Since Halloween is this week, I knew I had to feature a villain in my Masterpiece Monday post. I’ve decided to write about one of the villains that frightened me the most as a child, the Hag from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I am certainly not alone in my childhood fears of this evil character. Upon the film’s initial release in 1937, children found her so frightening that the frequently wet the theatre seats. She has continued to terrify children for generations since then. This particular piece of visual development art depicting the Hag rowing across the castle moat is especially eerie. It was created by animator Sam Armstrong, who went on to create the actual mist effects in this scene.The painting is very reminiscent of the Grim Reaper paddling down the River Styx. It is associations with classic horror elements like the Grim Reaper that help to make the Hag so terrifying.
Very early on in the film’s development, the suggestion was made to make the Hag a comical caricature of a villain. The hope was that this would make it easier for the animators, who were not yet skilled at animating the human form. This idea was experimented with in a few drawings, but quickly rejected. The Hag, just like the Evil Queen needed to look entirely evil in order to make Snow White’s plight truly compelling. This did not necessarily mean the Hag had to look like a realistic human character. She was made grotesque in appearance and flamboyant in action. She was animated mostly by Norm Ferguson, whose previous animation claim to fame was another villain, the Big Bad Wolf in the short The Three Little Pigs. The Hag’s design borrows elements from many a classic Grimm’s fairy tales illustration. Yet, she also contains subtle elements of the Evil Queen’s design, creating continuity between the villain and her disguise. The Hag represents a release of the previously stoic Queen’s true villainy. As the Hag she can show her glee in her evil doing, There’s a mirth in her big round eyes as she creates the poison apple and a pure joy in her frequent cackles. The Hag is truly the terrifying Jekyll to the Queen’s reserved Hyde.
Jekyll and Hyde actually served as a important source of inspiration for the Queen/Hag’s role in the film. While storyboarding the transformation scene in the film,Walt often referred to it as a “Jekyll and Hyde” moment. The animator’s may have even have taken some inspiration from the transformation scene in the 1931 film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde , where Jekyll’s transformation is shown through the use of a spinning camera and superimposed flashbacks. Other horror films of the time may have also influenced the Hag’s many gruesome scenes. The shots showing the hag’s shadow along the dungeon walls recall the vampire from the German Expressionist film Nosferatu. The scene of the Hag creating the poison apple in a cauldron recalls various adaptations of Macbeth. The most gruesome scene in the entire film seems straight out of a horror film itself. The moment when the Hag kicks the skeleton and taunts it’s former thirst was considered so horrific at the time that Walt ordered an alternate version of the scene without that moment created, in case the censorship board took issue with it. It is these gruesome acts of villainy committed by the Hag in the film that made her so terrifying to me and thousands of other children.
Given her her horror film pedigree and the talented animators and character designers who helped create her, is it any wonder that the Hag has continued to terrify children for nearly 80 years? She is a fascinating character in her gruesomeness, and truly a member of the Disney villain elite. Hope you have a happy Halloween.
Image Credit: The Fairest One of All: The Making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs