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Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Horror of Fairy Tales, from Midnyte Reader

The Horror of Fairy Tales

Once upon a time Fairy Tales were not what they are today. Society and culture have changed the Fey into flitting creatures with wings, doomed maidens into rescued princesses and tragedies into happy endings. The lessons meant to be instilled into people may still hold messages, but are now also lovely storybooks and tales where good always prevails.

Fairy Tales, like most stories were handed down orally until they were re-worked into the written form. I had heard that these stories were originally for adults, but on reading further, I discovered the stories were told to children as well. One version may have been passed among the grown-ups while a more appropriate version told to the younger population.

Apparently when the Grimm brothers originally collected and recorded these stories down, they were the more violent variety but then edited them for children due to marketing reasons. (Sounds like today!) Before Grimm, Mother Goose and even Disney cleaned up these stories they were often gruesome, violent, sexual and disturbing.

Cinderella: We all know that at the end of Cinderella her stepsisters can’t fit into the glass slipper which led to Cinderella’s imminent triumph. In older versions, the desperate step-sisters cut their toes off and mutilate their feet in order to fit into the shoe. The prince finds out, marries Cinderella and the stepsisters become beggars while their good sister lives a life of luxury. There is one story where birds peck out the stepsister’s eyes warning the prince of their trickery. Not only is there abuse and neglect in this tale, but one could argue that it holds an echo of the extremes that people are willing to alter themselves in order to fit an ideal.

There are also versions of this story where the stepmother killed the first wife, where the young heroine is beaten and where the siblings are male and the youngest brother is poisoned by his older brothers. The latter echoes royal intrigue and isn’t so far-fetched.

Hansel and Gretel: This to me is an ultimate horror tale because it is so real. Today, children are watched more closely than ever because they are prey to the worst kind of people. These lessons are repeated to children all the time; at home, school, on television. Long ago, these stories were also used as cautionary tales, warnings for children not to wander off.

In many versions Hansel and Gretel overcome the witch by tricking her and then pushing her into the oven. Pretty violent already. There is a tale titled The Lost Children where it’s the devil who snatches the children. They prevail by tricking the devil’s wife in much the same way and they slash her throat. They slash her throat! What is this teaching people? That bad things can happen if you don’t follow the rule and that there are dangers out of the confines of your community. But it also seems to me that these stories show that children not only have to use their wits, but must retaliate with violence in order to survive.

Rapunzel: First of all, the witch (“Gothel” in some versions) locks Rapunzel in a tower when she turns twelve. Maybe Gothel realizes that her adopted child is growing into sexual maturity and she shuts her away to protect her from lecherous men. Maybe she does it to increase Rapunzel’s dependency on her. Maybe a bit of both. This smacks of abuse, psychological and physical. The witch, true to the role of abuser is so angered by Rapunzel’s “betrayal” and “ungratefulness” that she cuts off her hair and throws her out to fend for herself.

In later versions of the story Rapunzel gives herself away by slipping verbally. She asks the witch why she is so heavy when the prince she has been hauling up is not. There is an earlier account where Rapunzel’s clothes grow tight because she is pregnant and that is how the witch finds out about her liasions. There is also a version of the story called Parsley with explicit sexual scenes between the prince and locked up maiden.

The tale continues when the prince either falls out of the tower or is pushed by the witch and thorns pierce his eyes and cause him to go blind. I remember when I was little noting this element of the story. Although I was too young to really process the information, I think I knew subconsciously that I had never come across something so harsh in a fairy tale before. Rapunzel and the prince eventually find each other and her tears heal his eyes. So for all the trials they went through, abuse, imprisonment, mutilation, they had their happy ending.

Snow White: Did anyone see the movie version with Sigourney Weaver? It is a must! Anyway, in much of today’s stories, the Wicked Queen asks the huntsman to bring him Snow White’s heart. Gruesome enough on its own, but originally, she asked for Snow White’s liver and lungs and was going to serve them for dinner. Maybe with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.

Also, the dwarves put Snow White in a glass coffin because she is so beautiful. Maybe kissing a loved one goodbye who has passed away isn’t so odd, but there is a version where the prince takes the coffin containing Snow White back to his castle. Did he know she wasn’t really dead and hoped she would wake up one day? Or was he going to display her as part of a collection? Conduct sinister experiments on her? Although I accepted it as a child as just part of the story, you could argue that it is kind of creepy. During the ride her coffin is jostled so much that the apple comes loose from her throat and she awakens. The prince and her marry and live happily ever after. She overcame the Wicked Queen’s treachery.

Sleeping Beauty: There is a version of this story titled Sun, Moon and Talia, where a king finds the sleeping maiden, Talia. When he can’t wake her he has his way with her anyway, still asleep. She gives birth to twins and one of the babies who is trying to nurse sucks the piece of flax out of her finger (the cause of her curse) and she wakes up. This king is already married and his Queen finds out about his transgression. She has the children brought to court where she orders them to be killed, cooked and served to her husband. The cook protects the children and serves the king lamb (or goat) instead. The Queen then sends for Talia and orders her to be burned. The King comes just in time, orders the Queen to be thrown into the fire instead and marries Talia.

A similar story is called The Young Slave. A little girl named Lisa is cursed by an angry fairy to die at age seven from a comb left in hair. When this did indeed happen, her mother put her in 7 crystal coffins in a locked room. Before she died she gave her brother the key to this room and made him promise not to open it. One day however, the brother’s wife opens the door. She discovers Lisa, becomes jealous and pulls her out of the coffins by her hair. The comb is knocked out and she comes back to life. Lisa is beaten and made a slave by her aunt. The husband is none the wiser since he has never seen his niece before. One day the uncle asked everyone in the house what they wanted from a fair he was attending. Lisa requested he bring her back a doll, a knife and a sharpening stone. He did so and Lisa told her story to her doll and threatened to sharpen her knife on the stone and kill herself if the doll did not answer. Her uncle overhears this and learns the truth. He banishes his wife and eventually marries Lisa off.

In yet another version the Prince awakens the maiden, marries her, but keeps it a secret from his mother because she is an Ogress and he is afraid she will eat their children. The mother does try to eat them but is stopped by the Prince just in time.

If you watch police dramas or true crime shows you will see an abundance of crimes carried out due to jealousy, which seems to be the common thread in the Sleeping Beauty tale. There is also rape, adultery, attempted murder, murder, echoes of cannibalism, abuse, lies and dark secrets.

I only touched briefly upon the most common Fairy Tales, but there are so more versions worth exploring and other terrifying tales to look into (The Juniper Tree, Bluebeard). These stories are so ingrained in our lives it is as if they are part of our psyche, culture and even our collective unconscious. We all have a dark side, which at the same time fears and is thrilled by the shadowy nature of life. The ribbon that ties these lovely stories to the sinister side may sometimes appear subtle. But scratch the surface of a Fairy Tale and you may find the bedrock of life lessons that are inspired by the darkest human emotions.

Perhaps Fairy Tales are not so sweet after all.

~ Midnyte Reader

Let's hear it for Midnyte Reader!  Awesome-points awarded for mentioning the Sigourney Weaver version of Snow White, and for making a Silence of the Lambs reference.
What do you guys think about the darker streak in fairy tales?  Which do you prefer: the grim Grimms or the fluffy Disneys and Little Goldens?  This is one of my absolute favorite* topics, so I'm curious to hear what you guys think!

*Cause I'm sick like that.  I have researched this much.  Done scholarly papers on it. ♥ the creep-factor in fairy tales!


  1. This post is amazing. I'm a big fan of darker fairy tales, because they are so interesting. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Holy smokes... why hadn't I thought of that? LOL - come to think of it Hanzel and Gretal is pretty terrible... I think I grew up more on the Golden Book "G" rated versions... but now as they are recapped here I am laughing because I am thinking they are all horrific!

    Awesome post!

  3. I remember when I first heard that the prince went blind. It was like figuring out some secret and not being entirely sure what to do with it. Like, what could this mean? Why did that happen, and who decided that was a good way to end a fairy tale?! Cool post!

  4. Great post! Thanks so much! It reminds me of my Children's Lit class!

  5. Amazing post! I love the other versions of the cinderella story.


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