — perhaps even to leave his useless grandparents and well-meaning but weak mother behind. This is an extremely risky wish, just the sort of wish that — from a child’s perspective — could make a beloved relative blink out of existence. It seems safest, then, to relegate desires like this to his shadow, where they cannot hurt anyone.
But folding his
traumatized, ‘dangerous’ parts into complexes — secondary selves — is apparently not
enough. They pose such a danger that Charlie’s psyche believes they must, in
some sense, be destroyed. Veruca falls down a tube that may (or may not) lead
to a furnace. Augustus is sucked up a different sort of tube from which he is
liable to get poured into the boiler (Stuart, 1971). Mike Teevee is
sent off for an apparently risky
taffy puller procedure (Stuart,
1971). Violet Beauregard swells with blueberry juice and must be successfully
squeezed before she bursts. All the while, Wonka’s hand is at the wheel,
presenting blatant temptations and ushering these complex-kids to their doom — a circumstance
I will consider further below.
Oompa loompa doompadee doomsayers
In her book, Shadow
and Evil in Fairy Tales, Von Franz suggests that dwarfs are a recurring
feature in stories:
They are partly good and partly evil in comparative
mythology (1974, p. 193). In the case of Wonka’s diminutive
Oompa-Loompas, a good-evil tension holds firm. The Oompa Loompas may seem
alarmed when things go wrong, but they never really try to avert any
catastrophes. What they are willing to do, however, is show up after the
tragedy has happened and sing a finger-wagging song for the benefit of . . . who?
The ne’er-do-well child is already gone, after all. No, the Oompa Loompas are
singing for Charlie’s benefit, admonishing him not to fall into the same
dangerous habits as the complex-kids around him.
The collective voice of
the Oompa Loompas conveys the
strict ideal demands (Freud, 1989, p.
769) so often borne by the Freudian superego,
disobedience to which is
visited with ‘fear of conscience’ (Freud, 1989, p. 769):
you get when you guzzle down sweets, eating as much as an elephant eats? What
are you at getting terribly fat? What do you think will come of that? I don’t
like the look of it! (Stuart, 1971). This warning, ostensibly
well-intentioned but needlessly cruel, is one of the many confusing
contradictions in this Eden-turned-underworld. But no one is more confusing,
more contradictory, than Willy Wonka himself.
Wonka: father complex, Bluebeard, & Mister Dissociation
As noted above, Wonka
makes only one reference to Charlie’s dad:
If only his father were
alive (Stuart, 1971). We cannot know the exact date or circumstances of
his passing, except to assume that it was probably not very recent, as the family
is not actively grieving. And while Charlie does not mention his father or seem
to consciously reflect on memories of him, I will imagine Charlie as having
been old enough at the time of his dad’s death to have a sense of himself, and
of cause and effect — old enough, that is, to wonder if he was somehow to blame
for his father’s death.
At the same time, given the intense international response to Wonka’s announcement that he is opening the factory to visitors, I will assume that Wonka might reasonably be viewed by a child in this film-world as capable and benign. What could be bad about a man who dedicates himself to the making of candy, after all? Given that we see relatively few adult males in Charlie’s quotidian life — his grandfathers, his teacher, the news vendor, and the numinous-but-inaccessible Wonka — it makes sense that Charlie might seek a replacement father in the form of Wonka. His natural father, after all, is also inaccessible, and may bear a comparable numinosity in Charlie’s mind.
Similarly, it stands to
reason that Charlie’s father complex might take on the aspect of Willy
Wonka. He bears some common archetypal features of the father: male, associated
with material support (a powerful business owner who can always provide food),
and, as we discover at the end of Charlie’s fantasy, able and willing to pass
along a trade. But Wonka as father-complex has some unusual, shadow features,
as well. He is tricksy: just as Charlie’s father could not be trusted not to
die, Wonka’s statements and intentions cannot be trusted, either. This quality is
so significant that actor Gene Wilder, in preparing for the part, specifically
established that he did not want viewers to know if Wonka was
telling the truth (Perkins, 2012). Another shadow feature of the Wonka
father complex is his otherworldliness: he suddenly slips into reverie, and the
dreamy nature of the chocolate factory suggests that he is a keeper of visions.
This otherworldly quality is fitting, as Charlie’s deceased father is literally
a denizen of the ‘other world.’
But beyond the merely
shadowy, there are sinister aspects to Willy Wonka. Eclipsing a mere father
complex, Wonka becomes a figure who violently enforces Charlie’s good behavior
so that nothing as catastrophic as father-loss ever happens to Charlie again. It
is by Wonka’s hand that Charlie’s sub-selves are done away with. Here we see
plainly the figure Kalsched calls
‘Mr. Dissociation’ himself — an emissary
from the dark world of the unconscious, a true diabolos (1996, p.
34). In this form, Wonka responds the boy’s
(Kalsched, 1996, p. 34), a desperate need to avoid any further traumas like the
death of his father. Wonka is the very personification of dissociation,
shunting off threatening desires and impulses, and the parts of self who
contain them. Like an intrapsychic executioner, he dismembers Charlie’s psyche,
Now we see Wonka as a true nightmare figure. He is archetypally aligned with Bluebeard, setting out temptations and plainly hoping that his ostensible ‘wishes’ will be violated. Here is a chocolate river, food-addicted Augustus. But do not drink. Here is a magical television, TV-addicted Mike, but do not let your fascination take hold of you. Here are the geese that lay golden eggs, Veruca, and magic gum for the gum-chewer, Violet. Oh, no, I’m not trying to tempt you. Surely not. In succumbing to temptation, each child gives Wonka ‘justification’ for the cruelties he intended all along. Meanwhile, Charlie is reminded — four times in all — just how brutally greed and other ‘bad’ behavior is rewarded. Fathers can die. Children can, too.
I now return to my original question: what makes Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory both so compelling and so terrifying? I believe Freud’s account of the uncanny will help make things clear.
Essentially, Freud tells us that one of the reasons things strike us as uncanny — bearing a particular, numinous form of spookiness — is that they hook, or perhaps constellate, material previously repressed in the psyche (Freud, 1919, p. 17). I would argue that this might extend, not only to specific contents that are repressed, but to the very act of repression itself. In this way, when we engage an external image that resembles the inner processes of dissociating — such as the inexorable eradication of one irksome child after another — we get a frightening shiver. In fact, this is old, familiar territory resembling the ‘killing’ nature of repression (or dissociation) itself. At the same time, our uncanny feeling is loaded with a sense of the numinous — first, because the act of repression is archetypal, but also because the psychic contents which were suppressed where highly archetypal, as well.
In this way, we can see Stuart’s dark fantasy as an expression of the uncanny: both frightening and numinous — and therefore received by audiences as both terrifying and fascinating. More than fifty years later, many remember it with a shudder, some going so far as to unpack its frights in academic papers.
But to say that the movie is uncanny, and even to understand why it feels uncanny, offers viewers no particular resolution. Yes, the image of repression of selves is one that carries a sense of disturbance, depicting a real violence to the psyche. But how can we grow from this knowing?
Corrections and compensations
As with many myths and
fairy tales that echo an intrapsychic problem, Wonka offers hints at
solutions (Von Franz, 1974, p. 13) to Charlie’s troubles.
The character of
Grandpa Joe, while not always admirable — languishing in bed for many years, yet
easily roused when a golden ticket appears — is a savvy antidote to Charlie’s timid
goodness. A complex who compensates for Charlie’s one-sidedness, he is, in some
respects, more childlike than the often-somber Charlie. Grandpa carries
Charlie’s mischievous tendencies, encouraging Charlie to sneak a taste of
fizzy lifting drinks (Stuart, 1971). And when Willy Wonka unfairly
berates Charlie —
You get nothing! shouts the chocolatier (Stuart,
1971) — it is Grandpa who refuses to take it lying down.
You’re an inhuman
monster! he bellows back (Stuart, 1971). Grandpa, then, may serve as
figure of compensation, or even correction, for Charlie. It is encouraging that,
of all his complexes, Charlie seems to have the closest connection with this
one; Grandpa is a sort of mentor for the boy, even if he is not strong enough
to function in the role of surrogate father.
It is also worth noting that Charlie’s psyche cannot fully conceal that violent forces are at work in his fantasy world. An image of the beheading of a chicken in Wonka’s infamous tunnel scene reminds us that, although inheriting the factory may look like an answer to all of Charlie’s problems, this solution exacts a price: the dismemberment of Charlie’s psyche, the dissociation of some of the most life-giving parts of himself. Some part of Charlie knows that the rewards which come from repression carry a nightmarish price tag. In this awareness, we may see the potential for healing.
When Charlie is awarded the chocolate factory, a replacement father, and the ability to rise above his old life in a glass elevator (Stuart, 1971), his conscious mind seems confident that all his troubles are over. His commitment to being ‘good’ (returning the gobstopper, repressing his shadow) has apparently changed everything, averting future catastrophe. What we have, then, at least in Charlie’s mind, is a redemption story. The loss and pain of the past is turned to light.
But, as Dan McAdams notes, not every story can — or should — be redeemed (2005, pp. 261-262). Some hardships cannot be neatly knotted with a bow. Charlie was an impoverished child, surrounded by a world insensitive to his need. There is nothing that can ’redeem’ Charlie’s suffering. Despite longings to the contrary, being awarded a chocolate factory lends no particular meaning to his experience, nor does sudden excess heal his old, traumatic want.
Questions and conclusions
Just how acceptable are Wonka’s Bluebeard behaviors? Is Charlie’s passivity is really all that benign when compared to kids who are, at least, willing assert their real needs? The uneasy mirror offered by Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory may be precisely the draw that keeps us coming back. Wonka repeatedly confronts us with the human tendency dismember our own psyches, forcing us to wonder if what we have lost is really ‘worth it.’ In our development, and throughout our lives, we shape ourselves for the sake of perceived safety, or to please the world, and we lose ourselves in the bargain. Here, says Wonka, is what this bargain really looks like. It is an Eden with a tunnel of horrors at its heart.
But the film also suggests what we might secretly suspect: that our dark side, our avarice and gluttony, our demands for attention, even our desires to escape the world — these have saving powers. We need the mischief and disobedience of Grandpa Joe. We need the child inside of us to shout, at times, I WANT! I NEED! And if these psychic figures have been shunted off, we need to know about that, too. It is only through awareness that we can begin to welcome these inner kids home.