Although Disney's 1970s Witch Mountain films were tremendously popular with preteen girls, they have been largely overlooked in historical scholarship on gender, film, and second-wave feminism. To help extend and shed new light on the history of girls on film during the women's liberation era, this article explores how Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) and Return from Witch Mountain (1978) negotiate ideas about youthful female independence, power, and sexuality. Though on the surface these films appear to fit Disney's model of “innocent” entertainment, close analysis reveals patterns common to the era's horror films made for adults—especially preoccupations with, and attempts to control, female sexuality. The specific mode of regulation applied to the preteen heroine depended on her age and maturity level. Thus, kindhearted male characters anxiously try to safeguard ten-year-old Tia (Kim Richard)'s innocent sexuality in Escape, while villainous characters viciously try to terminate it in the sequel. This shift, I argue, is tied to Tia's entrance into adolescence and the attendant horror produced by the intermingling of puberty and supernatural power. The films’ attempts to contain Tia's emerging sexuality speak to diffuse cultural anxieties surrounding female empowerment during the rise of women's liberation; yet, in showcasing girlhood strength and agency, they also offer pleasurable possibilities for youthful female identification. An analysis of the films’ gendered tensions not only illuminates how adult creators envisioned girls in the 1970s, but also suggests how girls growing up at the time might have experienced competing discourses about liberation.

When we think of young girls on the big screen in the 1970s, several prominent images come to mind. Early in the decade, Tatum O'Neal gave a memorable performance as the fast-talking, cigarette-puffing, nine-year-old orphan Addie in Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon (1973). Her convincing portrayal landed her an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, making her the youngest female ever to earn this distinction.1 O'Neal's subsequent films, including The Bad News Bears (1976) and Little Darlings (1980), depict her transformation from a tomboy into a sexually precocious adolescent. Although her tomboy appeal remains evident in her performance as the sassy, twelve-year-old star baseball pitcher in The Bad News Bears, the film foregrounds her sexuality by indicating that she sleeps with the neighborhood bad boy to get him to join the team, knows about birth control, and is more concerned about her bra size and dance lessons than about playing ball—elements that all worked to assure liberation-era audiences that, deep down, this “baddy baddy” was very much a girl.2 The sexualization of young girls in cinema became even more apparent as the decade wore on. In Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), Jodie Foster plays Iris, a drug-addicted, twelve-and-a-half-year-old prostitute in whom Robert De Niro's character, Travis Bickle, takes a (somewhat more than) paternal interest. For her compelling performance as the streetwise hooker in hot pants and six-inch heels, Foster was nominated for an Academy Award. Other of Foster's sultry early-adolescent portrayals include the gangster's moll, Tallulah, in Bugsy Malone (1976) and the sexually active and murderous Rynn in The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976). One of the most notorious preteen portrayals of the decade was twelve-year-old Brooke Shields's character, Violet, in Louis Malle's Pretty Baby (1978), a film about a girl who was born and raised in a New Orleans brothel at the turn of the twentieth century by her prostitute mother, Hattie (Susan Sarandon). Hattie decides it is time for her “pretty baby” to grow up, and auctions off her virginity to the highest bidder (a man who looks to be more than four times Violet's age). Of course, sexually charged images of girls were also rampant in the era's horror films. For instance, in William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973), Linda Blair's twelve-year-old character, Regan, becomes possessed by the devil—turning the preteen into a horrifying, sexually out-of-control, slime-spewing monster. In Terrence Malick's Badlands (1973), Sissy Spacek's fifteen-year-old character, Holly, becomes enamored with a twenty-five-year-old garbage collector named Kit (Martin Sheen); when Holly's father protests their relationship, Kit kills him—an event that triggers the pair's murderous spree across the Midwest. And in Brian De Palma's horror hit Carrie (1976), Spacek plays the title character, a sheltered teenage girl whose burgeoning sexuality gives her telekinetic power. In the film's bloody ending, Carrie unleashes her pent-up anger at her classmates, teachers, and mother by killing them. For their performances in The Exorcist and Carrie, Blair and Spacek were nominated for Academy Awards.

Although these films about girls are those best remembered from the era and, indeed, have received the most scholarly attention, another set of images—ones that preteen girls at the time could actually go to see—circulated on cinema screens during the 1970s. While most older preteen girls would have been aware of the R-rated performances of young stars such as Foster and Blair, especially if they read teen magazines (which regularly attempted to sanitize young actresses’ risqué images in order to make them safe for teen consumption),3 Disney's live-action films about preteen girls are the ones that girls growing up in the 1970s are likely to remember as their stories. These films thus stand out as an important counterpoint to the period's images of female youth in films made for adult consumption.

Like many cultural products aimed at and consumed by girls, Disney's 1970s live-action films starring ten- to twelve-year-old girls were panned by some of the era's critics and have been largely disregarded in the academic literature.4 One of the broad aims of this article, then, is to write preteen girls’ films back into 1970s film history and thereby reclaim girls’ rightful place within it. Another aim is to demonstrate how two of the decade's most popular Disney films, Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) and Return from Witch Mountain (1978) (figures 1–2), negotiated ideas about youthful female independence, power, and sexuality. Though on the surface these two films appear to fit the Disney mold of innocence and wholesomeness,5 a closer examination reveals that they have patterns in common with the period's much racier PG- and R-rated fare—namely the preoccupation with, and attempt to control, female sexuality. In Escape to Witch Mountain, benevolent male characters are obsessively concerned with safeguarding the innocent sexuality of ten-year-old Tia Malone (Kim Richards); in Return from Witch Mountain, three years later, however, villainous characters are ruthlessly preoccupied with squelching it. What are we to make of this shift? To answer this question, my article examines how Disney used images of magic and monsters to tap into themes about, and diffuse anxieties surrounding, youthful female empowerment and sexuality during the rise of second-wave feminism. Specifically, I argue that the shift from polite protection to cruel containment in the Witch Mountain movies is tied to the onset of Tia's adolescence and the concomitant horror produced by an intermingling of puberty and supernatural power.

Figures 1–2.

Covers of the 2009 DVD release of Disney's Escape to Witch Mountain and Return from Witch Mountain.

Figures 1–2.

Covers of the 2009 DVD release of Disney's Escape to Witch Mountain and Return from Witch Mountain.

This latent message of a threatening sexual identity lurking underneath Tia's well-scrubbed exterior may not have been the one that young people readily attended to (or even noticed); yet it reveals much about patriarchal anxieties surrounding girls’ power and sexuality at the time. In order to fully understand the political work at stake in the Witch Mountain movies, then, it is vital to examine both the films’ explicit and implicit messages. As Henry A. Giroux and Grace Pollock note, “The dreams that Disney provides for children are not innocent and must be interrogated for the futures they envision, the values they promote, and the forms of identifications they offer.”6 In the case of Disney's Witch Mountain movies, the values promoted are more patriarchal than feminist and more compromising than utopian. They reveal, as Timothy Shary has noted about teen films from the period, “a certain fanatic fear of girls growing up.”7 Like their adult-cinema counterparts, Escape to Witch Mountain and Return from Witch Mountain suggest that girls would be much better off if they did not grow up to become women. Nevertheless, these films also reveal pleasurable possibilities for increased girlhood strength and agency, even as they work to undermine them. The tensions between feminism and femininity, sexual innocence and maturity, freedom and containment, and power and oppression bound up in these texts (and historical discourses about them) mirror tensions surrounding the challenges to patriarchy waged by the women's movement(s) at the time. As such, an analysis of Disney's Witch Mountain movies is crucial to understanding how female youth in the 1970s might have experienced popular narratives about the possibilities and limits of their liberation.

Historicizing Disney's Witch Mountain Films in Girls’ Culture(s) of the Women's Liberation Era

The late 1960s and 1970s are often remembered for the significant strides made in advancing women's rights in the United States. As Ruth Rosen has noted, this era was “arguably the most intellectually vital and exciting [time] in the history of American women … [producing] an amazing array of revelations and changes in social, political, and public thought and policy.”8 From Congress's passage of Title IX in 1972 (which prohibited sex discrimination in federally funded educational programs) to the Women's Educational Equity Act in 1974 (which provided funding for the development of nonsexist curricula) to delegates of the 1977 National Women's Conference endorsing lesbian rights and the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), the 1970s were unmistakably a “vital and exciting” time for women.9 But what did this changing climate mean for young girls at the time? And, more specific to the project at hand, how did cultural transformations ushered in by the women's movement shape popular narratives consumed by the era's preteen girls?

While Disney's Witch Mountain movies were two of the most popular children's films of the era, they were part of a much broader girls’ culture that included teen magazines, TV shows, fiction, comics, educational films, popular music, radio programs, toys, and advertisements. Despite the seeming variety in media aimed at female youth, popular narratives were strikingly similar in circulating contradictory ideas about what it meant for girls to be “liberated.” The impact of feminism could be detected in discourses that encouraged girls to be strong, confident, and assertive; that invited girls to pursue higher education, careers, and sports; and that taught girls not to be ashamed of their bodies. However, popular girls’ media—from magazines such as ’Teen and Seventeen to TV shows such as The Brady Bunch (ABC, 1969–74) (figures 3–4), ABC Afterschool Specials (ABC, 1972–97), and Eight Is Enough (ABC, 1977–81)—consistently undercut these messages by privileging discourses about traditional femininity, beauty, fashion, consumerism, heterosexual romance, and male authority. Thus, while media regularly tapped into liberation themes to sell consumer products and ideologies of “new womanhood” to a diverse population of girls, they simultaneously contained the more threatening outcomes and connotations of feminism.10

Figures 3–4.

Despite proving herself worthy of membership in the all-boys’ “Frontier Scouts,” Marcia (Maureen McCormick) decides that she prefers to be a conventionally feminine girl in this 1971 episode of The Brady Bunch.

Figures 3–4.

Despite proving herself worthy of membership in the all-boys’ “Frontier Scouts,” Marcia (Maureen McCormick) decides that she prefers to be a conventionally feminine girl in this 1971 episode of The Brady Bunch.

I have argued elsewhere that while the editors of Seventeen—the leading magazine for girls during the 1970s—were hesitant to discuss the women's liberation movement in feature-length articles during the era, they did rely heavily on girls’ own writing and commentary about feminism; thus, girls crucially enacted their own form of do-it-yourself citizenship by actively debating the meanings and parameters of liberation in the pages of Seventeen.11 Of course, Seventeen in the 1970s was (and continues to be) heavily invested in promoting beauty images and products to girls. Thus, when the magazine featured girl stars, the editors emphasized their beauty practices and downplayed discussions of their work as actresses. Linda Blair, for instance, appeared on Seventeen's cover in July 1974 (figure 5). While readers might have hoped for a tell-all about Blair's controversial role in The Exorcist, they instead got the inside scoop on her glamorous makeover for the 1974 Academy Awards.12 Similarly, when Seventeen featured Kristy McNichol and Tatum O'Neal in March 1980, their work in Little Darlings (which opened in theaters that month) received only passing mention, while their beauty and fitness routines were the subject of a six-page exploration.13Seventeen undeniably celebrated the accomplishments of young female actresses; yet, in focusing on their looks, its coverage implied that a flawless appearance was a girl star's greatest achievement.

Figure 5.

In July 1974, Seventeen promoted a beauty makeover for The Exorcist's Linda Blair.

Figure 5.

In July 1974, Seventeen promoted a beauty makeover for The Exorcist's Linda Blair.

It is interesting to note that while Seventeen paid tribute to numerous young actresses during the 1970s, Kim Richards—star of the Witch Mountain movies as well as many other Disney films and TV shows—was not among those profiled.14 Her young age at the time of each film's release (ten and twelve, respectively) likely accounts for this absence. Yet Richards did appear as Tia in an Escape to Witch Mountain educational film, which was an abbreviated version of the feature-length movie; the twenty-five-minute, 16mm film was sold to schools and libraries in the 1970s and early 1980s and was later released on VHS. According to the teacher's guide that Disney published to accompany the short film (figure 6), the movie targeted children in grades four through nine and sought to entertain, generate interest in fiction, and motivate students to read (e.g., the novel of the same name upon which the film was based).15 Another purpose, of course, was to promote Disney's brand, characters, media, and products to children. While most scenes of Tia using her telekinetic powers were regrettably eliminated in the educational film, the fact that some American children were treated to a classroom viewing (and, presumably, a discussion) of her daring story is nevertheless significant—perhaps inspiring girls to be strong and assertive in their own lives, as Tia is in the film.

Figure 6.

This cover of the Escape to Witch Mountain “Teacher's Guide” (1982) depicts Tia (Kim Richards) holding her cat and tagging after the boys.

Figure 6.

This cover of the Escape to Witch Mountain “Teacher's Guide” (1982) depicts Tia (Kim Richards) holding her cat and tagging after the boys.

The Escape to Witch Mountain teacher's guide did not explicitly reference gender themes in its suggested discussion questions and activities. However, some recommendations in the guide may well have prompted conversations about gendered power anyway. For instance, the guide suggests giving students a “viewing objective,” such as “watch[ing] carefully for the various clues … that tell us Tony and Tia are not ordinary children.” Since it is their supernatural powers that make them extraordinary, and because their powers are uniquely gendered in the film (as we shall see), one can imagine that gender themes arose in some discussions. The guide's suggestion that students “write a short story about what they think Tony and Tia found when they reached Witch Mountain, and what happened to them after they got there” may have also prompted creative explorations of the siblings’ future gender roles and activities.16

While the proliferation of young girls on cinema screens in the 1970s might be seen, in some ways, as a celebration of girlhood, Hollywood's preoccupation with highly sexualized images of girls also can be read as a backlash against the women's movement and the “pernicious cultural anxiety” that accompanied it.17 In a 1977 Ms. magazine article, Molly Haskell wondered,

Could “The Exorcist” also be read as a subliminal warning from Hollywood directed at the Women's Movement? Are they trying to tell us that the Devil has gotten into us … and if we don't behave like sweet little girls we're in for big trouble? … For the man whose ego is sustained not by inherent worth, but by a sense of superiority over the weaker sex, there is a need for constant worshipful glances from the “little woman.” … Perhaps a Hollywood full of Daddy's little girls will make all those producers and directors feel like great big men again.18

Indeed, it seems that studio executives recognized that sexually precocious girls were titillating to male viewers, yet safely malleable to the patriarchal regime. In Pretty Baby, for instance, twelve-year-old Violet's love interest gives her a baby doll to play with after bedding her—an infantilizing gesture that apparently made her sexuality less threatening and even more tantalizing (figure 7). In her research on the regulation of girls’ sexuality in cinema, Kristen Hatch demonstrates that while Shields's provocative image in Pretty Baby raised concerns in the popular press that she “was being exploited for the gratification of male desire,” it was Shields's mother who was blamed for making her “vulnerable to the male gaze”19—a pattern that encapsulates the rampant sexism toward, and backlash against, women during the era.

Figure 7.

Violet (Brooke Shields) clutches her baby doll on Pretty Baby's (1978) movie poster.

Figure 7.

Violet (Brooke Shields) clutches her baby doll on Pretty Baby's (1978) movie poster.

Cultural backlash against the feminist and gay liberation movements was also apparent in the numerous “jiggle” television series produced after 1975 that were popular with girls as well as adults, such as Wonder Woman (ABC/CBS, 1976–79), Charlie's Angels (ABC, 1976–81), and Three's Company (ABC, 1977–84). Although, as Susan J. Douglas has shown, these sexually exploitative series attempted to contain feminism, they also engaged women's desire(s) by portraying strong female characters working together to solve problems.20 Furthermore, as Elana Levine has demonstrated in her important work on the sexual culture of 1970s television, series such as Charlie's Angels helped make “liberated women” seem “less threatening, even appealing, to a mass audience potentially uncomfortable with the ways the women's movement was shaking up traditional sex and gender roles.”21 By depicting the Angels in traditionally masculine roles while also celebrating them as sex symbols, “women's liberation … could fit into patriarchal and heteronormative perspectives”22—a pattern also present in the Witch Mountain movies.

Adults—the majority of them men—created the stories that circulated in girls’ culture(s) during the 1970s. Accordingly, these narratives reveal not how girls really were, but how adult creators imagined or wished they would be. Although feminist themes increasingly emerged in girls’ media throughout the decade, so, too, did anxious attempts to manage and contain them. Nevertheless, girls—especially younger ones—could find inspiring visions of girlhood strength and agency in Disney's preteen heroine Tia and her displays of extraordinary power.

Magic and Mixed Messages in Escape to Witch Mountain

Escape to Witch Mountain, a G-rated production directed by John Hough, ranked nineteenth on Variety's “Big Rental Films of 1975” list—making it not only the year's, but also one of the decade's, most successful children's/family films featuring a preteen girl in a leading role.23 Based, as noted earlier, on the book of the same name by Alexander Key, Escape to Witch Mountain chronicles the quest of ten-year-old Tia and twelve-year-old Tony (Ike Eisenmann) to discover where they came from and why they have supernatural powers. In the process of searching for their roots, which turn out to be extraterrestrial, the siblings foil the film's villains (with the help of a camper named Jason [Eddie Albert; figure 8]) and reunite on Witch Mountain with their kindly Uncle Bené (Denver Pyle).

Figure 8.

Tia and Tony (Ike Eisenmann) hug Jason (Eddie Albert) on the cover of Disney's Escape to Witch Mountain (1975), its tie-in release of Alexander Key's novel Escape to Witch Mountain (1968).

Figure 8.

Tia and Tony (Ike Eisenmann) hug Jason (Eddie Albert) on the cover of Disney's Escape to Witch Mountain (1975), its tie-in release of Alexander Key's novel Escape to Witch Mountain (1968).

While the film's success in the era's competitive, male-oriented market (which included hits such as The Towering Inferno, Young Frankenstein, Jaws, The Godfather: Part II, and The Man with the Golden Gun) testifies to its tremendous popularity among young viewers,24 several critics at the time also commented on the film's warm reception among children. A critic for Variety notes that the film had “wide moppet appeal,” while Gene Siskel suggests,

The new Walt Disney film “Escape to Witch Mountain” is a solid adventure for the under-12 set. That might sound like a backhanded compliment, but compared to other recent Disney live-action features, “Witch Mountain” is something special. Rarely is it juvenile…. “Witch Mountain” earned prolonged applause from the young matinee crowd I joined; little ones seemed to enjoy it best, and I wasn't bored either.25

New York Times critic Vincent Canby offers a less rosy view on July 3, 1975, asserting that Escape “is for children who will watch absolutely anything that moves.”26 Calling the film “silly” and “an overdose of Novocaine” in a second review, published three days later, he advises parents “to drop their children at the theater and pick them up afterwards.”27 Supported by little evidence from the film itself, Canby's repetitive criticisms seem more about his personal disdain for children's films than anything else.

While many children adored Escape, its appeal to girls was undoubtedly linked to the characterization of Tia—a smart and capable heroine with tremendous supernatural powers, including telekinesis, clairvoyance, and telepathy. Tia is especially skilled at opening locks and communicating telepathically with animals, which enables her and Tony to evade capture by the film's villains, Lucas Deranian (Donald Pleasence) and Aristotle Bolt (Ray Milland), on several occasions. When the men sic their vicious dogs on the siblings, for example, Tia uses her psychic abilities to turn the canines against their caretakers. And later in the film, she calls on a black bear to distract Deranian (figures 9–10). In striking contrast with the era's more typical representations of endangered girls needing to be rescued by a male hero—as is the case with Jodie Foster's characters in Napoleon and Samantha (1972) and Tom Sawyer (1973) and Kim Richards's character in No Deposit, No Return (1976)—Tia rescues herself and her brother, thus importantly contributing to the pair being “always one step ahead of their elders,” as Charles Champlin put it in his original review for the Los Angeles Times.28

Figure 9–10.

Tia uses her telepathic powers to communicate with a bear, who takes over the villains' car, in Escape to Witch Mountain.

Figure 9–10.

Tia uses her telepathic powers to communicate with a bear, who takes over the villains' car, in Escape to Witch Mountain.

Although Tia's character in some ways represents a more liberated kind of girlhood than that of other big-screen preteens at the time, Escape undermines Tia's power by aligning her appearance, abilities, and emotions with traditional femininity and privileging male authority within the narrative. For instance, the siblings’ powers are gendered in normative ways. Whereas Tia moves tiny objects (e.g., the inner workings of locks) through silent, focused concentration, Tony moves large, “masculine” objects (e.g., a motorcycle) by vigorously playing his harmonica (figures 1114). Tony is also characterized as the more commanding sibling, ordering Tia to pacify the guard dogs, summon a horse, and open locks on cue. Disney's press releases for Escape also trade in similar gender stereotypes. An article on Eisenmann describes him as a “chili-loving Texas bantamweight” and “A” student who is wisely “saving [his] money for college.”29 In contrast, the article on Richards describes her as “4 1/2 foot doll” who “likes to help around the house” (especially in the kitchen) and who wants to be “a mommy and have children.”30 Although the actors were costars, the article on Eisenmann names him as the “lead”—a theme repeated in publicity images and promotional posters that show Tony running several steps ahead of his sister (figure 15).31

Figure 11–12.

As Tony watches, Tia opens a lock through quiet concentration.

Figure 11–12.

As Tony watches, Tia opens a lock through quiet concentration.

Figure 13–14.

Tony propels a motorcycle over a cliff by playing his harmonica.

Figure 13–14.

Tony propels a motorcycle over a cliff by playing his harmonica.

Figure 15.

Tony leads the race to Witch Mountain in Escape's movie poster.

Figure 15.

Tony leads the race to Witch Mountain in Escape's movie poster.

Reminiscent of the ways that male characters such as Darrin (Dick York and Dick Sargent) and Tony (Larry Hagman) attempt to manage and contain the magical powers of Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) on Bewitched (ABC, 1964–72) and Jeannie (Barbara Eden) on I Dream of Jeannie (NBC, 1965–70), Tony tries to control the deployment of Tia's powers throughout Escape. Still, feminine pleasure can be gleaned from the fact that Tony, like Darrin and Tony (Nelson) before him, is only partially successful in this quest. When he orders Tia not to use her powers to free an imprisoned bear, for example, she coolly disobeys. In mixing traditional compliance with feminist defiance, Tia is—as Susan Douglas argues with regard to Samantha on Bewitched—“both conforming and rebellious.”32

While Tia's supernatural powers are presented as the obvious threat to male authority, the film comments on another tremendously threatening power: female sexuality. In the opening scene of the film, Tia's “star case”—a small metallic box emblazoned with two yellow stars, which dangles from her wrist by a leather strap—functions primarily as a marker of her femininity (figures 16–17). Yet it quickly takes on larger metaphorical meaning as more of the action centers around the mystery and maintenance of her special “box.” Indeed, numerous scenes depict the siblings’ struggle to keep Tia's star case safe; and when her case is threatened, considerable chaos ensues. The activities and anxieties connected to protecting her little “case”—especially from loss or damage—thus combine to suggest that Tia's prized feminine accessory symbolically represents her virginity.33 The name of, and emblem on, her sparkly box also seems significant because stars, by definition, are heavenly bodies, and the “heavenly body” of the preteen girl is that which the film tries relentlessly to preserve.

Figure 16–17.

Tia shows her “star case” to Mrs. Grindley (Reta Shaw) at the opening of Escape to Witch Mountain.

Figure 16–17.

Tia shows her “star case” to Mrs. Grindley (Reta Shaw) at the opening of Escape to Witch Mountain.

Throughout Escape, Tia's star case/virginity is positioned as a mystifying entity that she, Tony, Jason, and Uncle Bené all attempt to protect against “penetration” by malevolent male characters. For example, after our introduction to the star case with Mrs. Grindley (Reta Shaw), the head of the orphanage whose prolonged admiration of the box at the beginning of the film might be read as subtle schooling on the maintenance of virginity), our next encounter with the case occurs when a bully named Truck (Dermott Downs) swipes it out of Tia's hand (figure 18). Despite Tia's protests, Tony readies himself for a fight, heatedly declaring, “It's your star case, Tia—he might smash it!” Since Tony's primary concern revolves around his fear of the box being broken, the comment taps into cultural anxieties about ruptured hymens signifying “spoiled goods.” Before Tony can throw a punch, Tia's pussycat, Winky, leaps onto Truck, causing him to drop the box. Tia's star case is again taken away from her later in the film—this time by a shady sheriff who locks the siblings in jail. As before, Tony hatches a plan to get the box back, and none too soon, as the camera cuts to shots of the sheriff alone in his office, curiously fondling the box with his pudgy fingers (figure 19). If we read these masculine attempts to take, touch, and/or possess the star case as symbolic attempts by men and boys to tarnish Tia's purity, it helps to explain Tony's considerable anxiety in the two scenes. With the siblings’ mother and father dead and no substitute parents yet in the picture, the responsibility to safeguard Tia's innocence—a hallmark of Disney's “good girls”34—falls to her “Big Brother.”

Figure 18.

Truck (Dermott Downs) provokes Tony after snatching Tia's star case.

Figure 18.

Truck (Dermott Downs) provokes Tony after snatching Tia's star case.

Figure 19.

Sheriff Purdy (Walter Barnes) curiously examines Tia's star case.

Figure 19.

Sheriff Purdy (Walter Barnes) curiously examines Tia's star case.

The parallels between Tia's sexuality and her star case continue to play out in a scene that takes place in Tony's bedroom at the orphanage. In this scene, Tia seeks Tony's assistance in repairing a panel in her box knocked loose by Truck. “Can ya fix it?” she asks. When Tony touches the wobbly piece, it swings back to reveal a mysterious clue: a map of Witch Mountain. Interestingly, the looseness of the partition in the star case hints at Tia's impending transition from girlhood into womanhood. That the innocence of girlhood is preferred over the maturity (and scariness) of womanhood is implied when Tia wants her box “fixed.” Alterations to her box, just like bodily changes that come with growing up, are a “problem” in need of repair. Tony's discovery of the map, combined with his pledge to “figure out where this place is,” also suggests that boys are better able to identify and decipher the mysteries of the female body. Finally, the end of the scene taps into masculine fears surrounding female sexuality. As Tony softly plays his harmonica, he telekinetically manipulates a black crayon against a mirror to form a picture of the castle of the villain Aristotle Bolt (figure 20). Though both siblings’ images are reflected in the glass, Tia appears inside the castle walls—the black lines tightly woven around her body like a cage. Unlike his sister, who looks unmistakably trapped, Tony appears almost entirely outside the structure. In connecting his (masculine) body to freedom and her (feminine) body to captivity, Tony's drawing hints at his desire to protect and contain his sister's sexuality—especially the kind that threatens to erupt into “looseness,” as the flimsy panel inside her box seems to suggest.

Figure 20.

Tony confines Tia in a drawing of Aristotle Bolt (Ray Milland)'s castle.

Figure 20.

Tony confines Tia in a drawing of Aristotle Bolt (Ray Milland)'s castle.

Father figures Jason and Uncle Bené are also linked to protecting Tia's star case/virginity. When the siblings fall asleep in Jason's RV (with the shimmery box resting between them), Jason stays awake to protect the vehicle's prized contents from being “penetrated” in the night (as Deranian unsuccessfully attempts to do). There is also a telling moment at the end of the film when Uncle Bené, upon being reunited with the children, fondly touches Tia's star case and praises her for not losing it (figure 21). Just as a good girl should, she followed the rules and kept it close(d).

Figure 21.

Uncle Bené (Denver Pyle) commends Tia for not losing her “box.”

Figure 21.

Uncle Bené (Denver Pyle) commends Tia for not losing her “box.”

Interestingly, Tia's star case hinders her as much as it helps her. Tethered to her wrist throughout most of the film, it functions like a heavy anchor—fastening her to fixtures and making her movements, such as running away, more difficult (figure 22). Although the box contains a clue that helps the siblings get home, it also carries dreadful connotations, pointing as it does to an area of Witch Mountain. Not only does the box symbolize Tia's sexuality, then, but the clue buried within it also marks it as monstrous. As Elizabeth Reis points out, “A connection between witchcraft and Satan … exists in the popular mind,” despite the fact that “its practice has nothing to do with the devil or devil worship.”35 As she explains, “Personhood itself is defined as generically male; women are ‘other.’ And the ultimate expression of otherness, indeed demonization, is the ‘witch,’ a label affixed preponderantly on women. The concept of ‘witch’ and the charge of witchcraft help to set and police the boundaries of female normality and acceptability.”36 In linking Tia's box to a place where witches purportedly reside, the film helps to justify the patriarchal surveillance of her cumbersome extra “appendage.” In other words, Tia's sexuality must be policed in order to bar it from becoming horrific. Tia's star case thus symbolically shackles her to girlhood to prevent her from maturing into a more powerful and, of course, dreaded female monster.

Figure 22.

Tia's star case appears to weigh her down, even in bed.

Figure 22.

Tia's star case appears to weigh her down, even in bed.

Indeed, as horror movies from the 1970s tell us, when girls embark upon adolescence, they must struggle to manage what Barbara Creed refers to as “the monstrous feminine,” or “what it is about woman that is shocking, terrifying, horrific, abject.”37 As Creed further elaborates, “It is not by accident that Freud linked the sight of the Medusa to the equally horrifying sight of the mother's genitals, for the concept of the monstrous-feminine, as constructed within and by a patriarchal and phallocentric ideology, is related intimately to the problem of sexual difference and castration.”38 Feminist film scholars, such as Shelley Stamp, have adopted the concept of “the monstrous feminine” to demonstrate how horror films featuring adolescent girls (e.g., Carrie) find “an absolute monstrousness … lurking at the heart of female sexuality.”39 In some films from the 1970s, girls find themselves susceptible to demonic possession, such as Linda Blair's character Regan in The Exorcist (1973). References to the horrific nature of Regan's budding sexuality appear throughout the film but are, perhaps, most evident in the gruesome scene wherein she screams, “Fuck me, fuck me!” while repeatedly stabbing herself between the legs with a crucifix as blood spurts all over her white nightgown (figure 23).

Figure 23.

Regan's monstrous puberty prompts her to stab herself with a crucifix in The Exorcist (1973).

Figure 23.

Regan's monstrous puberty prompts her to stab herself with a crucifix in The Exorcist (1973).

When telekinetic girls, such as Carrie in Brian De Palma's horror film Carrie (1976) and Gillian (Amy Irving) in De Palma's film The Fury (1978), hit puberty, the ramifications are equally horrendous. For Carrie and Gillian, sexual maturation—including menstruation—makes their telekinesis more powerful, dangerous, and gruesome. Like a poisonous elixir, then, the combination of supernatural and sexual powers turns telekinetic girls into monsters who will destroy anyone and everything around them. As Carol J. Clover perceptively puts it in her analysis of telekinetic girls in horror films, “So supernatural and psychosexual intersect: cause a girl enough pain, repress enough of her rage, and—no matter how fundamentally decent she may be—she perforce becomes a witch.”40 To be sure, after a prank leaves Carrie drenched in pig's blood moments after she has been crowned prom queen, she uses her telepathy to enact revenge; after executing her classmates in a fiery blaze, she returns home to kill her cruel mother and, finally, herself (figure 24). Not unlike Carrie, whose puberty is deemed grotesque through scenes that portray her as a “bloody mess” (e.g., when she gets her period in the shower and is soaked in pig's blood at the prom), notions of monstrous puberty find expression in The Fury through Gillian's power to cause others to bleed. She eventually destroys the evil man who wants to exploit her powers by bursting him into bloody bits, but in so doing she morphs into a more hideous monster, complete with demonic, glowing eyes and convulsing limbs.

Figure 24.

The promotional poster for Carrie (1977) highlights Carrie's transition from prom queen to teen terror.

Figure 24.

The promotional poster for Carrie (1977) highlights Carrie's transition from prom queen to teen terror.

It is interesting to note that John Hough was recruited to direct Escape to Witch Mountain based on his work on the supernatural horror film The Legend of Hell House (1973). According to Escape's production file, Legend's direction by Hough—who also directed Twins of Evil (1971)—“caught the attention of Disney executive producer Ron Miller, who signed him for ‘Escape.’”41 As Hough further explains on Escape's “Special Edition” DVD, Disney “wanted something a little bit more gritty, a little bit more realistic” as they were developing Escape to Witch Mountain; “they had seen Legend of Hell House, so they came to me.”42 It is impossible to know exactly what Miller and/or Hough had in mind when they set out to make a children's film that was “a little bit more gritty, a little bit more realistic,” but if Hough's work on Legend is any indication, “gritty” and “realistic” included a disquieting focus on female sexuality.43 When the malevolent male force in Legend begins to take hold of the women staying in Hell House, they become increasingly sexual (and sexualized); one disrobes and attempts to seduce a man who is not her husband, while the other fornicates with the demon, who later kills her (figure 25). Despite the fact that Escape and Legend were made for vastly different audiences, their underlying obsessions with and fears about female sexuality are remarkably similar—perhaps helping to explain why one critic referred to Escape as the “miniexorcist.”44

Figure 25.

Worse for the wear, Florence (Pamela Franklin) lies in bed after an encounter with the demon in The Legend of Hell House (1973).

Figure 25.

Worse for the wear, Florence (Pamela Franklin) lies in bed after an encounter with the demon in The Legend of Hell House (1973).

When we recognize that the formula for monstrous adolescent femininity in the horror genre is the merger of a girl's supernatural power with her burgeoning sexuality, the painstaking efforts made by male characters to keep a lid on Tia's sexuality in Escape start to make more sense. Indeed, sexually empowered female monsters pose a much greater threat to men and boys than do chaste little girls whose supernatural talents might still be harnessed in the service of patriarchy. The problem, of course, is that Tia is offered two extreme models of youthful femininity in the first place. When supernatural adolescents must either be innocent girls or frightening, fiendish women, then it seems they can never successfully transition from girlhood to womanhood. Perhaps this is why there was no third film featuring Tia and Tony after the 1978 sequel. Tia's inevitably monstrous coming-of-age story would have placed her outside of Disney's brand of children's/family films and squarely within the horror genre. Playing the role of a twelve-year-old in Return from Witch Mountain, Tia's “pure” preteen femininity has reached the end of its permissible progression. Because the sequel erases many of the qualities that make the first film enjoyable—especially the duo's successful employment of teamwork—viewers likely would not have wanted to see a third installment anyway. Indeed, Return's villains pursue and punish Tia so much (with Tony's assistance) that it seemingly saps the pleasure right out of being a supernatural girl. Though this shift in the story makes the sequel less pleasant to watch, it also fits the pattern of the era's dominant cinematic narratives about supernatural “good girls” who grow up—namely, the older they get, the more their sexuality must be policed in order to keep the monster that lurks within them at bay.

Boxed In: Extinguishing Preteen Girl Power in Return from Witch Mountain

Return from Witch Mountain, also directed by Hough, depicts Tia and Tony coming to California for a vacation after three years on Witch Mountain with Uncle Bené (figure 26). Early in the film, Tony runs into trouble with a trio of evil villains: the deranged Dr. Victor Gannon (Christopher Lee), his money-hungry assistant, Letha Wedge (Bette Davis), and Letha's creepy nephew, Sickle (Anthony James). When Tony uses his supernatural powers to save Sickle from plunging to his death, Victor and Letha capture Tony and exploit his powers for their wicked agendas, which include trying to destroy Tia. In the end, Tia befriends a group of preteen boys called the Earthquake Gang, and together they succeed in thwarting the villains and liberating Tony from the evil group's mind control.

Figure 26.

Tia and Tony arrive in style at Pasadena's Rose Bowl in Return from Witch Mountain (1978).

Figure 26.

Tia and Tony arrive in style at Pasadena's Rose Bowl in Return from Witch Mountain (1978).

Tia's appeal to girls in Return was surely linked to her courage and competence as well as to the fact that her supernatural powers have intensified over time. Whereas she moves mostly tiny objects with her mind in Escape, she maneuvers enormous machines in the sequel, such as trucks, cranes, and buses (figures 27–28). At one point, she even makes a passenger van fly. She also uses her telekinetic prowess to rescue male characters, including saving the Earthquakes—Dazzler (Christian Juttner), Muscles (Brad Savage), Crusher (Poindexter Yothers), and Rocky (Jeffrey Jacquet)—from a rival gang and helping to free Tony at the end of the film. Despite her skill and bravery, the film undercuts Tia's power by making her dependent on male characters and animals for help. For instance, she telepathically asks Victor's goat, Alfred, to fetch the Earthquakes to rescue her when she's stuck in a state of “comatose neutralization” in Victor's lab, and she gets assistance from the Earthquake boys in saving Tony.

Figure 27–28.

Tia uses her powers to lift a school bus.

Figure 27–28.

Tia uses her powers to lift a school bus.

On the one hand, girls watching Return in the 1970s might have appreciated the fact that Tia freely pals around with preteen boys—a pattern that importantly suggests that boys and girls could (and should) be allies (figure 29). On the other hand, girls may have been disappointed that Tia does not have any female friends—a situation exacerbated in the sequel by pitting her against “lethal” Letha. While many scholars have critiqued Disney's tendency to portray women as rivals,45 Mary Celeste Kearney notes how slasher films of the late 1970s and early 1980s also “subordinated, if not outright ignored, themes about the importance of girls developing identities independent from boys and forming supportive relationships with other female youth.”46 Despite the fact that the second-wave feminist movement's promotion of “sisterhood” had gained wide exposure by 1978, the Witch Mountain movies ignore its currency, thus conveniently preventing Tia from using her powers to advance the interests of a broader community of girls.

Figure 29.

Tia pals around with the boys, although she's consistently positioned in the back of the bunch.

Figure 29.

Tia pals around with the boys, although she's consistently positioned in the back of the bunch.

Although critics did not interrogate Return's representation of Tia and Letha as enemies, at least one commented on Letha's appearance, asserting, “The whole sum of malevolence Bette Davis has done in her entire career shouldn't account for her looking the way she does here.”47 This remark, of course, illuminates a disturbing cultural contempt for older women who do not live up to society's unrealistic standards of feminine youth and beauty. It also sadly parallels Return's underlying message about what wielding tremendous power does to women: it turns them into monsters. After all, it is Letha (figure 30) who inspires Tia's kidnapping, insisting to Victor that “we'd better do something about Tony's sister.” Characterized by excess, with her gaudy dress, harsh makeup, and garish orange hair, as well as her obsessive love of gambling and money (which repeatedly aggravates Victor), Letha retains a dreadful image of female power that seems to handily justify Victor's interest in killing Tia (i.e., better to do it now before she, too, becomes a meddling monster).

Figure 30.

A close-up of Letha (Bette Davis) as she learns of Tony's powers.

Figure 30.

A close-up of Letha (Bette Davis) as she learns of Tony's powers.

One critic, Janet Maslin, observes a punishing directorial style in Return that is aimed—at least in part—at women. As she asserts, “John Hough's direction, ungainly at its best, is occasionally downright cruel. Shooting snub-nosed kids from a low camera angle is not a very nice thing to do, and neither is shooting Miss Davis in close-up when her heavy makeup seems designed for long shots. She's supposed to look frightening much of the time, but there's such a thing as gallantry, too” (figure 31).48 While Maslin's review suggests an awareness of the film's uneven gender politics, it—like several other reviews of Return—also reinforces a patriarchal and age-biased view wherein the performances of the cute preteen boys who play the Earthquakes are heralded over those of the “serviceable” but aging Richards and Eisenmann.49 A critic for Variety calls the boys “standouts” but refrains from praising the young principals—noting instead that Eisenmann and Richards have “matured considerably since the original pic.”50 Similarly, Richard Osborne, a critic for the Hollywood Reporter, notes that while “Richards and Eisenmann are okay … [they] take a backseat in the charm division to the quartet of would-be toughs.”51 Such assessments differ dramatically from those made by critics in 1975, who describe the performances of Eisenmann and Richards as “charming,” “excellent,” “attractive,” and “beguiling.”52 The villains’ lack of empathy toward the adolescent siblings in Return is thus uncomfortably paralleled by some critics in the popular press.

Figure 31.

Janet Maslin criticizes John Hough's “cruel” artistic style in a review of Return (New York Times, July 7, 1978).

Figure 31.

Janet Maslin criticizes John Hough's “cruel” artistic style in a review of Return (New York Times, July 7, 1978).

Although Return is ostensibly about a girl's journey to save her brother, close analysis suggests it is more about patriarchy's quest to suppress a powerful girl and her budding sexuality. While Escape taps into this theme metaphorically through the masculine guardianship of Tia's star case/virginity, the sequel attempts to contain her sexuality in a much more insidious way—namely, by trying to destroy Tia and putting Tony at the helm of this effort. Although the Earthquakes want to help rather than to harm Tia, the film suggests they, too, experience considerable unease about the nature of Tia's mysterious power. Ultimately, the villains’ brutal quest to annihilate the young heroine, combined with their (and the Earthquakes’) fears about her femininity, is further evidence of the intense cultural anxiety about powerful girls coming of age during the dawn of women's liberation.

Costuming and scenery in Return foreground Tia's transition from girlhood to womanhood. Throughout the film, Tia wears a bright red “short suit” complete with culottes, vest, blazer, and blouse imprinted with small red flowers. Not only does Tia's red outfit and bud-speckled top signal her blossoming sexuality, but they make her stand out dramatically from the other characters, all of whom are attired in drab or dark colors (figure 32). Tia also looks especially luminous against the film's lackluster backgrounds—from L.A.'s warehouses and railroad yards to the dilapidated Earthquake hideout and Victor's dreary laboratory.

Figure 32.

Tia stands out from the boys in Return.

Figure 32.

Tia stands out from the boys in Return.

A sequence leading up to Tia's first encounter with the Earthquakes hints at the potentially threatening nature of the preteen's impending adolescence. While roaming the streets in search of her brother, Tia pauses next to a shrub with small yellow blooms; the next shot depicts her through a hole in a car's windshield—her entire body framed in a circle of jagged glass (figure 33). The juxtaposition of these shots seems to suggest that her girlish innocence, accentuated through her association with nature, is about to be shattered. That the transition from girlhood to womanhood (wholeness to brokenness?) is an anxiety-provoking one is implied by the next shot, which depicts the Earthquakes frantically running away from a rival gang and yelling to Tia, “Get off the street!” Ultimately, when Tia saves the Earthquakes by telekinetically hurling garbage at their foes, her power inspires both fear and awe among the boys, thus positioning her as a mysterious object of male aversion and desire.

Figure 33.

Framed by a circle of jagged glass, this shot suggests that Tia's girlhood innocence may soon shatter.

Figure 33.

Framed by a circle of jagged glass, this shot suggests that Tia's girlhood innocence may soon shatter.

The idea that Tia's budding sexuality is monstrous and therefore in need of containment is especially evident in scenes that take place in Victor's laboratory after Tony has deceptively lured Tia there. Reminiscent of scenes from Frankenstein movies wherein the mad Dr. Frankenstein (whose first name is also Victor) attends to his monsters on the operating table, Victor places Tia on an elevated table in his gothic lab and covers her with a translucent tent (into which he pumps a sedating gas) (figure 34). Not only does the tent constrain Tia's movement, but it also suggests her body is a contagion that must be sealed off from the rest of the world.

Figure 34.

Victor (Christopher Lee) puts Tia in a state of “comatose neutralization.”

Figure 34.

Victor (Christopher Lee) puts Tia in a state of “comatose neutralization.”

Details in the plot and dialogue—specifically, metaphorical references to Tia's impending menses—further imply that the root of the contagion is the preteen's blossoming sexuality. For instance, Tia's abduction is motivated by Victor's desire to control “molecular flow,” which sounds strikingly similar to “menstrual flow.” Later, when Alfred, the goat, entices the Earthquakes to follow him to Victor's lab, he does so by charging into the gang's hideout and snatching Tia's red vest with his mouth. This action provokes tremendous anxiety in the Earthquakes, who chase after Alfred in a frenzied attempt to retrieve the garment—which happens to be a layer that has been mysteriously shed and held in the animal's lips.53 Furthermore, when the boys lift the tent off Tia after locating her in the lab, they plug their noses and swat the air, groaning about how bad “it smells” (figure 35). Thus, while Tia's gender difference already marks her body as “other,” her puberty further signifies that it is polluted. As Laura Kipnis notes in The Female Thing,

Cultures worldwide have believed that … female bodies, especially when menstruating, are dangerous to men's health…. Throughout the generations, men—often aided and abetted by women … have contrived an array of weird decontamination rituals to shield themselves from female poisons … [including] isolating themselves from women (or women from them).54

Although Victor, presumably, could have used his mind-control device on Tia after kidnapping her to give her potent agency (as he does with Tony), he opts to put her in a box and “neutralize” her instead; hence, there seems to be something particularly pernicious about female power that he wants desperately to suppress. A photograph of Tia trapped in Victor's box appeared on two of Return's “deluxe full color” posters that circulated to theaters nationwide; the Washington Post also features this image in its review of the film.55 In prominently displaying the preteen during her most vulnerable moment in the movie, Disney's publicity team (along with the Post) reified the notion that Tia's power needed restraint.

Figure 35.

The Earthquakes rescue Tia but complain about the foul smell of her body upon releasing her from Victor's box.

Figure 35.

The Earthquakes rescue Tia but complain about the foul smell of her body upon releasing her from Victor's box.

The fact that scenes wherein Tia is “hunted” are especially violent also suggests that the hostility that greets her is tied to her gender difference. For instance, early in the film Victor orders Tony to make the van in which Tia is traveling flip, slide down a hill, and crash forcefully into a fire hydrant (figure 36). And later, in the final showdown at the plutonium plant, Victor attempts to make Tony kill Tia—first by lobbing enormous objects at her, and then by trying to crush her with a crane. Tony eventually drives the crane so low to the ground that Tia must lie underneath it to stay alive. As she screams to her brother, “Stop it,” Victor eggs Tony on, yelling, “Exert a force greater than hers! Crush her! Kill her! Finish her now!” (figures 37–38). When Tia eventually realizes that Victor is shouting these commands into a small box—the mind-control device—she telekinetically smashes it, thereby breaking Victor's power over Tony and saving herself.

Figure 36.

Victor and the villains terrorize Tia.

Figure 36.

Victor and the villains terrorize Tia.

Figure 37–38.

Victor and Tony try to kill Tia by dropping 125 tons on top of her.

Figure 37–38.

Victor and Tony try to kill Tia by dropping 125 tons on top of her.

What is especially intriguing about Tia's concluding battle with Victor and Tony (figure 39) is the extent to which it resembles those that girls in 1970s horror films had with their attackers, including Sally (Marilyn Burns)'s final fight with Hitchhiker and Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis)'s final face-off with Michael Meyers in Halloween (1978). Obviously, Disney's G-rated version of the climactic clash between the male monster and girl hero is much cleaner (e.g., there isn't any blood) and tamer (e.g., nobody dies) than in these horror movies. Nevertheless, the extreme terror and violence that Tia experiences, along with her ultimate defeat of the madman, is remarkably similar to the circumstances of her adult horror-film counterparts—heroines who, as Carol Clover has aptly named them, are “Final Girls.” According to Clover, the Final Girl is the one “who is chased, cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again. She is abject terror personified” (figure 40).56 While the Final Girl “alone looks death in the face,” her strength enables her “either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued … or to kill him herself.”57 Like the Final Girl, Tia is repeatedly chased, trapped, and terrorized. The van that transports her is smashed and overturned. Colossal objects are hurled at her. She is kidnapped, gassed, and stashed in a box. She screams, falls, and rises. She “looks death in the face” and symbolically (and finally) kills Victor by smashing his mind-control device, thereby dissolving his power.

Figure 39.

Tia faces off with Tony.

Figure 39.

Tia faces off with Tony.

Figure 40.

Tia is “abject terror personified” (in the words of Carol J. Clover, Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992], 35).

Figure 40.

Tia is “abject terror personified” (in the words of Carol J. Clover, Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992], 35).

Though Tia, like Sally and Laurie, embodies some masculine characteristics (e.g., bravery, strength, and expert combat skill), the fact that she retains her femininity—looking every bit the fairytale princess even as she's terrorized—seems to point to the place where Disney and the horror genre diverge. Whereas the slasher film's Final Girls are “boyish,”58 Tia is very much a little lady. Her pretty, long blonde hair and polished attire—conspicuously complete with pantyhose—suggest that underneath the tough exterior, she's still very much a conventional girl. Tia's budding sexuality also sets her apart from the decade's Final Girls, who tend to be either nonsexual or asexual. While the conflation of Tia's monstrous sexuality and heroic Final Girl status may be a case of Return's creative team borrowing willy-nilly from the horror genre, her hybridity nevertheless highlights her unique liminality. In fact, Tia's “in-between-ness”—i.e., her straddling of girlhood and womanhood, feminism and femininity, and character conventions of children's and horror films—opens up a crucial space for youthful female identification. Like Tia, girls in the 1970s were negotiating a variety of “in-betweens” in their own lives—from navigating popular culture's often-contradictory calls for girls to be feminine yet feminist-minded59 to exploring grown-up styles and experiences while still embracing the (traditional) securities of childhood. Despite the era's social anxieties about girlhood in transition, then, as a powerful heroine on the brink of adolescence, Tia offers inspiration to girls on how to survive the fray. Even though she is fiercely hunted (or, perhaps, because of it), Tia's triumph over Victor is an important payoff for young viewers—especially those experiencing their own coming-of-age changes and challenges during the era of women's liberation.

Ultimately, Return's varied negotiations with gender and sexual politics appear to have both empowering and thwarting effects. On the one hand, Tia stands out as a particularly powerful twelve-year-old; her daring, combined with her magical abilities, destabilizes gender binaries, thereby hinting at promising new possibilities for girlhood agency and control. Yet the fact that Tia must fight the forces of evil without giving up her feminine essence ultimately works to maintain the very gender hierarchies that her powerful persona seems to undercut. In this respect, Tia's femininity not only grounds her within Disney's longstanding tradition of celebrating goodness over evil through the figure of a young and beautiful (white) girl, but it also connects her to some of the era's TV superheroines, including Lindsay Wagner's Bionic Woman and Linda Carter's Wonder Woman (figure 41). Elana Levine persuasively demonstrates how series such as Wonder Woman engaged with “New Woman” ideas while simultaneously embracing nonfeminist notions of “fundamental sexual difference.”60 Although these female freedom fighters were much more sexualized, Disney's Witch Mountain films grapple with similar gendered tensions.

Figure 41.

Not unlike Wonder Woman, Tia is a preteen freedom fighter, though one wouldn't know it from Return's promotional poster.

Figure 41.

Not unlike Wonder Woman, Tia is a preteen freedom fighter, though one wouldn't know it from Return's promotional poster.

Also paralleling the horror film tradition is Return's final indictment of Tia's burgeoning sexuality: it simply cannot be tolerated. For, as Sissy Spacek's and Amy Irving's characters in Carrie and The Fury remind us, when cinema's supernatural girls hit puberty, they inevitably transform into hideous, havoc-wreaking monsters. Consequently, the anxieties incited by Tia's impending womanhood must be completely resolved before the credits roll. Return's convenient solution to this problem is to send Tia back to Witch Mountain and the Earthquakes back to school (figures 42–43). Ultimately, as Tia waves down to the boys from her uncle's spaceship as it flies away, the film makes it perfectly clear that charming, all-American boys—not magical girls—hold the ticket to future power on the streets of L.A. Given that Tia is the only girl in the film, not to mention the only female character with redeeming values, her exile seems especially significant here (though Tony, too, returns to Witch Mountain).

Figure 42–43.

Tia returns to Witch Mountain, and the Earthquakes return to school.

Figure 42–43.

Tia returns to Witch Mountain, and the Earthquakes return to school.

Although Variety predicted that Return from Witch Mountain “should do as well as its predecessor, if not better,”61 this didn't happen. The film ranked forty-fourth on Variety's “Big Rental Films of 1978” list, compared to Escape's nineteenth-place finish in 1975.62 While that is still a relatively impressive ranking, Disney's live-action/animation hybrid Pete's Dragon was the company's most profitable children's film in 1978, coming in as the sixteenth-biggest rental.63 Because of Return's overwhelming interest in destroying Tia, perhaps it is somewhat comforting to know that the film wasn't as successful as Escape.

Interestingly, Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann, the original Tia and Tony, make cameo appearances in Disney's latest installment of the franchise, Race to Witch Mountain (2009), directed by Andy Fickman. While girl fans of the original movies might have hoped for a dose of girl power in the characterization of their childhood heroine, what the film delivers, instead, is a reminder of how Tia's power never quite equaled Tony's. Richards plays Tina, a waitress in a rowdy restaurant and bar, while Eisenmann plays Antony, the gun-toting sheriff who holds court inside (figures 4446). In their short time on screen, Tina acts as a nurturing mother figure to the on-the-run kids (e.g., she takes them to “clean up” in the washroom), while Sheriff Antony gets to flex his authoritative muscle by stalling their pursuit by the villains. Despite the more than thirty-five years that have passed between Return and Race, some Disney writers and filmmakers still struggle, apparently, to think outside the box when imagining gendered power. Equally discouraging is how the film drastically diminishes the roles of the new siblings, Seth (Alexander Ludwig) and Sarah (AnnaSophia Robb), in order to celebrate the hypermasculine heroics of their cab-driving savior, Jack Bruno (Dwayne Johnson) (figure 47).

Figure 44–45.

Tina (Kim Richards) greets Sheriff Antony (Ike Eisenmann) in Race to Witch Mountain (2009).

Figure 44–45.

Tina (Kim Richards) greets Sheriff Antony (Ike Eisenmann) in Race to Witch Mountain (2009).

Figure 46.

In their brief moment together onscreen, Tina pledges to bring Sheriff Antony some pie.

Figure 46.

In their brief moment together onscreen, Tina pledges to bring Sheriff Antony some pie.

Figure 47.

Race to Witch Mountain celebrates the macho heroism of Jack Bruno (Dwayne Johnson)—a theme hinted at in the film's promotional poster.

Figure 47.

Race to Witch Mountain celebrates the macho heroism of Jack Bruno (Dwayne Johnson)—a theme hinted at in the film's promotional poster.

Perhaps Disney's post-9/11 celebration of masculine prowess and its intense regulation of girls’ sexuality in the 1970s are no surprise. As Lynn Spigel has noted, “Childhood … historically has been an unstable category, one that must be regulated and controlled constantly.”64 Just as childhood is a category that must be incessantly supervised, so too is the subcategory of preteen girlhood. And while stories about girls’ increased power and agency in 1970s cinema can be seen as part of the transformation of traditional gender roles ushered in by second-wave feminism, narrative themes and resolutions—bound up as they were with fears of female sexuality and the recuperation of more traditional (and safe) forms of femininity—also represent a backlash against it. What is, perhaps, most fascinating about films of the liberation era, though, is that filmmakers from different backgrounds, working with different studios, and dealing with vastly different genre- and ratings-related constraints, were grappling with similar gender-related anxieties through the figure of the preteen girl. This remarkable pattern offers an important clue, not only to the kinds of stories about girls that were popular within cinema culture at the time, but also about how the period's male creative talents were feeling about girls coming of age during the dawn of feminism; to borrow Peter Lehman's words, they were “running scared.”65 Yet, as girls have long done with mainstream narratives that don't measure up to their own ideals, female youth in the 1970s undoubtedly mined the Witch Mountain films for moments of feminine (and/or feminist) pleasure—perhaps returning again and again to beloved images of girlhood power while ignoring (i.e., escaping from) the film's broader “logics of subordination.”66

Notes

1.

Shirley Temple was given an Honorary Academy Award in 1935, when she was six years old; however, Tatum O'Neal became the youngest winner ever in a competitive category.

2.

Molly Haskell, “What Is Hollywood Trying to Tell Us?,” Ms. (April 1977): 49.

3.

See, for instance, “Linda Blair Gets a New Image,” Seventeen (July 1974): 84–85.

4.

Indeed, it seems that many films made about and for girls in this period have fallen through the cracks between scholarship on children's films and that on teen films. Neither David Considine nor Jon Lewis include “preteen” films in their important studies of adolescence in cinema. And much of the work on children's films seems to be focused on movies made for the very young. Timothy Shary does mention the Witch Mountain films in his work, but only in passing. Frances Gatewood's and Murray Pomerance's anthology offers valuable insights on girls and cinema, but it focuses primarily on films starring older teen girls. See David Considine, The Cinema of Adolescence (Jefferson and London: McFarland, 1985); Jon Lewis, The Road to Romance & Ruin: Teen Films and Youth Culture (New York and London: Routledge, 1992); Timothy Shary, Generation Multiplex: The Image of Youth in Contemporary American Cinema (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002); and Frances Gatewood and Murray Pomerance, eds., Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice: Cinemas of Girlhood (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002).

5.

Of course, an array of contemporary scholarship critiques Disney's seemingly “innocent” cultural and consumer ideologies. See, for instance, Janet Wasko, Mark Phillips, and Eileen R. Meehan, eds., Dazzled by Disney: The Global Disney Audiences Project (London: Leicester University Press, 2001); and Henry A. Giroux and Grace Pollock, The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence, 2nd ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010).

6.

Giroux and Pollock, The Mouse That Roared, 7.

7.

Timothy Shary, Teen Movies: American Youth on Screen (London and New York: Wallflower, 2005), 48.

8.

Ruth Rosen, The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America (New York: Penguin, 2000), 195.

9.

Ibid.

10.

For further discussion, see Kirsten Pike, “Lessons in Liberation: Schooling Girls in Feminism and Femininity in 1970s ABC Afterschool Specials,” Girlhood Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 4, no. 1 (Summer 2011): 95–113; and Kirsten Pike, “‘The New Activists’: Girls and Discourses of Citizenship, Liberation, and Femininity in Seventeen, 1968–1977,” in Mediated Girlhoods: New Explorations of Girls’ Media Culture, ed. Mary Celeste Kearney, 55–73 (New York: Peter Lang, 2011).

11.

Pike, “‘The New Activists,’” 55–73.

12.

“Linda Blair Gets a New Image,” Seventeen, 84–85.

13.

“Behind the Reel,” Seventeen, March 1980, 136–41.

14.

Richards made her Disney debut in “The Strange Monster of Strawberry Cove,” an episode of The Wonderful World of Disney. See Escape to Witch Mountain: Production File. “Production Notes,” Walt Disney Productions (1975), 4. Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills, CA.

15.

“Teacher's Guide for Escape to Witch Mountain” (Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Educational Media Company), 2, borrowed from the Division for Libraries & Community Learning (Madison, WI). The film's source was Alexander Key, Escape to Witch Mountain (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968).

16.

“Teacher's Guide for Escape to Witch Mountain,” 4.

17.

In his analysis of Carrie, Timothy Shary suggests that Carrie's “pathological means of achieving redemption is founded on a pernicious cultural anxiety about girls’ power.” See Shary, Teen Movies, 50.

18.

Haskell, “What Is Hollywood Trying to Tell Us?,” 50–51. For an interesting discussion of the way that Haskell's critique dismisses and denigrates girls, see Sarah Projanksy, Spectacular Girls: Media Fascination and Celebrity Culture (New York and London: New York University Press, 2014), 50–51.

19.

Kristen Hatch, “Fille Fatale: Regulating Images of Adolescent Girls, 1962–1996,” in Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice: Cinemas of Girlhood, eds. Frances Gateward and Murray Pomerance, 163–81 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002), 172, 177.

20.

Susan J. Douglas, Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media (New York and Toronto: Random House, 1995), 215.

21.

Elana Levine, “The New Sexual Culture of American Television in the 1970s,” in Sex Scene: Media and the Sexual Revolution, ed. Eric Schaefer (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2014), Kindle ed., loc. nos. 1919–2379: 2037–38.

22.

Ibid., loc. nos. 2039–40.

23.

“Big Rental Films of 1975,” Variety (January 7, 1976): 18, 52.

24.

Ibid.

25.

See “Whit.,” “Escape to Witch Mountain,” Variety (March 19, 1975): 29; and Gene Siskel, “Escape to Witch Mountain,” Chicago Tribune, April 1, 1975, B5.

26.

Vincent Canby, “Screen: ‘Witch Mountain,’” New York Times, July 3, 1975, 21.

27.

Vincent Canby, “What to See If You Can't Get into the Hits,” New York Times, July 6, 1975, 79.

28.

Charles Champlin, “‘Witch’ in True Disney Tradition,” Los Angeles Times, March 21, 1975, 11.

29.

“Chili-Loving Texas Bantamweight Has Lead in ‘Escape to Witch Mountain.’” See Escape to Witch Mountain: Press Book, Walt Disney Productions (1975), 4. Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills, CA.

30.

“10-Year-Old Kim Richards Makes Magic in Disney's ‘Escape to Witch Mountain.’” See Escape to Witch Mountain: Press Book, Walt Disney Productions (1975), 5. Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills, CA.

31.

Similarly, posters for Return depict Tony standing in front of Tia.

32.

Douglas, Where the Girls Are, 133.

33.

Of course, purses, pouches, and ornamental boxes have long been used to symbolize female sexuality in cinema. Prominent examples in films from the era include Marnie (Tippi Hedren)'s purse in Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie (1964) and Jill (Goldie Hawn)'s ornamental box in Milton Katselas's Butterflies Are Free (1972).

34.

Amy M. Davis, Good Girls & Wicked Witches: Women in Disney's Feature Animation (Eastleigh: John Libbey Publishing, 2006).

35.

Elizabeth Reis, “Introduction,” in Spellbound: Women and Witchcraft in America, ed. Elizabeth Reis, xi–xxiii (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources Inc., 1998), xi.

36.

Ibid., xii.

37.

Barbara Creed, “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection,” in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, ed. Barry Keith Grant, 35–65 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996), 35.

38.

Ibid., 36.

39.

Shelley Stamp Lindsey, “Horror, Femininity, and Carrie's Monstrous Puberty,” in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, ed. Barry Keith Grant, 279–95 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996), 290.

40.

Carol J. Clover, Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), 71.

41.

See Escape to Witch Mountain: Production File. “Production Notes,” Walt Disney Productions (1975), 5. Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills, CA.

42.

“Making the Escape,” special feature, Escape to Witch Mountain, DVD, directed by John Hough (1978; Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Home Entertainment, 2003).

43.

Ibid.

44.

“Escape to Witch Mountain,” Village Voice, July 7, 1975, n.p. See Escape to Witch Mountain: Production File. “Reviews” (1975). Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills, CA.

45.

See, for instance, Davis, Good Girls & Wicked Witches; and Douglas, Where the Girls Are.

46.

Mary Celeste Kearney, “Girlfriends and Girl Power: Female Adolescence in Contemporary U.S. Cinema,” in Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice: Cinemas of Girlhood, eds. Frances Gateward and Murray Pomerance, 125–42 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002), 132.

47.

J. M., “Disney's ‘Witch Mountain’ Comes Back—But Why?,” Washington Post, March 31, 1978, W15.

48.

Janet Maslin, “Screen: Spacelings,” New York Times, July 7, 1978, C14.

49.

Ibid.

50.

“Poll.,” “Return from Witch Mountain,” Variety (March 15, 1978): 20.

51.

Richard Osborne, “Movie Review: Return from Witch Mountain,” Hollywood Reporter, March 10, 1978, n.p.; Return from Witch Mountain: Production File. “Reviews” (1978). Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills, CA.

52.

See Champlin, “‘Witch’ in True Disney Tradition”; Judith Crist, New York Magazine, July 7, 1975, n.p.; Eric Braun, “Escape to Witch Mountain,” Films & Filming (May 1975): n.p.; and “Movie Report: Escape to Witch Mountain,” Good Housekeeping (April 1975): n.p., in Escape to Witch Mountain: Production File. “Reviews” (1975). Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills, CA.

53.

Though this may just be an odd coincidence, the symbolism strikes me as significant.

54.

Laura Kipnis, The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability (New York: Pantheon Books, 2006), 114–15.

55.

See Return from Witch Mountain: Press Book, “Exploitation,” Walt Disney Productions (1978), 6. Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills, CA; and Gary Arnold, “Telepathic Siblings in a New Disney Movie,” Washington Post, March 28, 1978, B12.

56.

Clover, Men, Women, and Chain Saws, 35.

57.

Ibid.

58.

Ibid., 40.

59.

For an example, see Kirsten Pike, “‘The New Activists’: Girls and Discourses of Citizenship, Liberation, and Femininity in Seventeen, 1968–1977,” in Mediated Girlhoods: New Explorations of Girls’ Media Culture, ed. Mary Celeste Kearney, 55–73 (New York: Peter Lang, 2011).

60.

Elana Levine, Wallowing in Sex: The New Sexual Culture of 1970s American Television (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2007), 139, 157.

61.

“Poll.,” “Return from Witch Mountain,” Variety (March 15, 1978): 20.

62.

“Big Rental Films of 1978,” Variety (January 3, 1979): 17, 50.

63.

Ibid.

64.

Lynn Spigel, Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2001), 190.

65.

Peter Lehman, Running Scared: Masculinity and the Representation of the Male Body (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993).

66.

Ilana Nash uses this term to describe the politics of the Gidget narrative cycle of the 1960s: Nash, American Sweethearts: Teenage Girls in Twentieth-Century Popular Culture (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006), 196.