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The 10 Most Dark and Disturbing Fairy Tales

Picture of Tara Heuzé
Tara Heuzé
Updated: 30 September 2016
With fantastical stories of witches and fairies, goblins and elves, or heroic princes and their villainous counterparts, folklore and fairy tales have long been an ingrained tradition in story-telling for children. Fairy tales have long been the fuel for our overactive imaginations, allowing us to dream and to explore. Here, however, we explore the slightly sinister back stories of ten of our most enduring fairy tales.

Beauty and the Beast

Considered the ultimate tale of how love conquers all, this traditional fairy tale written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont has become an enduring classic that has spawned operas, films and ballads. The ‘original,’ however, is neither as sanguine nor as comic as later versions. In the original, Belle is the daughter of a bankrupted merchant, as opposed to an eccentric inventor, the silverware in the Beast’s impressive castle neither sings nor dances and, most importantly, it is the machinations of Belle’s two wicked sisters that result in the Beast’s demise, and not the comically villainous Gaston, who is merely Disney embellishment. Furthermore, though de Beaumont’s narrative does end happily, with Belle’s love breaking both the curse of death and of hideousness, many versions deny this happy ending for the ill-fated couple, instead choosing to end the story with Belle grieving over the Beast’s prone form.

 

Cinderella

This archetypal story of unjust oppression has been re-interpreted in various films and literature, and has even been used in psychological terminology. Though the ending remains the same in the less “sanitized” versions of the lore, the existence of the glass slippers has very much been an unexplained error in oral transmission; in the earlier versions, the slippers were made of squirrel fur. When the prince was seeking his elusive love he was, according to the Brothers Grimm, almost tricked by the two stepsisters, both of whom cut off parts of their foot in order to fit into the slipper; it was only through the heavenly doves that the Prince realized that the sisters were bleeding from their self-inflicted amputations. Furthermore, in a spirit of quasi-macabre comedy, some versions end with the stepsisters’ eyes being pecked out by the same doves, thus allowing evil to be justly punished.

 

The Frog King

Recently adapted into 2009’s The Princess and the Frog (a 1920s Deep South re-interpretation), the original Grimm fairy tale is, unfortunately, far less sentimental and romantic than its modern adaptations. Though modern versions claim that the spell is broken by the kiss of the princess, the reality is that the Prince’s transformation was occasioned by the spoilt and petulant princess flinging the unassuming frog in anger and disgust against the wall. Other versions of the story even claim that, instead of a kiss (or a throw), the frog spent one night sleeping peacefully on the pillow of the princess, with her (very) reluctant agreement and this, apparently, was sufficient to break the spell of his frog-like form.

 

Hansel and Gretel

A terrifying story of cannibalism and child abuse, which thankfully ends happily for the protagonists, this tale of the Brothers Grimm also has all the elements of an exciting adventure for children including gingerbread houses, talking geese and hidden treasure. As well as being a tale of a man being forced to abandon his children at the command of his manipulative wife, the details of Hansel and Gretel’s captivity at the hands of the witch – including Hansel using a bone of a previous victim to trick the witch into believing that her attempts to fatten him up are unsuccessful, and Gretel eventually shoving the witch into the oven to be cooked alive – are as alarming as they are compelling. Some of these events are still present in ‘sanitized’ versions that have chosen to omit the more grisly details involved in the children’s escape from the gingerbread house.

 

The Little Mermaid

With its eponymous female character having become a landmark of Denmark (in the form of a statue), the original tale by Hans Christian Anderson is one of the more tragic of all tales in the entire pantheon. Unlike the more child-friendly versions, in which the little mermaid chases and finds her happiness, the original mermaid neither succeeds in gaining the prince’s love nor the immortality that she wished for. However, unlike the darker and more cynical undertones revealed in other folklore, The Little Mermaid shows the rewards that result from self-sacrifice, as she chooses to become sea-foam, rather than kill the man who has earned her unrequited love. Both heart-breaking and uplifting, The Little Mermaid is a complex exploration of the issues involving social class and doomed aspirations.

 

Puss-in-Boots

Regarded as one of fiction’s most loveable felines, Puss-in-Boots is more famous for his quick wit and boot-touting ways rather than for the folklore in which he acted as the principle character. Rather than merely being an anthropomorphic cat with a vain penchant for leather-wear, Puss is, in fact, a sly, crafty and quick creature, who, with his guile, his charm and his resourcefulness, catapulted his master to fame and fortune and obtained for him a princess bride, a castle and innumerable riches so they could live in luxury for the rest of their lives. Though having a lighthearted and somewhat optimistic approach to life and the struggle for supremacy, there is a certain Machiavellian ruthlessness in the methods of the clever cat, and he seems to encourage the maxim that “the ends justify the means”, even if these means are rather unsavory.

 

Rapunzel

A German tale that is the subject of much fascination (and parody), the idiom ‘Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair’ has become one that is all too memorable. The happy couple, however, had to endure many more trials and tribulations than it initially appears, for they were only reunited after Rapunzel had been cast out, pregnant and alone, into the wilderness by the irate witch, while the prince was blinded after falling from the tower and into the thorny brambles below. In addition to this, the more cynical of the narratives also end the tale unhappily; in these versions, though Rapunzel does indeed get pregnant and cast out by the witch, she is then abandoned and forgotten by the prince who, as it seemed, had no intention of marrying her. It is to be assumed that the tale serves as a caution against the dangers of seduction.

 

Red Riding Hood

The Red Riding Hood lore has had so many re-workings that it is difficult to work out which is the ‘earliest’ version. Though the most expurgated versions simply use the wolf as an allegory to warn against talking to strangers, several darker accounts reveal a violent and destructive layer beneath the initial veneer of purity. One version hints at the wolf and the grandmother being one and the same person, another hints at Red Riding Hood ‘graciously’ allowing the wolf to eat her grandmother before she kills the wolf, so as to be able to seize her grandmother’s property. The most disturbing, however, is probably the version that hints at bestiality, in which Red Riding Hood uses her body to save herself from death, thus consummating her ‘love’ with the wolf on the very sheets upon which her grandmother was killed.

 

Sleeping Beauty

With a premise already bizarre and faintly disturbing in itself, many versions of Sleeping Beauty do indeed end happily, with the spell being broken by true love’s kiss. Charles Perrault’s version, conversely, offers a bizarre addition, claiming that the prince’s mother is an ogress with a tendency towards devouring little children, and telling of how Sleeping Beauty and her children narrowly escape being boiled and eaten through the timely return of her husband and the kindly endeavors of a palace servant. Even so, the most disturbing recension of the story is the one in which the prince, captivated by the sleeping princess’ beauty, attacks her while she sleeps and the princess only awakes when giving birth to twins, while the prince has long since gone away, having forgotten about Sleeping Beauty completely.

 

Snow White

Known as the first fairy tale which Disney chose to lavish its magic upon, the guilelessness and charm of the cartoon has endured in the memories of many children and adults alike, especially with the catchy songs and the comic antics of the seven dwarfs. Bleaker variations tell a completely different story, though, with implications of necrophilia by the prince, and the sexual degradation of poor Snow White at the hands of the seven dwarves who enslaved her. Other obscure versions even hint that Snow White’s father, the king, was so enamored with his daughter’s beauty that an unhealthy obsession took hold, thus forcing her to flee from the castle (and into the clutches of the dwarves) in the first place.


 

Tara Heuzé is a 20-year-old undergraduate living in Sunny Albion. She loves Asian cooking, reading plays, and trying to decipher inscriptions in crazy languages. Usually found panicking over some form of essay or translation crisis, she also tries to keep up a (sporadic) blog, which can be found here.