Contains discussion of suicide.
Despite being considered one of the greatest films of all time, Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz secrets both on screen and behind the camera are numerous – but none more infamous than the so-called “Wizard of Oz hanging munchkin” urban legend. Based on L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s fantasy novel of the same name, The Wizard of Oz has been the subject of much controversy, especially since the grueling filming process exacerbated Judy Garland’s use of amphetamines. It is widely believed The Wizard of Oz contributed to Judy Garland’s eventual overdose in 1969. One of the creepiest stories surrounding the film is that a lovelorn actor portraying a munchkin hanged himself on set during filming.
For almost as long as film has been around – almost a century ago The Wizard of Oz hit theaters in 1939 – rumor has it that the silhouette of a dead munchkin actor hanging from a rope is clearly visible during the Yellow Brick Road sequence. Since the beginning of the Internet, munchkin suicide The Wizard of Oz the story has exploded and gone viral on movie-focused blogs and websites like many Hollywood urban legends about 20th-century “cursed movies.” The Wizard of Oz however, the hanging munchkin has an explanation, and it’s not that one of the actors took their own life on set (as abysmal as their treatment was reported to be). Here is The Wizard of Oz the dead munchkin myth explained, from the origin of the legend to the true story that debunks it.
There isn’t a hanging Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz
Despite how twee, colorful and family friendly The Wizard of Oz is, a myth about one of the actors who committed suicide on stage – with the evidence left in the final cut – is not too off-base given the behind-the-scenes context of its production. An aura of darkness and myth-making surrounds the film’s production history, largely due to the accidents and drug abuse of the early years of Hollywood, as well as the film’s place in the culture (the The Wizard of Oz is the first color film is another misconception due to the age of the film).
However The Wizard of Oz hanging myth is just that – a myth. There is no dead munchkin in it The Wizard of Oz. However, there is an explanation for where the myth came from, and the silhouette The Wizard of Oz hanging legend is based on actually exist. The dead munchkin urban legend originated from a specific scene that takes place about 45 minutes into the film, where Dorothy, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man walk off into the distance while singing “We’re Off to See the Wizard.” As the trio is seen walking away, the left side of the screen appears to have a human form hanging from a tree. However The Wizard of Oz The munchkin hanging from the tree isn’t a munchkin at all – the silhouette is of a bird in the studio, and it’s not hanging.
The Wizard of Oz hanging Munchkin is a bird
The hanging munchkin in the Wizard of Oz is actually a large bird. Several birds of varying sizes were borrowed from the Los Angeles Zoo and allowed to roam the indoor set to give it a more outdoor feel, adding to the magic that cemented Oz as a staple of pop culture (Loki‘s The Wizard of Oz references are a good example). Another instance of these borrowed birds is the live peacock outside the Tin Man’s cabin as Dorothy and the Scarecrow try to revive him. The figure, mistakenly interpreted as a hanging body, is in fact an emu or a crane.
The unusual movement of the bird in the background of the scene became the subject of speculation for those who watched the film on home video, as they were able to rewind and play the scene in slow motion, giving birth to wild theories about an actor driven to despair by his unrequited love to a female munchkin. The Wizard of Oz was made in 1939 when CGI animals like Jungle Book remake was not a thing, but despite the confirmation of the dead munchkin in The Wizard of Oz is a large bird, the myth still exists.
Where the Wizard of Oz’s dead Munchkin myth came from
The dead munchkin myth was folded into public consciousness during the heavy promotion and special video re-release of The Wizard of Oz on its 50th anniversary in 1989. This, coupled with the unfortunate practical circumstances surrounding the cast, gave the theory an aura of perceived credibility. Today, incidents such as the tragic death of Warren Appleby are on Titans sets are fortunately rare. But in the early 20th century, health and safety regulations were basically non-existent, so most films from the era have a production history that is disturbing when viewed again in a modern context.
But even after The Wizard of Oz lingering myth was dispelled, many continued to see the film as one with sinister undertones. This was exacerbated by the alleged presence of subliminal messages associated with alter programming and mind control (made popular by the fact that many films contain hidden messages such as Lions King “sex” clouds). More facts emerged since the original 1939 production of The Wizard of Oz it added to its reputation as a “cursed movie”.
Buddy Ebsen, originally cast to play the Tin Man, ended up with an iron lung after using the required silver makeup on his skin as it contained toxic aluminum powder. Also, Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch, suffered second-degree burns to her face during filming. After this, her stunt double also experienced severe burns due to an exploding prop. Today, these incidents would have made news like the fatal prop gun shooting on the set of Rustbut by the 1930s workplace deaths and injuries were par for the course in most professions, and Hollywood was no exception.
The gradual, decades-long drip feeding of The Wizard of Oz secrets—thanks to today’s media that don’t really consider them newsworthy—have made the film juicy fodder for internet theorists and urban legend enthusiasts, especially The Wizard of Oz hanging munchkin scene. While these instances can be chalked up to pure chance and bad luck, the seriousness of the accidents and the ease with which they were covered up lend an eerie aura to the film’s legacy. Not all Oz theories are sinister – some, like Dorothy being the Wicked Witch of the East, are standard fan speculation with hidden plots.
No matter what The Wizard of Oz the movie set was cursed or not, the hanging munchkin urban legend is unequivocally false. But cases of a more serious, more sinister kind haunt the fringes of the classical musical imagination, namely the alleged case of sexual abuse and harassment experienced by the then 16-year-old Judy Garland during filming. This is arguably the nexus of unease the film provokes, as its complete lack of recognition paints a more shocking picture of Hollywood at the time (and sadly, many years since) than any misguided munchkin theory.
It’s a miracle no one died making The Wizard of Oz
The fake one The Wizard of Oz hanging aside, it really is a miracle that no one actually died on set. Early films in particular were a dangerous venture as things like practical special effects had not yet been perfected. Even today, there are movie horror stories of stunt injuries and tales of crazy accidents that take place on film sets, but The Wizard of Oz is a special case.
The first scene, in which Margaret Hamilton’s Wicket Witch of the West disappears in a cloud of smoke, went well for the first take, but the director wanted another, and the special effects team set off the pyrotechnics before the actress could be released through the trap door. Her broom, hat and cloak all caught fire and she suffered second and third degree burns to her face and hands. Her stunt double Betty Danko fared no better when her broom during the “surrender Dorothy” skywriting scene was a smoking pipe that exploded and permanently injured her left leg.
Also in The Wizard of Oz, Buddy Ebsen’s Tin Man was painted with a substance containing aluminum dust, which coated the actor’s lungs and sent him to the hospital, where he had to spend two weeks in an oxygen tent. Many of the piano wires holding the flying monkeys snapped while stunt workers were in the air, causing numerous injuries on location. Famously abused actress Judy Garland was given adrenaline shots to help her “perform better”.
In addition to the pyrotechnic accident, Margaret Hamilton’s green face paint contained a toxic copper base that could have killed her if not properly removed. Finally, the snow covering the poppy field where Dorothy and her friends are was made of crystallized asbestos. That is, while The Wizard of Oz hanging debacle was fake, there are plenty of ways actors could have actually died on set.