Don’t Feed the Id: ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ As a Psychological Fable

Little Shop of Horrors, the 1986 film version of Alan Menken’s cult musical hit, has gained a rather controversial reputation for its changed ending. Originally, the plant monster, Audrey II (voiced by Levi Stubbs), devoured Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis), the nebbish owner of the plant who had been enticed into feeding it human flesh, and Audrey (Ellen Greene), the love of Seymour’s life, before going on to conquer the world as the choir warned the audience against giving in to temptation in the song “Finale Ultimo (Don’t Feed the Plants)”. Test audiences balked en masse at this ending, and a happier one where Seymour manages to destroy the plant was filmed instead. Director Frank Oz lamented the change, as did fans of the original musical, claiming it undermined the original moral of the story.

Despite the ending, however, the film garnered positive reviews and made a respectable sum at the box office. It has become ingrained in the public consciousness, with nearly every plant character since homaging Audrey II in mannerisms or design. Clearly, the film did something right.

Recently, rumors have begun to swirl regarding a rerelease of the film on Blu-ray for Halloween of this year, with the original ending reportedly restored. Before the original ending is seen in wide release, a revisit of the changed ending seems appropriate– as well as an examination of how it ultimately worked in the final film’s favor, by transforming the story from a moral against making a deal with the devil to a psychological fable.

First, a pop psychology primer: Sigmund Freud argued that the human mind is essentially separated into three parts. The id is the animalistic part of the mind– it doesn’t care about society, morals, or much of anything aside from eating and mating. To contrast, the superego is the ideal: it’s an idea of an unattainable perfection that drives us to make moral decisions. The ego is the mediator between the id and superego. Its job is to fulfill the primal needs of the id in a way that doesn’t harm society and to implement the ideals of the superego in a practical way.These three traits correspond perfectly to the main three characters: the plant is a ravenous beast, constantly demanding food from Seymour while lecherously pawing at him and making bawdy comments about the carnal benefits of murder (“Think about a room at the Ritz/wrapped in velvet, covered in glitz/a little nookie gonna clean up your zits and you’ll get it!”), while Audrey is so perfectly pure and innocent, her picturesque fantasy of domestic suburban life with Seymour involves going to bed at 9:15… in separate beds, of course. The plot of the film is Seymour attempting to navigate the demands of the plant while striving to be worthy of Audrey- the ego, attempting to satisfy the id and superego- and a harrowing reminder of what happens when our base instincts go unchecked.

The conflict between the three forces begins during the song, “Feed Me (Git it)”. Prior to this scene, Seymour maintained control over the plant by allowing it only to feed on his own blood. As the plant grew, so did the success of Mushnik’s Skid-Row Florist, the flower shop where Seymour lived. Now, however, the plant has outgrown simply sucking on Seymour’s wounds and, for the first time, vocally demands food. Seymour offers meat from the butcher as a safe alternative, but the plant refuses- “Must be blood… must be fresh!” The plant suggests murder as a source of fresh blood, a proposition that Seymour understandably balks at, even as the plant tempts him with further fame and fortune (“I have so many strong reservations!” he whines). Still, once the plant brings up the possibility of romance with Audrey, Seymour instantly begins to get swept up in the possibilities- until the plant’s reminder of the cost brings him back down to Earth (“If you wanna be profound/if you really gotta justify/ Take a breath and look around/ A lotta folks deserve to die!” “Wait a minute!”) No matter how badly Seymour desires what the plant promises, there’s no way he could justify taking another person’s life… until the plant reminds him of Audrey’s abusive boyfriend, Orin Scrivello, DDS (Steve Martin).

In every scene the sociopathic dentist is in, he spreads pain and misery- to his patients, to Seymour, and especially to Audrey, his personal punching bag. He’s a maniacal, cackling monster, delighting in the pain of others. (And, worthy of note, his one humanizing moment, the song “Now (It’s Just the Gas)”, where he pleads with Seymour to save his life from a long and agonizingly slow death by suffocation, has been cut from the film version in favor of a much shorter, frenzied sequence.) The plant illustrates his point by showing Seymour a scene of horror through the store window as Orin degrades, threatens, and finally assaults Audrey- if there’s one person who’s worth feeding to the plant, it’s Orin. Driven into a rage at the sight of Audrey being attacked, Seymour agrees to the plant’s plan, his anger overwhelming his previous “reservations” (“You need blood/ and he’s got more than enough!”). Though Orin ends up killing himself before Seymour gets the chance, Seymour takes the body and feeds it to Audrey II (chopping it up at the plant’s command), who gleefully devours the dentist while giggling manically. The power in their relationship has shifted- by feeding Orin to the plant, by giving in to his base anger and desires, Seymour has given up his control over Audrey II.

The next day, Seymour, after a sleepless night fretting over what he’s done, meets with Audrey, who has been distraught over Orin’s death- not out of any affection, but guilt over the fact that she had always wished he would disappear. She deserved Orin, she reasons, for various unmentioned, unsavory acts she’s performed to get by. While attempting to console her, Seymour unravels the guilt complex that weighs on Audrey, justifying the times she’s had to compromise her ideals to survive while still maintaining her soul (“Beneath the bruises, and the handcuffs, you know who I saw? A girl I respected!”) Through song (“Suddenly Seymour”), Seymour and Audrey agree to put the past behind them, and focus on a future together… and so, for one brief, shining moment, the ego, id, and superego are in harmony, the id’s appetite satisfied, the superego’s ideals restored, and the ego reveling in the peace it’s brokered.

The moment is shattered, however, once Seymour’s boss, Mr. Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia), confronts Seymour about Orin. Mushnik witnessed Seymour chopping the body up for the plant, and now attempts to lead Seymour at gunpoint to the police station. The plant, sensing another opportunity to feed, tries to entice Seymour into giving it Mushnik, declaring that without any witnesses, no one will be able to stop them (“I swear on all my spores/when he’s gone, the world will be yours!”) As Mushnik leads Seymour to the door, however, he gets second thoughts, and offers Seymour a way out– leave town forever and give him possession of the plant, along with all the wealth and prestige it brings. The plant reiterates its offer to devour Mushnik by opening its gaping maw. As Seymour struggles with the moral dilemma, Mushnik gets too close to the plant, which acts on Seymour’s indecisiveness and eats Mushnik, much to Seymour’s horror. The implication from the encounter is clear– Audrey II doesn’t need Seymour in order to satisfy its appetite any more.

In the following song, “The Meek Shall Inherit”, the plant’s promises ultimately come true, as Seymour is wined and dined by various agents attempting to book him for television, lecturing tours, and interviews. But Seymour is too shellshocked to enjoy any of it– he knows that the cost of success has grown too high, and that soon he’ll pay for his inability to control Audrey II (as the choir ominously reminds him, “You know the meek are gonna get what’s comin’ to ’em!”). When Seymour finally manages to push through a crowd gathered around the shop and arrive inside to see the plant, now ten feet tall and wildly overgrown, dominating the building with sprawling vines and grasping roots, he realizes how far the situation has spiraled out of control, leaving him only able to quietly whisper, “Oh my God.” Seymour quickly grows desperate, lashing out wildly at the assembled throng and angrily refusing to indulge the plant any further before retreating to the alley. When confronted by Audrey, Seymour hatches a plan to abandon the plant, leaving it to starve, while he starts a new life with Audrey far away from Skid Row.

But one can never be free from their darker, primal side, not really. Seymour’s passive attempt to escape the plant almost ends in tragedy, as it tries to devour Audrey while Seymour is away. (It is at this point that the film diverges from the play’s original ending, as Seymour arrives in time to rescue the love of his life.) While regrouping in the alley, away from the plant, a salesman approaches the two and makes Seymour an offer– take leaf cuttings from Audrey II and sell them across America and, eventually, the world. Finally, Seymour grasps the gravity of the threat posed by the plant, as well as the fact that he can be the only one to stop it– he was the one that indulged the plant’s appetite, that didn’t act it as it grew out of control. He can’t run away from it– he has to be the one to rein it in before it plunges the world into chaos.

After an agonizing fight that destroys the entire flower shop, Seymour finally manages to emerge, injured but triumphant, and he and Audrey go on to the perfect life she’s always dreamed of… or so they think. A final pan down to their garden reveals a smiling Audrey II bud, a reminder that we can never really rid ourselves of our animalistic desires– we can only hope to keep them in check.

Noah Washburn is currently double-majoring in Creative Writing and Theater at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. He’s interning with Dallas-based comics publisher Viper Comics, and his work has appeared in Shots in the Dark and Spirits of St. Louis from Ink and Drink Press.