The Horrific Origins of Fairy Tales

The Horrific Origins of Fairy Tales

By Margaret Kingsbury

“All that is left is to make him delicious,” says the delightfully creepy witch at the end of the movie trailer for Gretel & Hansel, a horror retelling of the classic tale. No talking animals, no pastel prettiness, no Disney whimsy. This is a film that’s pulling from the grotesque origins of the tale: abandonment, hunger, cannibalism, death by fire. You eat my food and I will abandon you, though you be my child. You eat my house and I will eat you, though you be someone else’s child. You try to eat my brother and I will burn you, though you be old and alone.

Hansel and Gretel

Many children’s books have tried to lessen the horror in “Hansel and Gretel” with round-eyed and chubby-cheeked siblings, cutesy candy houses, and friendly, smiling witches. Though there is something charming about the attempt to wring out the horror so integral to the story, it’s hardly effective. Children pick up on the horror of fairy tales whether we want them to or not. And is that so bad a thing? Children have more to be scared of than most, and scary fairy tales can provide catharsis, and it can be exciting to feel that tickle of fear.

“Hansel and Gretel” was my favorite fairy tale as a child. The cover of our copy at home was royal blue with a faux gold lock, as if it held a treasure. One day, in Kindergarten, I asked my mom if she would let me spend the night at a friend’s house. Because it was a school night, she said no, a completely reasonable response. But I had a plan B. At school the next day, I informed the teacher that sometimes my mommy put me in the oven and I was too scared to go home that day. Could I please stay the night at my friend’s house?

Clearly, I’d been reading “Hansel and Gretel” a lot. Thankfully, child services wasn’t called. 

The line between horror and fairy tale has been fraught since the 19th century. When the Grimm brothers first published Children’s and Household Tales in 1812, their readers complained about the stories being too scary to read to children. Despite the collection’s name, it never occurred to the brothers that these tales would be told to children. The book was meant to preserve German storytelling tradition, which they saw as being threatened by Napoleon’s victory in Germany. To make the stories more palatable for parents to read to children, the Grimm brothers–primarily Wilhelm Grimm–revised the stories in subsequent editions. One of the biggest changes Wilhelm made to the tales was turning evil and/or unkind mothers into stepmothers. In the first version of “Hansel and Gretel,” both mother and father decide to abandon their children in the forest. In the revised version, the mother has died, and a stepmother persuades a reluctant father to abandon Hansel and Gretel in the woods. This  doesn’t seem better at all for modern readers, but apparently it was enough to assuage parental concerns. It’s hardly surprising in a patriarchal society that the parent who gets villainized is the mother. 

The fairy tales in Children’s and Household Tales are filled with child abandonment, murder, violence, and starvation. While infanticide was a common practice in Ancient and Medieval Europe, during the 18th and 19th centuries, infanticide began to decrease, while child abandonment increased. It makes a cruel sense that a large but poor family would need to shed a child or two to keep the rest full. It’s not surprising that so many tales revolve around very real fears.

The Juniper Tree

“The Juniper Tree” is my favorite tale from The Grimms’ Fairy Tales, and one of the more horrific, though lesser-known to contemporary audiences. In it, a mother dies after giving birth to a son “as red as blood and as white as snow” (a line the Grimms also added to “Snow White”). The father remarries, and the stepmother gives birth to a daughter. Many years later, under the devil’s influence, the stepmother decapitates the son when she slams the lid of a chest shut on his head as he reaches down for an apple. She frames it so that her daughter believes she killed her brother. The stepmother then cuts up the boy and cooks him into a stew. In a moment reminiscent of Kronos, she feeds the stew to the father, who find it delicious. The daughter takes her brother’s bones and buries them beneath the juniper tree that grew on his mother’s grave. From the juniper tree, a flame erupts, and then a beautiful, singing bird flies out. The bird is the murdered boy, who, with his singing, collects a chain, shoes, and a millstone. Then the bird returns to the house and sings,

My mother, she slew me,

My father, he ate me,

My sister, Little Marlene,

Gathered up my bones,

Tied them in silk,

And put them under the juniper tree.

Tweet, tweet, what a fine bird I am!

Entranced by the song, each family member runs outside one at a time. The father is given the chain, the sister the shoes, but when the agonized stepmother finally rushes from the house, the bird drops the millstone on her head, and she drops down, dead. And then the boy returns, and they all sit down to eat.

Gotta love how the story moves from eating an apple to eating a child to eating together.

This is such a wonderfully creepy and bizarre tale and only one example of many of the ever-present horror in fairy tales. Last year, a lovely and subtly creepy Icelanic version was released in the United States with subtitles. Originally filmed in 1986, the film stars Björk as the younger sister of a witch. The two sisters flee a village after the townsfolk try to stone them, and the sister remarries a man with a son and they live in their remote home. What follows is an uncanny film that gradually unsettles reality.

Sleeping Beauty

The Grimm fairy tales aren’t the only ones filled with horror. In the oldest known version of “Sleeping Beauty,” “Sun, Moon, and Talia,” recorded by Giambattista Basile in 1634, Talia, the sleeping beauty, is raped by a passing king. She awakens after giving birth to twins, who are suckling at her breast. Later, the king’s wife orders the twins to be murdered and cooked into a meal for the king to eat. The cook saves the children and substitutes chicken in their stead, proving that chicken has always been a good substitute for everything. The queen then tries to burn Talia to death, but Talia’s screams alert the king, and he rescues her. 

For me, “Sleeping Beauty” is the most disturbing fairy tale type. In 2011, Julia Leigh directed a modern retelling of the tale, Sleeping Beauty, where a university student begins to work part-time as a prostitute in a unique brothel, where the women are asleep while with customers. I found this film far too disturbing and horrific to watch all the way through. While some horror can be exciting, this was anything but, though it was well acted and shot.

More Modern Horrific Fairytale Retellings

Like many, my realization that horror and fairytales were intricately linked began when I first read Angela Carter’s feminist horror masterpiece The Bloody Chamber, with its werewolves and Bluebeards and tiger brides. (Bluebeard is another excellent example of horror in fairy tales.) “One beast and only one howls in the woods by night” begins my favorite story in the collection, “In the Company of Wolves,” a retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” with werewolves and a LRRH who is a survivor. I’ve read the entire collection many times over, and it’s always engrossing. Other excellent, horrific fairytale fiction include: 

  • Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
  • In the House in the Dark of the Woods by Laird Hunt
  • The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert
  • The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Daniel Mallory Ortberg
  • There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
  • Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
  • Hansel and Gretel by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti

I’m also really enjoying The Witcher series on Netflix, filled with Eastern European fairy tales and monsters. It’s such a perfect mix of horror and humor.

Though Disney has washed out much of the horror of the originals, the villains still stand out as the most memorable characters. In No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock, fairytale scholar Marina Warner explains that “Being scared by a story or an image–scared witless, scared to death–can deliver ecstatic relief from the terror that the thing itself would inspire if it were to appear for real.” Horror can serve as catharsis, which is why some people with anxiety watch horror movies. It can also be a lot of fun to feel terror and then relief from that terror. While I’ve focused on European fairy tales, horror in fairy tales can be found across the world, from Japanese Okiku to the Caribbean Soucouyant. Horror and storytelling will always be intricately linked.

Margaret Kingsbury writes about fantasy, science fiction, and fairy tales for Book Riot, Star Trek, and other websites, and she’s co-creator of Baby Librarians where she, a friend, and their children write about the children’s books they love. Her fairytale fiction has been published in Nonbinary Review, Devilfish Review, and Expanded Horizons, among other places. She lives in Nashville, TN with her husband, daughter, and their many, many books. Find out more on her website and follow her on Instagram @babylibrarians or Twitter @areaderlymom

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