This being the time of year especially reserved for contemplations of all things spooky, one can hardly escape the realization that what one person or another finds frightening varies a great deal – and often reflects fear-inducing formative experiences from childhood, seared into the seahorse-shaped brain structure known as the hippocampus. For writers, filmmakers and other artists, finding common themes that will reliably trigger a sense of horror for many or most is a specialized and difficult skill. Too many “scary” archetypes have been turned into familiar tropes, benign images seen everywhere hanging on front doors to greet trick-or-treaters. So we jaded consumers rightly admire those who still manage to figure out how to scare audiences, in an entertaining way.
In the newspaper The Guardian a couple of weeks ago, Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood – crafter of a prime literary spark of terror among contemporary feminists, The Handmaid’s Tale – paid tribute to the artistry of one of her peers who knows how to invoke the dark and disturbing, Neil Gaiman. Atwood opened her article with this anecdote: “Once, during an onstage discussion of the type literary festivals go in for, I frightened Neil Gaiman by channeling the voice of the Wicked Witch of the West from the film The Wizard of Oz. ‘And your little dog, too!’ I cackled. ‘No! No! Don’t do that!’ cried Neil. He then explained that he had been petrified by this green-tinted witch as an eight-year-old. Behold: a literary influence had been discovered!”
Double kudos are due Atwood for unveiling what scares an eminent scarer. But Gaiman is far from the only person whose hippocampus was permanently invaded by a scene from the 1939 movie version of The Wizard of Oz. The green-tinted visage and screeching voice of the Wicked Witch of the West that became the stuff of nightmares. Margaret Hamilton did her job well.
According to stories often retold by her son Hamilton Meserve, who had been a small child at the time the movie was made, that green makeup nearly scarred Margaret Hamilton for life – and not simply in a metaphoric sense. The scene in which the witch vanishes from Munchkinland in a flash of fire had to be reshot because a glimpse of the trapdoor appeared in the frame. On the second try, the trapdoor jammed and, instead of dropping through, Hamilton’s costume caught fire. The actress’ arm was badly burned. The green color in her makeup contained copper, which ignited, causing painful facial burns that kept her bandaged up, hospitalized and unable to return to the set for six weeks. A body double was then used for some of the witch’s scenes, including the skywriting bit, and ended up being injured even worse than Hamilton when her smoking broom exploded under her.
By all accounts, Margaret Hamilton was a gentle person in real life, and got on well with children. Before getting her first big stage break in the 1932 Broadway play Another Language (and reprising the role onscreen a year later), she taught kindergarten in Rye; later, in between gigs in Hollywood, she founded another kindergarten in Beverly Hills that reportedly still exists. She became an active supporter of animal protection charities during her years of living in New York City, when she was working mainly in live theater. She appeared on Sesame Street and Mister Rogers, attempting to persuade traumatized kids that the Wicked Witch of the West was merely an imaginary character.
Usually typecast as a prudish spinster or matron, Hamilton had a long and busy career as a character actress. In her more than 80 movies she worked with such comic luminaries of Hollywood’s Golden Age as Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Mae West and W. C. Fields, Abbott and Costello, and with famed directors including Frank Capra, Fritz Lang, Michael Curtiz, Busby Berkeley, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, William A. Wellman…even Robert Altman, in Brewster McCloud, and in the William Castle 3-D horror feature 13 Ghosts. She also found roles in numerous TV programs, including the soap opera As the World Turns.
Her later acting work, after she left LA, mostly concentrated on live theater; she appeared in Lincoln Center productions of Oklahoma! (as Aunt Eller) and Show Boat (as Parthy Anne) and toured for nearly a year as Madame Armfeldt, who sings “Liaisons,” in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. Her last TV role, in 1982, was veteran journalist Thea Taft on Lou Grant. Playing Cora the New England storekeeper in a long-running Maxwell House commercial campaign, Hamilton is said to have sold more coffee than any other individual in history.
Born in Cleveland in 1902, Hamilton spent her final years living in Millbrook in Dutchess County, near her grown son and only child, Hamilton Meserve, then owner of the Taconic Newspapers. Her body was cremated at the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery and her ashes scattered over her property in Amenia.
So, as Halloween nears, the days grow short and the chill autumn winds blow through the Hudson Valley, consider that the spiced scent of leaf mold and nostalgia in your nostrils may perhaps contain a molecule or two of the cremains of the woman who made her mark on our collective consciousness as the Wicked Witch of the West.