What’s With Wonka’s Tunnel of Hell?


Hello, I’m Leah G. Alfonso. I write so that I may speak.

A lot of us remember the 1971 movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Based on Roald Dahl’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it starred Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka and Peter Ostrum as Charlie Bucket. The film was one of whimsy and chocolate, introducing household tunes such as “Cheer up Charlie,” “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket,” and “Pure Imagination.”

But there was one particular scene that nobody seemed to know what to make of, famously known as Wonka’s Tunnel of Hell. Wonka takes his guests on a boat tour of his factory, and they go through a dark tunnel of flashing lights, freaky images, and Gene Wilder’s psychotic outbursts. This scene has also been dubbed as a Big Lipped Alligator Moment, a bizarre moment in cinema that pops out of nowhere and is never mentioned again. It brings the movie to a complete halt and—in many cases—scars viewers for life.

Now, why in the world would they add this scene? Some might say that it’s a demonstration of Wonka’s psychotic side. I might agree with that, but to be honest, this scene never scared me that much as a child. I thought it was a little creepy, but the most it got out of me was “…I’m not screaming in fear…but why?” And, when you get down to it, the images they showed weren’t that frightening. Okay, there was a chicken’s head getting chopped off and a worm/snake crawling over someone’s face, so I understand that. But when you get down to it, what were the other images that appeared on the wall of the tunnel? A wide-angle shot of someone’s eye, a close-up of a reptile, Slugworth, maybe a spider, and…I think the underside of a snail with legs, but I’m still trying to figure out what the last one was. Everything else is just a dark tunnel with flashing lights and Gene Wilder screaming like a kid on a roller coaster.

Others have said that it showcases the darker side of Dahl’s eccentric imagination, and honestly, I wouldn’t doubt it. If you think about what happens in this story (as well as Dahl’s other works), it’s pretty dark for kids’ stories. Four of the five kids in the factory almost die—in fact, in the 1971 movie, we never see them again. Even the lyrics of the Oompa Loompa songs, when you get down to it, sound a lot creepier in the movie than they do in the book.

There’s something else to consider, though. Take a look at the scene again and observe everyone’s reactions. Everyone’s freaking out as soon as the boat goes into the tunnel—that is, except for Charlie and Grandpa Joe. Charlie comments that it’s strange, while Grandpa Joe’s having the time of his life. They don’t really start to freak out until Slugworth pops up, and Charlie’s the only one to panic when he sees the old man staring at him. But even then, the two don’t really scream in fear like everyone else. Charlie just turns to his Grandpa, who says “it couldn’t be.” You don’t really see them being afraid until Wonka starts having a mental breakdown. Now, I’d say that’s more of an actor point than a character point. Rumor has it that the other actors on the boat didn’t know that Wilder was going to go ballistic at the end of the scene, so the fear at that point was genuine. In the book, Grandpa Joe actually defends Wonka when everyone else is saying he’s off his rocker.

Which leads me to believe that, considering the illusions in the tunnel, the scene could’ve been used as Wonka’s test of the mind. The song “Pure Imagination” is played a couple of times throughout the entire movie, more than any other song. You hear it in the opening credits, Wonka sings it in the Chocolate Room, you hear it on the boat ride before they enter the tunnel, and you hear it again in the ending credits. Just before they go into the Chocolate Room, Wonka said that all of his dreams become reality, and some of his realities become dreams.

With that in mind, I always thought that the tunnel was a foil to the Chocolate Room. Some nightmares become realities, and some realities become nightmares. The tourists, who’ve all had pretty easy lives up to this point, have commonly shared fears like spiders, snakes, bugs, etc. Charlie, who’s been poor for his entire life, doesn’t react until he sees Slugworth. If you remember, earlier in the movie, Slugworth tempted Charlie with enough money to provide for his family for the rest of his life—at the cost of betraying Willy Wonka, the Magician/Chocolatier that everyone loves and whose Golden Ticket is the first good thing that Charlie’s ever gotten in his life.

Maybe Wonka was fishing for something from the kids when he led them into the tunnel. He doesn’t really say much until his psychotic breakdown when they go through. Heck, he doesn’t flinch when the chicken loses its head (I’m not kidding; he seriously doesn’t even blink when the ax hits the stump!) Fans of the book and both movies will remember that Wonka was looking for someone to take over his factory. And considering the fact that he was testing Charlie at the end of the 1971 movie, I find it hard to believe that he wasn’t watching the kids throughout the whole tour, getting to know them, figuring out who they were, and measuring them up as possible Chocolatiers. The entire tour was a job interview, and they didn’t even realize it. I’m not sure if Wonka expected to see Slugworth appear on the tunnel wall, but learning what his potential candidates were afraid of allowed him to learn more about them based on what they saw and how they reacted to it.

Or maybe it was just a Big-Lipped Alligator Moment that should never be mentioned again. Cinema seems to be full of those, so that explanation works too. But for me, this is the Tunnel Scene I always saw. It sheds light on Wonka’s psychotic side, it sheds light on the other characters, and it sheds light on the darker side of Pure Imagination.

Until next time, this is Leah G. Alfonso saying “So long.”

Photo source: http://www.theultimateplaylist.com/music/willy-wonka-you-get-nothing-remix-by-srslysirius-memories-relived


  1. I am glad to have read your analysis. I didn’t even remember that the movie had this scene until I watched it with my family (1 and 3-year-olds) and nearly panicked and threw it out the window. My wife said she remembered it but neither of us knew what to make of it.

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