LURID: Grimmly Fiendish - The Horror in Fairy Tales

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a twice-monthly guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

Snow White And The Huntsman, the latest in Hollywood’s current spate of ‘adult re-imaginings’ of fairy tales, hits movie theaters today.  The Charlize Theron/Kristen Stewart-starrer is more Lord Of The Rings than Disney, with extended battle scenes and a sword-wielding Snow. Studio honchos are marketing it as an actioner, trumpeting its revisionist credentials as a way of suggesting it's cooler, better than its source material.  Although SWATH is a fun ride, they seem to have missed the point.

Fairy tales are horror stories at heart, not fantasy action adventures.  They function on a deep psychological level, tapping into our primal selves.  From the too-fluffy Twilightesque romanticisation of Red Riding Hood to the "Die, Witch!" machismo of the upcoming Hansel and Gretel: Witch-Hunters, the recent rash of Hollywood fairy tales seems sadly one-dimensional in comparison.  These movies are designed for throwaway afternoon viewing, rather than representing a complex narrative experience that can be enjoyed again and again, from generation to generation.  When it comes to Book vs. Film, the two hour CGI-heavy movie versions singularly fail to measure up to the layers of meaning contained in the few pages of the original short stories, and they never quite manage to deliver the same level of emotional thrill.

The fairy tales we know today were handed down through oral tradition, constantly honed and refined in the telling.  And, back in the day, before the Victorians created the cult of childhood innocence, fairy tales were designed to hit where it counts, in the gut.  The gruesome details in the versions recorded by the likes of the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault were the ones that worked by consensus.  The best-loved fairy tales were the ones that made little kids scream the most.

However, somewhere along the line, between Rousseau proclaiming the holy innocence of children (“there is no original sin in the human heart”), Disney changing the ending of Cinderella and missing children appearing on milk cartons, fairy tales lost their bite.  Once-acceptable fairy tale tropes are now NC-17 restricted, adults-only, because it’s thought they damage tiny minds.  Censorship battles rage over protecting children from the sex and violence rollercoaster offered by the internet, by cable TV, by videogames, by Hollywood output.  “Children’s books” come in pastel colors, and feature soft-bodied anthropomorphs who never come into contact with sharp objects, let alone shed any blood.  Cute, but they’ll never make your flesh run cold.  Children themselves are walled up, fenced off, protected from any potential contact with stranger danger.  They're not permitted to venture into the deep, dark woods, because we fear they won't cope.

By exorcising the horror from fairy tales, are we doing children any favors?  By redefining fairy tales as happy clappy Disney adaptations, or  glossy sword-and-sorcery action adventures that emphasize strength over cunning, we may be depriving the young audience of the really important parts. 

The essential plot of a fairy tale is cautionary, designed to hone in on the innermost fears of the small and powerless, submerging the listener in danger but pointing to a way out that doesn't involve superiority of size or brute strength.  Typically, it’s a short horror story about a child lost in the woods, or separated from one, or both parents.  It’s part warning, part reassurance.  You’re not lost in the woods right now, but one day you might be.  Here’s a story about what happens to a child who strays from the path and doesn’t go straight to Grandmother’s cottage, or tries to pick a fruit from a forbidden tree or gain the affection of a stepmother.  This is what happens when things get really bad, but with a little luck, some quick thinking, and some outside help, everything will turn out fine. Just listen.

In his influential 1975 book, The Uses of Enchantment, child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim suggests the dark complexities of traditional fairy tales are vital to our social, psychological and sexual development.  Fairy tales are a densely coded guidebook to aid in growing up.

In order to master the psychological problems of growing up – overcoming narcissistic disappointments, oedipal dilemmas, sibling rivalries; becoming able to relinquish childhood dependencies; gaining a feeling of selfhood and self-worth, and a sense of moral obligation  - a child needs to understand what is going on in his conscious self so that he can also cope with that which goes on in his unconscious."

Understanding comes from learning how to daydream, positioning the self in a series of fantasy situations that allow the exploration of possibilities beyond the limits of physical experience.

It is here that fairy tales have unequaled value, because they offer new dimensions to the child’s imagination which would be impossible for him to discover as truly on his own.  Even more important, the form and structure of fairy tales suggest images to the child by which he can structure his daydreams and with them give better direction to his life.”

However, for rounded development to occur, anxiety must be addressed in fantasies, alongside pleasure.

Many parents believe that only conscious reality or pleasant and wish-fulfilling images should be presented to the child – that he should be exposed only to the sunny side of things.  But such one-sided fare nourishes the mind only in a one-sided way, and real life is not all sunny.”

Bettelheim believes that traditional fairy tales are constructed to communicate the non-sunny side of life. They effectively convey the message:

that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence – but that if one doesn’t shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and emerges victorious…The fairy tale… confronts the child squarely with the basic human predicament.”

For a child, the basic human predicament is terrifying.  Children fear death, of a parent, of a sibling, especially a newborn infant.  They fear abandonment.  They fear the giant adults who tower above them.  They fear the dark.  They fear the things that lurk in the forest and deep in the muddy lake.  They fear the slavering jaws of the big bad wolf, snakebite, the prick of a needle or a thorn.  They fear the anger of an elderly female neighbor.  They fear sickness, the kind that comes from nowhere and leads to loss, of strength, of sight, of limbs.  They fear hunger.  They fear growing up lonely.  Fairy tales deal with all these fears, spinning them into a safe, fictional framework.

Once upon a time, therefore...

Understanding came from fear.  Wisdom was found in dark places.  Courage came only from confronting the ogres, the trolls, the wolves, the goblins and maleficent witches.  Transgression was punished, but led to redemption. Good struggled against Evil, but always won in the end.  Victory came through intelligence, not brute strength.  Those who sided with Good lived happily ever after, but those who cleaved to Evil were burned, pierced, broken, transformed and condemned, never to be seen again. 

Children over the aeons have made no objections to the macabre details: the cannibalism, the bloodshed, the amputations, the kidnappings, the murders, or the red-hot iron torture devices.  The more monstrous the threat, the more grotesque the punishment, the easier the lesson was to understand and remember.  Grimm’s Fairy Tales is the original atrocity exhibition.  Flipping through the pages, even the most seasoned horror maven might find the stuff of nightmares among the cruelty and gore. 

  • In Rapunzel, the shorn, pregnant (with twins) heroine is left to “live in great misery and grief” in a desert by the Witch, who subsequently tosses the hapless prince from the top of the tower into a bed of thorns that gouge out his eyes. 
  • The King in The Twelve Brothers has coffins made for his twelve sons, vowing to slay them all once the Queen pops out a female child.  On the eve of their sister’s birth, the brothers flee into the woods where they become misogynist bandits, sworn to kill any maiden they meet.  When their sister finally rolls back into their life she makes a mistake with some lilies that turns them all into crows – which comes in handy when she’s moments away from being burned at the stake by her husband.
  • Orally-fixated Hansel and Grethel manage to escape the clutches of the cannibal Witch by burning her alive, but still find time to rob her of her life savings on their way out the door to celebrate their stepmother’s funeral.
  • When the Miller’s Daughter guesses his name, Rumpelstilskin tears his right leg off with his bare hands, and hops away “howling terribly”.
  • After crippling themselves by slicing off pieces of their feet in order to drop a shoe size, the step-sisters in Cinderella (according to the Brothers Grimm they “were beautiful and fair in the face, but treacherous and wicked at heart”) are “smitten with blindness” as part of the festivities for Cinderella’s wedding.
  • The Three Army Surgeons, famed for their medical skills, boast in a tavern one night that one doctor can restore an amputated hand, another can replace extracted eyeballs, and the third can get a heart that has been ripped from its owner’s chest to beat again.  In order to prove to the landlord they can do what they say, they leave their respective organs in a cupboard overnight.  A maid leaves the door open, the cat gets in and… you can guess the rest. In the morning, the maid tricks the Surgeons into performing the first recorded examples of human-animal organ transplants, with not entirely satisfactory results.
  • The Handless Maiden is exactly what it says on the label – her father chops them off with an axe rather than do a deal with the Devil.
  • The Huntsman in the original Snow White And The Seven Dwarves does a bait-and-switch with the tongue and heart of a pig, which the Queen snarfs down thinking it’s the remains of her seven year-old charge.  It takes her three attempts to poison Snow White once the little girl makes it to the dwarves’ house, whereupon Snow’s new friends stick her corpse in a glass casket and leave it in the forest for all the world to see.  When the handsome (and presumably necrophiliac pedophile) prince enquires, they sell him the whole kit and caboodle (without ever asking what he wants to do with a dead girl in a glass box).  It’s only by chance that the poisoned apple gets jolted from Snow’s throat, she comes back to life, and her relationship with the prince becomes a matter of happy ever after rather than a Class C felony.  And, again as part of the heroine’s wedding party, the Queen is strapped into a pair of red-hot iron shoes and forced to dance herself to death.

This is delicious, disturbing stuff; bloodshed and mutilation are an essential part of an oral tradition enshrined over centuries.  And it doesn’t seem to do children any harm.  Quite the contrary – as well as contributing to their psychosocial development, these kind of stories give people a taste for the lurid as they grow up. 

The best horror stories function in the same way as fairy tales, confronting the reader with “the basic human predicament”, and offering “new dimensions” that lie beyond normal adult experience.  When we read horror, we’re tapping into the things that fairy tales taught us, re-experiencing the powerlessness of a child.  When adolescents embrace a slasher movie, they’re accessing the same pleasures of the text they enjoyed in infancy.  As readers and writers, particularly within the horror genre, we owe fairy tales a huge debt.  There are some great writers out there - Neil Gaiman, Angela Carter, Anne Rice to name but three - who understand the rhythms and psychopathy of fairy tales and are able to reconfigure them for adult stories, dripping with sex and gore alongside the essential enchantment.  There are also some fantastic tellers of modern fairy tales - J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins and Phillip Pullman, again to name but three - who don't flinch from including fear, darkness and ambiguity in their stories for children - their best-selling stories that have fascinated, even obsessed, young readers the world over.

So, this weekend, instead of worrying if Snow White And The Huntsman (rated PG-13) is suitable for children, perhaps we should be more concerned that a big Hollywood special effects fest fails to command the rich psychological subtlety of the nine page short story source material.  Universal are celebrating the pic's rating (given for "intense sequences of violence and action, and brief sensuality") with the tagline "This is no fairy tale."  No, it's not.  But thanks for trying.

Which fairy tales terrified you most as a kid? And which adult versions - books or movies - have you found most resonant?

Image by Benjamin Lacombe

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Karina Wilson

Column by Karina Wilson

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words June 1, 2012 - 3:52pm

I worked with a gentleman who survived the Rwanda genocide, and he observed that North Americans were particularly fragile (psychologically). He couldn't understand how most of us don't have to live through the horrors like he has, and yet have trouble coping.

I imagine our coddling of children (to older and older ages it seems) is not helping us in coping with life's darker turns.

awesome article. thanks

Karina's picture
Karina from UK/Hong Kong is reading the usual trash June 1, 2012 - 7:58pm

Bruno Bettelheim was a concentration camp survivor so he knew, first-hand, the horrors that human beings are capable of living through - just like your co-worker.  He theorized that children's understanding of fairy tales gave them reference points for the atrocities of life in Auschwitz-Birkenau (Hansel and Grethel might have a particular resonance in this context) and helped them survive from day to day without losing their minds.

cshultz81's picture
cshultz81 from Oklahoma is reading Best Horror of the Year Volume 8 June 1, 2012 - 10:06pm

I always had a distaste for Disney movies as a kid - too floppy and cute - preferring my grandfather's superb collection of Universal monster movies on VHS. It wasn't until adulthood that I learned of the true horrific nature of Disney's source material. I honestly can't say I've seen a decent cinematic telling of these gruesome tales, though Gaiman's version of Snow White from Smoke and Mirrors is top notch. Anyone looking for a perfect 'dark reimagination' need look no further.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like June 2, 2012 - 9:16am

Some fairy tales are romantic (in the old sense) and some are fables or parables.  I'd much rather see more Pan's Labyrinth-style flicks than these action-packed reworks.

jennydecki's picture
jennydecki from Chicagoland is reading The Foreigners June 2, 2012 - 12:31pm

I read the Grimm book to my kids - not at bedtime - and they are fascinated by the stories. As an avid horror-movie fan I always get excited when I hear about a fairy-tale movie coming out, "This one," I think, "Has to go back to the horror roots and be good!" I'm always mistaken. But one of these years - before I die, hopefully - there will be an intersection between the year of summer horror and the year of re-purposing fairy tales and I will be in HEAVEN.

My favorite is the Swan Queen (I could be wrong on the name) where the end has a plot twist that has the false queen sentencing herself to being rolled around in a barrel with spikes in it. Good stuff.

Karina's picture
Karina from UK/Hong Kong is reading the usual trash June 2, 2012 - 1:55pm

My favorite fairy tale movie has to be The Company of Wolves (1984), Neil Jordan's version of Angela Carter's version of Red Riding Hood. 

Dan Robert Edwards's picture
Dan Robert Edwards from Geraldton, Western Australia, Australia. is reading God's War: A New History of the Crusades by Christopher Tyerman June 4, 2012 - 2:23am

May Gibbs's "Snugglepot & Cuddlepie"- the Banksia men scared the shit out of me!