Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Article: The Real Fears of Fairy Tales

(Photo by Thomas Czarnecki) had an interesting article today about the various adaptations of fairy tales coming out recently, and how many of them are "going back to fairy tales' horror roots." It looks at Red Riding Hood (with Amanda Seyfried), the recent Red video which I posted yesterday, Snow White and the Huntsman, Grimm (which has been gory from the start) and Once Upon a Time (which has started to take a nicely dark turn). She contrasts it with Mirror, Mirror, and it's picture perfect sets, costumes, and people. While this was the aesthetic for a while (Ella Enchanted, etc),  that style seems plastic now, next to the gritty, frightening fairy tale adaptations coming out.

In the midst of this, Thinkprogress asks a very important question:
And Once Upon a Time and Grimm are nodding at a question it’ll be important for fairy tale storytellers to consider if this trend is to continue. In the absence of the dark woods, the arbitrary nature of feudal lords, the horror of high infant mortality rates (at least in the developing world), the wolves that steal the sheep, what are our terrors? And which stories are the best matches for telling them? The persistence of crime dramas would suggest that the big city has replaced the big woods, that serial killers are our ravening beasts. But I’m not sure we have myths to embody the new fears generated by a world that’s much larger than the village, or the disembodied terrors of the digital age. (Full Article)
While the question is excellent, I disagree that we don't have myths to embody modern fears. Myth is full of world-sized disasters, and plenty of disembodied dangers. I am not certain I understand what she is referring to that myth or fairy tales cannot encompass. Modern fears are often no different from the fears of any age: fear of loss, fear of unknown enemies in our midst, fear of the world ending, fear of disease, fear of having things stolen from you, fear of losing your livelihood, fear of being alone. While the specific circumstances may have changed, the basic wrenching fear is there, be it fear of a person stealing your bag with all you have or a person hacking your computer and stealing your identity, fear of a terrorist attack or being killed by highwaymen; losing a loved one by being hit by a car or run over by a horse, a city wiped out by nuclear attack or by Greek fire.

I am always fascinated to see how people use old myths and stories to address modern fears. It ties us all together, to our roots in the past, to the whole modern world, to the universal fear, the universal loss that we all share. When someone dies, that family is not alone in grief; it is added to the lament of the world. To the cries of Hecuba, to the tears over Baldur, to laments for those who died in the Plague or the Holocaust, or Hiroshima.

InkGypsy over at Once Upon a Blog, responds to the issue very eloquently:

"You already know how I feel about this. I don't know what I would have done without fairy tales as a kid. What I have to wonder is: what would horrify someone from, say the Grimm's time (pre to mid 1800's) about our world? I would suggest our modern society isn't quite as different as we'd like to believe. People dress differently, connect and travel differently and technology is different but the same essential issues plague us today as much as they ever did. Predators of all kinds troll both our streets and online paths, con men stoop to taking advantage of the poor, the elderly and even children and where does the most child neglect and abuse in the world? Right under our noses. (I've blogged on this before - see additions to the post in red, including the links - but it bears repeating.) Currently the US leads the developed world in deaths in children as a result of child abuse. (See HERE for some scary recent statistics which I gather have not improved since the time of publishing, including a link to a news report which lays it out clearly.)
When you look at the tales in this light how can people think fairy tales have nothing to offer people, especially children, today? This is a very sad reason for the tales to be told, I know, but if they give hope and help save lives, that alone should be reason enough to keep sharing them. Though I sadly don't think this will ever go away there are many other reasons to keep telling fairy tales as well. I can only hope all your reasons are good ones too, but just in case they're not, and just in case it helps, you can be sure I'll keep telling these fairy tales with both the darkness of the woods and the hope of the way through that they offer." (Full post).
She also makes a solid point about how the horror of fairy tales is not a literary trope. Fairy tales don't tell horror stories, they illustrate reality. Just because we don't see it, doesn't mean it is not happening:
"One final note: the premise of the article is that fairy tales have their roots in horror. I would argue that, that isn't actually the case. They have their roots in dealing with the realities of the time, which because the gore is often so "seen" then, we regard it as horrific. Unfortunately one of the main differences between then and now is we're better at hiding the gore (both visceral and psychological) from plain view. Just because we don't see people bleeding in front of us every day doesn't mean it isn't happening and it doesn't mean there isn't horror present. Fairy tales just tell it like it is. I find that very refreshing. It helps me know when a wolf really is a wolf. There's nothing quite like a heads up on that."


  1. I've been thinking about this, and what I wonder about is the connection of the witches in our stories to the "witches" of the Salem (and other places) trials: women who practiced medicine and were feared by the establishment.

    Looking at it from that perspective, Rapunzel's witch--while she DID lock the girl away in a tower for 16 years--may have been growing those herbs and other plants as a healing garden. Especially since she had no children of her own, and may have been unable to, she could have wanted to care for other mothers as a nurse-midwife.

    It's hard when you think about that history to discount the fear of women that stems from these tales. What is a witch, or a crone? (And don't get me started on stepmothers. :) )

    1. This sounds like a really fun idea to explore! I will have to look into that and get back to you! There is a lot of research out there about the fact that the Brothers Grimm turned evil mothers into evil stepmothers to give kids a little bit of a separation. It's a really interesting topic!