"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The (horror) tales we tell to children

Fairy tales - the original horror stories. Much like mythology, they are supposed to show us archetypes, reveal truths, and teach morality. The only real difference is that we pretend these are children's stories. We don't normally teach little ones about Zeus and his wandering Johnson, but we do drag out The Three Little Pigs - to teach how far a wolf is willing to go for a little bacon.

Does it bother no one that the wolf is trying to eat the pigs, and the pigs end up trapping the wolf in a boiling cauldron, where they cook him, alive, and eat him? (Yes, I know there are versions where they just chase him away, but seriously, who doesn't think he'll be back? Sooner or later, someone is going to die.)

I still have a book of fairy tales my grandmother gave me.

"To Gayle Sue from Grandma Wetherholt, March 11, 62

Let's take a look at some of these children's stories.

Little Red Riding Hood - the wolf has a nice conversation with our naïve Little Red, tries to eat her grandmother (in some versions, he succeeds), nearly eats Red, but her dad arrives at the last minute to chop the wolf's head off (in the alternate version, Grandma jumps out of the decapitated wolf, none the worse for wear).


Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella - all pleasant young girls who are targeted by evil women and have to hang around, useless and sometimes comatose, until some guy shows up to rescue them.

What does this teach our kids? To trust grownups, or to be proactive?

The worst stories in this book are Babes in the Wood, and The Goose Girl.

In the first, two little tots are orphaned and left with an aunt and uncle who want their inheritance. The uncle sends them off with henchmen to be murdered. One henchguy has a change of heart, kills the other one, then leaves the kids in the woods and says he'll be right back.

That's right. He never returns and the children die. They freakin' die! The uncle and aunt keep the riches, evil is not vanquished, good does not triumph.

There's a lesson for you, Kids.

In The Goose Girl, a princess is sent to be married but her maid forces her to switch positions. The awful part of this story is the princess has a talking horse, Falada. When they arrive at the new kingdom, the maid (now masquerading as the princess) instructs the knacker to kill the horse. The real princess talks the guy into hanging the horse's head over the town gate - where it still talks.

Couldn't she have talked the knacker into not killing the horse?

Of course, the whole story is found out and the maid is not just executed, she's tortured - put naked in a barrel stuck with nails and dragged behind two white horses down all the streets in town until she's dead.

That's what horse killers get in these parts.

I was 8 years old when I read these, and while they horrified me, I wouldn't say they scarred me for life. But would I have encouraged my 8-year-old son to read them? Yeah... no.

If none of those made your hair curl, maybe this little scene of Beauty and the Beast (Fairy Tale Theater) can give you some goosebumps.

Did you read fairy tales as a child? Did they scare the pants off you?

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