Why not start with one of the greats?
Armed with a fearsome arsenal of enchanted artefacts, magic spells and winged monkeys, the Wicked Witch of the West has been one of the most famous villains in all of popular culture for over one hundred years. In 1900 she attacked Dorothy Gale and her companions with wolves, crows and bees; in 2017 she flew onto the silver screen as an enemy of Batman in The Lego Batman Movie. Her 1939 appearance in Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz is so utterly iconic that it defined the style of almost every witch who followed.
Oddly, the Wicked Witch’s first appearance in print introduced very few of her famous features. As written by L. Frank Baum in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the witch’s most striking physical attribute is her single eye – although that eye is “as powerful as a telescope, and could see everywhere.” Her powers are drawn mainly from the weird artefacts she has collected: a silver whistle which summons armies of various animals, and the golden cap which allows her (by aide of an amusing incantation) to call upon the fearsome winged monkeys – but only three times. She doesn’t carry a broomstick, but rather an umbrella, which makes a lot of sense given her crippling weakness. Baum never describes the witch in any great detail, but W.W. Denslow’s original illustrations endowed her with one more key feature: the tall, pointed hat.
Although the witch is able to at one point turn an iron bar invisible through “her magic arts,” her reliance on enchanted artefacts to perform spells is delightfully traditional. The chapter featuring the witch (and it really is just one chapter) is also quite a good little fairy tale in its own right, with Dorothy’s servitude in the castle providing a satisfying build-up to the witch’s inevitable demise.
There’s also this line from Baum, which is an absolute cracker:
“The Witch did not bleed when she was bitten, for she was so wicked that the blood in her had dried up many years before.”
It would be another forty years before the Wicked Witch of the West assumed her most familiar form. Margaret Hamilton bursts into the filmic Oz from behind a plume of terrifying red smoke, disrupting the insipid Munchkins before they can sing the final note of their annoyingly twee welcome song. Her skin is green; her hat is black; her cackle is pure evil. (Glinda’s nonchalance in the face of all this is pretty hilarious.) She can throw fireballs from her hand, and execute skywriting on her broomstick. Unlike the book, the film witch’s control over the winged monkeys knows no limits.
I never read Baum’s book as a child, which makes the film my sole reason for fearing the Wicked Witch. Although Margaret Hamilton is seen early in the movie as the straight-laced Miss Gulch, her appearance as the witch in Munchkinland is a smart departure from the source material, allowing the villain to be glimpsed from the very beginning – and boy, does she look the part. Her jet black robe immediately sets her apart from the wondrous colour of Oz, and her famous threat to Dorothy serves to contradict the rapturous reception the girl has received thus far. The beauty of the Emerald City is parodied perversely by the witch’s green skin; the city’s splendour is constantly undermined by the witch’s absolute ugliness.
I also love / hate the trope of the twisted, dying woods surrounding the witch’s home. If there was any one scene where the danger of the Wicked Witch became unbearable for me, this would have been it. Although as far as warning signs go, “I’d turn back if I were you!” is undeniably excellent.
The details of the filmic death scene don’t quite match up to the arc in the book; why would a witch with a weakness to water leave a full pail lying around on the battlements? But the melting is a wonderful visual effect, and is deservedly iconic. A frightening end for one of the most frightening witches of all – oh, what a world, indeed!
— Watching the film again in 2017, not even those obviously painted backdrops can take the lustre off Oz. The level of visual invention on display here really is second to none. Do you remember the scene where the Munchkin coroner is called upon to produce a death certificate for the Wicked Witch of the East? I sure didn’t.
— Speaking of the Wicked Witch of the East, she’s a little short changed in the film adaptation. The book fleshes out a couple of her wicked acts, with one neat fairy tale detailing her role in the creation of the Tin Woodsman. But she still flies a distant second to the Witch of the West in terms of memorability, and is mostly useful as an answer to the trivia question “Who did Dorothy kill with her house?”
— The Witch of the West has played important roles in a number of other texts, the most notable of which is probably Gregory Maguire’s Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West and its subsequent Broadway adaptation. Unfortunately I haven’t read the book or seen the musical, so at this stage I’m unable to comment. Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful, on the other hand, should definitely be avoided.
— No disrespect to Sam Raimi, though. He’s created some fine witches in his time, and I’m sure we’ll take a look at some of them later in the year.
— The Wicked Witch was killed by water, but Margaret Hamilton was almost killed by fire while portraying her. The actress was left with severe burns when the trapdoor elevator in Munchkinland failed to deploy at the correct time, leaving her in harm’s way when flames ignited beside her. Hamilton spent six weeks in hospital recovering, and upon her return refused to act in any scenes with dangerous effects; her stunt-double was subsequently injured when the smoke mechanism on the broomstick underwent a similar malfunction.
And that’s all, folks! Thanks for reading to the end. Not every post will be as long as this one, just as not every witch will be quite so famous. The publication of this post also marks the first time my blog will be made public, which is very exciting. I don’t know how you found your way to this meagre webpage, but you’re very welcome to come back anytime, and particularly so when I’ve got my actual book to spruik. Right now, it’s still a fair way off – but September’s getting closer every day.