Trippy Films: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Is The Wizard of Oz a drug movie? On the blog Acidemic, Erich Kuersten asserts that The Wizard of Oz is a “metaphor for acid itself, and remains a common way to describe the effects to people who’ve never tried it” Also, the counterculture in the late 1960s and early 1970s appreciated the psychedelic elements of The Wizard of Oz. Joe Baltake of the Sacramento Bee referred to The Wizard of Oz as “the definitive head film,” pointing out that hippies interpreted Dorothy’s adventure as an acid trip and would get high watching it. Comedy troupe the Firesign Theater, who had an enthusiastic following among the counterculture, originally formed on the free-form radio show Radio Free Oz on the radio station KPFK in Los Angeles. The show, which was hosted by Peter Bergman in his role as the Wizard of Oz, presaged the psychedelic comedy of the Firesign Theater. Late in his life, counterculture icon Ken Kesey wrote a satirical performance art piece called Twister based on The Wizard of Oz. In 1994 Kesey went on a tour with the Merry Pranksters performing Twister, which was released as a film in 2000.

One reason The Wizard of Oz has drawn this sort of attention is that it does make a direct drug reference. When the Wicked Witch of the West wants to stop Dorothy and her companions, she puts a field of poppies in their path so that they will all be put to sleep. Opium, the source of a variety of narcotics, is derived from poppies. This part of the movie was taken directly from L. Frank Baum’s original story The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, first published in 1900:

They now came upon more and more of the big scarlet poppies, and fewer and fewer of the other flowers; and soon they found themselves in the midst of a great meadow of poppies. Now it is well known that when there are many of these flowers together their odor is so powerful that anyone who breathes it falls asleep, and if the sleeper is not carried away from the scent of the flowers, he sleeps on and on forever. But Dorothy did not know this, nor could she get away from the bright red flowers that were everywhere about; so presently her eyes grew heavy and she felt she must sit down to rest and to sleep. [The full text of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum is available through Project Gutenberg.]

The film version of The Wizard of Oz made an interesting change from Baum’s original story. In the book the Tin Man and the Scarecrow carry Dorothy from the poppy field (“So they picked up Toto and put the dog in Dorothy’s lap, and then they made a chair with their hands for the seat and their arms for the arms and carried the sleeping girl between them through the flowers…. They carried the sleeping girl to a pretty spot beside the river, far enough from the poppy field to prevent her breathing any more of the poison of the flowers, and here they laid her gently on the soft grass and waited for the fresh breeze to waken her”) The Cowardly Lion was too heavy for them, but thousands of field mice came to the rescue to bring the Cowardly Lion to safety. In the movie, however, when the Tin Man and Scarecrow try to move Dorothy they “can’t budge her an inch” and rely on Glinda to revive their sleeping companions by making it snow. The A-Z Encyclopedia of Alcohol and Drug Abuse (bet that was a fun one to compile!) includes an entry for “Magical snow:” “colloquial term for cocaine, from the ‘magical snow’ which awoke Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.” Interesting to note that there is no reference to snow anywhere in Baum’s original version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but the slang term “snow” was used for cocaine as early as 1914, well before The Wizard of Oz was filmed.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Website Wiki strongly refutes the notion that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz contains drug references. “You’re kidding, right?” is the response to the question “What’s with all the drug references in Oz?” The OzWiki points out that L. Frank Baum himself was not a drug user, and while the effects of opium were well known at the turn of the twentieth century, they were not as stigmatized as they are now. In The Annotated Wizard of Oz Michael Patrick Hearn points out that poppies have long been a symbol of sleep and death, and that Baum often used imagery of malevolent vegetation. Still, it’s possible that the screenwriter(s) for
 the 1939 MGM version of The Wizard of Oz who used the image of snow were aware its drug connotations. Noel Langley, the screenwriter who contributed such key original elements of the film as Glinda’s arrival in a bubble, Dorothy’s companions in Kansas having counterparts in Oz, and Dorothy’s Oz experience being all a dream, later wrote the screenplay for They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), about a war veteran who becomes involved in a criminal gang smuggling cocaine, among other things. In any case, the MGM version of The Wizard of Oz does possess a trippy quality and Jim DeRogatis fittingly includes this film on the list of “The Psychedelic Influence of Popular Culture” in his book Turn On Your Mind: Four Decades of Great Psychedelic Rock.

One of the most creative interpretations of The Wizard of Oz I have run across was from a website called Planet Groovy, which asserted “The Wizard of Oz Is All About Drugs.” Planet Groovy is long gone, but thanks to the Wayback Machine on the Internet Archive I was able to recover it. According to Planet Groovy, Dorothy has never done drugs, but she’s given a lollipop by the Munchkins, just as pushers often give drug users a free sample. The Scarecrow has been told that his brain has been fried by drug use. That he demonstrates more intellectual capacity than any other character in the story, however, reveals how damaging society’s scare tactics against drug use are. The Tin Man is a heroin addict who needs a fix from a syringe-like oil can to be able to function. The Cowardly Lion is afraid that others will find out about his drug use, so he’s “lyin'” about it. The yellow brick road symbolizes the money that can be made from drugs and the Wizard of Oz is the guru of the drug world, and oz, of course, is the abbreviation for ounces, often used as a unit of measure for drugs. And it goes on from there. Perhaps the observations don’t always make sense, but this interpretation is highly entertaining, not to mention more deftly handled than Cracked’s attempt at Wizard of Oz drug humor.

Planet Groovy also mentions the synchronicity between The Wizard of Oz and Pink Floyd’s 1975 album Dark Side Of The Moon. Supposedly if you watch The Wizard of Oz with the volume turned down and synchronize the movie with Dark Side of the Moon, a number of strange coincidences occur. So many, in fact, that some people are convinced that Pink Floyd deliberately recorded as a sort of soundtrack to The Wizard of Oz. Perhaps best appreciated on drugs, as the discussion forum on features a thread entitled “Wizard of Oz/Dark Side of the Moon = Trippiest thing ever”.

In 1964 Henry Littlefield published an article in the American Quarterly where he argued that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was a political allegory about the Populist movement and the election of 1896. In his article “The Rise and Fall of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a Parable on Populism,” David B. Parker said that once Littlefield’s article had been published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was no longer an innocent fairy tale.” How far we have come. I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.

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