From "Rapunzel" to "A Space Alien Tried To Mate With My Harley"
200 Years of Grimms' Fairy Tales
By Daniel Kraus


"A man once slaughtered a pig while his children were looking on. When they started playing in the afternoon, one child said to the other: 'You be the little pig, and I'll be the butcher,' whereupon he took an open blade and thrust it into the brother's neck.

"Their mother, who was upstairs bathing the youngest child in a tub, heard the cries and quickly ran downstairs, and when she saw what had happened, drew the knife out of the child's neck and, in a rage, thrust it into the heart of the other child. She then rushed back inside to see that her third child had drowned in the bath.

"The woman was so horrified that she hanged herself. When her husband returned home from the fields and saw this, he was so distraught that he died."

And they lived happily ever after?

"How the Children Played Butcher" was removed by brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm after the first edition of their "Nursery and Household Tales" was published in 1818. But the story's stark brand of shocking imagery and harsh resolution stretched throughout subsequent stories, printings, media, and centuriesstill acting 200 years later as the fables that darkly reflect our simplest desires and fears.

George Bernard Shaw loved Grimms’ and Dickens confessed that Red Riding Hood was his "first love." J.R.R. Tolkien adored the tales, and C. S. Lewis admitted to reading them on the sly for years. Even today, Grimms’ fairy tales are ground into impressionable brains early on in life, and those among us who grow up to be storytellers unconsciously clock them, then replay and recycle them. Their influence is likely second only to biblical tales.

Interestingly, the period that spawned these brutal stories was not inundated with extreme strife and turmoil, but rather extreme boredom. Nineteenth-century Eastern European folktales began in a peasant culture that arose in opposition to the feudal state's ruling class. Peasant life was often uneventful and dull. Adults sat around the fire and told stories to amuse each other, the storytellers contributing their own voices, characters, and sly entendres and topping each other with subtle wit and particularly nasty plot twists. The children, meanwhile, listened from their place on the ground, rapt.

The tales were grounded in some reality. Child abandonment and infanticide were not uncommon"Hansel and Gretel," for example, reflects both. Many mothers died during childbirth and many (evil) stepmothers replaced them, often overburdened and hostile to the children.

The Brothers Grimm began to collect these mostly German tales in 1806. They "collected" by listening to the stories being told aloud and then trying to reproduce the oral performance with wordsthe imaginary "Mother Goose" was, in fact, an amalgam of storytelling grandmothers. In a Grimms’ fairy tale, the characters tend to be indistinct and vague, but this was done to allow the "Mother Geese" of the world to fill in the blanks with their own inflections, grins, shouts, and gestures.

The brothers continued to add, subtract, and revise until their seventh and final edition in 1857. They edited with their moral pen firmly in hand, for the most part removing sexual references. Rapunzel was no longer impregnated by her tower-scaling Prince ("Tell me," she asks her wicked Godmother, "why my clothes suddenly fit me so tight"), and Little Red Riding Hood no longer strip-teased the Wolf before eating the flesh of her own grandmother.

However: Cinderella's stepsisters still cut off their toes to fit inside the glass slipper, and their overflowing blood still tips off the prince; Snow White is still poisoned, still returns from the grave, and still exacts a gruesome revenge; villains are still tortured, disemboweled, and blinded, seemingly on every other page. In short, the grisly violence remainedand remainsintact.

On occasion, the Grimms’ influence manifests itself in particularly obvious ways. In 1954, E.C. horror comics, including such infamous titles as "Tales from the Crypt" and "The Haunt of Fear," were vilified before the Senate by obsessed decency crusader Fredric Wertham. His seven-year study, "Seduction of the Innocent," blamed comic books for juvenile delinquency, noting that Batman and Robin promoted homosexuality and Wonder Woman promoted lesbianism. After a lengthy public beating, the number of E.C. titles plummeted from 650 to 250. But the "damage" had already been donethe wildly inventive E.C. comics influenced children who would grow up to run today's entertainment industry. This was evidenced by the ecstatic Hollywood reception to HBO's nostalgic Tales from the Crypt cable series.

A typical E.C. yarn, entitled "All Washed Up": Femme fatale Marcia has a rendezvous with her fiance Harry at a wishing well. Harry is too poor to buy her an engagement ring so Marcia dumps him for the wealthy Gregg, who immediately proposes. The jealous Harry secretly bashes Gregg's head in with a rock ("Soon it felt as if he were pounding an old moth-eaten pillow") and tosses Gregg into the well, noticing too late the expensive ring Gregg had in his pocket. Harry begins wooing Marcia by day and fishing into the well by night, never hooking the ring but occasionally hookinggulphunks of Gregg's flesh. Finally, knowing Marcia requires a ring, Harry dives into the putrid pool, where the "rotted, bloating, whitened, grinning thing" of Gregg's corpse drags him under.

Justicenot RIGHTalways prevailed. And if they weren't avenging themselves from beyond the grave, E.C. victims often went insane in the final panels, ice-picking their tormentors with a mad glint in their eyea gooey, gory money shot. Likewise, most Grimm tales also ended with a surprise dash of extreme violencestepmothers put in spiked barrels and rolled down hills, stepsisters' eyes picked out by ravens, witches burned at the stake. As with E.C. comics, these violent deaths were not just pleasurable catharsis but an assurance that there WAS a certain order to the world. The connection between E.C. and Grimms was finally made explicit with the recurring E.C. "Grim Fairy Tale," which were gory riffs on classic fairy tale themes.

Both collections of stories used stock characters: for the Grimms it was kings, princes, peasants, and witches; for E.C. it was evil businessmen, conniving sexpots, and good-hearted blue-collar men. The Grimms’ protagonists found shelter in nature, which literally divided peasants from royalty. In E.C. the wilderness, less relevant to a 1950's audience, was replaced by suburbiaE.C.'s domestic horrors were the uneasy reconciliation of the good American economy and the disturbing fact that, having dropped the atomic bomb, we were all, in a sense, mass-murderers. Add in a dash of McCarthy paranoia, and prestono one was safe.

Horror comics disappeared by 1955, but horror films continued to satisfy the Grimm urge. In his book Danse Macabre, Stephen King adroitly summarized the twenty scariest movies ever as fairy tales. For example, The Haunting: "Once upon a time, a sad lady named Eleanor went on an adventure in an enchanted castle. In the enchanted castle, Lady Eleanor was not so sad, because she found some new friends. Except that the friends left, and she stayedforever."

Unfortunately, few horror films know how to wield our age-old primal fearsRosemary's Baby, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Blair Witch Project are among them. Closer to the oral tradition of the Grimms are the modern-day urban legendscautionary campfire stories that take on the personality of the person telling the tale. The most famous is "The Hook": a kissing teen couple hears about an escaped hook-handed lunatic on their car radio and peels out of the woods only to find a rusty hook swinging from their door handle.  

It is children who savor these tales the most. Children often find the Grimms’ mutilations hilarious (probably due to equal parts delight and released anxiety), and it is no surprise that the thrill of horror movies/urban legends is often equated with sexual excitement (again, probably due to equal parts delight and released anxiety). To teens, the moral of "The Hook" is not "sex is bad," it is "those kids got away with it and they're just like us."

Although there has yet to emerge a definitive Jacob and Wilhelm of urban legends, many of them are neatly collected each week in the form of supermarket tabloids. The leap from "Rumpelstiltskin" to "Bartender Poisons Nine CustomersBecause They Never Tipped Her!" is not a long one. Simply take the downtrodden protagonist and mystical interference of the Grimms, add the visceral jolt of E.C. comics, and affix the "I swear it's true" quality of the urban legend.

Weekly World News is the most popular collection of modern-day fairy tales. As in the Grimms, a priority is given to women and children protagonists. Instead of distraught peasants there are wayward Satanist-teens on glue. Science is constantly being refuted by the mystical ("Mystery Light in Northern Sky Baffles Scientists!"). Instead of vindictive kings, we have "[George] Bush joined the Skull & Bones Brotherhood of Death while he was a student at Yale."   

Love is still achieved by fulfilling a checklist. In Grimm, this means meeting a prince, passing some sort of test, and marrying him for the sole status of it. In tabloids, love takes the form of "New Test Tells If Your Mate Really Loves You" quizzes. And magic is as prevalent in Weekly World News as it was in Grimms. Just check the back page advertisements: enchanted amulets and somewhat foreboding talismans like the "3 Wishes Miracle DollGuaranteed ResultsPlease Use Wisely."  

What truly binds tabloids to Grimms’ Fairy Tales is the sheer joy of telling the tale. Each story is heavily colored by the wit of the individual writer. In the article "Shoplifter Stuffs 4-lb. Frozen Chicken Down Her Bra," author Joe Berger flexes his double entendres and innuendoes with phrases such as "Ample Evie's tale of fowl play" and "Paramedics rushed to the scene to revive the wide-bodied belle, loosened her clothing and found the chilly chicken nestled against her chest." Just like E.C.'s tour guide, the Crypt Keeper, the tabloid author is pictured next to her story, reinforcing her as our tabloid Mother Goose.

The manifestations of the Grimms and their myriad descendents are many, but because the tales are mostly message-free, they are all too easily filled with agenda. The Nazi party cherished the Grimms’ tales as parables of the weak rising to power. Women's groups see Red Riding Hood as a rape parable. Freud, of course, saw manifestations of dreams.

It was J.R.R. Tolkien, however, who said, "Fairy tale analysis yields not insight into our capacity for thought, but by how we physicalize psychological realities." Fairy tales are important to us not because of any definite representations or symbolism but simply because they excite us. Our emotions get fired up, we laugh, we gasp, and the dangerous thrill of being alive stays with us, story after story, year after year, century after century.