Why 'Little Shop of Horrors' Is Uniquely Traumatizing

The musical satire is actually body horror and I won't be convinced otherwise.

little shop of horrors, audrey ii, ellen greene,
FEED MEEE | Warner Bros.
FEED MEEE | Warner Bros.

Most everyone's first brush experiencing terror through fiction is particularly scarring. Maybe yours came from watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or something way too young. Mine, very stupidly, was the regional theater production of Little Shop of Horrors; it was right after the giant human flesh-eating plant puppet Audrey II ate its caretaker, flower shop assistant Seymour Krelborn, in the musical's third act that I had my first full-blown breakdown and my parents had to drag a shrieking and crying 7-year-old away from the stage. 

What mostly haunts me from that performance was the bulbous venus flytrap-looking thing from space towering in a corner of the stage bellowing "FEEED MEEE" and villainously laughing, thick roots cracking open its giant clay pot and sprouting "arms" and "legs" to lurch and snake around people to shove into its disgusting, toothy alien plant mouth. "Haha haha!!! You were so scared!" my empathetic mother texted when I reminded her of this recently. "It didn't seem so real to me but I guess you thought it was!" Yeah, no shit! I probably didn't even have the conceptual processing power to think that people could be swallowed whole!

audrey ii, little shop of horrors
No!!! | Murray Close/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Image

This memory has lurked in my brain for more than two decades, distorting itself into a more ominous yet cartoonish scene over time, and surely by now I was prepared to confront and overcome this silly childhood trauma from a satire set to catchy doo-wop songs and ballads. So last week I turned on the 1986 Frank Oz movie (a remake from Roger Corman's original 1960 version with a young Jack Nicholson), starring Rick Moranis as Seymour, which started out fine, fun even, until Audrey II, the mysterious talking plant obtained from an "exotic" Chinese plant shop (racist!) named after Seymour's love played by Ellen Greene, coaxed him into suckling his fingers for blood sustenance. The image of Seymour's taped-up fingers is body horror and I can't be convinced otherwise. 

Everyone I've whined to about this remembers the scary dentist, played by Steve Martin here. Somehow his sadistic practice and Seymour chopping up his body with an axe to feed his parts wrapped in newspaper to a now-large Audrey II did not lodge itself into my mind as a kid, but it sure did this time. It's maybe not the murder, projected by shadow, that's horrifying to me; it's feeding the plant's moist worm lips, expectant, grotesque veiny purple mouth, its wretched orchid tongue, its crooked cuspids that makes me recoil. To me, it looks like the fleshy viscera that would coat the vile walls of Hell.

I didn't know, couldn't be bothered to look it up, that there are two endings of Little Shop of Horrors: the original one where Audrey II wins, its saplings sold commercially, and takes over the world, and the 1986 one, where Seymour and Audrey get lucky in an electrical malfunction and explode the alien plant. (Reportedly, Oz shot both endings and the darker one tested extremely poorly with audiences.) The "happier" ending was too little too late for me, though, the horror already reinforced by staring down the dank inside of Audrey II's putrid mouth that a reprise of "Suddenly Seymour" could not, and probably never will, puncture.

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Leanne Butkovic is an entertainment editor at Thrillist.