Victor Fleming's 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz has been a national treasure for nearly a century in the United States. These days it's a difficult task to find anyone who has not seen this movie or doesn't have fond memories of it. But beneath all the wonder of the yellow brick road, magic poppy fields and the lollipop guild lies a hidden, dark side to The Wizard of Oz was more frightening than the Wicked Witch of the West. It is probably one of the most sinister urban legends of old Hollywood: the hanging munchkin.
If you haven't heard of this before or seen it on film I don't blame you, it only reveals itself to those with a keen eye and it is only on screen for a brief moment. It occurs round the film's 48 minute mark after Dorothy and the Scarecrow have met the tin man and decide to continue their journey. As the characters turn away from the camera and start walking a small figure can be seen in the forest behind them that resembles a munchkin character being hung by a noose on a tree. Yes, this is a real thing that appears in the film:
From the images that exist it is easy to see why audiences at the time would be taken aback by the image of a cheery little munchkin character swinging from a noose. For a movie released in 1939 this was probably thought to be the most graphic thing shown to mainstream audiences at that time. The only question left being: is this real? What is really happening in this scene? Was it a prop left in the background by accident? Is that a real cast member hanging back there? Was it put there intentionally as a nod to the dark side of Oz? The hanging munchkin images have become one of the most popular, chilling urban legends in the film industry for quite some time but was any of this factual to begin with?
The short answer is no. Of course there weren't any munchkins or cast members dangling from a noose in the background. The Wizard of Oz had a modern budget of $97 million dollars, those are things that just don't occur on a professional MGM set. So if that figure back there isn't really a person being hanged from a tree...then what is it?
In 1989, Victor Fleming's film was rereleased in a higher quality and suddenly...the hanging munchkin was no longer there. Instead the clearer, high-resolution image shows a bird that looks like an emu. The presence of a figure hanging from a tree is nowhere to be found in the updated version of the film. However it has been pointed out that the newly rendered scene with the bird looks absolutely nothing like original image of the person swinging from a tree.
While not extremely well known to the public, a lot of terrible things took place during the production of Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz. A lot of the effects were achieved by using asbestos, Judy Garland was treated horribly by producers and Margaret Hamilton got 3rd degree burns from a set accident. However despite all the calamity that went on during the production of the film, I can confirm no one, specifically no munchkins were hanged from a tree. You can still watch one of America's greatest classic films without fearing that you'll see a suicidal munchkin in the background.