Oz -The Spirituality of Oz: The Meaning of the Movie

Andrew Johnson

Reprint from Quest 88 (November-December 2000): 213-7.

What is the meaning of "true home"? . . . We talked about a wave. Does awave have a home? When a wave looks deeply into herself, she will realize thepresence of all the other waves. When we are mindful, fully living each momentof our daily lives, we may realize that everyone and everything around us is ourhome. . . . A wave looking deeply into herself will see that she is made up ofall other waves and will no longer feel she is cut off from everything aroundher. [Thich Nhat Hanh 1999, 40-1]

Oh, but anyway, Toto, we're home—home! And this is my room—and you're allhere—and I'm not going to leave here ever, ever again, because I love you all.And . . . oh, Auntie Em, there's no place like home! [Dorothy Gale in the 1939movie The Wizard of Oz]

Spirituality, Truth, and Reality

Spirituality can be viewed two ways. First, in a secular sense, it can beseen as an accumulation of one's higher values, virtues, and ideals. It is thehigher part of self, superego or superconsciousness. Second, spirituality canalso be seen in a sacred sense as the part of one's self that is connected tothe universe, one's divine essence, or the perfume within the clay jar.


The first thing to be said about The Wizard of Oz is that it is true,absolutely and completely, or as Munchkins would say, "Morally, ethically,spiritually, physically, positively, absolutely . . . true."

There is a difference, however, between truth and facts. Although factsmay be true, they do not always lead to Truth. Indeed, there are many instanceswhere a series of facts have led to the wrong truth simply because of whichfacts were attended to and which were ignored. Although Holy Books may notalways contain facts, they contain symbols, metaphors, myths, and dreams, whichare signs pointing to Truth. One of the shortcomings of humankind in this pastmillennium is that we have attended to the sign, but not to what it is pointingto. We declare the stop sign to be holy and good while proceeding right throughthe intersection without stopping. And then we wonder how a good and lovinguniverse can allow car accidents to happen.


The Wizard of Oz is very real. If you look deep enough, you see thatthere is no difference between reality and fantasy, between this and that, hereand there, the idea and the thing. All are variants of the same reality. All arewaves; temporary forms of the same water.

Thich Nhat Hanh (1999), the Buddhist mystic, describes two levels of realitythat exist simultaneously. Phenomenal reality is the reality of things seen:that which we are used to experiencing, the waves, bits of reality coming intotemporary form. Noumenal reality is the reality inaccessible to logic or thenormal senses. This is the water, the essence of all things, the ground of allbeing, God, Allah, Jehovah, WaTonka, Brahman, Oz.

Universal or Collective Unconscious

The Wizard of Oz is true on a noumenal level. It is filled withsymbols and metaphors, all pointing to other things. Carl Jung and later JosephCampbell described how certain symbols and motifs appear in mythology, fairytales, stories, and religions throughout the world. According to Jung, thesesymbols are an expression of the collective unconscious, a concept similar tothe akashic records mentioned by ancient mystics. It is a psychic cyberspace, aplace where every thought, feeling, and action of humanity is recorded. Whetheror not we are aware of it, we are all connected, we are all online.

It was from the collective unconscious, a bubbling cauldron of archetypalimages, that the Wizard of Oz was birthed into existence in 1900 as a book andlater reincarnated as a movie in 1939. The movie, released the same year as Gonewith the Wind, was the product of five different directors and a myriad ofstudio writers, continually assigned and reassigned. Thus the film did not comefrom any one person, but was truly a collective.

Movies are like dream states in which archetypal images appear, Hollywooditself being the land of dreams. A movie is like a group dream, a consciousdecision to suspend reality, alter our consciousness, and let the images playout in front of us (Nathanson 1991).

Bits of the collective consciousness of its time crept into the movie. TheWicked Witch of the West is a dark, controlling presence who seeks to dominateand control very much like Hitler. The Guards at the Witch's castle (theWinkies) are dressed in Russian-like costumes. Their "Yo-ee-oh" chant, whichuses the interval of the fifth and distinctively low pitches, is reminiscent ofthe ancient liturgical music favored by the Russian Orthodox church (Nathanson1991). The flying monkeys have helmets that look very much like those ofJapanese imperial warriors.

Of Archetypes and Journeys

Dorothy's journey away from Kansas and back again represents a spiritualquest, an expedition to inner dimensions to face all aspects of the Self(Stewart, 1997). It is a move towards self-actualization, atonement orat-one-ment, whole-ness or holiness. It is a re-membering or becoming again onemember with what we once were.

Dorothy is a prototypical hero very much like Jesus, the Buddha, HarryPotter, Luke Skywalker, or Arthur. Both Dorothy and Jesus (a) had questionsregarding their parentage, (b) started out life as very common ordinary persons,(c) had to flee in the early part of their lives, (d) traveled a path with aclear beginning and unavoidable end, (e) battled evil in different forms, (f)found companions along the way to help with the journey, (g) had companions whowere scattered in times of turbulence, (h) went through wilderness, forest, ordesert, (i) found or possessed an inner power to help transcend theirexperiences, (j) eventually went home or returned to another dimension leavingsad companions behind, and (k) were not afraid to take a stand on moral issuesor principles.

The First Lesson

As the story begins, we see Dorothy, a girl of twelve, running down aroad. Her age is pertinent, as it is the end of childhood and the beginning ofthe transition to adulthood. In it two realms or ways of seeing meet: thedependent, intuitive childlike and the independent, logical adult.

Miss Gulch arrives at the farm. It appears that Toto, Dorothy's dog, hasbitten her on the leg. She wants to take him to the sheriff to be destroyed.According to the law, Miss Gulch was right. One person's animal does not havethe right to invade the space of another, much less bite that person on the leg.In accordance with the law, Miss Gulch had every right to seek restitution anddemand that Toto be destroyed. But are right and wrong defined by the law?

Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (1984) has described six levels of moralreasoning: punishment, reward, social approval, law, social contract, anduniversal principle. Miss Gulch was operating at the level of right and wrong asdetermined by law. This is the level of the fundamentalist, the literalist, theinsurance document. However, what is legal is sometimes not ethical or moral.Those who let laws, holy books, religious edicts, or religious figures determineright and wrong without questioning are abdicating their responsibility as humanbeings. For example, at one time, segregation and overt racial discriminationwere legal. Thus it takes principled beings to challenge and shape the law.

Not being bad is not the same as being good. At first, Uncle Henry took amoral position:

Dorothy: "Destroyed? Toto? Oh, you can't . . . you mustn't . . .
Auntie Em — Uncle Henry — you won't let her . . . will you?"
Uncle Henry: "Uh . . . ah . . . course we won't . . . eh . . . will we Em."

However, when Miss Gulch threatens to bring a damage suit that will takeaway the farm, Uncle Henry suddenly has a moral revelation: "We can't go agin'the law, Dorothy." For Uncle Henry, right and wrong are determined by thepossibility of punishment. So Uncle Henry, like a Skinnerian rat in a maze,seeks to avoid punishment in giving Toto to Miss Gulch.

Dorothy is the only person in this movie to take a stand based on moralprinciple regardless of the consequences. When Lion jumps out of the bushes andbegins growling at Toto, in the face of what might have been great risk toherself, she slaps Lion on the nose and admonishes him for picking on poorlittle dogs. Here, Dorothy acts courageously from a moral stance: It is wrongfor more powerful things to pick on weaker things. Again, at the final scene inthe throne room of Oz, the group is met with flame, smoke, and a thunderingvoice in an attempt to scare them. Lion faints. Dorothy stands up to the greatand powerful Oz and says: "Oh . . . oh! You ought to be ashamed of yourself!Frightening him like that, when he came to you for help!" Again the moraldecree: More powerful things should not frighten weaker things that are in needof help.


Cyclones represent those unpleasant events in our lives that move us tohigher places. This reflects Dabrowski's (1964) theory of positivedisintegration, which states that advanced development requires a breakdown ofexisting psychological structures in order to form higher, more evolvedstructures. Inner conflict, neurosis, guilt, depression, anxiety, adverseconditions, or unpleasant life events can, through assimilation, lead us tohigher levels of moral or ethical behavior. Growth requires that oldpsychological or spiritual structures give way to new ones. New wine cannot beput in old wineskin. The disintegration process can result in inner tension as asign of growth in a healthy individual.

Had Dorothy not been transported to Oz, she would never have attained theinsight, growth, understanding, and realization of her power that she did. MissGulch would still be a presence in her life. Thus the cyclone, while unpleasant,is neither good nor bad; it is merely a byproduct of life outside the Edenicrealm. Cyclones may be the loss of a job, life transitions, death of a lovedone, or the dissolution of a relationship. They are the internal tension thatbrings us to a higher place.

Toto the Dog

Toto represents the inner, intuitive, instinctual, most animal-like partof us. Throughout the movie, Dorothy has conversations with Toto, or her innerintuitive self. The lesson here is to listen to the Toto within. In this movie,Toto was never wrong. When he barks at the scarecrow, Dorothy tries to ignorehim: "Don't be silly, Toto. Scarecrows don't talk." But scarecrows do talk inOz. Toto also barks at the little man behind the curtain. It is he who realizesthe Wizard is a fraud. At the Gale Farm and again at the castle, the Witch triesto put Toto into a basket. What is shadow will try to block or contain theintuitive. In both cases, Toto jumps out of the basket and escapes. Ourintuitive voice can be ignored, but not contained.

In the last scene, Toto chases after a cat, causing Dorothy to chase afterhim and hence miss her balloon ride. This is what leads to Dorothy's ultimatetransformation, to the discovery of her inner powers. The balloon ride isrepresentative of traditional religion, with a skinny-legged wizard promising atrip to the Divine. Toto was right to force Dorothy out of the balloon.Otherwise she might never have found her magic. This is a call for us to listento our intuitions, our gut feelings, those momentary bits of imagination thatappear seemingly out of nowhere.

The Window

The window is an opening between one dimension and the next, the air holethrough which eternity breathes through to the temporal world. We too have awindow, the place where the collective unconscious and the personal unconsciousmeet. It takes a journey to find this place.

In a startling bit of movie magic, Dorothy is actually hit on the headwith a window as she begins the journey from Kansas to Oz. She pulls herself upfrom the bed and peers fearfully out of the window at the wreckage floatingpast: a chicken roost, a fence, a house, a buggy, a tree, a henhouse, a crowingrooster. This window represents the inner world, a dream state, personalunconscious, prophecy, and archetypal images.

Munchkins and Glinda

Munchkins, by their childlike appearance and mannerisms, represent thespiritual ideal, which is the child state. Children forgive easily, are quick tolove, and are content to live in the moment. The Munchkins also live incommunion with Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. Glinda is a figure notrepresented in the other dimension—Kansas—thus she can be said to be trulyother-dimensional. She is a being of light, a spirit or celestial power whoappears both in physical form in Munchkinland and in nonphysical form in thepoppy field. Poppies represent spiritual sleep. Glinda was a force to help wakeDorothy from that sleep.

Shadow Witch

The Wicked Witch represents our Shadow side, the dark or unconscious partof the personality that the conscious ego tries to ignore. The Shadow is Mr.Hyde to our Dr. Jekyll.

At the castle, Dorothy throws water on the witch. The water representsconsciousness. When Jesus walked on water, he was above consciousness.Self-actualization or at-one-ment is not a matter of destroying the shadow. Allhumans have shadows. Individuation is a matter of facing the shadow and comingto grips with it. Thus Dorothy confronts the Witch, who melts. Dorothyassimilates the power of the Witch in the form of the guards, the flyingmonkeys, and the broomstick.

The Path and the Wizard

The Yellow Brick Road represents our Spiritual Path. The whole problem inthe movie is that Dorothy followed it looking for the Wizard of Oz, instead offor Oz. Oz is the transcendent power, Love and Light. The Wizard representsthose humans who sip the nectar of their own illusion and become drunk withgreed, power, and control. These are the religious charlatans who claim to speakfor God, while they are building theme parks. They are all little men and womenstanding behind curtains.

The Point of the Movie

Dorothy asks Glinda, the Good Witch, "Oh, will you help me? Can you help me?",
"You don't need to be helped any longer," A smiling Glinda answers.
"You've always had the power to go back to Kansas."
"I have?"
"Then why didn't you tell her before?" Scarecrow demands.
"Because she wouldn't have believed me. She had to learn it for herself."
The Tin Man leans forward and asks, "What have you learned, Dorothy?"
"Well, I . . . I think that is . . . that it wasn't enough just to want to see Uncle Henry
and Auntie Em . . . and that if I ever go looking for my heart's desire
again, I won't look any further than my own backyard; because if it isn't
here, I never really lost it to begin with."

This is what Dorothy learned:

  1. We have the power. We have Ruby Red slippers to transport us to Kansas, to bring about the Edenic state, or to create our heart's desire.

  2. Witches and cyclones, while bad, can be a means for spiritual growth.

  3. We must learn for ourselves. Truth is not given so much as it is realized. Look within. You do not have to go off in search of a mystic or seek truth from a variety of exotic religions. Truth is found in your own back yard.

  4. Reality is very simple. We create our own reality. We tend to make it more complicated than it need be. The simple universal fact is that, if we believe it to be so, it is.

  5. There's no place like home. The kingdom of heaven is not a place; but a condition.

  6. References

    Dabrowski, Kazimierz. 1964. Positive Disintegration. Boston: Little,Brown.
    Kohlberg, Lawrence. 1984. The Psychology of Moral Development.New York: Harper and Row.
    Nathanson, Paul. 1991. Over the Rainbow: The Wizard of Oz as a Secular Myth of America. Albany: State University of NewYork Press.
    Nhat Hanh, Thich. 1999. Going Home: Jesus and Buddha asBrothers. New York: Riverhead Books.
    Stewart, Jesse. 1997. Secrets of the Yellow Brick Road: A Map for the Modern Spiritual Journey. Hygiene, CO:Sunshine Press.

    Andrew Johnson, a former second-grade teacher, is codirector of theCenter for Talent Development at Minnesota State University. He can be reachedat thinkingskills@aol.com

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